April 16th marked the 4th annual Record Store Day, where neighborhood shops across the country joined forces to celebrate the art of independent music. Yet a part of every diehard music fan can’t help feeling like the annual festivities come complete with a funeral next door as the art being celebrated - not just the music, but the packaging, inserts and print graphics - is on the verge of extinction.
One label that still believes these tangibles are as integral a part of the release of recorded music - specifically the hip hop 12” - as they were 20 years ago is Brooklyn indie Coalmine Records. What’s even more impressive is that while Coalmine embraces the artistic sensibilities of the golden age, they aren’t a golden age label. Rather, they're one that opened up shop in 2006 when the economy was starting to dip and filesharing, blog leaks, and Itunes were busy hammering their nails into the hard-release coffin.
To help celebrate five years of their own output along with the entire concept of the White Label 12,” Coalmine has released Can You Dig It?, a 15-track retrospective accompanied by a forward from label founder Matt Diamond whose enthusiasm jumps from the page (or PDF).
Compilations - especially those from a labels featuring previously released material - are often unfairly saddled with the stigma of being nothing more than promotional tools handed out in the middle of traffic after a concert or stuffed into a cheap drawstring bag at a festival. Thankfully Can You Dig It? sets a precedent of being more than a throwaway from the get-go with "The Raw", where Rebel I.N.S. sounds as hungry as he did on “Triumph” while cuts from Biggie’s “Unbelievable” are rolled into a Street Orchestra beat that proves that gutter really can groove. With a roster of producers like Alchemist, Shuko and Marco Polo who prefer dark and grimy over poppy and perishable, all of Can You Dig It's tracks create a seamless transmission from the catacombs.
While the beats all seem to come from the same cinematic place, the disparity between the emcees on Can You Dig It? is where the album falters. While none of the performers are guilty of sounding lazy, there is no way of ignoring moments like a forced Bekay following Deck and Saigon on “The Raw” and the clunky Brown Bag posse cut “League of Intoxicated Gentlemen” following tracks from a fatal combo like Ruck and Rock on "Midnight Madness" or an emcee like Supernatural who makes it all look so easy on "Altitude" with Marco Polo on the beats.
Heads can still consider themselves lucky that labels like Coalmine haven’t lost sight of the fact that joy and excitement shouldn’t just come from listening to one’s favorite artists, but from discovering new favorites. Here’s to five more years pulling from the milk crate instead of the hard drive.