Since their inception in 2003, Chicago’s cult reissue label Numero Group have amassed a catalogue of nearly 600 physical releases. Fighting back against a cliquey world of lofty Discogs prices, hermetically sealed records and Comic Book Guy-esque music geeks, Numero have made it their mission to bring rarities to the masses. The resulting impact on music, and pop culture, is one that stretches way beyond your average record collector. The label’s releases regularly crop up in film soundtracks, their catalogue has been sampled by everyone from Rick Ross to the electronic producer Midland, and once-obscure records like Rupa’s Aaj Shanibar tally up millions of plays on Youtube.
While their foundations were built on soul music, Numero have gone on to champion outliers from across just about every conceivable genre. From country music to exotica, indie rock to Bollywood disco, the label’s founders Ken Shipley, Rob Sevier and Tom Lunt, who left the label in 2013, have succeeded in bringing us the music we never knew we wanted.
Rather than focus on market demand, making a quick buck on rare records and holy grails, the label instead focuses on bringing obscurities to light. Leaving no stone unturned, no crate untouched, their uncanny knack for turning hidden gems into timeless classics has given the label a reputation for must-have releases. Tracks are lovingly remastered, the releases accompanied by detailed liner notes, rare photographs and even, alongside the 2019 compilation Escape from Synth City, a limited edition SNES controller and game.
Their aim is to archive the music of artists whose initial releases often found little commercial success. Where possible, the artists are contacted directly to ensure they’re able to tell their own stories, and there have been a great many to tell. There was the public-wide search for the lost group Penny & The Quarters, who found fame after their track appeared in the 2010 film Blue Valentine. Similarly, the tale of Edge of Daybreak, a group of inmates who recorded their only LP Eyes of Love, in a single take one morning at a prison complex in Virginia. While the record only received very limited distribution at the time, they finally found an audience via a knock-out soundtrack appearance in the 2016 film Moonlight. There was the independent songwriter Willie Right, who sold his record Nantucket Island from the trunk of his car after gigs at house parties. And who could forget the many once-unknown artists who, via Numero, have gained wider audiences through high-profile sampling. Take the Ponderosa Twins track "Bound" on Kanye’s Bound 2, for instance, or Lee Alfred’s Rockin Poppin Full Tilting on Midland’s Final Credits.
Perhaps the most important story to come out of Numero though has been that of their hugely successful compilations. Often focusing on small local scenes, periods of time or obscure genres, the compilation format has provided a vehicle for many artists who could surely never have expected any form of commercial success. In most cases, their only recorded music spans a single release, often existing on only a handful of self-funded 45s pressings. Carefully compiled and curated, these compilations pick out the “cream of the crop” tracks, streamlining long-forgotten moments of musical history into easily digestible, and affordable, music for modern listeners. So, while the next big hit lies waiting somewhere out there in a dusty box at the back of a garage, we can be thankful that, one day, it will find a new home with Numero.