DOCTOR DREAD is certainly a more impressive moniker than Gary Himelfarb, particularly when your world revolves around Jamaica's reggae music. But Himelfarb, for three years host of a weekly reggae program on WHFS-FM, has done more than just spin discs. "I started doing the deejay thing and then I started going up to Brooklyn, buying from some Jamaican distributors and selling to a few stores, mostly here in Washington," he says.
That was the humble beginning of RAS Records (for Real Authentic Sounds). Two years ago, Himelfarb spent a couple of months putting together an extensive catalogue featuring more than 1,500 reggae albums and "from that we launched our mail-order business and set up sales for stores across America. We started soliciticing chains we knew about--like Tower Records in California--and got their account. And Record Bar, the biggest retail chain in America, and Kemp Mill here in Washington."
Himelfarb's partner in RAS is David Pansegrouw, formerly a reggae disc jockey in Vermont. "A mutal friend suggested getting together because of our common interest," Himelfarb recalls. "I was working for a fish company then, but when David and I came together in 1981, we started doing RAS full time." The third RAS member is Cynthia Abrams, a record industry veteran "who has helped break us into areas reggae has never been."
Reggae music, a minority music like blues and bluegrass, has traditionally suffered from innefective, often amateur, distribution, so "we tried to set up a reggae company on an American business level." Himelfarb went to Jamaica a dozen times, establishing contacts with pressing plants and manufacturers in order to start importing records direct. RAS has quickly become the second-largest reggae distributor in America (behind VP Records in Brooklyn, where he used to do his buying), and the third-largest in the world.
The soft-spoken Himelfarb got interested in reggae "strictly by listening to the music and feeling that the message had something in common with my beliefs--that there's a need to unite regardless of skin color, age or religion and that people really have to work together to make the world a better place."
And while reggae culture is overwhelmingly black, Himelfarb has been accepted warmly. "In Jamaica I can go through the worst parts of Kingston and people hail me up. I've never burnt anyone and we've always been real straight, even when our first orders were small. We always made sure we paid our bills and built some credibility. The artists feel great that somebody is committing their life and money to promoting their music."
RAS has recently expanded from distribution to developing its own roster of artists. And, in the coals-to-Newcastle tradition, "we've opened up a record shop in Kingston. It's run by Brant Dowe a member of the Melodians and author of 'By the Rivers of Babylon' . The main reason for the shop is that in launching our label, we wanted to start our promotion in Jamaica and get a buzz going there: that reaches England and America and creates a demand on this end, which is your big market for reggae. Plus it lets artists and manufacturers down there see that we're entrenched in the Jamaican part of it. People like Augustus Pablo and Bunny Wailer can come by the shop and drop their records off and they'll ship them up to us. Yellowman comes over and leaves off his records. It's like a central base headquarters in Jamaica."
RAS will release seven reggae records this year, with albums by Freddie McGregor and Peter Broggs already out; other signed to the label so far include the Melodians, Don Carlos and Michigan and Smiley. "We'll also do some discos," Himelfarb says. "We're pursuing the Jamaican angle, connecting with the grassroots market that's already there, but we're also trying to break it more on the American mainstream level."
Himelfarb also expects RAS to help local bands get better distribution. "For instance, the Mighty Invaders recently went to Jamaica and recorded an LP and we're going to be handling exlusive distribution on that." Washington, he adds, is now taken very seriously as a reggae market, particularly over the last four years "as more Jamaicans have moved here. And Howard University attracts a good number of West Indians to the area, as well."
With more than 3,000 mail-order subscribers, RAS ships all over world. Japan has suddenly developed into a major market for reggae, and there's a surprisingly strong interest in Scandinavia, as well. "It's picking up more in America now, but England's been cutting back a bit," Himelfarb points out.
RAS, which services more than 500 outlets, also sends out new releases to more than 300 radio stations, all of which have reggae programs. They are mainly college stations, since reggae is still hard to sell on commercial radio.
RAS will be distributing the 20 or more records being put together by another local record company from tapes of the 1982 Reggae Sunsplash ("David will write the liner notes") as well as a video of the event. There are also plans for promoting tours, says Himelfarb. "There's a whole network which we really want to connect--clubs, stores, artists. We're trying to create a home and a good working environment for the artists. They've been getting ripped off for years."