Chicago, and particularly the South Side, is made up of artists, musicians, writers, painters–you name it. You see them participating in local art festivals, weekend fresh markets, local coffee shops and countless community events. They do it all for the love of art. Long hours go into their crafts and many times they go unrecognized, mistreated and not compensated. This is the unfortunate and common narrative of Chicago artists. One artist-run record label on the South Side is hoping to change that reality for artists in Chicago.
No Sé Discos, based out of Brighton Park, was born out of the need to provide a space for Black and Brown artists, a space for those artists that are also essential workers and for those not afraid to push their artistic boundaries to create art that heals. “I’m Chicano. We’re Latinos. We are working class people—we have to do things differently. If we are gonna get any kind of love it’s gotta be coming from that,” said Jorge Ledezma, one of the label’s cofounders.
In 2006, Allá, an art-pop band made up of Ledezma, their brother Angel, and Lupe Martinez, embarked on a musical journey that took them further than they could have imagined. The trio self-produced and self-funded their first album. “My idea was to make the best Chicano record ever made,” Angel said. “The whole idea of Allá was a Chicano band; the title allá [means] between here and there, and when you are in Mexico you say Allá, and when you are here you say Allá.”
No Sé Discos translates to “I don’t know Records” in English. The name came as the trio found themselves constantly saying “I don’t know,” or “I don’t know what’s next,” or “I just don’t know.” The creation of the label was unlike that of a traditional label: they didn’t follow the rules or the advice of the straight white man telling you how to run a label. “The name NO SE fits perfectly because we don’t always know what we are doing,” Angel Ledezma said.
“Our music was too weird for most Latinos… [Allá was] accepted by white people, but we sang in Spanish,” Ledezma said. This led them to explore other avenues. The band reached out to a Belgian record label that loved their music and gave them a go. Then it came time to release their second album. This time around, the Belgian label was no longer interested. That took them back to square one.
In the meantime, they went back to their day jobs, Lupe and Jorge got married, had a child and continued creating what they know best to do: music. “We still wrote all this music…but we had no audience,” Ledezma said.
In 2018, Jorge was asked by longtime friend and musician CHEBAKA to help him produce his album. The trio agreed, not really knowing how things would turn out—but they knew they had to do it. “Then we had this album and…I’m going to try to get this to record labels,” Jorge Ledezma said. They couldn’t find any who would produce it.
During the struggle caused by the pandemic, they realized the best chance of getting their music out there was to do it themselves. No Sé Discos came to life. “We were in the middle of the pandemic. We were all essential workers…. These artists are trusting their music with us. We can’t just put it out there because we know the business. We are older, or Black or Brown, our music’s a little different.”
Jorge, Lupe, and Angel took it upon themselves to make it happen. The pandemic ultimately catapulted their project and they hit the ground running with London-based Black artist Nayfo and Chicago rapper CHEBAKA joining the label.
Brothers Angel and Jorge are joined by Jorge’s wife, Lupe, in the music. The label, brought to life, is now a family business.
The members of Allá briefly spoke about generational wealth and the importance of creating a legacy for their daughter. As essential workers, they understand the importance of creating long lasting roots for their family.
The pop group also spoke on their musical influences. Lupe explained her preferences depend on her mood, but she tends to lean towards 80s music such as New Order. Angel shared a more specific list of bands such as the Beatles, who he credits with teaching him how to listen to music, and Black Flag, who he says made him want to play it. As for Jorge, he is currently influenced by Sun Ra. “He was prolific,” Jorge said. “He was extremely independent and because he could not find anybody to release his music, he released his own music.”
It’s impossible to speak about the music industry without hearing horror stories, and, unfortunately, they have experiences they shared with me, but why throw salt on the wound. Jorge reflects on what role No Sé Discos plays in today’s music. “I don’t like to use the word ‘scene,’ because scenes come and go. Community stays,” Ledezma said.
The label is more than a label. It’s a community of artists working together to make great art. From visual artists to photographers to musicians, they are ready to help you bring the best out of you and your art. “You go and you make something extremely visceral and different. Think about what heals you, and then when you make that, let me listen to it,” Jorge Ledezma said.
No Sé Discos released their first record in October of this year: You are Essential, a compilation of the three artists in the label.
The label was intentional about creating a complete piece of art. McKinley park artist Natalia Villafuentes created the cover art. The label sourced vinyl locally and hand-folded record sleeves. Most of the album was recorded at Pieholden Studios in Chicago. The records can be found in Chicago record stores such as 606 Records, Shuga Records, Reckless Records and Pinwheel Records.
Although the future is uncertain, the label doesn’t plan on going back to normal. Rather, they are looking to navigate micro-events, artist pop-ups and secure a residency to feature a rotation of artists.
The label is already working on releasing their next album, which is a double album and the first full release for artist Nayfu. “There’s a lot of healing and sweat and blood. Working with these artists has been such a trip,” Jorge Ledezma said.
Sofia McDowell is a freelance writer, blogger and marketing professional. She last covered the Bridgeport Community Canteen for the Weekly’s Best of the South Side 2021 edition.