I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Solar Records: The Sound of LA

by Tony Best
Feb. 22, 2016

SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records) was THE hottest R&B label of the late 1970s and mid-‘80s. Rivaled only by NYC’s Salsoul Records, SOLAR successfully bridged the delicate gap between disco and funk during a period where both genres were struggling to find an identity in the post-Carter/pre-Reagan administrations. Buoyed by bouncy rhythm tracks and appregioed synths, SOLAR’s Jheri curl-slick music embodied L.A.’s hip (and stratified) cultural identity. From backyard boogies in Compton to roller-skating jams at WeHo’s Flippers, SOLAR kept the City of Angels – as well the world – dancing on sunshine.

SOLAR dawned in the mind of Dick Griffey. A music industry heavy with a keen interest in Black entrepreneurship, Griffey launched the label in the summer of ‘77 as an outlet to foster underrepresented talent in the record business. The early artist roster included Shalamar, The Whispers and Carrie Lucas, whose discofied jams rocked dance floors from Studio 54 to Carlos’ ‘N Charlies’. SOLAR’s biggest success came with the arrival of songwriter/producer Leon Sylvers III. His sonic fingerprints proved to be the Midas touch for the label, resulting in a succession of smashes that peaked on the R&B charts and crossed over into Pop’s Top Ten.

Griffey & Co. continued to mine gold and platinum well into the early ‘80s. Sylvers fronted his own vanity project, Dynasty, while self-contained bands Lakeside, Klymaxx and Midnight Star became new wave funk superstars. But a coming shift on the R&B horizon would eventually eclipse SOLAR’s shine. New Jack Swing and Hip-Hop bumrushed the charts and clubs in the late ‘80s. Griffey tried to keep SOLAR relevant but the results generated lukewarm record sales. Following a series of commercial fizzles, record business corporatization and messy legal battles, Griffey closed shop in late 1995.

Assorted media conglomerates bought and sold SOLAR’s catalog over the next fifteen years. Canadian-based Unidisc Music gained ownership in 2009. The deal included master recordings and publishing rights along with an added bonus – the SOLAR music video library. Griffey produced these promotional clips for international markets (usually played on record store TV sets) as an inexpensive alternative to overseas touring. By the time MTV made its 1981 launch, effectively elevating the music video to a post-postmodernist art form, the format didn’t initially include “urban” artists. This policy didn’t faze Griffey; the savvy mogul engineered rotation deals with alternative video outlets Night Tracks (TBS), Video Jukebox (HBO) and BET.

Minimalist in design and production values, SOLAR’s videos are essentially faux “live” performances in the vein of a Soul Train or American Bandstand appearance. The artists’ are decked out in assorted combinations of sequins, leather and formal attire, set against the backdrop of a muted lighting palette. The hazy sheen makes viewing a virtual ‘70s/’80s disco club experience (sans Quaaludes and poppers). But the stripped-down presentation is effective. As most early music videos were rife with pretentious abstraction, SOLAR kept their visuals funky and fun, much like the music.

Tony Best is an L.A.-based archivist and digital media producer. An alumnus of UCLA’s Moving Image Archive Studies masters degree program, Tony began his preservation career in the summer of 1983, when gifted a VCR and box of blank tapes for successfully graduating the second grade. Currently the video librarian for PromaxBDA, Tony previously worked for the UCLA Film & Television Archive where he contributed to several high-profile preservation projects, including digital restoration of “lost” television programs and coordinating the UCLA/Getty Pacific Standard Time: L.A. Rebellion initiative. He is also a regular contributor to the music and film quarterly Wax Poetics.