SOMETIMES ALL you've got to do is put a stamp on something to make it real. With a few likeminded souls and a tagline, good things can happen. Fine, yes, bad things, too—but in the case of Portland-based electronic label Dropping Gems, the ascent from regional to national notoriety has been nothing but positive.
It all started in 2008 when Aaron Meola and a crew of DJ and emcee cohorts were at the tail end of their collegiate duties at Evergreen State College in Olympia. Despite pockets of promising electronic music in the area, Meola says the lack of organization among the artists thwarted the survival of a tangible community. It wasn't until DJs Rap Class and Gumar started an interview blog—dubbed Dropping Gems—that the idea of a collective crept into Meola and Co.'s consciousness.
"There really wasn't anything holding everyone together, but a lot of us had been brought together by similar interests in music," explains Meola. "At the time, Flying Lotus had just come out in 2008, and all of us were really inspired by that. My role was stepping in and saying, 'Hey, let's crew up and start releasing music and put a stamp on this.'"
In 2009, the collective migrated south to Portland. Espousing the DIY tenets of cooperatively oriented groups like Anticon and various LA beat scene crews, Dropping Gems soon began throwing shows up and down the Pacific Northwest, initially featuring members of their crew, and soon afterward incorporating members of other collectives—eventually flying in artists to play showcases at venues like Holocene.
Boasting a homegrown roster of artists, Meola has overseen 12 releases on the label, including two widely acclaimed compilation albums, Gem Drops and Gem Drops Two. DG artists like Ghost Feet, Natasha Kmeto, and DJAO have begun to make serious headway in the somewhat insular electronic scene. Ghost Feet—the duo of DJ Calvin Hobbes and guitarist Rachel Qloq—simulate extraterrestrial synapses, splicing dance-spazzy jams with broken frequencies that accommodate Qloq's flittering guitar work. Their 2011 debut EP, Wires and Chords, would fit into a hypnotic, swaying stage show as easily as a basement-party rager.
Kmeto brings an electro-soul hybrid that's probably the label's most accessible hodgepodge; meanwhile, DJAO crafts the most ambient kind of electro goodies, texturalizing off-kilter beats over spooky synths, odd chanting samples, and haunting industrial melodies.
All three of those artists are releasing full-length albums on vinyl this year through Dropping Gems, thanks to a partnership with Seattle's Fin Records. The collaboration has essentially strengthened Dropping Gems' hold on the electronic music scene to include more distribution, more releases, and the ability to produce vinyl.
"It was really important to me that we weren't selling out," explains Meola. "In the past, we were recording everything in our bedrooms and trying to do everything as cheap as possible because we don't really have the budget to do things in more professional ways. Not that that's bad—but we kind of don't need to do things as cheaply as possible just for the sake of it anymore.
"It's really incredible to turn something that was just a passion, and something I just really wanted to do, into something that's sustained."