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The Numero Group, the Chicago-based archival label focused on obscure soul, funk, folk, and rock, is used to seeing songs swiped from its compilations—typically in small doses. But it was shocked when it discovered a DJ 12-inch by the production group Shoes composed exclusively of loops and samples from Numero releases. Adding insult to injury, the bootleg even listed a faux label: “Numbero.”
“We’ve been bootlegged before, certainly,” the label later wrote on its blog. “Madlib (take a few bows), Mayer Hawthorne, BBE, RJD2, that lame-ass ‘Low Riders’ series…but this really takes the cake.”
Numero is fastidious about clearing song licenses and paying royalties to musicians. Recently, the label took its power-pop comp, Yellow Pills: Prefill, out of print because it couldn’t obtain the agreement of one of the featured artists. The Numero guys spend countless hours tracking down original artists, clearing legal hurdles, and researching the regional scenes and labels their compilations feature—the most obvious rewards of their hard work are often engaging and detailed liner notes. So when a couple of DJs came along and swiped the very songs that the label has worked so hard to unearth, the Numero crew was furious. The label began preparing a cease and desist letter but couldn’t bring itself to send it. Instead, the label wrotes on its blog, it “got hooked on the flawlessly arranged pastiche.”
Numero then actually seized the plates from the pressing plant and, as is its fashion, tracked down Shoes, the responsible production team. Citing the manner in which Columbia Records began properly releasing Bob Dylan bootlegs years after they appeared, the Numero Group decided to turn the tables on Shoes and release the record itself. Now, Numero has collected Shoes’ reworkings under the title Eccentric Breaks and Beats, after the label’s flagship Eccentric Soul series.
The name is also a winking homage to the legendary 25-volume Ultimate Breaks and Beats series, which the Bronx-based Street Beat label began releasing in 1986. The Ultimate Breaks and Beats records were influential, despite or because of their dubious legal status and consistently horrible cover art, which often featured a crudely drawn skeleton engaging in some kind of musical activity—like playing percussion on a trashcan lid, spinning records in a graveyard, or holding up a lighter at a concert. To drive that inspiration home, Eccentric Breaks and Beats also features a skeleton, drawn by Mike Davis of the Burlesque design company, that’s sporting a Kangol and a gold Numero logo necklace and flipping through a record bin. Several covers of older Numero releases, including Eccentric Soul: The Young Disciples and Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli, are visible in the background.
As usual for the label, Eccentric Breaks showcases serious crate-digging and an aberrant sense of humor. Take the song titles the label added: “John Goodman Is Too Cool to Cry,” “Peopleibrium,” “Shit … .” More evidence of Numero’s impishness comes at the end of Side B: the occasionally amusing, and always infuriating, locked groove.
But any musical release has to be judged by its sounds, not its back story. Given the rich source material, it’s no surprise that Eccentric Breaks and Beats is a delightfully smooth experience. Bear in mind, however, that beats and breaks records are inherently utilitarian. Usually, they mostly comprise instrumental loops and percussion samples, and are intended as background stems for hip-hop songs. Take the foundational loop for “Give Me Another Day,” a stirring string progression, or the one for “We Don’t Row Enough,” which centers on an extended Hammond B-3 note and a celebratory chorus. “Cosmic Clock” features a spoken-word intro and an accelerating Geiger counter sound that effortlessly segues into a wah-wahed groove that must—or should—have soundtracked some blaxploitation classic. But it’s often difficult, even for Numero devotees, to identify what exactly Shoes has sampled; the mix is simply too seamless.
If the compilation has a shortcoming, it’s that the source songs lose some of their regional identity when reworked so. One great thing about the Eccentric Soul series is that it showcased obscure labels whose songs were often as impressive as those in the Stax or Motown catalogs, yet retained distinctive, geographic sounds. On The Deep City Label and The Outskirts of Deep City, the musical archeologists of Numero unearthed a brass-based soul sound with connections to the legendary Florida A&M Marching Band. The gospel-influenced Southern soul of Atlanta got its due on The Tragar & Note Labels compilation. Few soul lovers likely knew that Columbus, Ohio, even had a soul scene worth mentioning until Numero released the “left-of-center material” of The Prix Label and The Capsoul Label. These comps looked into isolated scenes mostly lost to history and contrasted them to the soul canon. The filleted samples on Eccentric Breaks don’t last long enough for their idiosyncracies to leave much impact. Numero fans might miss those unique, flavorful bits of gristle.
But bootlegs, of course, offer their own thrills. As our sister paper, the Chicago Reader, recently pointed out, the British Dylanologist Clinton Heylin was so inspired by the mysterious allure and verboten thrill of purchasing his first bootleg record— Dylan ’s Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues—at a Mancunian porn shop in the 1960s that he eventually wrote the book Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry. Seperating bootleggers from counterfeiters, Heylin contends that the former must retain “an essential element of creativity.” Thankfully, Shoes displayed artistry to spare in assembling these Numero samples. Past Numero reissues have often benefited greatly from their back stories—the Middle Eastern misadventures of the black Hebrew musicians on Soul Messages From Dimona offer a prime example. Eccentric Breaks and Beats, with its air of mystery, is no exception. As Ken Shipley of Numero writes, “Eccentric Breaks and Beats is a puzzle that likely won’t be fully pieced together for years.”