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Jeff Antebi started Waxploitation in 1996 as a management company with an outsider bent and a unique angle.

After experiencing frustration with the traditional music industry of the day’s lack of openings—both in mindedness and paying jobs--the LA-based creative departed the music biz to become a war ...

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Benji Michaels

Outliers with Mass Appeal (and Humanitarian Intent): Waxploitation Gets Voices from the World’s Margins to Ears Everywhere

Waxploitation isn’t your typical label. It’s signed an unknown musician with the raw, fresh sound of Como Mississippi blues (and gotten that bluesman a GRAMMY nomination). It’s spearheaded a book project that donates most of its profits to benefit children’s related non-profit organizations and NGOs. It’s encouraged a producer in the middle of a crisis-torn country to put together a record. It’s collaborated with dancehall stars in Kingston, and London afrobeat artists in Lagos, the patron saint of heavy baile funk in the favelas of Rio, pioneers of Los Angeles hip hop, and underground music scenes in New York, Caracas, Mexico City, Tokyo, and more.  

Helmed by the tireless music and arts entrepreneur Jeff Antebi, Waxploitation will continue its idiosyncratic approach to discovering, developing and spreading a new generation of compelling artists, after a year or so in stealth mode. Starting in March 2019, the label will be dropping singles that run the gamut from freak rock to mad beats, that leap from continent to continent with complete ease. “We have this enormous backlog of music that’s just now coming together,” says Antebi. “The universe works in a great way sometimes, where you have no idea what's going on until it comes together better than you could have imagined.”

The universe had some pretty unexpected plans for Antebi. Passionate about music from childhood, he broke into the music business as an artist manager in his own way: managing the unmanageable, from quirky indie rock guys to some of the early pioneers of electronic music. He found a new twist to the traditional producer management approach, finding artists who could also be successful studio producers, considered an irrational idea when Antebi first posited it to major label executives at the time. 

Although challenging, things went well and the business thrived for a decade, Antebi was a little bored, and was angling out of the music game to try new things. Then he encountered an artist and producer named Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse) who was just starting what would become a meteoric rise.  Antebi and Burton formed a covenant, whereby Antebi parted with his entire roster.  “I told Danger Mouse that he would be my only client, and that he would be the last person I would ever manage”.  That relationship began with the infamous Grey Album, and included Danger Mouse producing Gorillaz, The Black Keys, and Beck, as well as the development of artist projects like Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, Dangerdoom with MF DOOM, and ROME with Jack White and Norah Jones. During this period, Waxploitation was also the publisher for Black Moth Super Rainbow, and Tobacco.

What was meant to only be a short ‘final hurrah’ ended up being nearly Antebi’s second decade in music, and once again, he felt that his creative heart was in another place. He decided to quit music altogether and do something completely different, pursuing his love of photojournalism and documenting people’s experiences in challenging countries around the world.  He published a book called Fever Dreams about elections held during war, crisis, and conflict which covered his time in Afghanistan, Haiti, Juarez, and the Thai/Malay border. 

On his travels, he realized he kept hearing music he loved and, after stepping away from the business, he could actually savor it. “If you spend as much time in major label meetings as I did, you lose a lot of passion for the art itself,” reflects Antebi.  “Being out there in the world, and hearing music again where its meant to be heard, on the street, in a club, at a party, blasting from radios, all over the world.  You spend time in places facing sometimes dire circumstances, and music is one of the uplifting, inspiring, community cementing things people have no matter what.”

The experience of falling for music again prompted Antebi to revive Waxploitation. As a label, Waxploitation became dedicated to amplifying the voices of producers, musicians, artists, and performers (real and delightfully imaginary) from around the world.

“I said, okay, I’m only going to sign projects where the artists are easy to work with,” laughs Antebi. “But that’s never the case!  Artists are inherently a frustrating bunch.  But it’s what makes them dynamic. It took me a minute to remember that all artists are challenging, and I just embrace that as a part of this process.”

Some of these records and projects buck all trends. Waxploitation signed a little-known musician from Como, Mississippi who hadn’t recorded an album in half a century, R.L. Boyce. The Hill Country bluesman’s Waxploitation release propelled him from local name to international artist, complete with a performance on the BBC’s Jools Holland and a GRAMMY nomination.

For another project, Antebi decided to jump into something squarely outside the usual record label output. He compiled the charming Stories for Ways and Means, a book that gathers original children’s tales told or illustrated by the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Laura Marling, Swoon, and Anthony Lister. (A softcover and audiobook edition is due out this year.)

The company’s name (a play on ‘the exploitation of wax’ or vinyl) belies Antebi’s preference for sharing the earnings from many of the company’s projects to benefit others. “A big part of why I got back into this is not only championing artists, but also to honor a commitment to humanitarian efforts,” explains Antebi. “We often give 80% of the proceeds from projects to particular charitable causes. We’re a small company with low overhead, and we want to do lots of projects that generate revenues we can use to pay forward. I can’t justify being in this business unless I’m giving back.”   Over the last two decades, Waxploitation has partnered with non-profits and NGOs including Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Oxfam for the Causes music compilation series, which has featured LCD Soundsystem, My Morning Jacket, Diplo, Sharon Jones and more. 

“Music is easier than ever for fans to discover, but the economics can be disastrous to songwriters and artists. The role of labels has been in flux for nearly twenty years, but the need for strong independent record companies has been a constant,” Antebi feels. “Waxploitation’s aim, whether in the role of label or manager or publisher, has always been to sign very few artists, and focus as much attention on them as possible.  Whether that means taking eight years to develop a book project, or eight years to shepherd an artist or producer towards their legacy.”

“My disposition has always been to be on the outside—to help emerging artists and music scenes find a wider, global audience,” muses Antebi. “Somehow, my experience has been that the deeper I dig, the earlier I connect with an artist, the more rewarding it is.  The beauty of these days is that the farther out I’m looking for things, the better the results for everyone”.