At the end of 1995, a fledgling dance label in Charlotte called Activ-Analog Records released its first record, Textures Vol. 1. The music was Detroit-inspired techno, raw and hard and highly atypical for Charlotte. At the time, popular dance nightlife was fixated on then-chic styles like English progressive house and maximalist Miami Bass. For Paul O' Boyle, aka Paul D, who started the label with Keith Cochran (aka Q-Bik), the record was a statement of purpose. They wanted to announce their unique presence to the city, one that didn't always understand their work.
Activ's release schedule has been sporadic for years, primarily due to the financial realities of maintaining a vinyl-based techno label. Yet they continue to release music nearly twenty-five years after that first record, a discography that includes this year's Pollution Project, a new collection of tracks from the label's core associates. By any metric, this makes them one of the most persistent North Carolina underground dance labels to ever exist.
Back in the mid-eighties, though, O'Boyle was just a young record collector in school for audio recording near Washington, D.C. He cut his teeth on recording work in the burgeoning hip-hop scene and deejayed a bit. Through cult scene figures like Sam Burns and DJ Mandrill, he eventually grappled his way into dance music. The mechanized early sounds of Detroit techno were nothing short of foundational to him.
"All the stuff that Metroplex was putting out in those days still completely blows my mind," he says. Migrating south to Charlotte, O'Boyle eventually met Cochran, an ambitious party promoter and fellow Detroit devotee.
"He was the only other person in Charlotte who knew what I was talking about," Cochran says. They became fast friends.
Together, the two secured a regular club night at The Edge (later called Baha), a former camping equipment store that had been retrofitted into a sizable nightclub space. Thanks to their passion and sweat equity, a remarkable who's-who of house and techno talent played the city in the mid- and late-nineties. Heavyhitters like Kevin Saunderson, Kenny Larkin, Juan Atkins, DJ Pierre, and Louie Vega of Masters at Work all came through. Getting other people to care, however, could be thankless work.
"We would promote extensively and maybe two hundred people would show up. But, y'know, if there was a party with a progressive house deejay, seven hundred thousand people would be there. It became exhausting after a while," says O'Boyle.
Through another Charlotte electronic label, Outside Recordings, O'Boyle and Cohen met Max Armah, a friend and local scene figure who heard O'Boyle's recordings. Armah helped assemble a studio and pushed them to release music.
"I would play my techno tracks off cassette tape in the deejay booth and he would be like, 'This is incredible, you should release this!' I thought it was absolute crap," says O'Boyle. In those early days, gear for his studio setup came from the same shifting trends in dance music that hurt their touring events.
"I was finding unbelievably cheap stuff in pawn shops that was exactly what I wanted because people were just throwing away analog synthesizers at the time," he remembers.
Activ's best-known releases are probably the Night Shift series, a spectacular run of sleek late-nineties techno records that were printed in runs of a few hundred copies. Those releases now sell for hundreds of dollars, many to international collectors.
"A record label called 7th City in Detroit back then was doing a little bit of distribution. They would buy like seventy-five copies and send them to a place in Germany or Austria. I remember getting a call from a guy in Greece who bought Night Shift II there, which was amazing at the time," O'Boyle recalls.
As the label's profile rose, the crew grew to include fellow deejay talents like Oliver Long and Ja'maul Redmond (aka Loner.9), who both now run "sister" label Abstracta Audio. But a number of external factors conspired against the collective. Attracting a large crowd became increasingly difficult as the dance music scene in North Carolina and the U.S at large was splintering.
Two particular events did exceptional damage to the scene in North Carolina. In Greensboro, the storied rave-centric nightclub Babylon shuttered in April 2000 after its booker, a promoter and record-store owner named Ed Lebrun, was murdered by a group of teenage ravers who broke into his house and stabbed him to death. The murder was a supposed revenge killing over allegations of sexual assault. Around the same time in Charlotte, a heavily intoxicated teenager was accidentally killed at the Baha Club by three security guards during an altercation. This led to a fearful Charlotte Observer article about rave culture and, eventually, a crackdown.
"They passed this thing called the rave ordinance that defined a party as more than three people listening to music on a PA system," O'Boyle says. "It made it impossible to get a permit." The law stayed on the books until its repeal in 2014.
On top of all that, the vinyl market crashed. In those bleak days, O'Boyle credits Charlie Hearon, who ran the Triangle-based vinyl label FrequeNC around the same time, for moral support and helping Activ-Analog chart a way forward.
"The vinyl market is back now, but for a while, everyone jumped to CDJs and laptops. Records really died out, but I do think niche stuff like FrequeNC definitely played a big part in keeping vinyl alive through those years," O'Boyle says.
Fortunately, O'Boyle and Cochran now have a more stable market wind in their sails. Through the U.K.-based vinyl-only label Albeit, they'll issue Compound Interface, a collection of previously unreleased nineties-era Activ-Analog tracks, on May 25. Will they make it another twenty-five years?
"We're not going to stop anytime soon," O'Boyle promises.