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Wordsound and Vision

What Do You Do When Running a Happening Indie Label Starts to Wear You Down? Make a Movie, of Course

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Skiz Fernando

By Bret McCabe | Posted

When it comes to independent music, player/producer/label honcho Skiz Fernando has done it all. A former journalist and the dub/hip-hop mixmaster behind the nom de music Spectre, Fernando founded and nurtured the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born, now Baltimore-based Wordsound label through the music industry's growing pains without corporate assistance, from its 1994 beginning all the way up to the present. The small hip-hop label now boasts a catalog of 40 albums, including titles from Sensational, the Metbolics, Scotty Hard, Prince Paul's solo debut, and various Crooklyn Dub compilations.

But the business of running a label--the grind of recording, mastering, manufacturing, and distributing albums so that somebody, somewhere might decide to buy one--started to wear on the thirtysomething Fernando. He was getting burned out. So he did what anybody might do: He tried something new. He went off and made a movie, Crooked, and is releasing it himself through Wordsound as a soundtrack and DVD two-disc set. And now he's learning another medium and business entirely from scratch.

"I've been in the record business, but the movie business is very different," Fernando says while relaxing at his home in Charles Village. "I think it's so much easier to be an independent musician and make a living. Music is immediate. I just made an album in like three weeks [Parts Unknown, due on Quartermass in August]. Just the word 'film' [implies] years of your life, thousands and thousands of dollars, and a lot of people."

Crooked was written by Fernando while he visited family in Sri Lanka in early 2000, shot on digital video in 25 days in New York during April of last year, and edited and put through postproduction from summer to winter 2001, all for a budget of less than $40,000. Starring various labelmates and friends, the film follows Sensational (playing, for all practical purposes, himself), a young MC couch-surfing after he and his dad get evicted, trying to find ways to make music, and Xane (Daniel Dejesus, aka Mentol Nomad), a college grad killing time by selling weed while trying to decide what, if anything, he wants to do with his life.

Crooked is obviously a first film. Nonactors don't offer the best line readings, especially when the dialog sounds this unnatural. Quirky shot compositions often call too much attention to themselves. Sometimes the color timing doesn't match between shots in a scene, and dialogue may be slightly off-synch or at different volume levels in the sound mix.

Fernando knows he has a lot to learn as a filmmaker. "Shooting was like film school in a month," he says. "It was a incredibly difficult because I am a control freak. I do admit that. And you can't control everything in a film. So it almost killed me, but I'm glad I went through it, and I'm glad I survived, because it's set me up with a lot more confidence. I want to make more movies. That's a definite."

What Crooked lacks in sophistication, though, it makes up for in vibe. It captures a particular time and place with the sincere immediacy of eyes that witnessed it. Crooked comes alive when Sensational sculpts tracks alone in a room at night, or when Sensational and Xane are high, kicking back and talking about all the things they want to do but never seem to because they're too blunted to motivate. It's a quality that recalls the manic temperament of John Cassavetes' 1959 Shadows, another movie distinguished by a lack of technical skill and its heart in the right place.

Crooked isn't as unabashedly beatific as Shadows, but like the young Cassavetes, Fernando is taken with the romantic idealism of the Beat Generation's art and esprit des corps. (Witness the title of his 1994 book, The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture, and Attitudes of Hip-Hop.) Making music--and now movies--isn't a job for Fernando. It's a calling.

And like many idealists, he talks a good game. Just ask him some questions. He unfurls a history of the origin of Wordsound, which he started when omnipresent producer/sideman Bill Laswell offered him encouraging words and a modest startup fund. He weaves a logical tale of his progression from going to see punk shows as a teen to hosting a dub/reggae show at Harvard University's then student-run WHRB station to spinning at clubs and trying his hand at electronic production. Ask him why he does what he does and he offers a familiar motive.

"I'm into music for the adrenaline rush," he says. "That's the one common link to all the music that I've been into in my life. Punk rock did that for me. Reggae did that for me. And early hip-hop did that for me. And now the music that I make does that for me."

The sound bites don't stop. Ask him why he moved Wordsound from Brooklyn to Baltimore in November 2000 and he immediately cites an influx of young professionals from Manhattan to Brooklyn who drove up rents. The streets where Biggie Smalls grew up became the streets where the middle-class-hipster set sipped lattes and bought brownstones. Having gone to high school in Baltimore, Fernando decided to return. (Charm City is also close enough to New York that he could bounce back and forth during Crooked's production.)

But unlike some aspiring neobohemians, Fernando is not all bitch with no bite. He's got something to say and a creative fire burning under his ass. He's also determined enough to put his money where his mouth is and stick with it. That determination is one of the keys behind Wordsound's longevity, and he plans to continue its operations once he finishes promoting Crooked.

"I think there are so few artists and creative people that are really coming from the heart," he says--and immediately laughs, knowing and admitting he sounds like any other fluff-talking chump. "There are a lot of people in this game that just have dollar signs in their eyes. I'm not knocking entertainment, I just think there's more to it than entertaining."

But first he has to ply his enthusiasm in a new game. Fernando, Sensational, and Mentol Nomad fly to Japan May 28 for a week of screenings and performances. After a short return to the States, the trio heads off for another movie/music promotional tour through France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Fernando knows it will be hard work pushing a movie via an independent label. But he's undeterred.

"Look, I love Crooked," he says. "I know it's not perfect, but I'll always love it. To me, it's my student film. This movie taught me how to make a movie. The next time out, it's going to be a hundred times better."

For more information about Wordsound and Crooked, visit www.wordsound.com.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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