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An undersung pioneer of the New York City music scene in the '70s and '80s with his effulgent mixture of salsa, calypso, disco, big band and Caribbean music, August Darnell wasn't exactly looking to become an industry player in the '10s. And yet today (Sept. 17) sees the release of a surprisingly modern (but distinctively Darnell) offering called "Checkin' My Colonies" under his old Kid Creole moniker – and it comes out on his own label, the recently founded 2C2C. So what changed? Well, nothing – it's just he couldn't keep his mouth shut.
"The only reason I started this one was because I was at an event and running my mouth of about how record labels are full of shit and A&R people are full of shit," Darnell recounts jovially to Billboard. "And lo and behold, in that room where I was talking shit is an A&R guy. He turns to me and says, 'If you think this is so easy, why don't you start your own label?' And this is the truth, that's exactly what motivated me to say back to him, 'okay, I will -- I'll show you how simple it is to run a label with dignity.'"
Thus 2C2C (Too Cool to Conga) was born, with his longtime songwriting buddy Peter Schott and wife Eva Tudor-Jones (a member of Kid Creole's backing band The Coconuts for 18 years) joining him as partners.
And in a manner of speaking, both Darnell and the A&R guy can lay claim to the last laugh.
"The funniest thing about that story is that he was right -- it's not easy at all," Darnell says with a gregarious guffaw. "But once you're in it, you gotta continue it."
With his longtime friend and wife on board, 2C2C has been a bit of a family affair so far – in fact, the shiny, psychedelic vibes of the sonically immersive "Checkin' My Colonies" come from producer Youngr, who just happens to be his son Dario Darnell, and his other son Lorne Ashley.
Not every family affair is a Brady Bunch situation, though. "My sons have wanted to do this for me for quite some time. Finally, they called me up and said, 'Will you please come to the studio, we have something for you.' And I said, 'uh-oh.'"
While Darnell immediately took to the music, his boys wouldn't let him tackle it the way he traditionally would a Kid Creole track. Instead of giving him a few weeks to workshop it, they strong-armed him into doing it right then and there in the studio.
"The end result I'm very happy with – but it was an ordeal in the studio being told what to do by my sons," he says with a big laugh. "It was awful. I love my sons, and they've always been supportive through the years of the whole Kid Creole thing and they're respectful. But when we got in the studio, it was their studio, their song, their production. They would actually tell their father, 'no dad don't sing it like that, that's old school.'"
Darnell says he ultimately "let them get away with it" -- because no matter what happens, it's a "win-win situation" in his book.
"If it's a smash, then they're gonna say to me, 'told you so dad, if you want to continue your career, let us lead you into the future.' And that's okay, because there will be lots of tours and money," he reasons. "Secondly, if it's a flop, I get to say to them with my huge ego, 'see boys, old school is the way to go.'"
He did, however, put his foot down when it came to the lyrics.
"They didn't want it to be political, but I won that one," he says. And the lyrics to "Checkin' My Colonies" – not to mention its black-and-white vintage animation-style music video – certainly elevate the song above similar vibe-y fare being produced today.
"Collecting my dues and fees / even if I gotta squeeze / Them and make them squirm and squeal and bleed," sings the colonizer in the song, before a yearning voice cuts in to stand up: "I'm not your property / I'm not your luxury / and I just wanna be free."
"When I moved to Hawaii four years ago, I noticed there was a lot of angst," Darnell, who splits his time between Sweden and Maui, says. "The whole aloha thing was a farce, because there's so many angry Hawaiians about their history. And I realized this is just another colonial takeover story that we are so familiar with, like Australia and Africa."
Part of that touches on the Bronx-born Darnell's own history – both of his parents came from the deep south, with Caribbean and Italian lineage. Although he and his older brother Stony (with whom he formed Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band in the '70s) would ask their father about growing up in the south, there were "never any answers. I think it was a protective thing… he never told me the horror stories."
His family and his neighborhood did, however, expose him to a melting pot of audio, from the Rat Pack to Johnny Cash to Tito Puente to Cab Calloway to the Beatles to Celia Cruz.
"We didn't want to go into one direction – we wanted what we called Rainbow Music, to take all those influences, wrap them up and create something new," Darnell recalls. "And that's what we did, and it was very successful for us in Europe, though not as successful for us in America." (Kid Creole & the Coconuts did score six top 40 hits on the Dance Club Songs chart in the '80s and belong to that unique class of underground NYC musicians whose impact far outstrips their sales.)
But he's hardly bitter. "I was a very lucky guy," he says, noting that he was signed by the mythological Seymour Stein ("We did an audition for him and he fell asleep – true story – but he still signed the band") to Warner Bros., and then by the equally legendary Chris Blackwell to Island Records. But when Sony and Tommy Mottola (yet another music biz giant) came knocking, things ran afoul. "Chris Blackwell wanted to sign me another five years, and I went with Sony because Sony was offering more money. And that was the punishment I got for being a blunt capitalist," he says candidly.
"Sony, that chapter was not successful [for Kid Creole]. I blame it on myself," he says. "It all when wrong, to be quite honest with you, when Tommy Mottola became too big for his britches and wouldn't return my phone calls anymore. He turned it over to an A&R guy who didn't know anything about Kid Creole or the Latin, calypso mixture of music. And this guy destroyed my relationship with Sony. But it's all growing up, and to tell you the truth, it was my error. It's a life lesson, and that's why we formed 2C2C music, and we'll promote it to death."
Whether good-naturedly complaining about his sons, looking back on growing up in the Bronx or talking about the potential for his new label, Darnell sounds truly jubilant these days. "It's an amazing thing I'm still enthusiastic after all these years in the music business," he muses. "That's a good sign – it means I haven't become jaded or beaten down."
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