Actually, even if you've never heard of Right Tempo, you've probably heard Piero Umiliani. "Everybody knows "Mah Na Mah Na' but nobody knows it was a composition by Piero Umiliani," says Rocco "Mad for Jazz" Pandiani. The founder and managing director of Right Tempo is speaking about the song made famous by cavorting Muppets on Sesame Street. "In Italy, Umiliani is really the only one that can be so ubiquitous but still with a strong jazz attitude. He is the main man in that respect. He is a badass."
Although Pandiani began his label by releasing jazz, he soon found his niche with lost '60s and '70s Italian soundtracks. By excavating composers like Umiliani, Lesiman, and Piero Piccioni, he has helped drag the sometimes square genre of lounge music into the space age. "We quite hate this lounge/cocktail label for music," Pandiani says, on the phone from his offices in Milan. "We don't like cheesy music and very often easy listening is coupled with cheesy music."
More locally, DJ Neel Boyett regularly serves up Right Tempo fare to retro-clad jet-setters at Hush Hush's "Hai Karate" and the CoCo Club's "Lush." "The word "easy' is deceptive," he says. "A lot of people think that word connotes elevator music or lounge, but a lot of easy listening is actually quite hard and funky."
Since 1993 Pandiani has released some 50 titles on three different imprints -- Right Tempo Classics, Easy Tempo, and Temposphere. Apart from reissues of soundtracks like Camille 2000 and Il Corpo, the Easy Tempo compilation series represents Right Tempo's best-known output. Full of cinematic funk, eerie psychedelia, and erotic easy listening, the records bring to mind images of frantically dancing girls, gun- toting boys, and the naughty messes they leave behind. The Easy Tempo records have been so successful that a host of other Italian labels -- like Irma La Douche, Dago Red, Black Cat, and Easy Beat -- have jumped on the bandwagon. But local proponents of the European retro groove still name-check Right Tempo as the Lamborghini Countach of reissue labels.
"We've carried them from the start," says Amoeba Music buyer Jeremy Wheat. "We usually get eight to 10 copies of the comps and maybe three or four copies of the original soundtracks, and we always sell out." For Wheat, hearing the compilations was something of a revelation. "I've been collecting the Easy Tempo and Irma comps as they were released. It just sort of followed that I would want to start a band that played that kind of material."
So Wheat formed Cannon, a soundtrack/art rock combo that also features the former keyboardist from Dieselhed. The initial idea was to pay tribute to John Barry, the British composer of the James Bond scores. "Now, after a year we're playing one or two John Barry compositions and the rest is these obscure Italian soundtracks," Wheat says.
DJ Laureano is co-founder of "Leisure Lounge," a monthly night at Club Deluxe that explores the more soft-focused and erotic aspects of the Italian sound. As pornoramic sounds ooze from the speakers, cheekily sexploitative visuals flash across screens, video monitors, and even the crowd itself.
For Laureano, Easy Tempo's appeal was somewhat nostalgic. "I grew up in Buenos Aires in the early 1970s," he says. "My mom was really into modern interior design and my dad fixed flip clocks like the Cifra 3. I was constantly surrounded by that mod vibe. Buenos Aires is right next to Brazil and has a large European population; growing up, the sound found in these tracks was very much a part of my environment."
Other Easy Tempo tracks have been heard on Heineken ads and sampled by artists ranging from Public Enemy to the Bobby Hughes Experience. All this has led Pandiani and Right Tempo to decide it's time to mix things up a bit with Temposphere, the label's newest imprint. Thus far, Temposphere has released several compilations featuring trip-hoppy remixes of Easy Tempo tracks by people like Kid Loco, the High Llamas, and Gak Sato. Locally, the new label's explorations of 21st-century sounds are getting mixed reviews.
"They sound more downtempo," says Boyett. "I'm more geared toward the funk and disco, which is what I play. The Easy Tempo Experience remixes don't sound as good as the originals."
Despite criticisms from purists, Pandiani is committed to taking the Right Tempo vibe into the future. Aside from continuing to excavate Umiliani's groovy back catalog, plans are under way for a new contemporary series called Club Horizons. "Basically it's going to be a series dedicated to intelligent club music," Pandiani says.
"San Francisco is still the city in the U.S. that I feel most attached to," Pandiani adds. "My dream is to one day come to San Francisco and do a whole Right Tempo night."