I'm sitting at Charles Damga's kitchen table in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with an epic spread of vegetarian takeout Chinese food between us and the J train rattling on elevated tracks just outside his apartment. I'm trying to figure out exactly what he calls himself in his capacity as the force behind UNO, which he runs out of a nook adjacent to his living room. The simple answer is that UNO is a record label, and that Damga is, like most label heads in dance music, UNO's chief executive, operations manager and head of A&R. He puts out 12-inches, cultivates a stable of regular contributors and throws parties in New York's smartest zip codes. But hearing Damga describe his approach to all of the above, the usual definition of "label head" doesn't seem sufficient.
Tall and rail-thin, with a laid-back demeanor that belies a pinch of mania, he's the sort of guy who will play you ten seconds of every song in his iTunes library and quickly lose the thread of whatever you sat down to hear in the first place. He carries himself as wise beyond his 24 years in more ways than one: he's been adding a decade to his age on Facebook for years "because it made everything a lot easier." He's almost compulsively unable to turn down projects, so while he spends his days on staff in Warp's New York office, he juggles UNO with booking, promoting, planning and consulting for some untold number of endeavors.
Though he was utterly present on the evening I spent with him, I wondered if Damga had somehow duplicated himself and sent copies to a handful of other engagements, such is his workload. But don't confuse his ambition—or undeniable passion—for executing some meticulously laid-out plan: "doing things wrong" is without question Damga's preferred modus operandi, and UNO is his chance to push things further than is generally advisable.
It's something he felt wasn't nearly common enough at labels like DFA and Rong Music, where he interned during summers home from McGill University in the late '00s. DFA would hardly flinch at putting out far-out music from Black Dice when the opportunity presented itself, a fact Damga relished. But for every curveball they'd throw, "the next week, they'll put out Walter Jones or someone," Damga explained. "Amazing music, don't get me wrong, but everything that's wrong with Black Dice is right about Walter Jones." Damga pictured a label where every release was a mindboggling left turn. "You can put out an R&B album a week after you put out a techno album, and ideally people born of our generation won't [get hung up] on that."
When it launched in 2011, though, UNO didn't appear overly different from the bumper crop of house-bass labels that were gaining steam. After a single from his former roommate, Eddie Mars, UNO took on tracks from up-and-comers Jacques Greene and CFCF. The tunes Damga had his ears on turned out to be the ones established labels had no interest in. CFCF had sent what made it onto UNO's third release, Cometrue, to DFA, and Damga was quick to jump when his mentors passed. That no one else wanted them was part of the appeal, and I asked Damga if his early signings were giving music a chance that might not get one otherwise. "Not in the sense of, like, if it was a bigger hit I would be happy," he clarified. "Just a matter of, give it a chance to exist in the world."
A change was evident in Mean Machine, a package of three Marcus Mixx-esque workouts from Chicago's The Twilite Tone. "He'd done a record with Wurst and all these weird New York [labels] every five years. I was like, 'Dude, what are you doing?' 'I'm Common's tour DJ. I don't really like the records I'm putting out.' I was like, 'Let's do it. Let's figure it out.'" That the record was a commercial flop was completely beside the point: Damga had found a "beautiful human being" as willing to go out on a limb as he was. He found another in Fatima Al Qadiri, a multidisciplinary artist whose Genre-Specific Xperience was as much a visual art project as it was an experimental electronic EP.
These records marked the beginning of what UNO is today. Rather than sign tracks that fit some overriding stylistic identity—or artists who would quickly move onto bigger stages—Damga started recruiting artists with as weird a sensibility as his to follow their passion. The day you sign on, your first release is given a catalog number (which explains why they're non-sequential), and then you're set free to do whatever you want, musically and aesthetically. Where most artists play the game for awhile before giving themselves over completely to their creativity, UNO signees can jump into that stage pretty much immediately—so long as they're willing to work hard at it. ("I'm not going to put in 110 percent on somebody who wants to put in 20," he says.)
UNO releases the results, and Damga acts as a manager and lends an ear in the way an old school record producer might. The result was a strikingly discordant run of releases last year: Gobby's ear-shattering technoid experiments on the New Hat EP rubbed shoulders with mangled bass on Arca's Stretch series, a mixtape of transgender hip-hop from Mykki Blanco and an EP of dreamy house loops from SFV Acid. Damga still pitches UNO as dance music-centric, but only because, as he puts it, "If you're doing something weird, and it happens to be able to dance to, or sounds electronic, chances are there are some people out there that would listen to it." Regardless, you're not likely to hear much of it in a nightclub.
He felt similarly drawn to the LA-based SFV Acid (AKA Zane Reynolds), an Ariel Pink acolyte and former 100% Silk signee Damga met through his good friend and label affiliate Physical Therapy. Impressed with his mixtapes and a unique DJ performance that involved him "playing his MPC and all this fucked up shit," Damga hounded him for a release and promised him complete creative control. Gobby and SFV Acid will release UNO's first official full-lengths this year, anchoring a schedule that should include "a cyborg R&B project" and a Gobby vocal collaboration he describes as "filthily pop."
Going forward, Damga hopes to keep the label's identity as fluid, far-reaching and idiosyncratic as possible, and not just in terms of his roster. "Why can't UNO be a sticker company," he wonders, "or why can't it be a CD company when there is no money in CDs, or why can't UNO be an R&B label as well as a hip-hop label or as well as a dance label?" (He says he finds his inspiration in an artist like Mykki Blanco, whose whole project is rooted in contradiction and shifting identity.) In the same way he occasionally has to help his artists find clarity, does he sometimes rein himself in or say no to his craziest convictions about what he should be doing? "Sometimes I just run out of money," he says. "There's no favors." But as long as Damga is liquid, UNO will keep moving in whatever strange direction it happens to be headed. "Why would I spend my money or mind on anything other than how to revive a sound that doesn't exist in the world?"
Download: RA Label of the Month 1302 Mix: UNO
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Filesize: 168 MB
01. Gobby - Red Seal - UNO
02. Fatima Al Qadiri - D-Medley (Dutch E Germ Remix) - UNO
03. Kallisti - Escaping Mad Dog, Texas - NORELATION
04. Kuhrye-oo - New Untitled - UNO
05. Physical Therapy - David (Demo) - NORELATION
06. Mykki Blanco - Feeling Special (Demo) - UNO
07. Arca - Maiden Voyage - UNO
08. Gobby - Immortality1 beat - UNO
09. Ian Isiah - Mindfuck - UNO
10. LOL Boys - Homesick (Demo) - Unreleased
11. The Twilite Tone - BOY! - UNO
12. Name in Lights - Touch The Sky (Eddie Mars Remix) - Under The Shade
13. Don Froth - Untitled B - UNO
14. Jacques Greene - What Are You Feelin - UNO
15. Yan Wagner - Turmoil - UNO
16. Guilty - Untitled (Vertical) - NORELATION
17. Rone - Bye Bye Macadam (Aquarian Remix) - Infine
18. Gobby - COPS - UNO
19. Blue Angels - View From - Unreleased
20. SFV Acid - Kludes - UNO
21. SFV Acid - PT Sex - UNO
22. Fatima Al Qadiri - How Can I Resist U (Girl Unit Remix) - UNO
23. Physical Therapy - Boychild Blend (Demo) - NORELATION
24. LOL Boys - Moments In Heartbreak - NORELATION
25. Kuhrye-oo - Give In (For The Fame) (Boody & Le1f Remix) - UNO
26. Seth - Don't Open Your Make Finish - UNO
27. Every - Haarp - Ounce Ltd
28. Rum - R.I.P - Unreleased
29. CFCF - Looking So - UNO