Story by Josh Zanger
Trying to start a record label is like skateboarding – a lot of people can do it poorly but only a few can do it really well. Chicago independent Hefty Records isn’t Tony Hawk caliber, but they also aren’t the eight year old with protective pads strapped to every limb, either.
The label’s accomplishments to this point – the most notable being a 10-year anniversary being observed throughout the last two months – have been relatively modest when compared to other record companies. But owner John Hughes doesn’t hold the same view towards accomplishment and overall vision that some business owners do. For him, Hefty’s goal is about something much more basic.
When talking to Hughes it is clear that he is focused and confident but also casual and affable. By the time this article runs, he says he will be 30 years old. He is married and resides in Chicago, the city that he has called home nearly his entire life. Appearing to be an every-man sort, Hughes has some tattoos inked into his personality that make him more interesting than he emits as the t-shirt-and-jeans character who was recently DJing at APT in New York in late March for his label’s 10-year party.
Hughes started to feel that ‘lo-fi’ or ‘bedroom’ production was the most expressive way to create music, from artist to creation. He believed that while rock was a big part of the hands-on approach, electronic music offered a more immediate and complete method.
Exactly a decade ago Hughes founded Hefty Records in Chicago. At the time there were a multitude of indies popping up around the Midwest, all of them generally on the same plane-small, unknown, and gung-ho. Most of these record companies released hip-hop or rock albums, and Hefty was no different. Of the first numbers in Hughes’ catalog were acts like indie-rock/experimental solo act Euphone and straight up indie rock from Bill Ding, Illium, and Chisel Drill Hammer. Hughes also co-released indie/math rock group Ghosts & Vodka with the Six Gun Lover label as well.
Coming into the late 1990s there surfaced non-acoustic sounds from the Hefty roster that began to differentiate its classification from the rest of the indie bunch. Around that time Hughes started to feel that “lo-fi” or “bedroom” production was the most expressive way to create music, from artist to creation. He believed that while rock was a big part of the hands-on approach, electronic music offered a more immediate and complete method. He felt, and correctly so, that as time advanced, recording from a home setting would become easier and of higher quality. Hughes says that the vision had less to do with being interested in the electronic genre – even though all of the artists certainly were – and more to do with wanting to be entirely expressive.
Hughes also takes great pride in developing new artists from raw potential. One of the company’s leading principles is not to release music from established artists unless the situation seems right. For this measure, one of the label’s more notable connections has been to a good friend of Hughes,’ Scott Herren, who many also know as Prefuse 73. Early on, Herren worked with the label under that moniker but eventually went to Warp Records as his career progressed. He is still part of the Hefty family though, under alter-moniker Savath & Savalas. Prefuse also contributed a mixtape disc compiled entirely of the labels’ previous releases to the recent Hefty Records compilation, Hefty Digest 10.
The 10-year celebration has been acknowledged in part by three releases of retrospective nature of which Digest 10 is incorporated. The other two are History Is Bunk 1 and 2, both collections of exclusive material like collaborations, remixes, and even some new compositions. Hughes sees these event-marking albums as an opportunity to reintroduce people to the music from the label, as well as a chance to show what the future holds.
Through the Prefuse 73 Digest 10 mixtape one can see how under-praised the label repertoire has been. The first track, which is part Mondii and part Elliott Lipp, is an exceptional blend of ’70s synth-backdrop melody with an eclectic mixture of vocal samples and bouncy, fresh beats. Later burners can be found from Telefon Tel Aviv, Some Water and Sun, Slicker (Hughes’ moniker), and in a L’Altra/Phil Ranelin mix of “A Day Between” and “Vibes From The Tribe,” respectively. During the History Is Bunk series we see defining moments from an amazing cast of under-the-radar regulars like Lipp and Retina.It, and remixers including Dabrye, Daedelus, Jan Jelinek, Jimmy Edgar, and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Hughes finds the city’s rich musical background inspiring as he cites the soul stylings of Curtis Mayfield, Chess Records, house music, hip-hop, independent jazz, and post rock from the ’90s as contributors to a strong tradition that he hopes to extend.
Part of what makes the release and party hoopla more impressive is that all of this has been done with a small, nameless cast of artists and label staff, and all out of the same hidden gem of a city that it originally started, Chicago. While it seems every art-related individual with talent flees for the coasts or across the oceans, Hefty has found it important to embrace family and roots. Hughes finds the city’s rich musical background inspiring as he cites the soul stylings of Curtis Mayfield, Chess Records, house music, hip-hop, independent jazz, and post rock from the ’90s as contributors to a strong tradition that he hopes to extend. Further telling is that Hughes says none of the Hefty roster (himself excluded) is from the Midwest, and that the label’s record sales and attendance at performances are much better in Japan, France, Germany, and U.K. These are also non-coincidentally where the label held several of their anniversary parties.
For John Hughes and Hefty Records it was never about doing things the easy or obvious way. Instead, it was always about doing it the way that felt right. 10 years telling, over 50 releases, and success across the globe…I’d say that’s a pretty good instinct.