Photo: Ryan Lowry
“Rob spends a lot of time going to funerals,” Ken Shipley says. He nods toward his business partner, Rob Sevier, who’s sitting next to him at El Faro, a bright, bustling Mexican spot near their archival record label’s Little Village headquarters. Sevier explains: “At this point, if I go to a gathering, ideally not a funeral but a gathering of older musicians, I see people I know. So that helps.”
Since Numero Group’s modest start in a Bucktown basement in 2003, Shipley, 36, and Sevier, 35, have resurrected the careers of dozens of obscure and overlooked soul, funk, and psych-folk artists via a series of intricately packaged releases. At last count, Numero’s catalog spanned 150 items—LPs, singles, and boxed sets—with three Grammy nods (no wins). In June, the team forged a new partnership with the indie label Secretly Canadian (which reps Yeasayer and Jens Lekman).
Numero has built an ace reputation among an expanding population of aging musicians, such as the oft-sampled soul and blues artist Syl Johnson, 77, who has come to know Shipley and Sevier not only as professional appreciators but as friends. “I never got paid for any of that stuff back in the day,” says Johnson, who had a bad shake in the 1960s and ’70s after being signed to contracts that he says gave him few rights to, and little-to-no compensation for, his songs. Through his 2011 self-titled release, the Bronzeville resident made money off the mix tapes in his basement—and earned two Grammy nominations.
In recent years, Numero has expanded its reach to iconic ’90s underground acts such as Unwound, whose three-LP set, Kid Is Gone, drops October 1. “The Unwound project is a particular labor of love for me,” Shipley says, moving his fingertips over each LP’s fibrous chipboard sleeve and custom inserts. “I’ve loved them since I was 15.”
Also in the pipeline: Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound, a compilation that unearths early purveyors of the pop-rock-R&B stew popularized by Prince. “Prince complicates Minneapolis because of the size of his fame,” Sevier says. “There’s a huge chip on a lot of people’s shoulders. They thought they should’ve been the star.”
But Shipley believes the association will draw attention to such overlooked talents as Prince’s childhood sidekick André Cymone. “It’s like being Peyton Manning’s tailback,” he says. “You did a great job, but you were on a different path.”
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