How Flatspot broke the rules to become the most exciting hardcore label right now

In the words of co-owner Che Figueroa: “This is as big as I’ve seen hardcore in my whole life.” That’s thanks in no small part to Flatspot Records, and their incredible roster featuring everyone from Speed to Scowl. Forget the genre – here’s how they’re taking over the world…

How Flatspot broke the rules to become the most exciting hardcore label right now
Huw Baines
Header photo:
Kathy Garcia

There’s a certain type of cred that's dangerously close to being edged out of music: buying an album purely because it was released by a label you trust. We can hear whatever we want whenever we want just by tapping our phone screens a couple of times, making the idea of pulling an untested LP out of a record bin and forking over cash because it has the Deathwish or Bridge Nine logo on the back seem entirely archaic.

But no-one told Flatspot Records. Run by co-owners Che Figueroa and Ricky Singh, it stands at the forefront of a cluster of hardcore labels that have tapped into a flood of exciting, heavy, boundary-pushing music emanating from scenes across the United States, resulting in release slates that demand almost constant attention. “It feels funny for me to be saying it, but I do believe that when you see our logo on the back of an LP you know it’s going to be quality,” Che admits, a little sheepishly. “It’s like shoes with the Nike check.”

Flatspot’s recent run has seen them issue killer records by Scowl, ZULU, End It, Speed and Regulate in short order, generating a runaway sense of momentum that’s fed directly into the Turnstile-led crossover success the wider scene is achieving. “It’s not a label that’s bound by sound or style,” says Speed singer Jem Siow. “The bands they capture represent different missions and experiences all through the lens of hardcore. To me, that's the beauty of hardcore: how people from different walks of life can be united through a common understanding of the culture. I think that, in a big way, Flatspot Records captures the mindset of modern hardcore.”

Above: ZULU, by Victor D

To do that, Flatspot has found a way to balance bleeding edge sonics with scene-led foundations straight out of hardcore’s oldest playbooks. It is rule-breaking inspired by a deep understanding of where those rules originated. Meshing ZULU’s soul-jazz-hip-hop-powerviolence mash-ups with Scowl’s swerve into glammy ’90s-influenced alt.rock and Speed’s pummelling, vein-popping heaviness, the label’s bands delight in twisting their music into wild shapes. And yet, what got them through the door is their commitment to ground-level work. “I definitely don’t want to have a label where all the bands sound the same,” Ricky says. “That’s just boring to me. It’s not about that, it’s about artists we feel have a burning passion.”

“I feel supported and encouraged to explore a variety of creative avenues – there’s no judgment in Flatspot’s world,” agrees Kat Moss, vocalist with Scowl, adding: “I always felt excited to buy a band’s T-shirt with that label logo on the back. I feel as though I represent something more than myself, a community that relies on the efforts of many and a community that supports everyone.”

Above: Scowl, by Kathy Garcia

Flatspot’s belief system has its roots in Che and Ricky’s earliest days as music fans. “It’s a label for hardcore kids by real hardcore kids,” Jem observes. The Flatspot story began in Woodbridge, Virginia, around 20 miles or so outside of Washington, D.C., when Che was a teenager in the late-’90s. He was a skater who’d pick up comps from the Vans store close to where he lived, graduating from ’77 vintage punk to Sick Of It All and Madball, whom he saw in D.C. as a 16-year-old.

His eyes opened to hardcore’s chaotic energy, he immediately wanted to contribute. In 2004, inspired by the scene-focused work of Malfunction Records, he started Flatspot in order to put out some seven-inches by his friends’ bands. “The main thing was being involved in a community,” he says. “Even with bands we put out now, that's the one box that needs to be checked: how involved is the band in the community? If it's a bunch of guys coming in because it's a new thing and they want to co-opt it, I’m not into that.”

A few hundred miles to the north-east in Long Island, Ricky’s life was almost running in parallel to Che’s. After seeing Kill Your Idols live, he thrust himself into a scene that branched out from local legends Silent Majority through hardcore-adjacent bands like Glassjaw and The Movielife. “I wanted to be involved immediately,” he recalls.

Aged 13 or 14, he was flyering shows after cold-emailing a promoter asking if there was any way he could help out. Soon after, he started forming bands and wound up playing guitar in Backtrack. When Che reached out in 2008, offering to handle their demo, they snapped his hand off partly because of a certain hardcore seven-inch that reshaped Flatspot’s ambitions and clout almost overnight.

Above: Jivebomb, by Anthony Tripoli

That record was Trapped Under Ice’s wildly influential 2007 demo, which noisily introduced the world to Justice Tripp and his bandmates’ mix of concrete riffs and gut-wrenching feeling. Only two releases into Flatspot’s young life, it also introduced Che to possibilities beyond the small circle he thought his label would appeal to. “I’d known them since I was a teen,” he remembers. “I thought the sound was amazing, but I thought we’d sell a couple copies in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore City. It was like a snowball effect.”

Ricky’s take on TUI is interesting because, from within the walls of Flatspot, he offers a fan perspective on a release that Che almost plays down because he is so familiar with its story on a granular level. “It was a fucking pivotal demo,” Ricky says. “The level of emotion that record has, in such a fierce way, is unmatched. It comes from a very real place, too. That’s something we want to do with all our records. Che didn’t have much experience putting out records, but he took a bet on his friends. I think that’s such a beautiful thing.”

Justice Tripp’s role in this story has another small, but important, twist. On returning to Baltimore from Long Island after a show, he passed Backtrack’s demo to Che. Ricky took point on a lot of the band’s dealings, so he ended up in dialogue with the label. In Che he found a hardcore nerd of similar stature, whom he’d later keep apprised of developments he came across while on tour. “Playing in the band, I was able to travel so much,” he says. “I was constantly sending Che new music. We’d be in LA, or Georgia, or Europe, and I’d be like, ‘This sound is popping off over here.’ It’s funny, now that I think about it, I was like an A&R scout.”

Above: Che and Ricky, by Eric Soucy

Ricky always had a standing offer open to partner up if the opportunity arose, and in 2012, Che took him up on it. Ricky now oversees his side of the business from Brooklyn. “He’s been my biggest asset, when he joined it was like a weight off my back,” Che says. Quickly, Flatspot’s release schedule began to fill out. “I think from 2004 to 2012 [the label] put out seven records,” Ricky observes. They’d doubled that number by January 2015, when they issued a live tape by Angel Du$t, the genre-agnostic band featuring Justice and members of an ascendant Turnstile.

“I hope that people can look at the label as a trustworthy source of great music,” Ricky continues. “That's really all we could ask for and I think we're very picky about who we work with. It's not a numbers game, or a quantity game. I think when you start meeting some of the bands, you get a sense of them. Sometimes I'm not thinking of signing a whole band, it's like signing some people that I believe in.”

Above: Speed, by James Hartley

The latest band to get that seal of approval on a full-length is Buggin, a Chicago quartet whose debut Concrete Cowboys finds their outlandishly fun, bounce-led sound walking arm-in-arm with vocalist Bryanna Bennett detailing self-worth, belief in their own strengths, and the tokenisation of women and non-binary people in hardcore. Look closely and you’ll quickly see the Flatspot ethos reflected back by what they’re doing.

“Nothing is going to grow if no-one is actively working towards how they want things to operate,” Bryanna says. “When Buggin first started, I just decided to start booking shows with us on it because I didn’t want to have to wait for other people to get hip to what we’re doing. We saw there was a gap in the type of music we wanted to see locally and made efforts to change that. Now there’s several new bands popping up around Chicago with Buggin and Instill having a huge hand in keeping shows going in the city, even with the loss of so many great DIY spaces over time.”

“I’d say some of the most diverse bands are coming out of Flatspot right now,” they add. “Not even based on the demographic makeup of the bands, but showcasing multiple styles of hardcore. It’s a label where it’s not one-size-fits-all in terms of sound. By also having super diverse demographics in each band, I think it shows so many kids that have felt overlooked that they can do whatever they want, too.”

Above: Buggin, by Anthony Tripoli

Standing still isn’t an option in hardcore right now. A whole bunch of interconnected scenes are set to enter unknown territory as the music world at large wakes up to what’s going on, but Che is upbeat. Pointing to Turnstile playing a small-cap benefit show in Baltimore right before hitting arenas with blink-182, he thinks they can stay the course by sticking to what’s worked so far.

“This is as big as I've seen hardcore in my whole life,” he says. “In my opinion, the positives outweigh the negatives. It's new to all of us. I think as long as we keep that sense of community as the essence, I think this can become the biggest thing.”

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