Two new releases hit the racks this month. Mark "Muleman" Massey and Dual Drive — two contemporary blues acts — are on Icehouse Records, a company with roots that reach back to the beginning of the music business in Memphis. Icehouse is the label run by Select-O-Hits, a music distribution company started by relatives of Sam Phillips. If I tell you that Three 6 Mafia plays a role in this story, well, welcome to Memphis.
"Uncle Sam made a living by putting [records] into the back of his car, and he'd sell 45s and 78s to anybody that would buy them," says Johnny Phillips, co-owner of Select-O-Hits.
Phillips is discussing his uncle Sam Phillips, brother to Johnny's father, Tommy, and founder of Sun Records. Tommy Phillips was riding high as Jerry Lee Lewis' road manager when the Killer and his new bride/underage cousin, Myra Gale, had a career-ending chat with the British press in 1958.
"They got thrown out of England," Phillips says. "So dad just could not go back to work. So Uncle Sam basically said you can live with me and you can manage my return warehouse."
The warehouse evolved into Select-O-Hits, an independent record distribution company. That may sound like an anachronism in the days of streaming media. But few have kept up with the changes in this business better than Phillips. Select-O-Hits' ability to adapt comes from decades of building relationships with artists and labels.
"It was still major labels until the late '50s and early '60s. Back then, you bought your music from the same place you bought your TV."
Sun Records and Phillips International (Uncle Sam's second label) would have unsold product returned to a warehouse. Tommy Phillips set up a shop in the return warehouse at 605 Chelsea to move the unsold stock. Eventually, it became Select-O-Hits, which still handles distribution for labels and artists and runs Icehouse Records, a blues and rock label. Given the company's Sun heritage, the blues and rock angle makes sense. What may make less sense to non-Memphians is how Select-O-Hits and Phillips played a role in establishing Memphis as a Dirty-South hotspot throughout the 1990s.
The Phillips family is a master example of what business types call horizontal integration, by which a company moves from its core business (recording hillbillies and prison inmates) into related side businesses (distribution, a label, and publishing). Which brings us to the "Electric Slide." Only in Memphis.
"'The Electric Slide (Shall We Dance)' was a dance record by Grandmaster Slice [in 1991]. Then we had a song called 'Boom I Got Your Boyfriend' by MC Luscious. We had the first World Class Wreckin' Cru, which was Dr. Dre's first group."
Enter Three 6 Mafia: "Jimmy Burge, the buyer over at Pop Tunes called me and asked, 'Do you know who Three 6 Mafia is?' They were doing these cassettes and mixtapes and selling them on the street. Pop Tunes would pay them cash. Not even any case. Just an old white cassette. And there would be written 'Three 6 Mafia, tape number whatever.' Jimmy said these guys can sell. I got together with Jordan and Paul, and we started talking about it. Next thing you know, it was the first commercial album they recorded, called Mystic Stylez. They did an album after that called The End, Part 1, which was a big album. That's when Sony signed them. We still have those in our catalog and 25 or 30 other titles from them and their artists."
Phillips has seen an industry in turmoil over the past decade, but he sees rays of hope in the form of monetization of digital music. Today, Select-O-Hits manages a range of revenue sources for artists.
"We got into iTunes very quickly," Phillips says. "Now all of our agreements include digital. YouTube is now equal [to iTunes] as an income stream for music. It's phenomenal."
Mark "Muleman" Massey's latest, One Step Ahead Of The Blues, was released by Icehouse on July 3rd, and Dual Drive, Gary Goin and Pat Register, released The Memphis Project on the 8th.