by Big Flowers
A Cross Sectional Lens on POW Recordings
To exist within the peak of the modern music industry implies proximity to gears. These gears crunch onwards, squeezing the nectar of creativity out into a concentrate to be bottled and sold by the second hand. This unforgiving cycle prioritizes marketability, trendiness, willingness to be commodified and compartmentalized. In many cases this will provide the humble, independent, working artist with crumbs. To make it through all the corporatized noise in that arena, it takes a quantum blade: one wielded with finesse, experience and honor. The swordsman in the formidable mist of the industry, shrouded by virtue of his own profession, is Jeff Weiss. Two hands on the handle, Weiss commits to slicing through every layer of convention layered in the handbook of running a contemporary record label. After speaking with Jeff for an hour or so, I’ve come to understand as much as I can hope to about what makes POW tick.
Opposing the clockwork, POW Recordings is a home for the jagged, timeless rubies like Fatboi Sharif, Chester Watson, Archibald Slim and so many others. What you can not expect in thumbing through the POW discography is sonic coherence, more of a belligerent jettison from one sonic element to another. Archibald Slim continues to pioneer what his colleagues in Atlanta began with the enigmatic sound of Awful Records. Rhys Langston acts as contortionist, bending and flexing amongst the spectrum of punk and poetry. Gabe ‘Nandez champions guerilla tactics and disrupts conventional understanding with lavish lyricism and spurred footprints. Weiss and I agreed, there is nothing all too similar between these artists other than their unwillingness to compromise: they are not here to be sold; they are here to be heard. The umbrella, which sheathes the aforementioned sword, and houses all of these performances, flourishes out to spell Passion Of Weiss, handle held by the very same name. With passion as the glue, Weiss collages his fandoms, curating a coagulate combination of powerhouses in their own left fields. Of course, when speaking about glue, paper is also in question.
In contemporary conversations, paper is almost ubiquitously understood as money: the “universal” motivator. As you could imagine, here again, Weiss turned from the convention during our conversation. When I asked him about the numbers, Weiss plainly and unfazed stated that he couldn’t pay his rent with POW profits, and though that would be nice, it’s not the ultimatum. To me, therein lies the grooves of the blade, in his honesty, pairing well with the contemplated cadence of his voice, which can’t be textually reconfigured. It was evident from the way Weiss spoke about finances (quickly, briefly and with certainty) that money is not the motivator in his operation. When other label executives have one hand clutching the pennies collected, the other typing out a PR statement, Weiss uses both to break his bread with those that surround him at the table. The impression left with me was not one of equality: before ensuring basic sustenance for himself, Weiss seems to ensure there is abundance available, to whatever capacity he can provide, for those who have entrusted him with their name. In a dissent to the culture of leaving crumbs, POW is a bakery, providing loaves of the most esoteric breads imaginable, and to cut that product, one must “stay serrated” – Weiss, ca.2021.
As unwilling to compromise as the artists he promotes, Weiss spearheads the operation with love, and true admiration. When speaking on his history with Chester Watson, I didn’t need to see the sparkle in Weiss’s eyes, I could hear it through the wire. It was evident that Weiss was a fan first, recalling his fervent laps between friends showing off the Fatboi Sharif Smithsonian video, asking rhetorically how the brilliant oddity that birthed Gandhi Loves Children was so sorely under-recognized. Even through patchy cell service, I could hear that he was still excited about these releases, nothing had lost its edge with him. Weiss will never not be a fan of good music, that much is evident from his perennially maturing and fermenting journalistic career. POW will never not be a home for good music, that much shines through their continued march through the halls of the norm, naked and unafraid, showing the scars that brought them here.
Though POW recordings isn’t here for the starry-eyed investors, Weiss still seeks to push his colleagues to the surface, and proudly wears that on his sleeve. By all means, there is a difference between signing an artist because of their proclivity for sales, and signing an artist for their raw potential, which could be recognized with regalia. Weiss clarified this dichotomy very early in our conversation, and the following 45 minutes or so had the potential to bury that point, but to me it stuck out as one of the most important. By this framework, there is no formula for a POW member, it takes being so intimately yourself that it’s palpable, and sharply so. Vince Ash is a perfect example of this, and my choice to illustrate this extended point about the monetary facet of being a label. During his time with POW, Ash released a magnum opus of the inner-city experience delivered over the skeletons from the closet of Midwest, sidewalk stationed hip-hop [VITO, 2020]. Weiss spoke to the point of near labor about his admiration for Ash, and the time they spent working together. It’s evident to Weiss that nothing is guaranteed, and he utters with losslessness about seeing Vince to the next stage of his ever-building career. VITO’s Deluxe Edition was released almost a year later on Goliath, an imprint of Interscope, a label which undoubtedly (at this point) has more financial weight than POW. Herein lies the humility and humanity of Weiss. When faced with the potential departure of one of his colleagues, he fails to lament, but helps Ash pack his bags, and blissfully reminisces the career they have shared. With no brevity, Weiss celebrated everything he witnessed Vince accomplish, and sowed hope and best wishes into Vince’s future post-POW. Weiss wants to see the artists he believes in succeed, and just as anyone who has ever loved has known: if you truly do love something, you must let it go. Weiss does not prioritize his career, he prioritizes the idea of careerism, and how his wheelhouse can provide fuel for the career of others he sees serration in.
In digesting the full release history of POW Recordings, it is beyond impressive to witness the curation kept from the very beginning. There is no trace of pandering, there is no least common denominator, each and every artist from Ness Nite to Kent Loon is an impossible number, paradoxically unique. This paired with the reminder that there are roughly 40,000 songs being added to streaming services daily, it comes as a marvel that this label has remained so potent, never cutting a corner, but maintaining those who reside in theirs, and have been dedicated to a collective growth. To achieve this discretion, Weiss must remain himself as well, just as unique and expressive in his craft (and, as he mentioned, he has to listen to a lot of music). In the example of POW, Weiss’s craft is the hunt for the most ballistic sonic projectiles possible, those you can only find in the deep network, dealt out of back alleys and shady situations. As no stranger to the underbelly, I can attest that ain’t shit cute involved in that world. You can not operate in these spaces with soft skin, lest you want to find yourself littering clickbait. By this measure, there’s no room for baby steps, there’s no room for taking things easy, there’s no room for pay-to-play stratagem. Either you’re in or you’re not, either you’re sharp or you’re dull, and there’s no room for butter in the toolshed. In his dealings, Weiss understands that not every decision he’s made will be universally accepted, but in his own words, he’d “rather be an asshole than a sellout.” I’d argue he’s universally far from either.
A friend, a fan, a brother, and a leader, Jeff Weiss takes his platform as the Professor X of modern label culture, creating a haven for the exceptionally gifted, and often misunderstood. A less fortified observer would consider the heroes to be mutants, but Weiss recognizes X-Men when they are piercing through the picture. Only ever assuming his stage to share it with those he understands as being truly and uniquely special, Weiss sets the standard for what it takes to be a label, as a counter to being a brand. Brand deals get you McDonalds meals, passion gets you Weiss. If the iridescent colonial lighting of corporate music industry tactic doesn’t sit right with you, stay serrated, and do what you can to have a home with POW.