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True Groove Records CEO Tomas Doncker On Being A Minority Owner Of A New York City Record Label

Doncker by Dylan Mars Greenberg


In 2012, my friend Sin Hom-Gogolak was in charge of public relations for City Foundation. She invited me to all the shows at Summerstage that season.  I loved it; the shows were free, I didn’t have to wait on lines and, to top it off, I had terrific seats to the side of the stage. One weekday, Sin contacted me and recommended I catch the historical musical, “Power Of The Trinity”, about the life of Haile Selassie. I reviewed it and also interviewed Tomás Doncker, the composer, lyricist, and musical director of the terrific musicians I had seen onstage. The book of the play was OK, but the music blew me away. It was in that interview Doncker told me about his then two-year-old record label, True Groove Records, and all the work they were doing. We quickly became close friends and remain so to this day.

Doncker started his career in the early 1980s, becoming an established guitarist in the No New York scene. He went on to become a hugely popular international session musician, particularly in Japan (where he lived for four years). He dropped out of the scene for almost a decade after the passing of his mother, reemerging at the turn of century as a Soul-Blues singer/songwriter/producer/guitarist. Almost immediately upon his return he released two albums, Inside Out  and The Mercy Suite (co-written with his mentor, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa). A short time after that he met performance artist Marla Mase, and was deeply impressed by her energy and innovative ideas about music and theater. At the suggestion of Doncker’s longtime colleague, bassist/producer Bill Laswell, he and Mase teamed up with Laswell’s engineer/studio-manager, James Dellatacoma, and together the three formed True Groove Records.

That was 10 years and 75 releases ago, and True Groove has become one of the most prolific and musically diverse independent record labels in existence today.

In 2015, after the Charleston Church Massacre, Doncker wrote “Church Is Burning Down”, and while others might have been surprised by the clarity and anger which would blow up completely on the ensuing album The Mess We Made, I wasn’t. Activism is in his blood. During a phone interview he clarified:  “My parents were very socially and politically involved in the Brooklyn political scene in the 1960s and 1970s, spearheaded by Shirley Chisholm,” who, in 1968, became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress. “I remember as a child, many Sundays after church there would be dinners with the local constituency of movers and shakers. I can remember asking my mother why were people yelling at each other, it felt like something was wrong, and she explained to me how everybody here is on the same team and trying to make things better for all of us. It wasn’t yelling, it was impassioned and focused. An ongoing debate as to how to move the community forward. It was my first time witnessing the idea of equals agreeing to disagree in order to effect positive change. It was very exciting.”

IMAN: In 2020, black owned record labels tend to be along the lines of entities like Brainfeeder or Flying Lotus; affiliated to a major label contract, or borderline vanity project kickbacks.  Would you agree you are more like Sugar Hill or Philadelphia International Records, with the difference that you refuse to promote either specific styles or specific race? You are all inclusive.

TOMÁS:  Absolutely. I was thinking about this last night. I was talking to Marla about it. We don’t want to appear snarky, and we respect everything our brothers and sisters are doing. However, we are a little different. We have a five star production facility, a team of A-List engineers and producers, and an international community of collaborators that stretches from Africa to Europe to my doorstep in Brooklyn. What we do is unique. We are following in the footsteps of labels that established themselves as true independents like Island, Motown and Stax. Island Records, in particular, is a major influence with regard to musical diversity. Our roster includes: country, rock, hip-hop, funk, Americana, global soul, punk… just as theirs did in the 1970s.  If we like it, we will produce it. Our tastes are very broad.

IMAN:  The first four songs from Big Apple Blues (2014), run the gamut from Southern Rock to Americana to Northern Soul to Funk. Is this huge scope part of your musical ethos?

TOMÁS:  What factors into this discussion is that we don’t see this as a huge scope. Louis Armstrong once said, ‘there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. If you can tap your foot to it, it’s good.’  It’s that simple. In a world that is being pulled apart by genre specificity, that’s becoming tantamount to musical segregation, we strive to erase those borders and break down those walls. How can you say you are really into music if you’re only into one style of music? I love it all and produce it all.

IMAN: Years ago, you were discussing the lack of activism in music. In 2015 you released a political as well as a devastated and heartbroken reaction to the Charleston shooting, “Church Is  Burning Down”,  but you were alone in this. Do the events of the past two months make you feel vindicated?

TOMÁS: Vindication is not the point. And not all music has to be politically and socially charged. But in these difficult, yet interesting times, I feel that music could very well be the last bastion of freedom of thought. We are in complete support of artists all over the world exploiting the musical platform in order to open minds and hearts. In the 1960s, society was built around pop music of all types, it was the vanguard. But that has been lost. Our label, True Groove insists on being part of ongoing social change and development.

IMAN: Have you found problems in the music business related to being a Black Record Company owner?

TOMÁS: The big picture answer to your question is that there is a problem being black in America. Period. I don’t want to discuss racism in the music business, it’s a bullshit discussion. I have spent my entire life with the boot of racism on my neck, so much so that it is an ingrained reality I’ve struggled with and against. You can hear it in my music and you can hear it in my voice. It gives me hope to see so many different types of people standing together in support of positive change for all of humanity.

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