Toronto record label makes old disco new again

Two DJs and entrepreneurs find forgotten music all over the world and reissue the records from a small Toronto record label called Invisible City.

Invisible City reissues rare records by tracking down artists in far-off locations

A vintage photo of Trinidadian disco musician Stephen Encinas, part of the roster at Toronto's Invisible City record label. (Invisible City)

When it was released, Stephen Encinas’s Disco Illusions seemed destined for the dancefloor.

He recorded the near-seven minute disco single about the ecstasy of Friday nights in 1979, when dance music was at its peak around the world. Only outside of his native Port Of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, the record reached very few turntables, and ever fewer discotheques.

Instead the vinyl record sat collecting dust in a box in a storage warehouse of Rhyners, a renowned record store known in the Caribbean as ‘De Music Store’, in Port Of Spain.

That was until two Toronto DJs and entrepreneurs, Brandon Hocura and Gary Abugan, got into the warehouse and literally dusted off the vinyl of Disco Illusions. “There were two full rooms of storage space to dig through. By luck and perseverance, we found it,” says Hocura.

The two own a small Toronto record label called Invisible City, which reissues lost classics just like Disco Illusions.

Now, 34 years later, the record is finally fulfilling its destiny and hitting dancefloors, courtesy of a reissue from Invisible City.

Hocura and Abugan go all over the world seeking rare and forgotten vinyl, a process fittingly described as crate digging. After a few years of uncovering gems, the two decided to do more with their discoveries.

“We decided we are going to break out of the DJ mode and be a real record label, finding artists and licensing their music,” says Abugan. This allows them to reissue the albums as vinyl in record stores and digitally online.

Currently, Invisible City records can be found as nearby as Play De Record on Yonge Street and as far away as Japan and Denmark. The records constantly sell out.

The criteria Invisible City uses to evaluate music is not based on potential popularity or return on investment, but that the music is under-appreciated. “You’ve never heard this music before, and it might be in a different language, but has an immediate appeal,” explains Hocura.

The two have been around the Caribbean, India, Japan and the U.S. for records, with varying results. “We were in some dank basement in New York - it was like we were miners. Totally hazardous. Probably took some years off our life,” recalls Abugan. “In Japan, every record seems pristine, in a plastic wrap and organized.”

Gary Abugan digging up classic, forgotten disco records in Port Of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. (Invisible City)

That digging has resulted in a number of releases from forgotten artists, like 80s Zambian band The Witch, Trinidadian disco artist Michael Boothman and Ahmed Fakroun, an Arabian New Wave singer from Benghazi, Libya, to name a few.

“It’s a lot of sleuthing around,” says Hocura. “We’ll get 10 leads on artists and one turns into a record.”

“A lot of times, it’s 40 years down the road, and we’re calling them about their music and they don’t even remember it,” said Abugan. “The artist has moved on and done other things in life.”

Other DJs and record labels have re-released old, rare albums, either under-the-table at shows or simply illegally. The Invisible City team takes pride in finding the artists and paying them.

Even though the pair travel to the far reaches of the globe for music, the inspiration for Invisible City comes from records found at home in Toronto.

“It all goes back to Toronto, really,” said Hocura. “This city is so multicultural. You see all these records from all over the world. You can find that stuff in Toronto.”

Abugan agrees. “Toronto is the best in the world for crate digging. People come here, and they bring their records from home. Those get sort of thrown it into the mix here. Their records end up in thrift stores or record shops, and a lot of times there’s only ten pressings of these records.”