An Echo-Drenched Time Capsule From the Numero Group

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Errol Stubbs’ “Spaced Out On Your Love,” recorded in 1986, is included on a recent dispatch from Chicago’s Numero Group, Visible And Invisible Persons: Distributed In Space.

(Photo: Courtesy Seasick Records/Numero Group)

When the songs on Visible And Invisible Persons: Distributed In Space initially were recorded, there was no consideration of Spotify playlists or of prime song placements in hip web-only miniseries. The only hope for getting independent music from places like the West Side of Chicago, Birmingham and Memphis out to the people in the 1970s and 1980s was to scrape together pennies for limited pressing runs. It was an era long before anyone with a laptop and an internet connection could get their music to a global audience in seconds.

E. Willey Von Huff-N-Puff’s “Just Wish You Were Here” kicks off the latest compilation from the historians and culture cultivators at the Numero Group imprint, and serves as an off-kilter, echo-drenched time capsule, gliding like flotsam between the past and today’s growing interest in the concepts around Afro-futurism. In a sense, Afro-futurism (not unlike the business of making records) is about speculation. More specifically, Afro-futurism is about the audacity it takes for a black person to imagine a space for themselves in the future, even if their present place in society seems fraught. Imagine a world beyond the concrete one before us.

Numero Group generally excels at replicating the high of unearthing lost and forsaken music through their long running series of compilations. But Visible And Invisible Persons lacks the label’s usual unifying axis of a shared scene, defunct imprint or Svengali producer; this collection is loosely tethered (like an astronaut to a space station) to a theme of futuristic boogie and soul.

Some songs, like “Spaced Out On Your Love” by vocalist Errol Stubbs, are more concretely connected to a futuristic theme. Stubbs’ record came out of Birmingham, Alabama, during the mid-1980s, and was recorded at the regional powerhouse Sound of Birmingham Studios, where singer and producer Sam Dees worked out his deep-soul classic The Show Must Go On a decade earlier. Meanwhile, other tracks on Visible and Invisible Persons are more abstractly speculative, like the standout “Metropolis,” which finds Bay Area gospel giant Walter Hawkins longing for an imagined “unused place/ where my children can find some space to grow.” The track opens with dense sounds of urban gridlock and oozes unease around the pitfalls of progress, overpopulation and urban blight. The tune originally was released on a 1975 album called Wilderness America, A Celebration Of The Land, which was produced and chiefly composed by David Riordan (perhaps best known as a co-writer of “Green Eyed Lady” by ’70s rock group Sugarloaf). Here, Hawkins’ deft backing band features both Harvey Mason on drums and Lee Ritenour on guitar.

“Candles” by Candle Tribe is a forgotten late-’80s classic, but today reads as someone from the past guessing at what the future sounds like, mainly due to the tune deploying racks of analog synthesizers that could have been used to score late-night sci-fi films. Notably, though, “Candles,” like Alex Chilton’s High Priest and Al Green’s Soul Survivor, was recorded at Memphis’ famed Ardent Studios. Two tracks on, “Now You Sit Alone” by LaRhonda LeGette is a breezy stunner, studded with hypnotic percussion and flutes, her honeyed voice reminiscent of Stephanie Mills.

Visible And Invisible Persons: Distributed In Space sports a distinctive golden cover, and like the famous golden records that were shot into space by NASA in 1977, this little compilation contains its own representation of life on earth, as it drills down to highlight the neglected corners of the mid-1970s and 1980s boogie and soul scenes.

Much of this material once was relegated to the proverbial dark, dank basement, but through inclusion here, it’s now very literally distributed in a manner that couldn’t have been imagined back when it first was recorded. Streaming platforms, download sites and online merchants galore, each song is only a Google search away. So, for these songs, the future finally seems to have arrived. DB

Ayana Contreras hosts Reclaimed Soul on WBEZ and Vocalo Radio in Chicago.