A few weeks ago, I hit up my friend Howie Abrams while I was working on my Killing Time tribute piece because he used to be one of the executives behind In-Effect, a label that released the band's Brightside album in 1989. Howie came through with the knowledge and also reminded me that it was the 30th anniversary since the launch of In-Effect.
You see, while the label didn't last long (from 1988 to 1992), In-Effect did manage to release some of my favorite records of the era (Blood, Sweat, and No Tears, Brightside, Handle with Care, Gumbo Millennium, Ball of Destruction). So, with that in mind, I asked Howie if he would be down to be interrogated by me on the history of the late label. The funny thing is, the guy agreed!
Before In-Effect even existed, there was Combat Records. Tell me about your history with that label.
I was hired as a salesman for Combat's parent company, Important Record Distributors, in 1987 when I was 19. Important had two labels at that time: Relativity and Combat, and had already formed and dissolved a sub-label called Combat Core, which was a hardcore label, and had bands like Agnostic Front, Crumbsuckers, Ludichrist, GBH, Circle Jerks, The Accused... The people who were involved with Combat Core were long gone by the time I started at the company. I never worked for the label side until In-Effect was launching.
By the mid to late ‘80s, Combat, along with Megaforce Records and Metal Blade were the biggest American labels in the metal arena. Were the powers that be at Combat hesitant to let you guys start bringing in hardcore acts to the roster? I know you already had bands like Crumbsuckers and Ludichrist on the label, but I’m just wondering if they got that kind of stuff or not.
The powers, so to speak, definitely embraced the idea of In-Effect and focusing on hardcore. With Important just down the hall from Combat, they knew through their distribution relationships with labels such as Revelation, SST, Dischord, and others that hardcore was becoming meaningful in terms of sales, and that Combat wasn't paying proper attention to the hardcore bands they already had, most specifically, Agnostic Front. Plus, the metal/hardcore crossover had long since become its own thing by then, so the audience for the sound was as receptive as ever.
So, who came up with the idea of In-Effect, and how did it go from farm to table, so to speak? Also, did you go with a slangy kind of name so that you wouldn’t be pigeonholed as “Combat’s hardcore label”?
I first approached Alan Becker, who was the head of purchasing for Important with the idea of creating an entity with which to focus on hardcore. He was the main contact with the punk and hardcore labels IRD distributed, so he completely understood the wisdom of the concept. I would constantly bitch to him about how much attention Combat's death metal and thrash bands were getting, and how much money the label was spending on them without reaping any reward. It drove me nuts. He shared the frustration because the Combat staff would constantly try to sell him, as well as the salespeople, on how big certain metal bands were going to become, but we knew better.
I'm not knocking those metal bands, but the staff over there was crying wolf over and over again. They had some great hardcore bands right under their noses which were being ignored.
Eventually, we all got on the same page, and the owner, Barry Kobrin, agreed to green light what became In-Effect Records. To start, I was a one-man show, but the workload was crazy, so at that point, the decision was made to add someone to the equation. That's where Steve Martin comes into the picture. He was still in Agnostic Front, but was also a great journalist with a ton of connections. Having Steve involved made our presence much stronger. As far as the name of the label, truthfully, I was obsessed with Def Jam, and in New York, hardcore had really begun to crosspollinate with the street culture of hip-hop, so In-Effect is the name that stuck. We had also thrown around the idea of the name "Crush" but thought it was too generic.
Did you guys have a significant budget to start off?
Honestly, any budget was significant in '87/'88. We just wished to expose hardcore bands to more people. That was the main goal. It wasn't so much about budgets, as much as it was about speaking to the hardcore community from within, which we were uniquely able to do. We understood and were fans of not only the music, but the scene as well. At least as much as one can "understand" it.
Did you want to try some radically different things that went outside of the existing heavy metal marketing model of that era?
Our marketing approach wasn't revolutionary by any means. It was simply about signing the best bands, and getting them out there to anyone who might embrace them, wherever they lived. At that point, metal marketing had become extremely formulaic. You made advance cassettes, tried to get some press, placed some print ads in metal magazines and threw the band on tour.
Do people really discover bands from seeing an ad in a glossy magazine? The underground found bands through different means; mainly, the community communicating within itself via college radio, fanzines, flyers, etc. We spent our time trying to do a better job than anyone when it came to the fundamentals. Plus, we worked to get our bands on tour with bands which were bigger than they were, be they hardcore bands, punk bands, metal bands...whatever.
Agnostic Front’s Live at CBGB was the record that launched In-Effect. Did you purposely go with an established artist to help get you a big order out of that gate?
Live at CBGB was already in the works when In-Effect began, so we thought it would be smart for that to be the focal point of our label launch. AF was an important band, and a huge reason we started the label in the first place. We also believed that we should come hard out-of-the-box with more than one release on the first day so as to let people know we were serious. The next thing we focused on was licensing the Bad Brains' ROIR cassette for release on CD for the very first time, which dropped on our first day as well. That title really legitimized us as a label.
Prong’s Force Fed was next on the release schedule. What was it about that band that you guys knew would be a good fit for the label? They went on to get Andy Gould as their manager and signed with Epic. Did In-Effect work out some deal with Epic, or was the Prong deal a one-off?
We loved Prong's first album and knew the guys from CBGB, so when the opportunity to license Force Fed presented itself through Important, we jumped at it. It had only been released overseas through a label called Southern Studios, and when I heard the album, I was blown away by the progression they had made since their ironically titled debut, Primitive Origins. Prong started to sound like a special band that a lot of people might like, rather than the one who had a hard time finding its place in the NY scene. After we released the album, we began negotiations with the band to sign them to In-Effect for future albums, but the major labels were on to them too and they signed with Epic. Back then I took losing them personally, but it's just how it goes sometimes.
You told once that Leeway was a band you had tried to sign away from Profile Records because they had been sitting on the Born to Expire for too long and the band was frustrated. Did that just come down to your bosses at In-Effect not wanting to spend the kind of money Leeway and their manager wanted? I’ve wondered how different things would have been if that band had been on a better label than Profile.
Leeway was, and is one of my favorite bands. I heard Born to Expire long before it came out and thought it was brilliant. I truly believed they were going to be huge. The album sat on the shelf for what seemed like forever, and I began to talk to the guys about the possibility of buying the album back from Profile and releasing it on In-Effect, but in addition to what it would have cost to get the album, we were asked to pay the band an advance on top and we couldn't afford that. It would have been the most money we'd spent on any band by far. We really wanted to make that happen, but financially, we couldn't swing it. It's a shame that band never reached the heights they should have, all because of bad business. I still play BTE all the time.
What’s the story behind Primus and In-Effect?
Unfortunately, not as much of a story as we would have liked. I really wanted to sign them. I went out to San Francisco and spent time with the guys and their manager, and we hit it off well, but they became a highly sought after band very quickly, so we lost them to a major. This was something we had to learn to deal with as In-Effect went along. That said, their manager also worked with Limbomaniacs [a band already signed to In-Effect], so that's how I met them. I first saw them open for Primus in Petaluma, CA, which was a really crazy show. It was akin to a Dead show, but for slap bass! The entire theater was on acid, or mushrooms or some other psychedelics.
You also told me that you wanted to sign Urban Blight, a band few people have ever heard of outside of the NYC area. Why didn’t that deal happen and what was it about the band that made you such a believer?
Around 1987, Urban Blight was the best and most popular unsigned band in New York City. They were selling out the Ritz (1500 capacity) without an album, and were big in Boston, Washington D.C. and elsewhere. They had transitioned from their days as a pretty pure ska band, to adding elements of soul and R&B to their repertoire. I loved them and thought they'd be a nice addition to the roster, but no one at the company saw what I saw in them. They actually played the Important/Relativity Christmas party in 1990, which didn't go so well. That sadly solidified their fate as far as In-Effect goes.
Were there any other bands that you guys were looking at that never panned out for whatever reason?
Toward the end of the label's existence, we were talking to Gorilla Biscuits, but I think they were a little apprehensive about signing with anyone. The wound up disbanding shortly thereafter.
If there’s one band that most people in the hardcore community associate with In-Effect, that would be Sick of It All. How did your association with the band start and how did you get them over Revelation Records, the label that released their debut 7”?
At the time we launched In-Effect, we had our eyes on Sick of It All. In my opinion, they were the absolute best hardcore band out there. They knew me from being a fan (I was at their very first show and countless others), and knew Steve from AF. It was never so much about "getting them over Revelation." We knew they had no agreement with Rev, so I simply approached them, letting them know that we could not only do better, but could get them to where they wanted to go. Those guys wanted to play hardcore for a living. They were dedicated to being in that band and were willing to bust their asses to make it work long term which most hardcore bands were not. We shared their vision and their drive and went to work. The fact that they're still killing it this many years down the road is a testament to their dedication and perseverance. They are a giant, incredible piece of hardcore history.
How much involvement did the label have in the studio? Was it the standard A&R—artist setup, or was the label pretty hands off when it came to the recording process?
We had as little or as much involvement as the groups wanted. We weren't expecting pop hits from our bands, so there was no need to be looking over their shoulders to make sure they were "delivering." I liked being in the studio, but it was mostly to get a feel for what was coming and bond with bands. I even got to sing back-ups on a few albums which was always fun.
24-7 Spyz is another band that was synonymous with In-Effect during the label’s run. How did they enter your world?
24-7 Spyz were impossible to ignore. They were playing tons of shows and opening for everyone in the area and just destroying audiences. A lot of kids were likening them to Bad Brains, which I understood to a degree as they flew the red, gold, and green colors, but I saw them more as an East Coast cousin of Fishbone minus the horns. They didn't exactly fit neatly into any scene or genre, but they were aggressive and they were incredible live. Hardcore shows were their jump-off and while I expected big things from them, I couldn't have imagined how popular they'd become, and how quickly it happened. After they became successful, there were so many haters — people calling them sellouts and complaining that they weren't really "hardcore." Give me a break! They have nothing to apologize for.
How did you guys end up doing Madball’s Ball of Destruction EP? I’m the same age as Freddy Cricien, so I remember all of the hype around the record since he was 13-14 when he recorded it.
Freddy was actually 12 when that single was recorded, and I'd known him since he was 8 or 9. Roger Miret came to the office one day and said, "I need to play you something." It was a cassette with the Ball of Destruction songs on it. I loved it. It sounded like AF's United Blood with a 12-year-old singing. I told Roger we should put it out as a 7". The rest is history. I have so much respect for what they've gone on to achieve.
Scatterbrain’s Here Comes Trouble album came out in 1990 and it was a big record for In-Effect. At the time, I remember that channel The Box was still around and the video for “Down with the Ship (Slight Return)” was on constantly.
Here Comes Trouble was actually recorded when the band was still Ludichrist, whom we decided to work with at In-Effect just as we had with Agnostic Front — just move them over from Combat. I could tell where the band was moving to musically from their Powertrip album, plus I was a big Ludichrist fan, so we were very excited about working with them. They began recording Here Comes Trouble and we knew immediately that they were making a very special album. In fact, I got into a lot of trouble (excuse the pun) for quietly letting them go overbudget so they could finish it the way they wanted to. Once it was done, we felt great about what we had, and the reaction was amazing.
What 24-7 Spyz had achieved set the table for Scatterbrain in terms of getting some commercial radio and video play. Headbanger's Ball and The Box really got behind them and it all just took off. No one saw that level of success coming, especially considering how much of a struggle Ludichrist had endured. That's why they changed their name, and essentially became a new band. It was a really smart move and it worked.
For their next record, Scatterbrain signed with Elektra Records. Were most of the majors sniffing around the minute they began to break?
That's the way majors tend to work. Very rare that they develop their own bands, so they like to pick off successful indie bands. That said, these bands almost never do as well on major labels. That was the case with Scatterbrain. Elektra spent a small fortune on them (they rented fucking elephants for their first Elektra video...REAL ELEPHANTS), but neglected to realize that we'd put out the better album. The music we released was far superior to their Elektra album.
When did you start feeling like In-Effect was going to close down? Was it a gradual thing or more of a shock?
Well, a few things were happening... One, when the label began, everyone involved was on the same page with what we were signing and how we'd go about our business. It was us versus them, as far as the other labels out there, getting the attention of the other departments within the company (sales, retail, etc.). That began to change as things began to work and egos came into play, mine included. We were too small to have divisions within and it fucked things up.
Also, truthfully, I lost perspective. I was barely 21, getting all of this stuff done, and had forgotten what it was all about to a degree. When all was said and done, Sony bought the entire company including Important and all three labels which signaled the end. They began dropping bands and firing staff, which eventually included me. As I mentioned, I was a bit lost, so I was indeed shocked but I probably shouldn't have been.
Did you have any projects in the works when the label folded? Meaning, new signings or follow-up records slated for release.
I had recently signed Murphy's Law, and we were finishing up work on the Live in NYC '91 home video with AF, Sick of It All, and Gorilla Biscuits. People ask why GB was featured in that video, and it's because we were trying to sign them to make a second album. I was no longer working there when both ML and the video were released. The Murphy's Law album The Best of Times came out on Relativity Records, as did the second SOIA album [Just Look Around].
What do you remember about the last day of In-Effect?
I remember just being numb. I couldn't believe it was over. It went so fast. The guy running Combat, Jim Welch, was let go the same day, so we grabbed our shit, went out to lunch and ultimately talked about how fortunate we were to have had our respective opportunities.
If you had to choose one In-Effect release that you remember the most fondly? What would it be and why?
Honestly, I couldn't possibly pick one. I'm really proud of the label's body of work; especially the fact that so many people still look back at it so fondly. It was an amazing time and we made a lot of noise in a relatively short window. It touched people from all points of the globe. I could never have imagined that happening in the name of hardcore. It helped make the scene larger, and the world smaller...all from a warehouse in Hollis, Queens!
Howie says stay tuned to his socials (Instagram, Twitter) because he has a big announcement to make soon regarding certain members of a certain Queens hardcore band. He claims it’s worth waiting through the mystery.