Cheat Sheet: Reissue Culture And The Lost Legend
by Justin Farrar | July 31, 2012
Reissue culture isn't new. As critic Simon Reynolds chronicles in his book Retromania, one of its earliest manifestations dates back to the '60s, when low-budget compilations of doo-wop "oldies" began to appear in record stores up and down the East Coast. A decade earlier (1952, to be specific), Folkways Records released Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, a boxed compendium of dust-covered old-time and country-blues recordings that helped kick-start the folk revival. Yet another key artifact is Nuggets: Released in 1972, the anthology of garage rock and psych-pop one-hit wonders is cited by just about every old-school punk as a primary influence on the movement. And of course, I'd be remiss not to mention such labels as Rhino, Arhoolie, Ace, Yazoo and Document, all of which have been producing quality reissues for decades now.
So yeah, reissue culture has been around for some time now. That said, it totally kicked into overdrive sometime in the '90s. Not only did the number of titles re-released each year increase at an accelerated clip, certain ones proved capable of earning long-forgotten artists levels of fame and success they never achieved in their own eras. The most overt example is Nick Drake, obviously. The reissuing of his catalog mid-decade led to the haunting ballad "Pink Moon" appearing in a now-famous Volkswagen commercial. This string of events resulted in a radical revision of the mellow folkie's legacy. Think about it: There are now large swaths of twentysomethings who are more familiar with Drake than, say, James Taylor or Harry Chapin, fellow singer-songwriters who were far more famous in the early '70s. Several other unknown artists to experience Drake-style resurgences are Karen Dalton, Rodriguez, Shuggie Otis and Arthur Russell, all of whom have probably sold more records in the past 10 years than the preceding 20.
Where the reissue has proven to be particularly influential is world music. It used to be that Brazil's Tropicalismo movement was appreciated by only the coolest of underground bohemians and the most hardcore of record collectors. Nowadays, however, a track from Os Mutantes (the Beatles of Brazil, basically) can appear in a McDonald's commercial, of all things. Then there's the recent explosion of compilations spotlighting vintage funk, rock and pop from across the African continent. This has led to a whole slew of American bands (from Vampire Weekend to Antibalas) who have helped introduce music fans to the sounds of Afrobeat and Afropop.
Reissue culture has also exerted a significant impact on younger genres, including hip-hop, techno and electronica. After Elektra refused to release KMD's Black Bastards album in '94 (too controversial, apparently), it made the rounds as a bootleg until Sub Verse Music put together an official version in 2001. MF Doom, a cofounder of KMD when he still went by the name Zev Love X, reissued the record a second time via his Metal Face imprint. Nowadays, Black Bastards is considered a genuine highlight of hip-hop's golden age. Which is impressive, considering the sheer amount of amazing music said age churned out.
And now, on to a handful of the most notable reissues of the modern era...