How the ‘Latin Motown’ Is Remixing Itself for a New Generation of Consumers

Fania Records, the label that launched salsa, is now in the DJ booth

DJ Dave Nada remixes classic Fania tracks.
All photos courtesy of Fania

A few weeks before Christmas last year, a bit of history was made at a former door factory in New York’s industrial district of Maspeth in Queens. Inside the 50,000-square-foot warehouse—now a performance space called the Knockdown Center—750 fans of Latin pop converged under twisting LED spotlights as DJs Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez and Jose Marquez fed their mixes though the gut-punching PA system. Off the dance floor, a wall-sized installation of classic salsa albums stretched into the distance, offering the opportunity for selfies, while a nearby pop-up shop did a brisk trade in caps, T-shirts and hoodies.

If the scene looked like yet another of New York’s innumerable Friday night dance parties, it was indeed that—but with an important distinction. The music, the wall of classic vinyl and the merchandise (indeed, development of the event itself) were all the intellectual property of Fania Records.

Wait—do you know that brand? Chances are, you don’t, especially if you’re under 50 and grew up listening to classic rock. But if you’re one of the 55 million Latino Americans and lived in New York City in the 1960s or ’70s (or had parents who did), then Fania is a household name. At its peak, the record label was known as “the Latin Motown.”

But that peak was four decades ago, which is why the dance party at the Knockdown Center was important. It was part of a slow but steady resurgence of the brand, a multiyear, multiplatform marketing effort bent on reintroducing Fania to millennials and Gen-Z music fans.

The ambition to turn a record label of yesteryear into what the company calls “an innovative and digitally driven global music, entertainment and lifestyle company” belongs to CMO Michael Rucker, who has his work cut out for him. At a time when millennials won’t pay for downloads, and even the mightiest of music companies are shadows of their former selves, a special-interest label like Fania has a steeper climb than most. Rucker knows it, but he believes salsa gives him an edge.

“Record labels have always been notoriously set up as transactional and business-based, and so they based it all on how many albums you sold and downloads and streams,” he said. “[But] we always saw music as an experience that evokes a feeling, and our job is to create those experiences that evoke those feelings and … evoke a lifelong relationship with the customer.”

The rise and fall of a salsa legend

For Rucker, that process began roughly a decade ago, when equity firm Codigo Group purchased the assets of Fania, installing Rucker as chief marketer. Before deciding what to do with the music, he had to find the music—literally. Codigo executives didn’t even know that the original multitrack recordings were gathering dust in a storehouse in Hudson, N.Y., about 100 miles north of Manhattan. “As we were going through paperwork, we found receipts for the warehouse,” Rucker recalls. “[We] sent a team up there, and that’s where the tapes were.”

Fania Records began in 1964, when Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco and impresario-attorney Jerry Masucci (who’d learned his street sense as a Brooklyn beat cop) decided to start a record label. Fania was a shoestring operation in the early years, with Pacheco driving around Harlem and the Bronx and selling Fania LPs out of the trunk of his car.

But the duo’s timing was right. Fania’s founding coincided with the explosion of salsa, a style of music with Caribbean roots (borrowing from Dominican merengue and Puerto Rican bomba, among others) that drew its energy from the barrios of the Bronx. A decade in, Fania was pressing records of most every great Latin artist of the era—Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades, Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, to name a few. Fania’s enormous influence culminated in an all-star concert at Yankee Stadium in the summer of 1973, a show so electrifying it had to be stopped early when some of the 40,000 ecstatic fans rushed the stage.