Money, Excess and Greed: Label Head Will Socolov on Arthur Russell, Sleeping Bag and Fresh Records

From the DJ History archives: the rise and fall of two New York labels that helped to define the burgeoning sounds of avant-disco, Latin freestyle and hip-hop


Along with the late cellist, producer and disco visionary Arthur Russell, Will Socolov was a joint founder of Sleeping Bag Records. Releasing material by Loose Joints, Konk, Joyce Sims, Todd Terry and Mantronix, this imprint encapsulated the changing sound of New York clubland throughout the 1980s.

DJ History

Initially set up as a quick money-maker, its sister label Fresh Records quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with. Mining the rich seam of hip-hop, freestyle and beyond, it spent the same period unleashing a barrage of hits by the likes of EPMD, Just Ice, T La Rock and Hanson & Davis.

Despite these many achievements, both labels share a tempestuous history, from Russell’s untimely death to their collapse under a tidal wave of ambition, mismanagement and excess. In this previously unpublished interview with Frank Broughton, Socolov reflects on his wild and cautionary path through a music industry that is at once lightyears away from that of today, and yet instantly recognizable.

How did you first meet Arthur Russell?

My father was a lawyer for David Mancuso, who had a club called the Loft. David had a love/hate relationship with a guy named Steve D’Aquisto [a New York DJ and collaborator of Russell’s, with whom Mancuso, Paul Casella and Vince Aletti started the first record pool in 1975]. I went to the Loft and met Arthur one night. Maybe Steve introduced us. Basically, they needed money to finish their work as Loose Joints, and I talked my father into giving them the money. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Loose Joints project.

Loose Joints ‎– Is It All Over My Face

“Is It All Over My Face”?

Right. What happened was, it was a disaster, apart from that song. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story behind “Is It All Over My Face,” but basically Larry Levan was mixing it when he had free time, and the guy who ran the studio came in, saw that Larry was working, and it wasn’t on the clock, so he kicked him out, so they were left with the mix they had done, which was very raw, and they ended up putting it out. This happened to be a great thing, because it created a new style in dance music at the time, a much rawer sound than the Salsoul records that were coming out then.

They did that record, which was the only one that made money. Basically, the thing fell apart, West End [Records] dropped them, and Arthur and I had become friends. I had an apartment on Thompson Street, in SoHo… I’m walking down West Broadway and Arthur is walking up. We ran into each other and started talking, and after talking for about an hour Arthur said, “Would you like to start a label?” I said, “Sure.” So, Arthur and I then became good friends and collaborators on Sleeping Bag Records.

Where did the name and logo come from?

The interesting thing was that Arthur came from Iowa and I came from a middle-class family, where my mother was an editor and my father was a lawyer – I think they aspired for their children to become intellectuals. There was a…I’m not saying a snobbery, but there was a reaction to the disco look of Nehru collars and Jheri curls, the whole smooth disco thing.

The Studio 54 look?

Yeah. Arthur and I never fit into that, and never wanted to fit into that. We were young kids who were into dancing. We hung out with friends who were very hippie-ish in their mentality. I wasn’t, but I was a New Yorker, so I really enjoyed a lot of different things and different cultures, and I wasn’t going to be stereotyped. We set up Sleeping Bag as a reaction to that whole Salsoul, Studio 54 thing. We wore dungarees and sneakers.

I think Arthur might have got into Studio 54, but I never got in during its heyday. I went there a couple of times, and I never got accepted. They would look me up and down, and that was that. I laughed about it, but it kind of bothered me in a way.

Arthur had a lot of artist friends and so did [his partner] Tom Lee. Tom, at that time, worked for a picture framer, who did a lot of work for artists. He came up with the idea of the koala bear [logo]… Basically, when we were kids there used to be a publication for kids called Highlights, and they’d always had a picture of woods with animals in it; they’d be camouflaged and you had to find them and circle them. I gave the idea to Arthur of having a campground scene. We’d just vibe with ideas and laugh.

The name was a riff on James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” I was listening to the radio while talking to Arthur, and James Brown came on. I said to him, “James has got a brand new bag, and I’ve got a sleeping bag.” Arthur said, “That’s it, we’ll be Sleeping Bag Records.” I was kind of into it, too.

We didn’t have the money or anything to promote the records, like the big, established labels. The only way that labels like us could do it was to stand out and do things like that.

Dinosaur L – Go Bang

What was your first big breakthrough record? Was it “Go Bang”? If so, how did that come together?

Well, what happened was Arthur had already been working on [Dinosaur L’s album] 24→24. Matter of fact, the guys that played in Loose Joints [were] the Ingram family from Philly. Arthur loved working with them – or some of them. I don’t know if you know who Butch Ingram was…he was more of an established R&B star, and he didn’t really get into Arthur, he thought he was a bit crazy and his music was a little bit too out there, but [his brothers] Jimmy and Timmy, they really got into it and just jammed. Arthur would just jam with them.

That’s what “Go Bang” was – it was a jam. Arthur had gotten some money, some grants. He always seemed to be able to pull some rabbit out of his hat. He did the 24→24 music, which was a lot of jamming with the Ingrams. We decided to put it out, and Arthur thought that “Go Bang” could be a big record, but he thought his mix was too obscure, he said, “We need someone like François [Kevorkian] to do it.” He asked François, who was really into it.

The rest is history. Although when Arthur first heard the mix, it was standard Arthur. I used to go to the Loft and so did Arthur, and we’d wait in line to get in. We were VIPs in a sense, because we didn’t pay to get in, but we still had to wait in line. I got to the Loft that night. I went to get in line with everybody else, and one of the guys called me over,“Hey Will, David’s been waiting for you.” He opened the door and said to come in. I walked into the club from the side door, and David didn’t do that often. I went in and said hello. [David] was cueing up the next record, but he took it off, didn’t even care – and he was very particular how he played and how picked his music. He put “Go Bang” on, and people were just coming up to me, one after another saying, “Fuck, Will, this is incredible.” They loved it.

So, of course, I called Arthur, he came down to the club and David had already played it twice, so people were really getting into it. When Arthur heard it, he came up to me and said, “I’m ruined.”

I said, “What are you talking about?”

He said, “Listen to the drums, they’re so muddy.”

Arthur was kind of like that. He would say very dramatic things, but he would either realize or know what he had said, or he had done it for effect. I started yelling at him, “You’re out of your fucking mind! Have you ever seen this place go as crazy?” And every DJ that was there – because the Loft always had all these other guys hanging out – [they all came up and asked], “Will, when can I get a copy?”

Arthur said something to me that was so profound. He said, “I really believe that music can heal.” I think I agree with him.

What was it like working with Arthur on a creative level? Often people say that he could never finish anything.

Arthur was prolific in making music. How many records came out? Very few. That’s the thing about him. It’s all coming out now, because of Steve Knutson [at Audika Records] and Tom Lee.

He was making music all the time, but we released very little of it, and that was one of the reasons we broke up our partnership. That’s why I had all these fights with him. Even though he made records very inexpensively, we never put anything out. I’d rather make records more expensively and release them. He’d say, “Well, this isn’t ready,” and this and that. He was never satisfied. Arthur and Ernie Brooks [bassist of the Modern Lovers and a collaborator with Russell] had a huge fistfight because Ernie was flipping out at Arthur [because] they couldn’t get a record out.

I ran into Arthur all the time, because I lived in SoHo and he lived in the East Village. He would always love to come over to the West Side; one, because Arthur was gay, and there was a gay community there, but the other thing is he loved the sunsets. I would meet up with him, and he’d be sitting cross-legged right near the West Side Highway, just looking at the sunset. He would talk to me about the value of that. Arthur said something to me that was so profound and really affected me. He said, “I really believe that music can heal.” I think I agree with him. I think that a lot of his thoughts about music were correct in terms of music having a healing quality.

But he was filled with self-doubt. Arthur had pretty, beautiful vocals. But he always shitted on his voice. I remember when we heard Leroy Burgess singing on some song. He said, “Leroy Burgess can sing like a bird – he’s got a beautiful voice. I can’t do that.”

I said, “But Arthur, your voice is different. Leroy Burgess probably can’t sing like you.”

It must have been a real battle to get things like the 24→24 album out.

That one, for some reason, he’d already finished it. It wasn’t that difficult, or as difficult as other things. I don’t know exactly why, but it came out pretty quick. Other things were incredibly difficult.

Class Action – Weekend

Bob Blank said Arthur was pissed off at Sleeping Bag for putting out [Class Action’s cover of Phreek’s] “Weekend,” because it was too commercial.

You got to be careful what Bob Blank says… Arthur wasn’t stupid, and knew it would make a lot of money, and he knew that he had to keep making money if he was to continue making records. He wasn’t really a hippie that was against making money. He had his taste, and he might not have cared for the record, I don’t doubt that, but that’s a far cry [from being pissed about it].

Bob came up to me – he knew I went to the Garage and was friends with Larry – he said, “Let’s do a cover of ‘Weekend.’” I said, “Yeah, that’s great idea.” I wasn’t really into the idea of doing a cover, but the reason this was so appealing was because Atlantic Records fucked up. They didn’t release the right version [in the first place]. So we were like, “Let’s do this. Everyone wants to hear the right version.” I asked Larry [Levan] about it, and he flipped out. He was excited. “That’s great! Nobody can get the right version.” The funny thing is that Atlantic re-released it when we put our version out, and they fucked it up again! They put out the wrong version for the second time.

The version that Larry wanted was the one with the piano at the end, that tap piano part that Patrick Adams played. They shortened it and edited it. That’s what happened at big companies – there was a level of ineptitude there.

Jamaica Girls - Somebody New (Larry Levan Dub)

We did Jamaica Girls, too, “Somebody New,” and Arthur wasn’t against that. He knew it was a commercial record. He wasn’t against that.

When you were promoting records, you’d be going from one club to another. Which clubs did you go to, and which DJ relationships did you cultivate?

I was friendly with David, but I became less friendly as time went on. I became very close with Larry. The truth of the matter was there were a lot of DJs I was friendly with. For example, Jellybean Benitez loved “Go Bang.” You have to remember, back then, the Fun House, where Jellybean played, had a huge Italian and Hispanic crowd who bought records.

The Garage was the most important, because it influenced everybody. Everybody would come and hang out there at night. If you played at a club and you finished at 4 AM and didn’t want to go home, you’d go and hang out at either the Loft or the Garage, and most people went to the Garage. It was more social, it had a ton of industry people hanging out in the booth or downstairs in front of the booth. I used to see Jellybean, Bruce Forest, Timmy Regisford, all the influential DJs – even Larry Patterson.

Larry was friendly Tee Scott. Shep Pettibone would come by, François would come by.

Larry went through periods where he’d be friendly with someone, and then they’d get into a fight – somebody would get a cassette of something, or a reel of some music and wouldn’t give it to Larry, or Larry wanted to have it first.

I gravitated towards Danceteria the most. The problem with the Garage was that there was no alcohol, but if you went to a place like Danceteria, you could get a beer and talk to friends. There’d be a lot of industry people there, too. Mark Kamins was DJing there, Freddy Bastone. It’s also where I became friendly with Kurtis Mantronik. There was also the Buttermilk Bottom, with Nicky Siano; the Mudd Club with Justin Strauss; Area – I was very friendly with Johnny Dynell, I’d go there a lot, because Johnny would always put me on the list and it was near my house.

Was there a hierarchy for distribution of test pressings and acetates?

I think the hierarchy would depend on the record. The hierarchy was all based on putting out good records. If you put out good records, people were into you. There were labels like 99 Records, run by Ed Bahlman – he didn’t socialize with many of those guys, but man, if he put out a new record, they were eating it up. People were hungry for good music.

It was also a very open time, wasn’t it? After the crash of disco, it seemed like there wasn’t just the Salsoul sound, there were lots of other things happening. Sleeping Bag represented that in a lot of ways.

Exactly. There were a lot of good imports coming in. I remember a lot of labels like Emergency Records, [which released European tunes, such as] Kano’s “I’m Ready”. I remember when Larry had first played “Din Daa Daa” by George Kranz. Someone had sent him a copy of the record. Everybody was trying to find out who put that record out in Europe, so they could license it. When that record was being played, the crowd went crazy. Everybody was freaking; Larry played it like five times that night.

How did you meet Juggy Gayles [the well-known promotions man and partner in Sleeping Bag Records]?

I was using Freddie Taylor to distribute my records when we first started. She said, “I’m friendly with Juggy, and I think you should talk to him about your label. [Freddie had got the influential New York DJ] Frankie Crocker to play “Go Bang” on WBLS, and the next day we had sales. She said, “If you just expose this record…” So, Juggy started getting some airplay and, over time, the record sold. Not huge amounts, but it sold.

The difference with us was that if we liked something, we signed you on the spot.

Did you know about Juggy and his history? He was such an amazing character.

I knew a little about him, but got to know more and more about him. I became friendly with him and I became friendly with Crocker. That was the reason why I was into doing something with Juggy, because he had such a good relationship with Frankie. Truth is, I don’t think we took advantage of that relationship as much as we could or should have. Frankie took care of Juggy and Juggy took care of him. I think Juggy looked out for him. It was an interesting relationship.

Was he a good people person – they’re often the best promotions people?

I don’t know. He had a cantankerous side to him, and he really had screaming fights with people. Juggy was a mixed bag. A lot of people liked him and a lot of people didn’t. He could rub people the wrong way pretty quick. For kids like me, he had so much history and knowledge about the record business. He’d tell you stories about Atlantic Records when it first started, and you’d be mesmerized by him. From that point of view, it was great. And the truth is that Crocker loved him for some of those reasons, too. Juggy knew all this kind of stuff. He had a lot of history.

He was already quite old when he started working at Sleeping Bag, wasn’t he?

He was already in his late 60s when we first started working together. Juggy smoked a lot of weed, and that’s what ingratiated him with a lot of kids. That’s why he did really well. He could relate to kids pretty well.

I saw him in the elevator once at Sony. I don’t remember who it was that got in, but it was somebody big. Juggy said to him: “You got a hit record.”

“What record, Juggy? Tell me.”

“Ah, I’m not gonna tell you yet. I’ll tell you later, but you got another hit record.”

That’s over now, because there’s Facebook and a lot of different ways of communicating and sending out the kind of information that somebody like Juggy took advantage of. They don’t need a Juggy now.

How did Ron Resnick come to work at the label?

OK. So, Ron was Juggy’s son. He was living in California and doing a lot of freebasing. Basically, Juggy had set him up out there with people he knew, but Ron still fucked up. He brought Ron back, basically to save his life. That’s what he would tell people, “I’m bringing him back to save his life.” My joke would be, “Yeah, and to ruin my fucking life!” He’s dead now and whatever, but he was a really bad guy. It was a fucked-up relationship. We’d be having meetings, and they’d get into screaming fights. It would be so embarrassing.

When did you first meet Mantronix?

One night we were going to the Blank Tapes studio. Bob Blank was no longer the engineer there. He had been bought out. I was with Freddy Bastone and Mark Kamins. Kurtis was talking to Freddy, and he told me he had a demo he was working on, that it was just an instrumental, but that it was really hot and people loved it.

I said, “Is that true, Freddy?”

Freddy said, “I’m telling you the truth – every time I play it in the club people go crazy.”

That’s all I needed to hear. I said, “Next weekend I’m gonna come to Danceteria. Play me that demo.”

Mantronix with MC Tee – Fresh Is The Word

When I went there, Freddy put on an instrumental of “Fresh Is The Word,” and the place went crazy. I turned to Kurtis and said, “How soon do you want to do the record?” And that was it; we went in the studio and started recording.

That was completely a different vibe from the early releases with Arthur.

Yeah, well, it’s funny, because I introduced Arthur to Kurtis and Dana Vlcek, who was in Konk, and Arthur wanted to work with them. I think Arthur was too uptight about his weaknesses, or what he perceived them to be. [He’d say,] “Get me with someone who’s young and hip.” That’s why he worked a lot with Walter [Gibbons], because I think he liked Walter’s ear, and Walter DJed. So, Arthur had met Mantronix, but they didn’t work together well. Kurtis was a kid, and he couldn’t get into Arthur’s [ideas]. He was too esoteric.

How old was he when the first record came out?

He was over 18, but just barely.

So even then, you’d officially stopped working with Arthur, but you still maintained a relationship?

Of course. Even when he was in bad shape... It’s a very sad story. [We were sitting in my car talking, and he told me,] “I have AIDS and I’m not going to live long.” I flipped out. I said, “Tell me what you want to do, and whatever it is we can do it.” I was almost crying.

Just Ice – Latoya

When you started [the Sleeping Bag subsidiary] Fresh Records, was that as direct result of meeting Kurtis?

No. Not at all. Fresh Records [came about because of] our distributors. We were trying to get money out of our distributor, because I had these projects I wanted to do. A competing distributor told me, “If you give us some records, we’ll pay you.” I went to our distributor and told them, and that we needed some money. The guy basically said, “We don’t do that,” so I said, “Let’s open up another label.” We were all in favor, so that’s what we did. It was nothing to do with Kurtis until further down the line. He did Hanson & Davis’s “Hungry for Your Love,” and he worked with Just Ice early on. The first songs Just Ice brought to the label were “Latoya” and “That Girl’s a Slut,” which Kurtis had nothing to do with. Kurtis did “Put The Record Back On.” I bet him that “Latoya” was going to be a bigger hit than that. Of course, I was right and he was wrong.

Fresh was tapping much more into the hip-hop and freestyle market.

It absolutely was. It was much more of a freestyle label. And I guess Kurtis was a part of that, but again, it’s all music. I like hip-hop. I like house music. I like all kinds of music.

Kurtis did produce quite a lot of stuff on the label. Was he hanging out in the office a lot?

He lived upstairs. We ended up in this weird building, and we got the floor upstairs. Kurtis moved in, so he was there all the time. That was the relationship. It was a very relaxed place.

How did you come across guys like EPMD?

They walked in the door. They had gone to a couple of labels before us. We weren’t their first choice. I think they went to Def Jam and Profile first. One of my guys listened to them and said, “Will, you got to listen to this. These guys are really good.” I listened to them and said, “Fine, let’s do the contract.” The difference with us was that if we liked something, we signed you on the spot.

Can you tell me a little about meeting some of the artists?

Just Ice came up to the office. He was hysterically funny. We just started goofing around. He was knowledgeable about music. A lot of reggae. I’m going to tell you something very bizarre about him – he liked soft rock. He would listen to Lite FM. He had this bizarre taste in music, but he definitely had a Jamaican sensibility.

A lot of people came up to the office. Todd Terry came to my office. I loaned him $400 to buy a keyboard, and we started putting out his stuff. Robert Clivillés used to work with me. Little Louie Vega – I bought him equipment. I don’t know if he would ever give me credit.

How did you come across T La Rock?

Kurtis developed a relationship. Kurtis wanted his LL Cool J. Kurtis loved LL, and there were only a couple of people that were on LL’s level. The truth of the matter is that LL became a huge star, and T La Rock, unfortunately, was a one-note rapper. He’s not bad – he’s great, but Kurtis and Just Ice wanted me to sign him, and I’m happy I did. But the thing about LL or any good rapper is that they evolve – T stayed the same style. People shopped Big Daddy Kane to me and it was the same shit.

Craig Mack – Wooden Horse

There were a lot of people you worked with early in their careers, like Craig Mack.

Yeah. I loved Craig. He was great. I worked with him on “Wooden Horse,” a record with a Frank Sinatra sample: “Oops, there goes another [rubber tree plant].” I stayed very close with Craig. Think he’s living in South Carolina. He’s got incredible stories about living in LA and living like a king, but it lasted a short time.

When you started releasing this stuff, were you hanging out in more outer-borough clubs?

No, the Roxy was a big hip-hop club. I’d still do the same clubs.

The one Kool Lady Blue did, where Afrika Bambaataa played?

Blue was great. I loved Blue – there’s another person who was in on it in the early years. I’d go to The Roxy, the Loft, the Garage, Danceteria – I’d stopped going to the Fun House – and, yeah, I used to go to clubs in Queens or wherever, but usually because I had a reason to go there, or three people from three different labels were going out to see someone in Brooklyn and we’d all go together.

Why do you think the label eventually collapsed?

I know why it collapsed. I stopped working there. I couldn’t get Juggy to buy me out. I couldn’t buy Juggy out.

When was this, ’91 or ’92?

Something like that, yeah. I asked him for $400,000 for my half. He knew I ran the label. We couldn’t make money. Ron would talk his father into stuff, then Juggy would start busting my balls, so it was like two against one. We bought a building in Fulham [in west London]. We hired staff like Mervyn Lyn. It was a ridiculous amount of money – one million or two million in Europe.

None of my other friends had opened up a company there. It wasn’t worth it. We were licensing our records and people were putting them out. We were making a lot of money. We dealt with London Records and Virgin. Ron said we were going to have our own label, but we didn’t have the infrastructure. We didn’t need it and we didn’t have it. We had all these labels we worked with who loved us. Joyce [Sims] had been a huge star. London Records had done very well.

Anyway, I asked Juggy to buy me out for $400,000, and he said no, so I offered him the same. He said “Fuck you. This company is worth £20 million.” I told him, “Juggy, you’re crazy.”

I went down to $200,000 and he said no. He tried to get people to back him, but nobody did, because they knew I ran everything. They fucked everything up. I said to Juggy, “Look, I’m gonna stay home. I’ll come in and sign the checks, but I’m going let the company go.” I stopped working, and that’s what happened.

They put out whatever shit we had. They put out the latest Joyce Sims album, but Kurtis wasn’t involved and it was terrible. I said, “Let’s just forget about it,” but Juggy said no, and got this huge advertising campaign. When the orders came in, they were terrible. There was no hype on it.

Ron freaked out and started screaming at his father, “We’re gonna ship 50,000 copies.” I said, “No we’re not, we don’t have any orders.” Juggy went back and did these deals, buyers took tons of product and they returned it all. We lost a fortune on that. All of a sudden, the European operation was eating up money like crazy, so we had to shut that down. From being a thing that was supposed to produce money, it became a disaster. Believe me, a record company can fall apart quickly, especially when the main person is just not involved anymore.

This interview was conducted in January 2015. © DJ History

By Frank Broughton on January 10, 2019

On a different note