Label of the Month: Repopulate Mars

Speaking to Harry Levin, Lee Foss breaks down the history and ethos of his extraterrestrial imprint, Repopulate Mars, which in the five years since launching has become one of the most popular labels in house.

16 min
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Feb 1, 2021
Harry Levin

Dance music culture has long existed as a respite for those who feel disconnected from society, or for those who feel alien. These metaphorical Martians flock to gritty warehouse raves and illuminated nightclubs, which beam much-needed interstellar sounds of acceptance, love, and joy. This is the principle that drives Lee Foss’s event series turned record label, Repopulate Mars.

“People who gravitate towards electronic music and raves often just feel different,” Foss says. “I think that that’s a common thread and dance music brought them together.”

The “people” to whom Foss is referring are more than the people enjoying the music on the dancefloor. He’s referring to producers he signs to the label, to the DJs he books at events, even to his fiance Chloe Holmes who plays an instrumental role in the visuals for the brand.

With this imprint, Foss is creating a sonic landbridge, so that together they can repopulate dance music culture with the confidence to express who they are, no matter how extraterrestrial they may be.

Being a true creative at heart, however, this noble intention is far from Foss’s only line of thought attached to the moniker “Repopulate Mars.” Dialing in over Zoom from his home in Topanga, CA, a small mountainous hamlet on the edge of Los Angeles, he depicts a wide variety of astronomical narratives he wants to traverse with his brand.

Foss mentions his own travels throughout the world like that of a space explorer. He leans on the prefix “re” in “repopulate,” alluding to the possibility that dance music fans were “planted on Earth by the universe.”

These picturesque ideas then form into a real, tangible vision for the brand. Elements like immersive club residencies that tell a story week to week, and even a possible branded cartoon. (Foss also pairs an affinity for sci-fiction stories like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” with dance music culture).

The stars are the limit for Foss, and a quick glance at his output up to this point demonstrates that the stars are at his fingertips. He doesn’t just ideate — he executes.

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After developing an impeccable work ethic in his early years as a DJ hustling in his hometown of Chicago, Foss has made essential contributions to the world of dance music. Hot Creations, the label (founded in 2010) he runs with longtime friend and collaborator Jamie Jones, remains a pillar of house to this day. Together they also run another label, Emerald City, focusing on vocal-heavy sounds, and they’ve long championed the modern astral dance band, Hot Natured.

Repopulate Mars marked Foss’s first solo run record label. And despite the endless aspirations careening through his mind, putting out great music is the foundation of them all.

“On the label side, I’m just looking to tell the story of my favorite tunes. I try not to get bogged down in genres,” Foss says. “I try to find the stuff that grabs my ear and interests me.”

Foss officially launched Repopulate Mars in 2016 when Hot Creations was facing a severe influx of new music. Because of this inundation, Foss and Jones were able to delineate their individual tastes from the maw and channel their solo efforts. Jones started Hottrax for the smoother, sleeker, tech house sounds, and Foss started Repopulate Mars, which has loaded up its catalog with high-flying bass lines for nearly five years.

“To me, [the bassline] is the ‘oof’. It’s what makes people dance. It’s what gives them that stank-face,” Foss says, constricting his visage into a cluttered expression so commonly seen after a good drop.

Focusing on basslines also leans into Foss’s philosophies behind Repopulate Mars on a more profound level. Basslines produce stank-faces regardless of genre, so by curating a sound around the feeling of a good bassline, he opens the doors for fans of other styles to develop an interest in house music.

“A lot of new fans come from bass music so they respond to bass,” Foss says. “The great thing about having house and techno that has these big basslines but is still nuanced is that you can reach this younger audience that came from bass music and EDM. That’s something that jumps out to me.”

Foss’ take on basslines is unique because he frequently classifies them as the melody in Repopulate Mars releases. Historically, the bassline is a supporting player in music across all genres, laid down below so higher frequencies like vocals can take point.

In the case of Foss’s selections for Repopulate Mars, the bassline acts as the supporting player and takes point simultaneously.

“I do love a bassline-led song, but often those are strongly melodic basslines, which is what people notice rather than short repetitive basslines,” Foss says. “I’m a big fan of basslines that are either the lead melody or just ripping and big and strong. For me, that’s what I hear first.”

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One release from the Repopulate Mars catalog that undoubtedly fits the above description came just about a year after the label’s launch: the Swagon EP, by the Repopulate Mars resident and UK house music prince, Detlef.

The title track made a meteoric impact upon release. With vocalist Ossey James reviving the hook on Soulja Boy’s 2008 party anthem “Turn My Swag On,” this all-too-groovy melding of hip hop and house dominated clubs and festivals in 2017, establishing Repopulate Mars as a long-term player in the current generation of house and techno.

“I had to scrounge for records at the beginning,” Foss says. “I was out there asking around to make sure everything was at a releasable level. But after “Swagon” there were always plenty of submissions. I was always releasing something that I liked. It was really a flashpoint for the label.”

This newfound level of success allowed Foss to expand his mission with Repopulate Mars on all levels, welcoming new aliens to the fold in the form of artists and fans alike.

Beyond releasing music he enjoyed, Foss began curating compilations like Repopulate Miami and Repopulate Stars, which have since become cornerstones of the label’s output. The latter of the two has seen six iterations in less than three years, totaling over 60 tracks.

Foss used this increased output to provide a platform for dozens of unknown talents, becoming a vital nutrient in the career growth of some of the label’s artists. These acts include Manchester prodigy Mason Maynard, Eli Brown’s shift towards four on the floor, and the Windy City rising star John Summit, who just reached Beatport’s overall top spot with his latest single on Repopulate Mars, “Beauty Sleep.”

In the spirit of Repopulate Mars, these artists aren’t just labelmates or colleagues to Foss. They are friends and family.

“Whether it’s Michael Bibi or Eli Brown or Mason Maynard. These are people I will collaborate with and be friends with for life,” Foss says. “Mason is someone I love. He comes and stays at my place when he’s in the states. That kind of attitude about it has always led to meeting and finding more cool new artists.”

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That same attitude also took Repopulate Mars events to new atmospheres. Before the label launched, there was already a foundational event series exploring Foss’s cosmic inclinations via performers like Anabel Englund, an accomplished vocalist and a frequent Foss collaborator. The label’s added success brought a consistent roster to these events, refining the sound and extending the feeling of family to the dancefloor.

Soon Foss was repopulating dancefloors with fellow aliens all over the world. In 2019 alone, the label hosted over 20 events in cities including Los Angeles, London, Miami, and Barcelona, with lineups featuring the rising stars Foss helped to grow, as well as established forces in house music like Nathan Barato and newcomers like Ben Hemsley and Kaysin.

The inclusion of Kaysin, an LA-based producer, DJ, and A&R, demonstrates an important facet of the Repopulate Mars legacy. He first entered the universe not through the label or one of the events, but the Repopulate Mars sister label South of Saturn.

Launching in September of 2019, the groove-oriented South of Saturn imprint represents Foss’ continuing commitment to the original mission of Repopulate Mars, while allowing him to welcome exciting new talents to the family.

“Repopulate Mars has gotten to be big enough that I really have to think long and hard about what each release is going to be because there are so many options,” Foss says. “[South of Saturn] is a really cool option because I don’t want to just turn everyone away because the label is too big.”

More than maintaining his dedication to new artists, South of Saturn also allows Foss to explore different and exciting sounds of house and techno.

“I have more of an opportunity to put out songs that I might not be playing every set,” Foss says. “I feel like I can experiment more with South of Saturn. Let’s put it this way: Mars is considered potentially inhabitable, but Saturn is not. Saturn is a dissonant place that some consider evil. South of Saturn features a rawer sound. It’s less polished and a little more experimental.”

In terms of Foss’s workload, South of Saturn makes four labels he’s working on. He has his own production career, his work with Hot Natured (which is resurfacing), and his alt-dance group Pleasure State with Anabel Englund and MK that is set to produce the hundredth release for Repopulate Mars in April 2021.

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At any other time in Foss’s career, there would be a full touring schedule on top of those exploits, but in the COVID-era, Foss, being the workhorse that he is, diverted the time he had for events to his brand new production course under in the Repopulate Mars universe called Repopulate Workshop.

“[The Repopulate Workshop] has grown into something pretty comprehensive,” Foss says. “Not a lot of people get to learn from current artists at the top of their game like this.”

Being a part of Repopulate Mars means more than sharing a name. It means keeping things in the family, and Foss has welcomed some of his most reliable label cohorts to help him teach, including Latmun, Lee Curtiss, and Deeper Purpose.

The Repopulate Workshop runs eight weeks at a time and covers multiple aspects of modern music production and promotion. Coursework includes developing an original sound, writing vocals, refining mixdowns, and even creating strategies for getting music signed and heard.

“We’re giving away the goods,” Foss says. “We’ve been giving away our best techniques and making people better without worrying if everyone’s going to sound like us, which they won’t anyway. Give two people the same box of crayons and they’re not going to make the same drawing. That kind of faith in music is something that I have that’s unshakable.”

That unshakable faith has supported Foss all throughout quarantine. As he discusses the numerous tumults he’s had to overcome just like so many other people working in the arts, there is always a sense of gratitude and positivity.

This attitude, paired with Foss’s exemplary work ethic, has maintained the strength of Repopulate Mars in 2020, which added more than 20 releases to the catalog last year with another 19 on South of Saturn. Meanwhile, three releases have already landed in the first month of 2021 across the two imprints.

“Anytime you’re contributing to music, music tends to contribute back to you,” Foss says. “When you just sit back and expect things from music then nothing comes your way. I’ve found that the more I’m making music that makes people happy and giving transcendent experiences, then the better my life is.”

Foss isn’t simply contributing to music. He’s finding new ways to welcome those who feel alien to a universe where they can be themselves without inhibition. No matter where someone exists in the dance music orbit, Foss’s efforts with Repopulate Mars can guide them home.

Harry Levin is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles, find him on LinkedIn.

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