Label of the Month: Nervous Records
Label of the Month: Nervous RecordsSeptember 6, 2021
It was one of those miracles of deep house osmosis, a marvel of rave telepathy. If you partied in the pre-Internet ’90s, you somehow knew the Nervous logo, wore the Nervous logo, sent a mail-order check off to some mystery address for absolutely anything with the Nervous logo on it. That includes underwear — which fortunately, in keeping with the dance floor style of the time, could be worn outside your clothes for all to see.
Even before many dance music fans knew what the label’s releases themselves sounded like, that iconic Nervous Records mascot — a perspiring oddball straight out of vintage Krazy Kat comics with a 12-inch record buzz-sawing through his high-top fade, gritting his teeth from the musical close shave — was everywhere. The visual zap instantly encapsulated the club zeitgeist, which melded cartoon humor and outlandish branding with the underground Black and Latin styles that were dominating dance music.
It’s a good thing, then, that the music Nervous was putting out far surpassed that initial streetwear hype. Since launching in 1991, the label has built a 30-year legacy of essential releases, bottling the sizzling energy coming directly off the late-night sidewalks and dance floors of its New York City home. Juxtaposed to its jittery logo, hundreds of Nervous tracks from a family of producers including Louie Vega, Kenny Dope, Frankie Knuckles, Mood II Swing, Kerri Chandler, and Todd Edwards have been as deep and smooth as the trademark butter-yellow color of the label’s stickers.
Nervous also blazed a unique trail by incorporating styles beyond the soulful, sample-heavy house of its early years. Josh Wink‘s wiggy rave classic “Don’t Laugh,” Mad Lion‘s reggae breakthrough album Real Ting, and Smif-N-Wessun‘s East Coast rap highlight Dah Shinin’ all found homes on its multi-faceted roster, alongside dance floor standards “The Nervous Track” by Nuyorican Soul, “Nite Life” by Kim English, Loni Clark’s “Rushing,” and the label’s first big seller, Sandy B’s 1992 “Feel Like Singing.”
“Nervous Records reps hard for New York City, in the sense that NYC is a melting pot of people and musical styles,” Louie Vega says over email. “We were all brought up to appreciate good music, not just one style of music. We hung out at clubs like the Paradise Garage, Zanzibar, The Red Zone, The Shelter, The Sound Factory Bar, and the Underground Network. It was an obvious future that Nervous would come to represent hip hop, house, tech house, techno, and Latin rhythms, and grow global with all the new house producers and DJs worldwide.”
Vega credits Nervous founder Michael Weiss for the label’s longevity and sustained quality. “Mike is driven, he’s a DJ, and he lives for music and nightlife. When he believes in something he puts in 100 percent. Even during these dark times, Mike and his staff have worked hard and found ways to be creative, putting together special events, manufacturing some fiyaaah merchandise, and releasing up to six singles a week — consistently! They live and breathe this.”
With his Long Island accent, wiry energy, and encyclopedic knowledge of music, Weiss still projects some of the kinetic aura that caused radio DJ Chuck Chillout to nickname him Captain Nervous, christening the future label. “I worked in hip hop when I first started,” Weiss tells me over the phone. “I was pushing tracks to radio stations and clubs. I had a different background than a lot of people: I was a law student, I had gone to college and passed the bar exam. In law, you’re rewarded for being bold and aggressive. You want that in the courtroom. So I brought that energy to promoting music. I would show up and probably be a bit more insistent than what was usual. But New York is too cool, it’s not like that at all,” he says with a laugh. “I think it took some people a minute to adjust to me.”
Photo: Mike Weiss (by Keith Major)
Photo: Louie Vega
Weiss wasn’t totally unfamiliar with the business when he started hustling tunes. His father, Sam Weiss, a mover and shaker in the industry going back to the 1950s, founded prolific disco label SAM Records in 1976 and released singles well into the 1980s, when the genre had been driven back underground by a racist and homophobic backlash. “I was given a mandate not to go into the music business because my family knew how crazy it was, what my father had gone through,” Weiss says. “So I went off to Stanford. But that meant that when I came home, I was a hungry young person diving into the New York nightlife scene at one of its peaks. And it was a very, very fun time to be there.”
This was the late ’80s, a liberating moment when hip hop and house were ascendent (and not yet fully commercialized), but freestyle, electro-funk, Latin, and mixed-genre “progressive” club music were still dance floor staples. Techno was peeking around at the edges. “I right away got active in nightlife, I couldn’t get enough,” Weiss says. “For a lot of people, going out to drink and dance and see other people is how they have fun. But my natural instinct was to immediately meet the DJ and see what they were playing. I had this need to elevate the music in some way. Back then, radio stations were much more conducive to playing club music. I wanted to get these records on the air.”
At first Weiss reactivated SAM Records with his father’s blessing. He found, however, that it was an uphill battle trying to balance the label’s storied image with the newer artists, especially rappers, that he was trying to sign and promote. It took a real-talk moment with legendary WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker to see the light. “I took him some of my records, and right away he looked me in the eye and asked, ‘Michael, why are you doing SAM Records? You’re not your father. You need to create an identity for yourself.’ It was an incredibly positive moment.”
Thus Nervous Records was born, at an apex for both underground dance music and independent labels. With his father’s knowledgeable support and the help of A&R powerhouse Gladys Pizarro, who helped recruit some of the bigger house music names to the label, Nervous soon established itself as a top player alongside fellow labels Strictly Rhythm, Nu Groove, and Fourth Floor. Among the things that set Nervous apart, however, was Weiss’s love of hip hop and his legal savvy.
“House music and hip hop were coming from a lot of the same places at the time,” Weiss says. “Producers were using the same studios, and sharing a lot of the same samples. There was a New York sound that developed that encompassed everything. Detroit had techno, Chicago had house, and the UK got really into acid. But you knew that if you were hearing a Loleatta Holloway sample or a certain Latin jazz loop, you were hearing a New York record. The artists we worked with, across all genres, coming from every corner of the city, were defining this New York sound in real time, it was really exciting to be a part of that.
“The other thing that was happening was on the business end. Near the beginning, I realized that most of the money to be made from the label was in licensing, and that’s where my legal background came in. I made sure I legally cleared every single sample we used, so I could license this music out for things like broadcasting and distribution. It was a lot cheaper back then! But the innocent time for sampling was coming to an end. Labels were getting sued and going under. We were able to grow because we didn’t have that trouble.”
Weiss laughs when I bring up the Nervous logo streetwear phenomenon. Was that part of a guerrilla marketing masterplan? “I made the logo as a pure joke,’ he says about the image he commissioned from artist Marc Cozza in 1991, with the idea of creating a tongue-in-cheek “DJ superhero.” “Before we even officially adopted it, I used it in a fax — a fax! — on some document, and this merchandising guy in the UK suddenly called to ask if he could license it. Somehow he had seen it, I didn’t know if he had ever heard the records.
“Then I started seeing the t-shirts popping up, and people told me, ‘You’ve got to come over to the UK, your logo is huge.’ I didn’t really believe it, so I went over there. This was when the festival scene was massive. So many people were wearing that logo. I walked into Ministry of Sound and there was the logo on an enormous flag covering one entire wall of the club. That’s when I knew this had really gone international.”
Soon, Nervous was blowing up faster than Weiss could have imagined. He was fielding calls from Rick Rubin of Def Jam about collaborating. Nervous was in talks with MTV to produce a DJ-based cartoon series along the lines of “Beavis and Butthead.” The label continued to attract house giants like Junior Vasquez, Armand Van Helden, David Morales, and Paul Van Dyk. And Nervous events and parties were becoming another valuable source of promotion and income.
Louie Vega recalled the infamous annual after-afterhours parties that Nervous threw in the late ’90s and early ’00s at a Miami Denny’s restaurant during the Winter Music Conference. “DJs were playing sets early in the morning in the restaurant, as we all walked in from long industry club nights. Imagine a queue outside of the breakfast spot that many would go to after clubs. It was unheard of, but Mike and the Nervous family pulled it off. And I remember parties at Macy’s — they had Masters At Work playing music at one of the USA’s prime department stores. Only Nervous Records!”
Nervous continued to put out anthems as the 21st century dawned, expanding into tribal house territory with sweat-drenched, big-room staples like “Dive In The Pool” by Barry Harris featuring Pepper Meshay, “Skin” by Charlotte, and “Unspeakable Joy” by longtime label muse Kim English. Nu disco and indie dance sounds started appearing on Nervous releases — in 2011, the label won an International Dance Music Award for “Just Let Me Dance (Maxxi Soundsystem Remix)” by Scandal. And in an ouroboros of house music history, the label’s own releases began to be sampled by artists it once might have sampled itself, like Mariah Carey and George Michael.
Photo: Line outside of Nervous Records Denny’s After Hours
Photo: DJ Disciple at the Nervous Records Denny’s After Hours
Photo: Deep Dish at the Nervous Records Denny’s After Hours
Photo: Rauhofer and Kevin Williams at the Nervous Records Denny’s After Hours
Which leads to the million-dollar question about one of the longest-running independent labels in the country: What’s the secret to staying successful? “There’s no real ‘secret sauce’ to that,” Weiss says, “other than we’ve built such deep relationships with our artists that we can continue to work with them for decades, through different eras and formats. I trust my team so much, they know the kind of quality that comes with the Nervous legacy. And we’ve continued to keep up with technology and generational changes. We know attention spans are different these days, so we put out multiple releases a week.
“But it’s really about loving the music and investing in your artists,” Weiss continued. “Working with someone like Louie Vega over the years, who uses live musicians even in the age of computers — he knows the importance of a personal touch with this music, it’s what makes people connect with his sound so deeply. Or someone like Josh Wink, who continues to define techno, and who got his start on our label. That’s an enormous gift.”
And what keeps Weiss himself going after all these years? “Well, we’re still throwing events at clubs until 7am as much as we can. That kind of direct contact with our audience is the essence of Nervous. And I stay to the end. It’s not easy, we’ve all got kids and houses now. But I have to say I still love it. God willing, the label and I will keep going for another 30 years, as long as I keep getting that joy.”
Marke B. is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter.