Andrew Morgan has channeled his love of private-press synthesizer funk into a bustling label and mail order business. Matt McDermott speaks to the outsider soul expert at PPU headquarters in Washington, DC.
The basement is on a handsome block off 16th Street NW in DC, in a stone house where Morgan lives with his family. This is HQ for both Peoples Potential Unlimited and Earcave, an online store distributing titles from labels like Future Times, Mood Hut and Invisible City while selling used boogie, funk, house and private press vinyl that he and full-time employee Ari Goldman (of Beautiful Swimmers) dig up. "We met because I bought a record off eBay and my cheap ass wanted to come over and save on shipping," Goldman says. His dog, Stevie Licks, pokes around stacks of vinyl while we talk. After years spent together, Morgan and Goldman have grown so close that they occasionally finish each other's sentences.
"I was selling records on eBay in '98," Morgan says. "I was selling jazz and crap, anything I could find at the thrift store that looked unique. I used to sell Salsoul and stuff like that for so much money."
"I was buying records and didn't really know the value of stuff," Goldman says. "I got so much money from what I brought over that first week that I was like, 'We have to keep this going!'"
"Back then we were talking about how it would be so cool if we had a store where we got all the imports, like Clone or something," Morgan says. "There was nothing like that in the US, and then it just started happening—we'd buy one or two things, and now I think we're probably one of the better sources. Since we have PPU they give us priority. Honest Jon's gave us this Sotofett record that wasn't even out. We're all taking care of each other."
Morgan's ability to identify and source incredibly obscure black music is now the stuff of legend. The label got started in the mid-'00s, just as early '80s boogie funk was having a renaissance among record collectors, a wave that brought the Los Angeles musician Dâm-Funk, resident at the weekly boogie party Funkmosphere, to underground popularity. Before he started PPU, Morgan was running Earcave, selling rare records on eBay and trading with serious collectors like Dâm-Funk as well as the Funkmosphere regular Tom Noble, both of whom would eventually release music on PPU.
"I used to have a record label called Lotus Land that was a reissue label," Noble says. "We were spearheading the interest in modern soul and disco before people really gave a shit. Andrew Morgan was basically the guy who appeared out of nowhere and was buying tons of every single record we had. We used to joke that he was the only person who was making money off our label."
Noble, who now lives in New York and runs the excellent Superior Elevation shop and label, was living in Los Angeles at the time. "I didn't really know anybody," he says. "Andrew started calling me and eventually said, 'Man, I really want to start my own label. I like what you guys are doing, I could do it too, just with the stuff I'm more interested in.' He wanted to go more boogie, and I was more interested in disco." Noble, who had managed to work with rare soul groups like Darwin's Theory, sent over a sample reissue contract, shared tips on finding artists, named the label and even drew the iconic PPU logo.
"The PPU sound is unpolished, raw, black independent music," Noble says. "To say it's funk, or boogie or disco, sure it's there, but his whole sound is demo mode—the dawn of the age of black people starting to utilize electronic equipment to make funk in home studios. When I was reissuing records I didn't want to hear their Casio keyboard horn symphony stuff that they wrote on topical matters and cut straight to CD-R, CD Baby, whatever, but Andrew loved that shit."
In the basement, we're listening to a private press record by Rick Stone, a gloriously incompetent new wave album that Morgan bought from an online shop that exclusively sells records with ridiculous art. He gets out a cardboard box full of cassettes with handwritten labels sent by a Berkeley-based musician and collector named Jason Darrah. "These were demo tapes sent to an A&R guy in the '80s," he says while loading an unmarked tape. "I've been working on trying to find this dude." A bizarre drum machine groove kicks in, accompanied by maniacal laughter.
Through his deep interest in music created on the margins of a mainstream funk movement led by Prince and Zapp & Roger, Morgan has developed close relationships with a colorful cast of characters who hoped to make it big but never did. In 2011, he reissued a jaw-dropping cut from a former boxer, Kurtis Scott, called "If You Feel It (Get Up And Dance)." The long sold-out 7-inch came with a booklet of Scott's poetry, which tackled subjects like homeless shelters, phone cards and doctor's visits.
Morgan also worked closely with the blind, recently deceased DC artist George Smallwood. He would visit Smallwood at home, only to get caught up in impromptu three-hour performances. (You can get a feel for this in a brilliant and awkward public access TV performance.) In 2008, Morgan reissued the now classic boogie cut "Danger Zone" by Midnight Express. He continues to put out new music from Midnight Express bandleader Robbie M, and Morgan plays me some new tracks he's sent over. A snappy number begins with a shout-out to Morgan: "Hey Andrew, I'm going down to the club for a DJ set—they say that Dâm-Funk is blowin' it up!"
Some of the most impenetrable music PPU has released comes from the immediate DC area, a testament to Morgan's handle on local record stores, thrift shops and flea markets. This lot includes the unclassifiable lo-fi artist The Trash Company as well as Mix-O-Rap, whose 2014 track "Mind Game" sounds like a blown-out Chris & Cosey production. Mix-O-Rap recorded the DMR full-length, a highly experimental mix of old-school rap and go-go released on PPU in 2014, while he was in prison. "He went into a prison library and used a beat app or whatever he could use, and then he bought a digital recorder online that they let him keep in his cell," Morgan says. "He said he rapped with a blanket over his head because he wanted it to sound like he was trapped."
"You were able to buy him a Jeep at some point, right? Legowelt asked for all of his money [from his 12-inch Los Alamos Motel] to go towards Mix-O-Rap's Jeep," Goldman says. "Mix-O-Rap is Danny [Wolfers]'s favorite artist ever." Morgan confirms that the money from Legowelt's EP for the label, as well as Mix-O-Rap's 2015 12-inch, For Thugz, helped the artist acquire a Jeep he had his eye on.
The obscurity of these releases fuels record nerd obsession as well as speculation. One time, Goldman recalls, an employee at a major European store and distribution hub asked if Mix-O-Rap was simply an alias for Andrew Morgan's own music, a rumor that may have been stoked by the PPU founder's aversion to the spotlight. He is rarely interviewed and never photographed, and he turns down hundreds of offers to DJ. "I like doing stuff here," Morgan says. "I like creating the online fantasy. For me this is enough work. I don't see the connection between me
playing records and running a label."
When Red Bull Music Academy asked Morgan to tour Australia, he linked them with two younger artists on the label, Benedek and Moon B, instead. Benedek, a multi-instrumentalist who released an untitled full-length of Balearic-tinged funk on the label in 2013, and Moon B, an analog synth obsessive, are among the handful of contemporary artists who have released on PPU. Many of them, such as Pender Street Steppers, are avid record collectors who were already Earcave regulars. PPU handled the first release from Pender Street Steppers, who established a connection to DC through Goldman's Beautiful Swimmers copilot Andrew Field-Pickering (AKA Max D), an early supporter of the ascendant Vancouver collective. "They've never asked for money," Morgan says. "We just trade records. So we send them vinyl, and they'll get huge orders."
Noble attributes PPU's reach beyond boogie obsessives to Morgan's distinctive tastes and a trend towards rawness in stateside dance music. "He was really a champion of the lo-fi sound," Noble says. "With labels like Future Times and L.I.E.S., distorted lo-fi electronic stuff got popular in the underground, and then those two scenes mashed together on accident. I've always admired that PPU is one of the only funk-oriented labels that's present in most electronic DJs' collections."
Morgan is often unable to locate DATs or clean master recordings, so he's become an expert at tidying up cassette recordings for rerelease. Of course, tape hiss comes with the territory. "This is the master," Morgan says while playing a grainy Dwight Sykes track. "What am I supposed to do? But it's good! People listen to Ariel Pink and it's put through a million processes to sound degraded," Goldman laughs. "There are so many modern house producers who would love their shit to sound this fucked."
The PPU aesthetic sometimes rubs off on the label's older artists. "They get on the website and they're like, 'Oh I get it, let me see what I can cook up for this guy, I got some new tracks." PPU's most recent release comes from Maryn E. Coote, a famous Estonian singer whose catalogue dates back to the '60s. Coote's son and frequent collaborator, Uku Kuut, has also been the subject of an extensive PPU reissue campaign. Proceeds from the new record by Maryn, a remarkably current album of dreamy synth ballads, will support Uku, who is deeply afflicted with ALS.
"'I Don't Have To Cry,' the 45, that was how I found him," Morgan says. "I bought a copy of that on eBay, and I reached out to him on CD Baby. Uku's another person that sends me hours of files. At one point, he had a dedicated folder and he'd just upload music when he had a chance—some gospel stuff and some rap tracks. He has this Jan Hammer cover I want to release as Estonia Vice."
Prolificacy runs in the family. For her new album, Maskeraad, Maryn sent over 15 or 20 versions of new tunes, taking PPU's existing aesthetic into consideration, while also giving Morgan access to outtakes, demos and studio recordings from the last four decades. "A lot of times the artist who had a release that you stumble upon but never quite made it, sometimes their obsession to make it caused them to make so much music," Goldman says. "Sometimes the people who made it could chill, but finding these one-off artists often reveals these treasure troves of wonky archives."
Morgan's currently at work on a second compilation of Dwight Sykes tunes, Songs Volume Two, and is giving Sykes full creative control. When I speak with the aging musician, who now resides in Georgia, it's clear he sees the next compilation as a shot at sealing his legacy. "I have 180 songs completed," Sykes says. "I have 94 videos of songs that I did on YouTube. I ain't playing no more. It takes me a long time at my age, and we've only covered 17 songs out of 180."
Morgan talks about the duffle bags of practice tapes Sykes has sent him, playing me an absurd tune called "Babytalk" that features a screaming vocal from his then-infant son. "He started sending stuff over in these huge envelopes," Morgan says. "That's the best—just hours of sitting in the car listening through the cassettes, picking out the good ones."
When I contact Mix-O-Rap, AKA Billy D. Littlejohn, he tells me he's about to board a Greyhound bus from Southern Carolina to DC for a meeting with a Columbia A&R man. He tells me about coming up in the early '80s as a member of a go-go DJ crew in DC, and about how he can make house music, jazz music or "urban music." He regales me with tales of partying with booty music legend Luther "Luke" Campbell of 2 Live Crew back in the '80s, and tells me how he records his raps through the internal mic on his tablet computer. "Andrew gave me a big old push," Littlejohn says. "I found out that I had a fanbase overseas and I didn't even know. I thought my music was only heard in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area, and I never knew until Andrew told me."
For every release that's made it to wax, there are a couple projects that didn't work out for different reasons: the musicians have disappeared without a trace; surviving family members couldn't be convinced; an artist misunderstood the nature of Morgan's proposal, mistakenly thinking they'd hit the jackpot.
Morgan's son runs downstairs holding an iPad after he gets home from school. He records a couple of puerile rhymes into a beat app (Mix-O-Rap would be proud) while Goldman plays hype man. Dreamcast, real name Davon Bryant, a local 24-year-old singer and producer who just put out a well-received 7-inch on the label, stops by. Bryant met Morgan and Goldman at a DC Boiler Room party that never aired. He was brought on as an auxiliary cameraman, and started showing up for Beautiful Swimmers gigs. He went on SoundCloud searching for beats and found some smooth funk tracks from Sasac, a PPU associate whose music falls in the woozy modern boogie category.
Bryant sang over Sasac instrumentals, coming up with the pitch perfect slo-mo pop song "Liquid Deep" and the wistful ballad "Summer Love." In a bizarre turn, Sasac, who lives in Stockholm, sent these finished cuts to Morgan, who was immediately interested in signing them. Goldman later identified Bryant as the friendly kid they had been seeing around town. Just like that, PPU had stumbled onto a third generation of oddball DC funk.
"When I found out, I was like, this is great," Morgan says. "That's all we need. We need vocalists and new talent."
"He appeared right when Smallwood left, it was kind of crazy," Goldman adds. "He's like little Smallwood."
"The way Smallwood does his phrasing," says Morgan—and Goldman completes the thought: "It's kind of fragile but everything's there."
We put a Steve Poindexter test press on the turntable, and Bryant, who started off as a djembe player, starts grooving involuntarily, asking about the record, telling the others that he has house tracks too, and would they be interested in releasing them? Morgan nods and starts poking around Discogs, eventually playing Andras Fox and Ft. Oscar S. Thorn's Embassy Café. The laidback mix of house, boogie and R&B is an obvious analogue to Bryant's own music. The young singer's eyes become wide, the way they do when you hear something beautiful that you didn't know existed. For Morgan, this is what it's all about.
Bedroom funk, obscure boogie and laidback modern house—Andrew Morgan provides us with a mix of rare music, much of it due for release on Peoples Potential Unlimited.
Ayelan - Southern California Style - PPU Records [RSD exclusive releasing 4-20-17]
Circuitry - Type Of Girl - PPU Records [Summer 2017]
Ceasar - It's Tight
River Park - Girl - PPU Records
Mix-O-Rap - All Party People - PPU Records
Blak Sonic Sound - Steady Ride [Upcoming]
S.J.C. - S.J.C. Theme [Upcoming]
Moments Ii - She Wants
Agd - Faith
Robbie M w/ Lapti - Lately
Yu Su - Soon (Moa Mix) - PPU Records [Fall 2017]
Rx - Smooth Jazz
The Jerk Out - Non Time - Unreleased