You sense Parasole knows better than most. Born in the late '70s and spending his youth near Coney Island, he caught the city at its most threadbare. "Growing up in the '80s and '90s—you know, if you lived in certain areas, you kind of had to claim a crew," he explains. "You'd probably either get beaten up, robbed, killed, whatever." A somewhat imposing presence—muscular frame, tattoos and a naturally serious expression that might lead you to assume he's bouncing the party, not headlining it—Parasole wouldn't seem to be bluffing. His formative years lined up with the tail end of a Wild West era for New York, one where mob intrigue had as palpable an effect on the city's grind as any legitimate municipal program. To hear Parasole tell it, an event like Gambino crime family boss Paul Castellano's 1985 asassination outside Sparks Steak House in Manhattan at the hands of John Gotti could change the course of the whole town. "Construction started blooming, because they ran everything. That was right before [Mayor David] Dinkins and all that stuff. New York became like the OK Corral."
You could practically skim the grime off the era's dance music, which Parasole encountered firsthand at the city's clubs and in record shops like the old Sonic Groove in Brooklyn. "House music wasn't this subtle, deep, beautiful music like what's coming out today," he says, imploring me to think hard about the way Masters At Work tracks and the Strictly Rhythm back catalog push air. "That stuff can easily be techno. Those lines are blurred, man."
Parasole found himself drawn in by this sound and spent much of his 20s and early 30s burrowing into the city's music scene. By the late '00s, he was as central to house and techno in New York as anyone: Parasole held down a buyer position at Brooklyn's Halcyon record shop, co-founded the Deconstruct label with his old friend Levon Vincent and helped curate the now-classic House-N-Home loft parties with The Bunker's Bryan Kasenic. He likes to tell a story about Marcel Dettmann coming through town in 2009 and staying at the loft he and Kasenic shared at the time. "He couldn't bring his records over. I had thousands of records, and I don't remember how it came up, but we're like, 'Hey, you wanna go through my records?' We spent like five, six hours, put together a fat stack of records, and he just destroyed The Bunker." Dettmann and Parasole have been close ever since.
But despite being the consummate insider, he hadn't yet made the sort of large-scale artistic statement that really defined him. As the last decade drew to a close, Parasole reached a crossroads: his professional and personal life had gotten out of whack, and he found himself distracted from music. "I bottomed out completely at a certain point," he says. "I made a vow to myself: let me do this. Let me put my best foot forward." Strangely enough, the project that would meld his music knowledge and street smarts came to him on a relatively mundane night during a mob movie marathon on TV. "I was watching Goodfellas or something like that, and I had this whole vision of old New York. The way everyone knows New York now is just super clean. It's, like, baby strollers, people walking their poodles, fancy Asian fusion restaurants. What I wanted to do was capture what New York used to be." The result was The Corner, a label whose name recalls the epicenter of the old New York hustle.
The music policy of the nascent label was sort of given: as Parasole puts it, "My voice is heard through a tougher sound," and his DJ sets have long backed up the sentiment. The aesthetic would be what set The Corner apart—not just from his previous endeavors, but from the raft of DJ-use-only white labels that appeared as the legend of Berghain spread. Where Deconstruct had kept packaging to an absolute minimum, The Corner would embrace it, and Parasole knew the man for the job—Ryan Ilano, a veteran of a Madison Avenue ad agency whose fascination with New York street culture was of a piece with Parasole's. He approached Ilano one night at the Bunker about the project, and Ilano agreed to take it on so long as Parasole gave him complete creative control over the visual end. "All or nothing," Ilano says. "I figured if he was going to ask me to collaborate after seeing me throw gutter imagery over everything I could get my hands on, it'd be worth the risk."
This arrangement has spawned some of the most striking record sleeves in recent memory. The Corner's debut, a split release featuring cutting hip-hop from Nor'Easter and DJ Qu's deft anthem "Times Like These," featured a grainy facsimile of Frank Sinatra's infamous 1938 mugshot (his crime: "carrying on with a married woman"). The next two releases would be grizzlier still: Anthony Parasole & Phil Moffa's Atlantic Ave used an actual crime scene snap from Castellano's assassination, and Shawn O'Sullivan & Civic Duty's Security featured a couple of wasted gangsters at the bottom of an elevator shaft. "I remember telling [Parasole] I felt sick about putting a bunch of dead bodies on the cover," Ilano explains. "I felt sick about it in a good way." But the bleak, strictly black-and-white cover art is offset by colorful and sardonically humorous imagery elsewhere in the packaging. Flip Atlantic Ave over, for example, and you'll see a stylized photo of a subway car drifting off to sea (an all-too-real image in a post-Hurricane Sandy New York) captioned "LAST STOP!" Look closely at the label for Security, and you may notice the track titles are printed over a Google Maps satellite image of New York's Rikers Island prison.
Parasole's signature toughness ties the label together musically, but so does the level of care he puts into its transmission. It's part of why The Corner doesn't solicit demos or commissions. As Parasole puts it, "I haven't put out a record by somebody I haven't sat down and eaten dinner with. If I don't have that relationship with somebody, it's not gonna happen." In production partner Phil Moffa (who contributes reviews to RA's tech section), Parasole has a pair of engineer's ears to help attend to the sonic intricacies of the tracks that make the cut. And he's convinced he's found America's best dance-floor mastering engineer in Dietrich Schoenemann.
Parasole picks and chooses exactly who he wants involved in each aspect of the manufacturing process, which has given him a window into the difficulties of manufacturing vinyl in the States these days. "All the plants are using the same guy [for plating]," he explains. "So let's say Record Store Day is happening. Now you have all these extra records that are trying to be pushed out for the same date. One guy, doing all the metal plating. And he's also a jeweler, so he's plating, like, somebody's chain that's being sold on Canal Street. I'm not even kidding." He says manufacturing delays played a role in The Corner's long germination process, and the threat of them is part of why he's scheduling releases so far in advance. He has more of his own music set to press, plus tracks from Fred P and Dettmann.
If just one or two more specialists would jump into the vinyl game in America, Parasole muses, it would make a load of difference, given how small-scale the industry is at this point. "Between indie rock, hip-hop, underground hip-hop, underground house, underground techno, there's so much music coming out of American pressing plants," he notes, and you have to wonder how much more there'd be with a better infrastructure in place. That Parasole keeps pushing through is a testament to his passion for the project, and arguably an outgrowth of the rough-and-tumble era that inspired it. Struggle can bring out the best in people; The Corner is a case in point.