In the early 90s, while grunge was smothering the globe, Gabriel Roth spent most of his time in his New York University dorm room listening to pretty much every obscure James Brown cut he could find.
Roth’s journey from the outskirts of the music industry began shortly before he graduated from NYU, when he and Phillip Lehman, a wealthy record collector, started Desco, a small label specialising in retro funk. Playing with a collection of friends and session hands, Roth and Lehman recorded the single Let A Man Do What He Wanna Do.
After Desco hit the buffers financially, Roth took to working at Sony’s distribution offices. Spending most of his day sketching label logos on their stationary, it was when he was offered a promotion that he left to pursue Daptone Records full time.
It’s certainly a full-time pursuit: as well as running the label, Roth writes the tunes, plays in and produces the label’s key act Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings.
Fronted by a 52-year-old singer who once worked as a prison guard on Riker’s Island, the band have released three albums – Dap Dippin’ (2002), Naturally (2005) and the breakthrough 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007). They release their fourth – I Learned The Hard Way – in April.
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings: 100 Days 100 Nights (2008)
In the recording studio, Roth shuns digital devices, insisting on the superiority of unwieldy, old-fashioned analog equipment like a reel-to-reel eight-track tape machine manufactured by Ampex, a company that last produced that particular model in 1971.
And he spends an extra dollar on the manufacturing of each record just so that the covers are made in the style popular before 1967 — that is, with the art printed not on the cardboard sleeve but on a paste-on jacket.
Amy Winehouse recorded Rehab and a handful of other tracks from her multi-million selling Back To Black album in Gabriel’s studio. Roth won a Grammy Award for engineering the album and received a framed platinum record. It’s now on show in his studio’s bathroom.
Amy Winehouse: You Know I’m No Good (2007)
The Dap Kings are also the label’s house band, appearing on most of the label’s output. Alongside Back To Black, they’ve also appeared on all bar one track of Mark Ronson’s Version album as well as working with the very legendary Al Green.
In addition to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Daptone has recorded and released the music of The Sugarman Three, The Budos Band, The Poets of Rhythm, The Daktaris, The Mighty Imperials, Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, Binky Griptite and Naomi Davis.
By shunning the music industry, he has aroused its interest. Producers world began taking notice of the Daptone sound. Kanye West sampled Jones’s voice and a Dap-Kings riff for a Rhymefest number, and Hank Shocklee, a veteran of Public Enemy, hired the band for the soundtrack of the Ridley Scott film American Gangster.
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