One of the best underground house music labels in America, Worldship Music is based in Los Angeles and has released a few more than a dozen records since it was founded more than 28 years ago. It actually released just two records in all of 2022. Yet both of those records were absolutely brilliant — among the best in the scene released by anyone that year.
In fairness, Worldship Music was inactive for most of the last two decades. But that 18 year-sized hole in their story makes the resurgence all the more extraordinary. Founded in 1995, Worldship released a steady stream of records in their first five years of existence. Those records — including “Tomorrow People,” also notable as the first recording by acclaimed vocalist Gregory Porter — have since been rediscovered, reappraised and cherished. (And coveted: most sell for strictly collector’s prices on the vinyl market.)
At the time, though, “I could barely move some of those early records,” co-founder Aaron Paar says. In a house music scene that “really kind of stagnated” in the early ’00s, Worldship went on hiatus, without a single release for the next 18 years.
It’s still harder in this business for good music to find a broad audience than it is to find good music in the first place. Eventually, though, we want to believe that quality will break through. That’s what happened here. Spurred on by reissues by My Love Is Underground and a 2016 compilation on Must Have Records, a “whole new audience of younger heads” has rediscovered Worldship and the sound of the label, codified by a production collective that calls themselves the Teflon Dons.
Every record released by Worldship prior to 2001 was brilliant. And after the label was reactivated by Paar in 2019, that benchmark of quality is still intact. Over the last three years, Worldship has moved from strength to strength, with reissues as well as new music including the LA Housin’ Authority EP, The Pur Royale Project, Teflon Dons Vs. The Si-Fan and a series of 7″ records, including The Trilaterals’ Afro-LaTeena.
Releases from Worldship are typically cleared out of the racks as soon as the records hit the floor. It’s hard to ignore the turnabout — that a label that once had trouble getting their records noticed now can’t keep them in stock.
Worldship hit its stride in 2022 with two releases. Both of them were monsters — The Brooklyn Ave Sessions by Roberta, and Herald Traccs Vol 1, featuring Kelvin K, Westcoast Goddess and LA neighbor Santiago Salazar alongside the Teflon Dons. The Brooklyn Ave Sessions was — hands down — my favorite record released this year. Herald Traccs was rated a top 5 V/A by anyone credible that heard it. Both were released on vinyl and flew off the shelves seemingly within days of their release. Roberta’s record was immediately repressed. Then it sold out again.
It’s not surprising that a label would reach its peak after about a dozen releases. That high water mark usually doesn’t come nearly three decades after the label was founded, though. From a label often considered the record digger’s best kept secret, the saga of Worldship is still one of house music’s great untold — and inspiring — stories.
Aaron Paar was born in Nottingham but raised in LA, moving to the city as a kid in the early 1980s.
“I was toying around with drum machines when I was 14 years old,” he says. “I was in a DJ soundsystem collective that called ourselves Shaolin Temple, consisting of myself, Dave Fogg and Marcus B. We played at a bunch of local LA underground parties, lofts, things like that. I basically come from a b-boy foundation, I gravitated toward hip hop in the late 1980s as did most of the guys in my crew.
“But when I heard house music in 1988 I fell into that. I was feeling a lot of the Nu Groove, Strictly Rhythm, obviously the stuff from Chicago, all the Fingers records. I had a friend in St. Louis who used to send me tapes from the sets at the Muzik Box and the Warehouse in the early 1990s. There was an energy to Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy sets that kind of inspired me too. And it was always in the back of my head that I’d try my hand at making music sometime.”
In the Summer of 1994, Paar’s apartment was burglarized. “A lot of my gear was stolen. Luckily I had renter’s insurance. After I moved I was able to afford to buy an SP-1200.”
Manufactured by E-mu Systems, the SP-1200 was a pioneering “all-in-one” drum machine and sampler praised by producers for its “dirty” sound. “I knew guys like Kenny Dope and Todd Terry were using it as well as some of my favorite hip hop producers. Buying the SP-1200 was how the music on the Planet Eater EP came about.”
The title of the first EP on Worldship, like the name of the label, was inspired by comic artist Jack Kirby. “Everything that I did in the early days of Worldship was based Jack Kirby, Marvel Comics, Kung Fu movies, Conan the Barbarian comics — stuff like that. There are a lot of tie-ins to titles and records throughout the Worldship catalog based on those stories and lore.”
The first Worldship record was self-funded. “My partners in Shaolin Temple co-signed what I was doing and liked what they were hearing. I asked my dad for help too. He gave me $500 and I came up with the other $500 to press up 400 white labels. It was all done without knowing a goddamn thing about releasing a record or really knowing what the fuck I was doing.”
Released in 1995, Planet Eater was shipped as “just a white label with an insert sheet.” It takes about 20 seconds of listening to the title track, as that stoned, jazzy vibe drifts out of the grooves like steam out of a subway grate, to understand what set Worldship apart from much of the scene around them. The sound has that hazy, spaced-out soul sound, laced with just enough Novocaine that you don’t notice its hooks sliding into you. It would later form the A side of My Love Is Underground’s 2012 Worldship Music EP that reissued three vintage Teflon Dons tracks and had a great deal to do with the label’s reappraisal.
“The record did okay,” Paar remembers. “It was a sound that was a little different than what was going on at the time, I suppose. But it had its roots in foundational deep house and underground house, and also early UK stuff on Warp and what not. The sound had elements of all those things, mixed with coming from the hip hop perspective and aesthetic of sampling.
“Everything I had on that early Planet Eater record was a sample from a record — everything from a kick to a snare to a high hat. There were no modules — there was no keyboard or drum machine. Just purely vinyl and an SP-1200. I pretty much kept that aesthetic going all the way throughout. There were a couple of times we would add a keyboard later on but this was the genesis of the Worldship sound, and that record was what started it.”
Planet Eater was mostly Aaron Paar on his own. On the second record, the Rudiments EP, he brought in Shaolin Temple mates Marcus B and Dave Fogg, who “wanted to flex his ideas.” Paar picked the alias “Teflon Dons” (“I was reading a John Gotti biography at the time…”) which would become synergistically linked with Worldship Music through most of its history.
“To this day, Teflon Dons is kind of a revolving door,” Paar explains. “Dave is a teacher now, and doesn’t work as much with me, though he still consults. Marcus B. we had to boot out of the crew after the Rudiments EP. Nothing crazy or personal. After Rudiments it was mostly me and Dave working on most of the tracks. To this day, Teflon Dons could be me alone, it could be me and Dave, it could be me and Greg ‘Ski’ Royal. Greg was the mix engineer for Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. He did a lot of hip hop records in the late 1980s, his CV goes all the way back to the mid-1980s. Dave hooked me up with him. I brought the SP-1200 to his studio here in North Hollywood and we knocked out the Planet Eater EP. That relationship lasts until this day — he’s a big component of the Worldship Music/Teflon Dons sound.”
Released in 1996, the Rudiments EP was the first under the “Teflon Dons” moniker and is now regarded as one of the finest deep house records of the decade. They packed six tracks on two sides of vinyl, with that dubby soul aesthetic that may wax or wane but never goes out of style.
A fourteen year old review on Discogs suggests that Rudiments might have been more popular if it had been released “on some Detroit or Chicago imprint during the same period.” Paar doesn’t entirely disagree with this. “We were isolated out on the West Coast,” he says. “Nobody out there was really doing the stuff that we were doing. There were house labels, don’t get me wrong, but there was no one bringing the kind of sound we were influenced by — Detroit, Chicago, Garage, New York, New Jersey shit. Nobody was bringing that kind of energy.”
Trying to break out, Worldship put together a project to showcase their sound at the 1998 Winter Music Conference. Founded in 1985, the Winter Music Conference in Miami was then the showcase for most of the dance music scene. The idea was for Worldship to create “something we could shop around and network with. It was like, let’s go to Miami and introduce ourselves to some of these people that we respect and admire.”
“We wanted to put out a vocal,” Paar says. “We really wanted to get a male vocalist in particular. A mutual friend of Dave & I in San Diego is a percussion player named Steve Haney, and he told us about a singer he knew named Gregory Porter.”
More than a decade prior to recording his first album, the future Grammy Award winning vocalist at the time “wasn’t a recording artist at all,” Paar says. “He was singing in a jazz collective. He was working with Ronnie Laws, touring with him and mostly doing live shows.
“Gregory drove up to my apartment in Hollywood. I played the rhythm track I had on the SP-1200 — pretty much the whole track, really — and he sat on a chair with a notepad and starting jotting away some lyrics.
“I asked ‘Do you need to hear any more?’ He said, ‘No, I got it.’
“I did all my pre-production at home and took everything to Greg Royal’s. [Porter] knocked out the original version of ‘Tomorrow People’ practically in one take. It was fucking amazing hearing him belt it out. We knew we had something here.”
The idea was to put the track on a sampler and take it to Miami to find licensing deals overseas. “That didn’t really pan out,” Paar says. Today the WMC ’98 Music Sampler featuring the original pressing of “Tomorrow People” fetches a few hundred bucks on Discogs and is another classic in the Worldship catalog — even more notable as the powerhouse vocalist Gregory Porter’s first ever recording.
Undaunted, Worldship also put out “Tomorrow People” as a 12″ on its own. “We had Greg do another pass. There’s an ‘original mix’ we put out before, but we also included on the 12” a ‘main mix,’ a new vocal pass with other music and a live bass. And then we did a dub, which Steve Haney did the percussion on.
“We loved it so much and we thought ‘Tomorrow People’ was going to do really well. But it was one of those slow-burners that just embedded in people’s heads over time. It became more of a cult classic than anything.”
In our conversations, Paar seems hesitant to attribute low sales or some perceived lack of success for his decision to fold up the label following the release of L-O-V-E in 2000. Instead, he mentions Royal moving back to the East Coast from LA. “That was our main hub, to take music there to get it done,” he says. “I was like well, I guess I’ll have to figure out something else now.”
Paar also cites a growing dissatisfaction with the scene. “After [Royal] moved and how things were going in the house industry, we weren’t feeling it,” he says. “House music really kind of stagnated in the early 2000s. Remember all those fucking filtered disco loop records? We were getting people coming up to us saying, ‘You need to do things like this, you need to do things like that.’ And I was saying ‘We don’t need to do ANYTHING motherfucker! We do it like we do it!’ That attitude wasn’t favorable, to say the least. We weren’t slotting into what they perceived to be the industry standards.”
Talking with Aaron reminded me of the first time I spoke with Vincent Floyd. From Chicago, Floyd had few indications that the groundbreaking tracks he made in the 1990s were being played by DJs — or even noticed by anyone at all. They were, but he had no idea until more than a decade later when he got on the internet.
“The lack of feedback or response just discouraged me and convinced me that maybe I should be doing something else,” Floyd told me. “Like maybe this wasn’t going over well and maybe I should just become — I don’t know, a teacher?”
Talking to Floyd back then made me realizing something. The best way to convince an artist to give up and do something else with their life isn’t to heckle or abuse them. It’s to ignore them.
Was this true of Worldship on the first go-round?
“I’d say the response was okay,” Paar says. “Our expectations might have been a little too high. We were new to the game and were pushing things out pretty quickly.
“But there was no social media. I didn’t have a computer until around 2004. What response there was to our records, we mostly didn’t know. The feedback sheets we’d get by fax were positive. But we weren’t really getting charted, nobody was making a lot of noise. It kind of discouraged us a little bit. We were doing this for ourselves for the most part, but it would have been nice to see how other people reacted to it. It kind of keeps you going sometimes.”
“When we stopped, Worldship just laid dormant for 18 years,” Paar says. “I was in a real ‘fuck you’ mood then. I didn’t give a fuck about it, I moved on to the next thing and it wasn’t part of my life for a long time. But I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to keep doing music. I always had that in me. I just kept DJing more than anything.
“But then, after we stopped, that’s when we found a whole new crowd of people discovering the records for the first time.”
Paar remembers Worldship’s feedback from abroad in the ’90s coming mostly from the UK (he carted records there himself when visiting family) but it was a group of DJs in France that was championing Worldship and the Teflon Dons now. Around 2008 or so, he began trading messages across Discogs and MySpace with Jérémy Fichon, better known today as Jeremy Underground and founder of the acclaimed My Love Is Underground vinyl label. Paar messaged Jeremy and Brawther (whose Paris Underground Trax gave the label its first must-have record) for “two to four years” before MLIU reissued several tracks as the Worldship EP in 2012.
“I thought these guys seemed cool and were genuinely into the culture and music,” Paar says. “Between them and Jay Simon later on at Must Have Records — these were all guys who got the ball rolling again. They motivated me to start feeling things in music again. And we relaunched the label in 2019.”
It would have been easier to simply reissue classic tracks that were then fetching three figures for vinyl on the resale market. In retrospect, it’s what most of his peers who have experienced a similar rediscovery of their early material have done. And while Worldship has dropped a handful of reissues of some of their most in-demand records, most of the releases since the label’s rebirth in 2019 have consisted of new material.
“There are so many tracks I had ideas of putting out,” Paar explains. “To this day I probably have hundreds of tracks that aren’t finished.
“The LA Housin’ Authority record — that was the biggest hurdle for me. After not doing anything for awhile, you start having these intrusive thoughts: ‘Can I still do this?’ There’s a lot of self-doubt. It took almost four or five years to put that project together.”
“What inspired me to finish it was linking with guys like Waajeed. I used to do a soul night out here called Strictly Social. Waajeed was starting Dirt Tech Reck then. I heard stuff he was doing, combined with the genuine interest from people who wanted to reissue my stuff like Jeremy and Jay. I said okay, there are still people who appreciate this sound, let me go dig in the vaults and see what I have.
“And in the meantime, I linked with a guy out here in LA and we started re-issuing kind of rare, hard-to-find 7 inch reggae disco. The label is called Ximeno Records. Since I had the knowledge of putting out records, I got that label off the ground and running. After after that re-training in putting out records again, now’s the time to go back in the vaults and get Worldship popping again.”
The LA Housin’ Authority tracks were written in the late 1990s. “By ‘written’ I mean the ideas and the basis of the rhythm tracks and the samples were laid out back in ’96 through ’98,” Paar says. “Those were four out of the vault that I thought would work. Most of the tracks were already arranged but they were retooled while keeping the spirit of that era, because I know the Worldship followers and supporters want to hear that sound. I’m not going to update it to make it sound like a 2020 record. It’s going to have that grit — and since it was on the SP-1200, it’s going to have that grit. I wanted to keep the feel as true to the spirit as when I did them originally.”
A reissue of “Tomorrow People” as a 7 inch single became the genesis of a new series of 7 inch records, which was new for the label but not for Paar as a DJ.
“As a DJ I’d been digging through 7 inches for the last ten years,” he says. “It got me thinking as a house head, I want to build up a 7 inch house collection and play it out. I like playing 7 inches, it’s fun, it’s different, kind of challenging. I know the true house purists would rather have it on 12 inch which I totally understand, but I thought there were enough that wanted to play house on 7 inches too. Again, it was just ‘Let’s try this and see what happens.'”
One of those 7 inch experiments was The Trilaterals’ single “Afro-LaTeena.” The group, made up of Kristi Lomax, Third Sun and “a great friend of mine, Al Jackson, who unfortunately passed away in early 2021,” did flips — “beat flips on very popular R&B and soul artists,” Paar says. “They did a bunch of them. I have a radio show on Dublab called Stomping Grounds and I was playing the original ‘Afro-LaTeena’ that Kristi produced. I just had a moment of ‘Fuck, this would be a good 45. I have to talk to them and get them interested.’ I figured when I heard it that it would be a good crossover record with the soul heads and the house heads. It bridged people from the soul and hip hop scene to the house scene.”
Tracks like these opened a new dimension for Worldship, which in its first iteration had been solely an outlet for Teflon Dons material. In 2022, Paar would prove himself to be as good at A&R as he is at production and DJing with the release of those two gorgeous records, the V/A Herald Traccs Vol 1 and Roberta’s ethereal The Brooklyn Ave Sessions.
“I never know what’s going to happen with a record,” Paar says. “I always go with my gut, which said this is a dope record, I like it, I think people will like it. But [The Brooklyn Ave Sessions] — I was surprised by how quick it went. It went quicker than usual for me. That was good.”
Paar found out about Roberta from James Duncan. “James said she’s mad cool, you should link with her,” Paar says. “I asked her out of the blue: ‘Do you have anything you want to put out on some other labels?’ She was I guess kind of a fan of some of the stuff we had done. This was like right when the pandemic hit in 2020. She sent me about 8 or 9 tracks and they’re all great. The fun part was picking out which three we wanted. I said like these 3 and I want to remix whatever you want. Whenever I put out a record on Worldship, I feel like we have to make it a collaborative thing. She was into it and put it together.
“The overall vibe and sound is perfect for the label,” Paar says. “It complements what we’ve done and points to the future of releasing the music of like-minded artists. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, work with other people and put other people’s music out. That’s where it’s at right now.”
The industry is virtually unrecognizable from the time that Worldship was founded in 1995. In many ways, though. Worldship itself hasn’t really changed. The records still come out on vinyl (though Paar’s not a purist: his next release is a digital-only remix of Mark Farina, Homero Espinosa and Fuzzy Cufflinxxx’s “Back 2 The Groove” on Moulton Music.) It’s still “strictly DIY and no rules,” as Paar says. “Meaning: I’m not going to conform to how the industry does it. I just want to release records the way I envision it. When the music’s ready, it’ll come out.”
Of those early Teflon Dons records, Paar says, “it was almost like I took a little bit of everything I loved about underground music, dance music and house music, mixed them up and said we’ll do this our way,” Paar says. “We’re in LA and we’ll do our version of it.
“And that’s still where it is for me.”
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