I still remember the time when I first visited the HQ of Philophon Records in Berlin. Situated on the top floor of an old industrial building in Kreuzberg, the place where all the Philophon magic was happening got introduced to me; a beautiful, cozy space with carpets and plants, filled with an impressive collection of old and modern studio technology, various instruments from all over the world and a great selection of vinyls, all among the numerous colorful Philophon pressings. This setup, in combination with my conversation with the label founder Max Weissenfeldt about his musical vision, was the best introduction to their work and just the beginning of what I can now call a “Philophon fandom”.
Max Weissenfeldt’s impressive music career starts from early on and expands to include The Poets Of Rhythm, The Whitefield Brothers, The Polyversal Souls as well as names such as The Black Keys, Lana Del Rey, Dr. John and the legendary Ethiopian jazz singer Alemayehu Eshete, among many others. For this Invisible Archives interview we asked Max to tell us about his musical backstory, his connection to record collecting and how all these have influenced his work and led up to the creation of Philophon Records.
Once you’re done, be sure to listen to this exclusive Philophon Records mix, presented by Max’s Philophon partner Coco Maria.
You grew up in Munich. Can you tell us a bit about your musical influences? How did you start collecting records?
I started collecting records around 1986, when I was 10-11 years old. In Munich/Bavaria the Austrian pop scene was very present back then. My very first vinyl was “Einzelhaft” by Falco. Around that time, I heard “Holiday Rap” by MC Miker G & DJ Sven on the radio. It had such a big influence on me, that I actually became the first Hip Hop teen around. I bought a baseball cap, some Converse sneakers and some oversized t-shirts. I even went to a construction site and stole some of these plastic barrier chains, sprayed them with gold lack and wore them around my neck. Hip Hop culture wasn’t really present in Germany at that time, so people looked at me as if I was from another planet. Directly next to my school there was a record shop where I spent all of my money buying stuff like LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Flash…but my favourite was Kurtis Blow, especially his late 70s debut album “The Breaks”. All of its music is recorded live with real drums, bass and piano – you see, during that time, programming and sampling wasn’t around. From an early age I was taking classical piano lessons. At one of our lessons the teacher asked me what I wish to learn and my response was, with Kurtis Blow’s piano lines in my head, that I’d like to learn Hip Hop piano. She looked at me and asked what Hip Hop is. I said, it’s the music black people in America are doing. She said “Ahhhhh, Blues!”…So, I learned the 12-bar Blues turnaround and I was the happiest boy in the world. I played Blues at home for hours and with that as a basis, I slowly began developing my first own ideas and rudimentary compositions. Then, in 1988, Gilles Peterson started releasing his “Acid Jazz” compilations – a vinyl compilation series with 60s and 70s Funky, Jazz tunes from the Prestige Records catalogue. Already obsessed with playing Blues piano, the music of those records became my new “holy grail” and made me forget everything about Hip Hop forever. Thank God!
Did your family have the vinyl bug too?
My parents had some records, even a couple of Blue Note records from their youth, but my main impact was my older brother Jan. He was DJing and by that time a lot into P-Funk and 80s Funk. In his collection I also found the “Acid Jazz” compilations with all that Prestige stuff on it. Around 1989 he became a master in collecting Funk 7-inch from the mid-60s to the early 70s. He even travelled twice in the early-90s to the US, all the way from NYC down to New Orleans to buy 7-inch. Each time he came back home with hundreds of unheard records – it felt more than Christmas when he stood there with all those bags filled up with the black gold.
Was there any particular record that had a significant impact on your personal life?
Puuuuh, that’s hard to say as over the whole 90s I was in a kind of vinyl ecstasy where every single record was gold. On the one hand all those nameless Funk 7-inch, just check Eddie Bo’s “Hook and Sling” or “Get Down Brother” by Mickey & the Soul Generation and you get an idea, and on the other hand I became a deep Jazz maniac. Let’s name Prestige, Impulse, Riverside, Blue Note as big impacts on me. In the late 90s I turned my focus on the so-called field recordings from different parts of the world. Here are to name Ocora, Lyricord, Folkway Rec, Bärenreiter as my favorite labels. During that time nobody paid attention to such records – I bought them all for 2, 5 or maximum 10 Deutsch Mark. Now they are very, very expensive. I was lucky. That was also my last big wave of collecting records. I somehow stopped buying excessively around 2005. But, it’s very important for me until today to release all my music on vinyl. It’s a ritual.
Nevertheless, if I am to name a record that changed my life, that would be “Sikyi Highlife” by the Ghanaian group Dr. K. Gyasi & His Noble Kings because it made me travel to the country of its origin. The album was introduced to me by a friend in 2010. When I heard it for the first time, it was like landing on another planet. I was just confused, but also blown away. To be confused by music as a trained musician is a moment of gold, as it’s a very, very rare experience you have after being active for years. It throws you back to being a child, when the whole world is something magical. My brain was bouncing all around, the bass especially blew me away. I later called that style “talking bass” as that is exactly what it does. So, when I heard that record, the next day I went to a travel agent and booked my flight to Ghana. I met Ralph Karikari, the original bass player on Sikyi Highlife, and he helped me understand the Sikyi rhythm and the overall concept of that style. Since there is no jet lag when traveling to Ghana and it does not take that long to get there, I became a frequent Ghana visitor and built up a huge network of contacts. Finally, I moved there in November 2019 – all because of a single record.
[Dr. K. Gyasi & His Noble Kings – Sikyi Highlife (1973)]
So, you’re currently residing in Ghana. How is the vinyl scene there?
Well, as soon as the cassette tape was introduced into the market, vinyl vanished in Ghana. The climate in general and the dust in particular during the dry season is harmful to records. Nevertheless, before tape was established, Ghana had two (!) pressing plants – one in Accra and one in Kumasi.
The one in Accra was established by Decca, but later on was owned by Dick Essilfie-Bondzie, founder of the legendary Essiebons Records. The one in Kumasi was run by Mr. Badu, the first native African owner of a pressing plant in whole Africa. He was a real pioneer, as he set up a whole music infrastructure in the middle of the jungle. Not only did he build a pressing plant, he also set up a first-class recording studio and founded Ambassador Records. Due to his efforts, many labels in Kumasi have been able to establish themselves by having a studio to rent and a pressing plant to press records. That was the reason that Highlife was able to become such a fruitful phenomenon. Big thanks go to Mr. Badu, an unsung hero that nobody nowadays really knows about.
When those companies collapsed in the early 80s, vinyl stopped playing a role here. The younger generation has never even heard about it – why also? There is one guy here in Kumasi who has some records to sell. He tells me that from time to time a Japanese, Australian or European hunter comes by to buy records, but there is 0% interest in vinyl by the Ghanaians.
Any exceptional Ghanaian music findings you can share with us?
Some favorite records include “Traditional Drumming and Dances of Ghana” published by Folkways Records in 1976 as well as the 1984 Highlife album “I Go Die” by Opambuo International Band of Ghana. Nowadays, if I’m in the mood to dig Highlife records, I go on Youtube channels like Afrosunny or Groovemonzter and check what’s new there. My last discovery is an album called “Afenhyiapa” by the Kyeremateng Stars. Especially the song “Masere M’ano” became a big favorite.
[VA – Traditional Drumming and Dances of Ghana (1976)]
[Opambuo International Band of Ghana – I Go Die (1984)]
Did your passion for vinyl have an influence on your work as a musician/music producer/label owner?
Vinyl was foremost a source to get information. Back then, there have been only a few compilations with rare stuff around. Like with that 60s and 70s Funk stuff, it was only available on the original 7-inch. Same case with a lot of Jazz stuff and with almost all field recordings. So, collecting vinyl had a practical reason. For me nevertheless, having a huge collection wasn’t just a source of information, it was also part of my identity. When my friends visited me, they went through my collection and knew with whom they dealt.
If you look today at somebody’s music collection, you look at a smartphone. That’s all. Nothing to go through and hold in your hands. A music collection is an abstract thing nowadays. I was once wondering why teenagers like to buy records today as they have no nostalgic relation to it and they even have to pay a lot more. And I think it’s that fact, the abstract collection of data vs. the haptic and colorful world of records. A record collection represents and defines your identity.
How did you come to set up Philophon records? And where does the label name come from?
From an early age, I already had the experience of doing a label as we, the Poets of Rhythm, started to put out our own 7inch in the early 90s. Even if it was on a hobby level at that time, I loved it. Since then, I always carried the idea of starting my own record company. The name Philophon came to my mind before creating the label, about 20 years ago. ‘Philos’ means friend or admirer and ‘phon’ means sound or tone. Both are Ancient Greek words and as I am a big fan of the Ancient Greek spirit, a so-called Philhellene, for me it was natural to draw inspiration from there.
When I moved to Berlin in 2007, I found a nice work space on the 6th floor of an old industrial building directly by the river Spree. That was the place where Philophon started. Since 2010 I have been visiting Ghana and started building up a network of artists and musicians there. In 2012, I teamed up with the sound engineer Stibbo Spitzmüller who set up his exquisite studio of vintage gear at that space by the Spree. We immediately started producing a whole series of instrumentals which I took with me to Ghana in 2013 in order to record vocals on top. When I came back, we had a dozen finished songs.
While having several Ghanaian artists, an own production facility and a good name for a label, I went to a friend to ask if he could lend me the money to press three 7inch. He and his mother trusted me and gave me the amount needed. After registering Philophon as a company, I looked for a distributor. My old friend Gerald Jazzman recommended Kudos, so I sent them an email. They replied that they already have a lot of labels and blabla. I ignored all that and just sent them the songs of the three ready-to-release 7inch I had in my pocket. Five minutes later I received a PDF with the contract. On 24th of March 2014 the first Philophon 7-inch, “Suro Yuama” by Guy One, was released.
You have created a sub-label called Lokalophon with three Ghanaian 7-inch as its first releases. What is the idea behind?
Localophon is designed to release either local productions that have been already released, or make new recordings of local styles without adding any of the, let’s say, Philophon touch. Meaning, that I record the pure style as authentically as possible and only take care that it’s technically well captured. On Philophon releases I’m always part of the creative process as well.
Is there anything in particular that you pay highly attention to in your own vinyl productions?
Yes, the musicians. Music has to be made by the body, the soul and the mind of a real human being.
Any new releases we should anticipate in 2021?
There is a lot on schedule. On March 12, the debut 7-inch of Florence Adooni was released, will be followed up by a whole album later this year. In April, I will be launching a new sub-label called Variophon, designed for remixes. The first release on it is “Jimi Tenor remixes Jimi Tenor”. Later on in May, we have another 7-inch coming out by Ahemaa Nwomkro, a singing duo from Kumasi that performs the old Ashanti music style ”Nwomkro”. It’s beautiful music. Then, the second Guy One album is coming up and there are also a few other pots on the stove cooking some fine music. As it looks like, we will be releasing a new 7-inch each month, plus 2-3 albums per year.
By Dimitra Zina