Sockets Records: Making DC Music Just a Little Bit Weirder Since 2004

by Steph Mitesser, LLF contributor and blogger at Rhythm Without Representation

If you analyze what influences a city’s artistic growth, you’ll inevitably discover the reasons are numerous, inextricably intertwined, unpredictable, and somewhat random. An A + B = C formula for an excellent local music scene will never emerge, but certain factors always come into play—i.e., creative people, enticing venues, etc. A less visible factor, however, is effective channels for local musicians to produce, distribute, and promote their music.

In DC, those channels strengthened significantly as a result of Sockets Records, a label founded by DJ/ local music maven Sean Peoples. Sean and his cohorts have established a community of talented artists—many of them friends—who create some of the most exciting and innovative music to come out of the District in recent years.

So how did it happen? How did Peoples take a humble CD-R-pressing operation to a real-deal label in just seven years? Well, an insatiable appetite for music, an expert pulse on all things creative in DC, and just enough insomnia to fuel the inevitably sleepless life required to balance it all…those all help.

Peoples founded Sockets in 2004 as an offshoot of his weekly radio program, and his proactivity couldn’t have come at a better time. The city struggled to recover from the break ups of some crucial hometown acts like Q and Not U and Black Eyes; weird music surely existed, but it needed a bit of cultivating and a lot of exposure. “Bands were breaking up, bands that had a lot of young people following them,” Sean recalls. “That really dealt a blow. I was doing anything I could to make some noise during an otherwise quiet time.”

And noisy it grew. Under the pseudonym DJ DLX, Sean began pressing CD-Rs of his favorite local artists, with a heavy focus on all things experimental and underground. In 2005, Sockets released its first official compilations, Audiozines 1 & 2, and held its first live showcases.

Despite this initial momentum, the label wasn’t immune from the ebbs and flows of DC music, and Sean hit the pause button on Sockets for a full year in 2008.

When the label returned in 2009, it returned to a changing city and a rapidly evolving musical landscape; Sean and his friends were ready to capitalize on both. Thus, some changes were in order: the label began to produce CDs and vinyl LPs instead of CD-Rs, and they used a blog to promote new acts that were coming on board and generating buzz, such as DC punk outfit Imperial China.

Sean also joined forces with a friend in New York to represent Fly Girlz, a project involving middle school girls from rough Brooklyn neighborhoods rapping over remixes from underground DJs. Unsurprisingly, the resulting tunes turned some heads.

While the project diverged from Sockets’ exclusive DC focus, Sockets’ number one concern remains sound, not geography. “I just want to promote amazing music, and amazing music is being made everywhere,” Sean states simply. Not to mention that the buzz from Fly Girlz inevitably benefited each and every band on Sean’s label.

“It was an exciting time,” said Imperial China’s Brian Porter. “DC’s scene had always been a collaborative, tight-knit community, but now we were experiencing some healthy competition. I witnessed Hume, another Sockets band, playing some amazing music, and I thought, ‘Wow. I want to put out something like that.’ It’s inspiring.”

Another wave of momentum came with the success of DC-based hip-hop group Cornel West Theory, who had been part of Sockets since the Audiozines—and friends with Sean since their days at American University. The band’s first full-length album, 2009’s Second Rome, received plenty of both critical acclaim and commercial buzz, even leading to Chuck D of Public Enemy to dub Second Rome one of his favorite albums of the last five years.

This communal, DIY attitude of DC music completely infiltrates the label’s operations, and it inspires musicians and friends alike to get involved. Patrick Wixted, Peoples’ longtime friend and now partner at Sockets, lists this as his motivation for taking a leading role at the label.

However, perhaps an even greater indicator of Socket’s success comes when artists work with Sockets not solely because of an attachment to DC or friendship with the owners, but simply because it makes sense as a working musician.

Take, for instance, Deleted Scenes, arguably the most well-known group on Sockets’ label, currently rocking a 7.8-Pitchfork-rated album and a nationwide tour. The band released their first full-length album, 2009’s Birdseed Shirt, on a small Brooklyn-based label, but for their milestone 2011 album Young People’s Church of Air, they looked to the District—and not necessarily due to any sentimental attachment to their hometown.

“Sockets picked up steam around the same time we did as a band,” says Deleted Scenes’ bassist Matt Dowling. “Sure, it’s great that we can work with our buddies in DC and that we are fans of the other bands they represent. But ultimately, Sockets offers crucial resources for local musicians to widen their footprint; they have the plug ins to get our music out there, and that’s what musicians in DC need—exposure.”

Looking at Sockets in 2012, we see a local music initiative truly hitting their stride. With a bevy of fantastic local artists gaining steam under their watch, a successful artist showcase at Black Cat last week, and a hidden gem of an artist releasing an album with them this year  (Cigarette—check them out, you won’t be sorry), Sockets shows no signs of slowing down.

Owner Sean Peoples, whether through his label, his DJing, or his legendary party hosting (Fatback, anyone?), offers a fantastic example of how to move beyond appreciating local music to truly taking a personal stake in the success of local artists. Whatever success Sockets achieves, the label has proven it won’t lose sight of one simple, admirable goal: to help the DC community produce great music, and to help we, the fans, rock out to it.

Dig a bit deeper into Sockets’ artists with this Spotify playlist: Sockets Records, Past and Present. Please note that not every track was released on Sockets, nor could all Sockets-affiliated artists be included on the playlist (Spotify has its limits).