Music by VICE

Meet Arcane, the Shadowy Record Label That's Hiding in Plain Sight

We tracked down the nascent label's boss to explain its noir aesthetic, boogie-inspired releases, and why we're attracted to the unknown

by Zach Sokol
Mar 30 2016, 6:10pm

Photos by Bobby Viteri

When I first stumbled across Arcane on SoundCloud in early 2016, I could find next-to-no information about the nascent record label online—and, in retrospect, that shouldn't have come as a surprise. The six-month-old imprint is intentionally mysterious—as emphasized by its name and trench coat-sporting logo—with a thick aesthetic informed by all-things noir, anti-heroes protagonists like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, and urban grit in the vein of Wee Gee's unsettling photography. Furthering the shadowdy allure, its vinyl releases come stamped with the ever-so-suspect disclaimer, "for promotional use only."

A friend eventually tipped me off that Arcane is the brainchild of Edgar Rojas-Masferrer, a New York-based entrepreneur known for his past work with the label Cosmic Chronic and DJ crew Miami Players Club. Despite the label's affinity for vintage depictions of New York on its website and physical releases (such as the blink-and-you'll-miss-it art deco image of the Chrysler building included on each record), its geographical roots stretch to Miami—where the Panama-born Rojas-Masferrer grew up, and where he helped spearheaded the aforementioned music collectives known for their funk and disco-inspired electronic purées.

The first Arcane release came out in January, and the untitled 12" featured three sleek, wine-drunk-on-the-dancefloor tracks by Diamond Jackson, an alias of Rojas-Masferrer and Tom Noble (an affiliate of celebrated DC label PPU, which also serves as Arcane's distributor). Arcane-001 healthily borrowed from bargain bin disco, 90s R&B ballads, and Fingers Inc-era Chicago house (there's even a Larry Heard sample); Arcane-002 and 003, on the other hand, are by Jamma Dee—a fresh, LA-based talent who makes what Rojas-Masferrer describes as "chopped-up New jack swing," spawned from years of digging for boogie records.

Arcane's most recent release, the eight-track 12" Jamma Vol. 2 out now, makes it clear that Jamma Dee is hungry to advance the type of time-skipping sound palettes of West Coast producers like Dam-Funk and Seven Davis Jr., whose torches he has the potential to carry. And while the laidback lightness of Jamma's productions and illustrations may seem to oppose the back-alley shadows of Arcane's visual identity, both the label and the artist share an ability to use sound and imagery to completely immerse listeners in a distinctive mood.

Take "Letz Talk (Abot' Love)," a track off Vol 2. premiering on THUMP below: it's slick and smooth, but too slow to fill the dancefloor and too intricate to be bona fide baby-making music. Like the label, it doesn't cleanly gel with any particular electronic music genre or environment. The collectible record insert features winking and smirking doodles by Jamma, possibly emphasizing the playfulness of Arcane's aloof character.

What prevents Arcane's affinity for retro tropes from crossing into tired nostalgia is Rojas-Masferrer's unswerving, earnest admiration of bygone pop culture. When I first met the Arcane mastermind this past winter—fittingly, at a dimly-lit bar in Alphabet City as a mutual friend played pool nearby—the way Rojas-Masferrer described the things he loves, like certain drum machines and the Criterion Collection (which he owns all of), came across as passion, not pretension or artifice. I think it's gotta be that way if you're going to make your aesthetic tropes so overt.

"Even though I don't want Arcane to be pigeonholed as a noir fetishizer's wet dream, I consider myself a generally dark person," Rojas-Masferrer told me with an almost-bashful look, suggesting there wasn't any cool-guying or posturing at play. "Ironically, releases like Jamma-Dee sound like an opposing argument [to this darkness], but if I like something, and I want to have it on vinyl, I'll do all that I can to release it."

The one-man label boss also stressed that everything about the project, from its aesthetic direction to its musical content, is a product of his vision. "I have a designer I run everything by, but ultimately it's whatever I like and want representing Arcane. People will have an opinion [about the label] and those with positive ones will become super loyal," he later wrote in a second interview conducted over email, adding, "But first, they have to find me." In order to hold a magnifying glass against the label's furtive surface, I talked to Rojas-Masferrer about his desire to be an auteur within the music world, finding kindred spirits in anti-heroes, and why we are attracted to the unknown.

THUMP: What inspired you to start Arcane?

Edgar Rojas-Masferrer: I don't think I can actually narrow the inspiration to a singular idea, but I borrow a lot inspiration from aspects of films I regularly watch. Like any teenager, the angst begins, and you search for identity. You try to set yourself apart, and for me, that was through films my siblings exposed me to at an early age. I had a pretty unhealthy relationship with Taxi Driver for years. That, and a few Jarmusch films like Down By Law. Cut to roughly 15 years later and I'd religiously watched countless others by Melville, Carpenter, Peckinpah, Scorsese, Cassavetes, Leone, Polanski, Suzuki, Cronenberg, Kobayashi, Mann, etc.

What about these films and directors appeal to you?

I think I've always had a natural attraction the anti-heroes [in these films]. They range from sociopathic to only-slightly unhinged, but just enough to make them likable and enjoyable to watch. In a darkly comic way, I sometimes feel like that's essentially who I am. It doesn't help that I have a widow's peak, dark hair, and light complexion, especially having been born in Panama. I experienced something pretty funny in 2014 when I went back to renew my passport. The lady who photographed me kept making remarks about me having a gothic look, possibly being a vampire, and in no way looking like a Panamanian. I wasn't even wearing a single article of black clothing.

And this broody visual aesthetic informs the label?

I think this identification with villainy is something that definitely influences Arcane, but it's more in the gritty or noir sense visually. Although so far everything I have released has a lightness to it, Arcane overall is just rooted from that notion.

I feel like the medium of film is the ultimate in wanting to achieve a vision—you combine music with imagery—and that to me defines the pinnacle of demonstrating your craft. All these guys really used music as almost a focal point right behind the main characters. I couldn't imagine these movies without the accompanying music—especially someone like [John] Carpenter. He's a personal hero in that he had full control, and like a lot of things historically, he was initially pushed to the side and misunderstood but now he's seen as an auteur.

In a way, I feel like being alone reminds me that no one can take this project away from me. You either give yourself and me a chance to demonstrate what Arcane can potentially be, or you just push me aside like Carpenter; but that won't stop me from having the ability to value my taste and work for it.

Do you view Arcane as solely a record label, or more of a platform? Outside of music, what else to you hope to put out?

I think, subconsciously, Arcane serves as—yeah, we can call it a platform—a way for me to release anything I want, and I already have plans to put out stuff that isn't music. I purposely never write "Records" after "Arcane" because I don't want to just release records. I have a bunch of friends and acquaintances that I admire from a visual standpoint, so I try and think of a way to somehow incorporate their artwork—be it a T-shirt, a print—and just hoping others take a look and appreciate them like I do.

For example, knowing I could potentially release music by Jamma Dee excited me from a visual standpoint because he went to art school and I've been a fan of his paintings and drawings since I discovered he also did that on the side. I could already picture his releases; I knew I had to feature a design of his somehow, so Arcane-002 includes an insert with his illustrations and the tracklist.

You once told me you wanted Arcane to feel like a "collector's piece." What did you mean by that?

In a way, I want these releases to feel like collectors' pieces because of the extra quality I attached to each release—be it an insert, a poster, a business card, a shirt. I feel that the way I approach Arcane is definitely from a curatorial standpoint. I collect a lot of things, but I personally don't feel like a hoarder. Not surprisingly, a lot of people are far more extreme in the way they collect things than I am, but it definitely makes me excited once I see that something of mine is sold out. It'll only increase in value over time. This appreciation of price, even though I don't benefit from it, somehow proves it's desired and wanted, and that's enough for me.

There seems to be an appeal within underground dance music to be elusive or mysterious, but you went so far as to make the label's name and visual image represent the very idea of "arcane"? What about the overt symbolism appeals to you?

Growing up, my mom always just told friends and even past girlfriends that her "son is too mysterious." That could have a hand in it, but as mentioned, there's just something I've always been attracted to when it comes to a cloaked figure, or someone barely visible and hidden amongst shadows. It's the unknown, and I never attribute it as a sign of danger or negativity, I actually like to think it's an invitation to snoop around more and learn something.

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