Nate Nelson surveyed the record landscape more than a decade ago and saw closed-mindedness.
“When we started before streaming was robust, you would think of labels as pockets of niche,” he tells Discogs. “[People would say,] ‘I like that one for the electronic music it puts out, I know that one for indie hip-hop, that one puts out great funk and soul reissues and that one releases gnarly rock records.’” Nelson and his pals, Jamie Strong and Hanni El Khatib, had a different idea. They’d release anything they liked — stylistic boundaries be damned.
That’s what Innovative Leisure, the Los Angeles label established by the trio, has done and seemingly will always do. Since the late aughts, they’ve released records by artists as multifarious as Rhye, a downtempo R&B duo; Allah-Las, a psychedelic garage band that sounds like the lovechild of the Left Banke and the Yardbirds; and BadBadNotGood, an instrumental fusion group that has worked with Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler, the Creator, and Kendrick Lamar.
Innovative Leisure, which Nelson named after a maxim from an old game console’s instruction manual, grew out of Stone’s Throw Records, where Nelson worked as the head of digital, sync licenses, and publishing. During a Bay Area visit to a friend who worked for the skate company HUF Worldwide, he was introduced to El Khatib, who was then their creative director. El Khatib handed Strong his demo; he and Nelson were so hooked they wanted to work with him.
The label’s debut release was a 2009 single by Lazer Sword, a San Franciscan duo that dabbles in hip-hop, electronica, and about half a dozen other genres. After a few records by acts like Mexicans With Guns, Freddie Gibbs, and Machinedrum, things began to truly percolate when Rhye’s debut 2012 singles on the label, “Open” and “The Fall,” led to the band landing a contract with Universal Music Group — and Innovative Leisure receiving a hefty sum for their trouble.
“The feeding frenzy and courting process were surreal; [it’s] what you see in the movies,” he says of the major-label bidding war Rhye inspired. Although talks of a broader partnership between UMG and Innovative Leisure fizzled out, “We used the money as seed capital to build our fledgling and otherwise independent business,” he says.
Since then, Innovative Leisure has thrived on its catholic sensibilities, even expanding beyond music into streetwear collaborations. However, the label’s appeal boils down to the menagerie of sounds; whether crossover jazz, downtempo beats, or staticky garage rock is your thing, this label has something for you. Here are 10 albums on Innovative Leisure to check out.
Nick Waterhouse is a throwback both aurally and visually. The coiffed singer-songwriter performs gutbucket R&B in smart sportcoats and Buddy Holly glasses. “I cut a 45 called Some Place with what little savings I had and pressed it,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012, detailing his beginnings two years prior. “I just made a record the way that I wanted to.”
If Waterhouse’s vision was that the Chess, Stax, and Volt sound never faded from the airwaves, it came to fruition. His debut album, Time’s All Gone (which features “Some Place”), is a pure distillation of his juke-joint aesthetic.
“I think [the record] really resonated with a lot of people who are interested in rhythm and blues and popcorn stuff,” Waterhouse continued. If that happens to be your lane, check out Time’s All Gone, which has one foot in the distant past and another in the sophisticated now.
Reverb tanks cranked to 10; a snotty, lovelorn lead singer; buckets of tambourine. If this describes the Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era boxed set that compiles garage rock singles from 1965 to 1965, it also describes the Allah-Las, a band of record store geeks who channel those sounds.
In fact, they nail the vibe so well that some have dismissed them as derivative mimics. Which isn’t intentionally so. “We don’t try for a certain sound,” their lead singer Miles Michaud told The Guardian in 2016, deeming their style a “subconscious” result of a variety of influences.
While their self-titled album is an inspired blend of everyone from the Byrds to the Bees, he has a point. Allah-Las actually lands closer to early Yo La Tengo. “Don’t You Forget It,” “Tell Me (What’s on Your Mind),” and “Seven Point Five” contain less psychedelic rock’s signifiers than its overall sensation of achieving liftoff.
Electronic musicians Mike Milosh and Quadron’s Robin Hannibal released their debut singles in an obfuscating, context-scant fog — which, Milosh said, wasn’t intentional. “I was more interested in people discovering the music without bias,” he told Wonderland in 2018. “I wanted the music to speak for itself.”
The music did more than speak for itself; it acted as chum in the water for major labels. “I was like, ‘I’ll sign with [one of them] if they give me a million bucks,’” Milosh told Rolling Stone in 2018 with his tongue in his cheek. “And then it was super weird: Polydor basically gave me a million dollars.” (Most of the money went to Uncle Sam; Milosh later had to buy out his contract from the label.)
Rhye’s debut album, Woman, which grew out of “Open” and “The Fall,” was released on Polydor, Loma Vista, Republic, and Innovative Leisure. Its pillowy sound hews closely to 1980s sophisti-pop acts like Sade and the Blue Nile.
“The music catches that infinite free-fall of really feeling love and passion for someone,” Jason Bentley, KCRW’s music director, who championed Rhye in its early years, told Rolling Stone. That sums up the feeling Woman transmits: featherweight euphoria with a bittersweet sting.
If you’re looking for the opposite of Rhye’s high-thread-count production, seek no further than the paper-shredder sound of Bass Drum of Death.
“When I was in high school, I was the kid who was trying to cram everything in last-minute; I was never one for prior planning,” the noise-punks’ leader John Barrett told The Line of Best Fit in 2018. “I’d spent the better part of two years on the road in support of [our 2011 debut record] GB City, and then I turned right around and made the self-titled.”
True to its expeditious creation story, Bass Drum of Death is an album of instant rewards; its contents splatter on your windshield within seconds. Peaked-waveform highlights “I Wanna Be Forgotten,” “No Demons” and “White Fright,” all invitations to knife-fights as much as songs, split the difference between Wavves and Iggy and the Stooges.
Crystal Antlers flitted between tiny labels like Majic Wallet and Backflip before graduating to Touch & Go and, then, Innovative Leisure. For their debut on the latter label, they stripped down to a trio: singer-bassist Jonny Bell, guitarist Andrew King, and drummer Kevin Stuart.
“Everybody can pay a little more attention to each other,” Bell told The Skinny in 2014. “It’s difficult to have clarity [with six people]. We just had all of us playing solos at the same time.” Stripped to the bone yet colored in by synths and drum machines, Nothing is Real is the band’s most realized album.
The Long Beach rockers named the album after “frustrated searching for truth.” And indeed, darker themes creep in, like Bell’s frustrated Mormon upbringing on opener “Pray” and the weight of depression on “Prisoner Song.” “It’s nice to have something cathartic to let it up,” Bell told The Skinny, and the cage-rattling chorus of “Rattlesnake” is a language anyone can understand.
Evan Reiner grew up immersed in metal, hardcore, hip-hop, and playing jazz guitar. Then the Berklee School of Music alum turned to ambient music for its therapeutic value.
“It’s a coping mechanism for the struggle to realize and balance what I am and am not in control of in my life,” he told KTSW in 2015. “So many professors would tell their students what was the right thing to do in a creative setting,” Reiner told Bonafide that same year. “There is no right way.”
While composing immersive tracks as Gossamer, he throws away the rulebook; on the intoxicating “Thoughtform,” “Off World” or “For Sleep,” he’s more liable to use the rattle of empty bullet casings or poured sand on cymbals than a typical setup of a guitar through a delay effect.
“Automaton is me,” Reiner explained to KTSW, and he’s right — sometimes, only a vaporous drone can capture the day-to-day blur of one’s emotional states.
Before they made otherworldly psych-rock together, Gabriel Matringe and Brice Borredon played in a conservatory in their hometown of Toulouse, France. “We had been doing classical music for many years, and then we stopped a bit around the age of 16,” Borredon told Les Inrockuptibles in 2016. “Too much competition … it kills artistic spontaneity a little.”
Years later, the pair worked behind the neighborhood bar La Mécanique Ondulatoire along with future drummer Adam Ghoubali. “At the entrance to the Méca’, there was a huge poster with the writing ‘wall of death,’” Ghoubali said in the same interview. “And our name comes from there!”
Wall of Death wanted to break with their musical pasts and make “violent, dark, and repetitive” sounds. Their atmospheric 2012 debut album, Main Obsession, was a step in that direction; its follow-up, Loveland, is a culmination.
Highlights like the title track, “Blow the Clouds,” and “Chainless Man” stride past garden-variety post-rock into grandiose Pink Floyd or Cure territory, proving that this “let’s jam sometime!” project has advanced far beyond its initial premise.
Classixx, the tropical-house duo of Michael David and Tyler Blake, began DJing before performing their original music live. This, David said, taught them patience and gave their compositions consistency and flow.
“You shouldn’t placate your listener by trying to just make your track super dynamic because you think that everyone’s really ADD and that they need to hear [major] tone shifts all the time,” he told Noisey in 2016. “Part of it is learning how to build and create a narrative using only a few elements.”
A few elements go a long way on Faraway Reach, Classixx’s second album for Innovative Leisure, which features high-profile guests like Passion Pit, How to Dress Well, and T-Pain as well as in-house favorites like Isles, De Lux, and Harriet Brown.
On tracks like “Safe Inside,” “The Dissolve,” and “Eyes On Me,” the duo achieves kineticism with a few sparse rhythmic ideas, demonstrating that less is often more when it comes to crafting an effective groove.
If the crossover end of the jazz spectrum populated by artists like Kassa Overall, Snarky Puppy, and Thundercat is your lane, scope out BadBadNotGood without delay. By splitting the difference between hip-hop, jazz, and electronica, the quartet has attracted rap A-listers and experimental tinkerers like saxophonist Colin Stetson and DJ/producer Louis Celestin a.k.a. Kaytranada.
“We wouldn’t even call ourselves jazz musicians necessarily, although jazz determines how we write and play everything,” the band told Howl & Echoes in 2016. “If you learn anything about jazz, it’s applicable in any [musical] situation.”
IV, their fourth album that’s not a collaboration (like 2015’s Sour Soul with Ghostface Killah and 2016’s Toon Time Raw! with Jerry Paper, in which the band is billed as Easy Feelings Unlimited), features Stetson and Celestin as guests as well as Future Islands vocalist Samuel T. Herring (“Time Moves Slow”), rapper Mick Jenkins (“Hyssop of Love”), and R&B singer Charlotte Day Wilson (“In Your Eyes”).
“[IV is] an honest representation of how wide our influences are and the range of what we like to do,” BadBadNotGood explained, and instead of causing an artistic traffic jam, all these guests helped make the album their most definitive to date.
Roughly eight years after Innovative Leisure began, after it had released records by dozens of artists and expanded into the fashion world, Hanni El Khatib hit a wall.
“Two years ago, I had this meltdown and I was like ‘I don’t think I want to do this again,’” he told Vinyl Me, Please in 2020. His personal habits had taken a toll: “I’d also realized I had a total drinking problem,” he told Apple Music the same year. “Getting sober made me want to reconnect with reality.”
El Khatib told his friends he was quitting music, but that was just to slough off the pressure. Once he put live performances on pause, “Quietly on my own I started recording alone,” he told Vinyl Me, Please. Then he was involved in a serious car accident that required physical therapy.
When El Khatib returned home, he felt grateful to be alive and finished his album FLIGHT in six days. Effervescent, beat-driven tracks like “ALIVE,” “COLORS” and “PEACE” sound like an artist chastened and charged with a fresh perspective.
FLIGHT was released during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a storm that Innovative Leisure is determined to weather. “Obviously, the physical and retail landscape has been impacted,” Nelson says.
“But we’ve had to adjust to that reality years ago when the marketplace started to change,” he explains. “Fortunately, we now have a catalog that generates consistent revenue as well as the overall benefits of the streaming landscape these days. For the most part, it’s been business as usual.”
Which would be difficult to imagine if they insisted on being a “pocket of niche.” To quote an artist from their multitudinous roster, Innovative Leisure can only give you everything.
Published in partnership with Innovative Leisure.