by Jacob Witz
Far too often, pieces of music history end up jailed behind sterile glass cases, sentenced to a smattering of “Ooh’s” and “Aah’s” for the rest of their physical existence. It’s dirty, unassuming relics like white label records that are lucky enough to avoid this fate, instead ending up on turntables and amongst their fellow modern vinyl. And while they lack the glimmer of a rockstar hair lock, white labels have become critical markers for the development of music scenes around the world.
Part of the white label’s magic lies in its imperfect nature: the sharpie-scribbled titles, limited pressings and uncleared samples all add to the mysticism of these humble discs. If you’re lucky enough to find one, chances are that it’s passed through the hands of capable DJ’s or even the artist themselves as they carried it out of the pressing factory.
The following records are some of the most legendary gems of the white label format. While this is by no means a definitive list, securing all ten of these releases might be grounds for reclassifying your collection as a national historic landmark.
Mala - “Alicia”
Any music scene rooted in Jamaican sound system culture has its fair share of white labels, but 2000’s UK dubstep was a golden era for the format. As far as producers were concerned, the only people who needed copies of their tunes were fellow DJ’s and pirate radio operators, who worked together to create a rebellious movement broadcasted from illegal raves and kitchen-based FM stations.
Mala’s ingeniously simple “Alicia” is a signifier of the genre. This velvety bootleg pairs an uncleared sample of Alicia Key’s “Feeling U, Feeling Me (Interlude)” with a clean dubstep to epitomize everything to love about dubstep before it was ravaged by drop-hungry US producers.
A white label release was Mala’s sole option, as RCA could have easily laid a copyright smackdown on the Keys sample, robbing dubheads everywhere a chance to hear this beauty. While physical copies only appear once in a blue moon, a rip of the song is available to stream on Youtube for those who can’t wait to feast their hands on this treasure.
Moodymann - “J.A.N”
No one has ever done house music--and probably will never do-- house music quite like Detroit’s Kenny Dixon Junior, aka Moodymann. Legend has it that “J.A.N” started out as a limited 200 copy white label release. Over the next few years, word got out that one of Moodymann’s greatest tracks had never been released at all. Demand for a repress became so great that Kenny Dixon Jr. pressed it on his own KDJ label to give the people what they so desperately needed.
It only takes a single listen to hear why the public outcry for a rerelease was so necessary. J.A.N is a sweeping epic, which starts off with a sample of Prince being interviewed by a Detroit funk radio station. Over an ominous bassline, Moodymann then rearranges the audio clip to make it seem as ifhewas the one being interviewed, an ungodly act that only a mortal of KDR’s stature could successfully pull off. After 7 1/2 minutes of serious build-up, the song cuts into a keyboard solo reeking of soul and sexy gravitas.
Wiley Kat - “Eskiboy”
Honestly, this whole list could have been 100% Wiley white labels, but “Eskiboy/ Ice Rink” rises above the rest as being a true marker for the “Eski” sound which became the playful, digital backbone for the infantile days of grime music.
The number of instruments and effects used on each of these songs can be counted on one hand, yet each one is iconic in its own right. First and foremost, there’s the digital ice clicks. After Dat Oven’s “Icy Lake” debuted the sound to New York house scene of the ‘90s, Wiley carried on its legend and filled his productions with the sample which I can only assume is synthesized by freezing an mp3 file and shattering it with a pointed mouse icon. As if one iconic sample wasn’t enough, these tracks also champion the minimal square wave synth that became so common in grime that Attack Magazine even put out a tutorial on how to mimic the sound.
No collection of white labels has proven to be as simultaneously influential and unique as Wiley’s. They embody the wild west of grimey UK music, composed in bedrooms on pirated versions of FL Studio without any intention of widespread appeal or marketability.
Goon Club Allstars - “Colder” (Samename Refix) / Ice Rink (Moleskin Edit)
If it’s not apparent yet, let me put it in simple terms: very few will ever be as influential in electronic music as Wiley. He had such a grip on the UK scene that his old tracks got reworked a decade later into an EP thatstillfeels essential to put on this list. Goon Club Allstars, whose have been steadily putting out top-notch club records for the last few years, launched their label with a record featuring two bootleg edits of old Wiley tunes. This time around, though, it wasn’t the icicles or synths that drew the attention of the music world.
Samename infused his refix with “Ha” crashes, a cornerstone of music coming out of the ballroom scene in New York, which originates from Masters at Work’s “The Ha Dance”. They come in like gunshots, accompanied by vicious bass-infused snare drums that make Wiley’s old tune equipped to face the club apocalypse. Moleskin’s edit of Ice Rink is equally destructive and uses old Baltimore breakbeats to breathe new life into a white label of the past.
This chaotic, twisted mess of samples was a precursor for the current state of club music: a mishmash of influences and cultures stirred by the appropriating melting pot of the internet.
Unknown Artist - Uniile 1
Uniile is a fledgling label out of France dedicated to keeping the names and locations of their artists anonymous. Each release is limited to a small run of white labels, which has driven equal parts intrigue and controversy in the music industry. Some have called it out as a hype-driven gimmick and claimed that the only “moral code” the label follows is whatever it takes to drive their resale values as high as possible.
But after a single listen to Uniile 1, it becomes apparent that the label’s intentions are far from greedy. The songs are so blissful and underproduced that their lack of ownership is more humble than enigmatic. It’s as if these club tools were gifted to this world from a higher DJ power, whose sample collection is as timeless as it is nameless.
The label is based in France, so it’s possible that they reached out to a local artist for the release, especially given the funky french house aesthetic present throughout the tracks. It’s also possible that a principled DJ from some other part of the world lent their talents for the project, perhaps proving that some music can exist beyond context. As long as Uniile maintains its mystique, record lovers will continue scratching their heads and paying outrageous prices for this treasure.
Animal Collective - The Purple Bottle (Stevie Wonder Version) / Polly (Nirvana Cover)
Finally, some recourse for rock enthusiasts who made it through the onslaught of club lingo and digital bloops. The story goes that Animal Collective butted heads with representatives of Stevie Wonder when they chose to reinterpret his lyrics from “I Just Called To Say I Love You” for “The Purple Bottle.” It made no financial sense for an indie psych-folk band to go to court with one of the most successful musicians of all time, so they agreed to change the lyrics for the final release of the album. The last remnant of this legal battle is a white label of the original recording which includes the parody of Wonder’s lyrics.
“I just called to say I like you…I just called to wonder if you care,” Avey Tare whimpers 2½ minutes through bootleg record. Just knowing the backstory is enough to to shiver in joy when these he spills these words, but the inherent cheekiness of the parody and Avey’s quakey delivery alone make these 15 seconds alone worth securing in physical form.
And for those that like a little more substance in their white labels, the backside of the single features a dark, folksy cover of Nirvana’s “Polly”. Regardless of which version is “better”, the Anco rework is a lovely treat and a perfect complement to finish off a record that otherwise would have never made it through the onslaught of lawyers from both Cobain and Wonder.
Jam City - Refixes
Before Jam City was one of the defining names in an indefinable landscape of experimental club music, he was steadily putting out banger-filled EP’s on Night Slugs. During this era, he used his white label debut to ravage through classic dance tracks and fill their remains with foreign rhythms and melodies.
The only element that his refix of Endgame’s “Ecstacy” shares with the original 80’s funk tune are a handful of punchy synth notes. He takes these brief moments and chops them to hell and back, adding in spastic drums and the occasional square wave synth (thanks Wiley). The bootleg is a testament to how Jam City can effortlessly hone in on a single idea and explore every facet of its existence. Even when he left the fundamentals of DJ Deeon’s “Let Me Bang” in tact, his minor additions transformed the ghetto house classic into something otherwordly.
On B3, he explodes DJ Bone’s “Shut the Lights Off” into a dreamy cloud of grime synths and sparse percussion. This style of emotive “sad” grime has been catching on in recent years through releases off of Gobstopper Records and Different Circles, though these labels were just babies when Refixes came out. Basically, you could slap these tracks onto any modern record and they would still sound as fresh as they did half a decade ago.
Aphex Twin - “Analog Bubblebath Vol 2”
People tend to forget about Aphex Twin’s releases on Rabbit City Records, but it was on early 90’s records like the Analog Bubblebath series that Richard D. James carved out his own lane in music history. While all of these releases are great, Volume 2 is essential because it marks the point where James departed from his acid house roots and ventured into brand new territory.
The B-sides, “Untitled” and “Alien Fanny Farts”, are filled with the glitched out squelches of computer errors and cataclysmic drums that fans of Aphex Twin have come to expect. While the songs are excellent in their own right, hearing these back in 1991 might’ve caused someone to rethink their entire view of what electronic music was capable of.
But even these pale in comparison to “Digeridoo (Aboriginal Mix)” which is really unlike anything else of our time, dimension or universe. The white label was pressed at 45 RPM, and many took a liking to slowing down the record to 33 ⅓ RPM to warp the high-strung piece into a droning sludge of electronics fit for a rave at the end of a black hole. While “Didgeridoo” was repressed by R&S four years later, it was done so at 33 ⅓RPM, which means only carriers of the beloved white label can experience this magical mishap firsthand. You can experience it secondhand by listening to it on Youtube here.
2 For Joy - Mainstream EP
The prices of rare UK hardcore and breakbeat white labels have soared to borderline insane figures, more so than practically any other genre on Discogs. This leads me to believe that it was a more than just the quality of 90’s ecstasy that made caused droves of UK working class youth to rave in warehouses until 5am.
Maybe it was because the UK was finallybeginning to develop its own dance scenes beyond simply importing records from Chicago and Detroit, a split which is most pronounced on 2 For Joy’s “Mainstream EP”. The songs on this white label carry the genes of Chicago acid house alongside years of mutation from their UK influence, resulting in one of the most well-executed hardcore records to date.
Take the track “Driving in The Beat”, for instance. It still has the piano ballads and gospel-like choruses of house records before it, but the piano notes have morphed into ravey stabs of pure euphoria, sped up to a tempo range untouched by US-based productions.
Even with the cultural shifts, this record embodies the universal goal of house music: serving as a means to forget the drudgery of daily life and revel in unequivocal joy amongst complete strangers.
DJ TY, DJ Slugo, DJ PJ, RP Boo -Untitled
A record that truly embodies the mysticism of white label releases, this double LP was supposedly the last album to ever be released by the legendary Chicago label Dance Mania. It features some of the biggest names in Ghetto House and Juke, yet searching the internet far and wide reveals little-to-no information on its songs or existence; the only physical traces of this ghost are confirmed sales on Discogs.
I reached out to RP Boo, who said that this unreleased wax has the first ever pressing of his gargantuan “11-47-99.” For some Chicago-heads, that would be grounds alone for adding this record to their collection, let alone the other 11 tracks from Chicago legends that accompany it. “Untitled” is a legend waiting to be discovered, and is perhaps the only record on this list that would be better served in the hands of museum. At the moment, the only traces of its existence are confirmed sales on Discogs.
Stories like these are what make white labels more than just a pieces of memorabilia. They represent everything from legal battles to moral codes to artists who had no other means of getting their work onto a dancefloor. One can only dream of what other tales lie encoded in the grooves of these artifacts.