The best ideas are often the simplest. Witness the rise of Innovative Leisure. When the Los Angeles imprint started releasing records a decade ago, most independent labels were mired in the mindset of the past. A generation had been raised on the omnivorous mentality that governed the shuffle era, but few indies reflected this sensibility -- sticking to variations and riffs of a single genre or sound. Enter the label founded by Jamie Strong and Nate Nelson. Alongside their breakout artist, creative director, and partner Hanni El Khatib, Innovative Leisure upended the old notions of what a label could be. Suddenly, the idea of releasing soul and funk, jazz and hip-hop, garage rock and house, disco and punk and a little psychedelic Thai rock, no longer seemed strange. The only sonic principle that mattered was quality.
The genesis of IL traces back to the legendary independent label, Stones Throw Records. It was there where Strong, the label’s head of sales and marketing became close with Nelson, the head of digital, sync licenses, and publishing. In the latter years of the last decade, Nelson had begun pressing up 7” and 12” inch singles of records from artists like Freddie Gibbs and Machinedrum. Around the same time, Strong took a trip to San Francisco and visited a friend who worked at HUF Worldwide, the popular skateboard company and streetwear brand. The friend convinced El Khatib, then HUF’s creative director, to give his self-pressed demo to Strong. Immediately blown away, Strong returned to L.A. and played it for the similarly impressed Nelson. The pair decided to partner up and release the record under the fledgling Innovative Leisure name. The rest is history.
El Khatib’s debut Will the Guns Come Out became a smash, earning critical raves, magazine covers, and big licensing syncs. Sensing that they had reached a creative ceiling under the Stones Throw aegis, Strong and Nelson struck out on their own, signing Nick Waterhouse, whose fusion of modern soul and garage rock quickly became its own sensation. A distribution deal was in the works, but for the time being, they continued to run the label out of Nelson’s dining room. Then came Rhye, originally the duo of Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal of Quadron. The latter had been long-time friends with Nelson and Strong, and wowed them with the band’s early demos. The fledgling IL partners proposed making it a full bore endeavor, signed a deal, and fostered the transcontinental recodings sesions (Milosh was living in Berlin at the time). Hanni conceived the visual creative and the concept to keep things mysterious -- so as to compliment the orphic experimental R&B. The first single and video immediately sparked a major label feeding frenzy, which allowed IL to sell the contract to Universal, and thus, eventually expand their own staff and artist roster.
Innovative Leisure was on the map as one of the labels that would help define the coming decade. It helped that they had already brought on El Khatib as creative director and a full partner, one who helped design a brilliant artistic sensibility for the label -- one that incorporated past and future, punk and streetwear, something as eclectic and imaginative as the label’s artists themselves.
The track record speaks for itself. IL released the first two records by the Allah-Las, who became one of the most important bands of the garage rock revival. Acting on instinct, Strong and Nelson flew to Toronto to check out a bunch of teenage jazz students who had created a small online buzz for their DOOM and Odd Future covers. It began the label’s working relationship with BADBADNOTGOOD, a band that has played a major role in ushering in the modern jazz renaissance. The label’s list of classic albums is long and includes the likes of Nosaj Thing and Classixx, De Lux, Claude Fontaine, Tijuana Panthers, Jonah Yano, and J-E-T-S (Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum). That’s just the abridged version.
Over the last decade, Innovative Leisure has managed to become a distinct brand without relying on a narrow interpretation of what that brand can be. And not only has the label achieved commercial success, its bands have more critically redefined the possibilities of modern sound. What’s more crucial is that they have retained their restless boundary-pushing spirit, cultivating both the gifts of artists new to the imprint (Edgar, Fontaine, Yano, Lionel Boy) as the continued evolution of label vets like Hanni and Waterhouse. There is something revolutionary in their execution: a label that has taken the ideas of the past to incubate the songs that shape the present, and that will continue to inspire future generations to come. - - Jeff Weiss