Whenever brick-and-mortar record shops resemble endangered, tusk-less elephants displayed in zoo cages for hipsters and mourners to feed handfuls of peanuts to every National Record Store Day, and whenever indie labels seem to be nothing more than cute names attached to stolen downloads, Honest Jon's is there to smack one upside the head. For nearly a decade, the record shop on West London's Portobello Road and its record label led by Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn have unearthed criminally unheard music from across Africa, the Middle East, and their fair city's own post-war immigrant history. This year was no exception. South African electro-funk caught many Western ears when Honest Jon's released the groundbreaking Shangaan Electro compilation this past summer. The Shangaan vibe takes no cues from Planet Rock but rather twitches about to simple, sped-up MIDI synth beats that drive caffeinated vocals as best heard on Zinja Hlungwani's "N'wagezani My Love." The label's embrace of the vintage and the futuristic shined bright when Berliner Torsten Profrock (a.k.a. T++) had samples of 1930s East African singer Ssekinomu's vocals haunt distorted, night-stalking techno breakbeats on his Wireless record. If fourth-world music indeed exists, Honest Jon's wrote the book on it.
Zinja Hlungwani - "N'wagezani My Love"
"I think [Honest Jon's] is one of the most interesting labels," says Moritz Von Oswald, co-founder of iconic Berlin dub-techno imprints Basic Channel and Rhythm & Sound. "[They're] supporting something that's not supported at all." Von Oswald connected with the label through his friend and Honest Jon's co-founder Mark Ainley, and earlier this year, the imprint released an EP and a live album by Oswald's abstract dub project, the Moritz Von Oswald Trio (featuring Vladislav Delay and Sun Electric's Max Loderbauer). On the Vertical Ascent EP, the trio builds headphone dub for 1 a.m. strolls through streets fogged by steaming gutters where clanging metal percussion hits and swooning, gaseous synth drones all thicken the air. House and techno legends François Kevorkian and Carl Craig later mixed the Trio's improvised jams into fine bloodstream flows for Live In New York. "What [Honest Jon's] does for different people regarding music, I think, is amazing and admirable," he reflects.
Moritz Von Oswald Trio - "Pattern 1"
Such thoughts about how the label covers "different people" brings to mind a peculiar record that Honest Jon's released this year between reissues of early 20th century Turkish folk and '50s Latin-Congolese pop. Darren "Actress" Cunningham unleashed Splazsh, a welcome throwback to post-techno's glory days in the early '00s when artists threw ideas, breakbeats, and sampled vocals against walls and Scotch-taped their shattered pieces into grooves both genuinely psychedelic and freakish. Tracks like "Always Human" and "Senorita" are vintage micro-house while Cunningham indulges in grimy, hungover 8-bit funk on "Maze" and "Bubble Butts and Equations." Yet, in the Honest Jon's universe, such sounds still make comfy connections with the generational traditions and third-world grace in the label's catalog. Cunningham kept his words simple for Honest Jon's: "Good people with a strong passion for challenging music with a heart placed in the community."
Actress - "Hubble"
Maria Topley Bird's Some Place Simple is Honest Jon's newest LP release.