made to swing: 25 years of nervous records
Nervous Records’ founder Michael Weiss and iconic DJ Louie Vega and give us the inside story of the record label that made house history in NYC.
Erick Morillo, Todd Terry, Kenny Dope, Louie Vega, Roger Sanchez, Lem Springsteen, Mike Weiss, and Gladys Pizarro at the 1992 Nervous Records Holiday Party
"I used to work in hip-hop before house music," Michael Weiss begins. "There was a radio guy called Chuck Chillin' who I would go see to try and get my records played. I was always very pushy so he started calling me Captain Nervous…" And with that, Nervous Records was born.
As the brainchild of Michael Weiss Nervous Records came into this world in 1991 as an outlet for east coast club music. Michael was almost always destined to build a label like Nervous, it's in his blood, his father Sam Weiss founded the legendary disco label SAM Records in 1976. 25 years after starting out, Nervous continues to be a platform for everything from reggae to hip-hop, latin to techno, US garage and of course, house music.
And it is house music that has arguably helped define the sound of Nervous Records for over a quarter-century, a family collective made up of Louie Vega, Josh Wink, Kerri Chandler, Masters At Work, Mood II Swing and Kenny Dope; names seared into house's history. The label's identity is epitomised in the wide-eyed, gritted teeth, sweating logo which, whether intentional or not, perfectly parodied the acid-house movement happening in the UK at the same time. While in the early-years Nervous took their influences from New York City they quickly became an instant representation of the city, a melting pot of different cultures which found a home in the clubs of NY and the output of the label from the early-90s to today.
"I'll tell you the truth, it feels good and it doesn't," Michael says, looking back over the past 25 years. "There's been a lot of wear and tear, but everything still feels as fresh and exciting as it was when I started this thing." That start came with Sandy B's Feel Like Singing, the first major dance release for the label and an almost textbook caricature of New York City at the time. It was brash, it had soul, it was gritty, it was jackin', but more than anything it sounds as fresh today as it did in 92. That's the beauty of Nervous Records, the label has managed to remain true to its core ethos while representing the sound of a city that is an ever-changing, always evolving beast. "I've always felt it's important to stay relevant to the sound that's happening in New York, it's always been about representing the city's nightlife," Michael explains. "New York is such a big city which often represents sounds from across the world, you have to always keep an open mind and surround yourself with people who can recognise talent."
"The best music comes from the streets, whether it's hip-hop, disco or house" he continues, a statement that's hard to argue with. "There's a certain neighbourhood of people who are naturally creative and I always had a sense of that, it was just like magic. When music works there's no real formula and it's an incredible thing. Making music and making records, who knows how that's done?"
Born in the wake of Larry Levan's famed Paradise Garage residency and before a tougher, east coast hip-hop sound would emerge from New York, Nervous aimed to represent all walks of life within the city. "New York is a melting pot of music, of people, different cultures, nationalities and so many people from different places around the world," says Louie Vega, long-standing member of the Nervous Records family. Under his many guises, from Masters At Work and Nuyoricon Soul alongside Kenny Dope, to Elements Of Life and his own Little Louie Vega moniker, Louie has become a cornerstone of house music since the mid-80s. "That was happening all across New York" he goes on to say. "I think that's the key, we were all brought up with hearing music as just good music. If something was out there, it didn't matter what tempo or style it was, if it was good music it was just good music."
That unpretentious attitude in 1991 lead Nervous, alongside the likes of Strictly Rhythm and Nu Groove, to form an electronic identity for New York that distinguished itself from their contemporaries. Detroit had techno, the sci-fi sound of machinery and industry, while Chicago had its legacy as the birthplace of house music, but New York was all of these things and more. "The best things usually happen at night, that's where the music really starts," Michael laughs. For New York that nightlife was perhaps more integrated than today, a club scene where hip-hop, latin, house and jazz would be all under one roof and where, as Louie puts it, "all the dancers would be together in the club."
With the city's strong identity came competition. A competition where tracks could be produced and signed within the hour and where New York's 'city that never sleeps' reputation really came into its own. "Everybody was looking for the hot product," Louie says. "I would call Michael at three in the morning and say, 'listen, we got something real hot, you got to come to the studio' and he would be there straight away."
"Back then the DJ who was getting the biggest crowd is the one who had the freshest tracks," Michael explains. "If you wanted them you had to be there when they played it so you could get it first." While Nervous had defined a sound that truly represented the east coast, with thanks to the early work of Gladys Pizarro as head of A&R for the label, it wasn't just house music that was making waves at the time. Nervous is as much a home for house as it is for hip-hop and reggae, something which has undoubtedly ensured the label's success over its counterparts to this day. "Our impact on hip-hop back then was probably just as big as it was in the house scene, at least in America," Michael says. "We signed Black Moon, Smith & Weston, we even signed the first releases with Funkmaster Flex who became the most famous hip-hop DJ in America."
"Nervous really showed a big part of what the whole NY style was about," Louie agrees. "That's where it separated itself from the others, it was all up in there and that's the closest to what the NY sound was about, idealistically."
According to both Louie and Michael there's no formula for a successful label. You can't guarantee a 25-year lifespan at the top of your game like Nervous has, a roster of artists as individually accomplished as theirs, or even simply the family relationship that is deeply rooted in the label. "I've known these guys for over 20 years, they're like childhood friends almost," Michael states. "It goes beyond business, it's just a very positive communal thing when you have that going."
I say to Michael that Nervous makes me feel nostalgic for a time that I never had the chance to experience, the formative years of house music and the city of New York arguably in its prime. "My feeling is that the label should always represent this city" he responds. "The legacy of the label will always be, ultimately, music." With that, no matter how the city changes over the next 25 years, it's good to know that chance is still ours.
Text Jack Needham
Photography courtesy Nervous Records