Everyone’s got their thing. Record collecting, particularly in an era of non-physical formats, and on the scale to which I pursue it, takes some explaining. There are valid arguments against amassing material objects – most of which I agree with, but this obsession, and the drive behind it, is entirely linked to who I am and how I relate to the world around me. I was originally drawn to vinyl by B-sides, and for economy. I didn’t have much money and was cursed with an obsessive personality. Records were cheaper than CD’s, and often captured material not otherwise available. As time passed, what they offered evolved, grew, and subsequently came to dominate my psyche.
Of course vinyl sounds better, but during the years that I casually flipped between multiple formats (CDs, tapes and records), I never gave it a second thought. I loved music, however it came, and paid little regard to fidelity. I couldn’t afford to be picky. My dedication to vinyl grew from my affection for its interface – single-sided, long form listening, its durability – even in bad condition it offered beautiful sounds (rather than the stretched warble of a worn cassette, or the skipping madness of a CD), and most significantly it is a sprawling world of endless discovery.
From its earliest incarnations, recorded music has been linked to the inefficiency of capitalism. As with many things – with the bad comes the good. The major label industry has always dominated the market, and rarely been anything other than cynical and money hungry. It’s bad at its job, treats its artists like shit, and lacks respect for those who consume its product. Despite age and the transparency of its faults, it has never attempted to learn from its mistakes. The industry arrogantly employs the same strategy it began with a century ago – a drag net. It records extensively, and produces music with little to no understanding for the demand with which it will be met. It throws shit at the wall and hopes something will stick, while trying to bully and drown out anything that does not conform to its blind will. My heart breaks to think of the countless artists who have been chewed up by this machine. Few have survived unscathed. Music fans are the lucky ones. The industry’s loss is our gain. Despite producing countless commercial failures, this practice has left a vast body of neglected music in its wake. These recordings are the great legacies of the individuals, cultures and histories from which they were born. It’s the deep pool from which record collectors draw. Unlike the world of digital media, the vast majority of vinyl records are the result of a flaw in capitalism, and thus are outside of its control. As objects, artifacts, and failures, they are devoid of the cynicism of commerce. Their value is ours to determine. They’re vessels for the people who made them, and the cultures to which they belong. They capture emotion and creativity in a way that few things can. I buy records because I love music and I am constantly learning from them. I learn by discovering them, by listening to them, from the stories they tell, the people who make them, and the clues they offer to other things. It’s endless and profoundly rewarding. As you explore the vast world of recorded music, it’s impossible to feel alone in the world. It captures the humanity of others and the challenges they offer, while always pushing us to grow. Music makes you a better person. If you trust your heart over your ears and push against your comfort zone, the rewards are endless.
Collecting records on a large scale is as old as the format itself. Born from a love of music, its drive extends well beyond it. There’s always purpose at the heart of this pursuit. Record collectors are sonic archaeologists – propelled by a need for discovery and a desire to salvage and archive what we find. Motives vary, it might be curiosity, personal growth, knowledge, the race to save something before it’s lost, the need for untapped samples and breaks, something new for the dance floor, or the desire to highlight an unappreciated culture or tradition. Whatever the reason, the nagging desire for discovery is always present. It is not about owning objects, but rather understanding and sharing what those objects hold. Every record collector, no matter how large their collection, is acutely aware of how little he or she owns and how much there is to learn. Whether or not we know what’s out there, we know there’s always something waiting just out of sight.
Historically most fans of music have had their thing, a single focus – era, genre, etc. Members of my generation, particularly those who chose to form our identities outside of the mainstream, entered a more complex sonic paradigm. We came of age during the 1990’s, an era when many of the last strongholds of independent music faltered and become corrupted by corporate interests or ambition. This history is well documented and hardly needs rehashing. During this period, many young listeners like myself felt disillusioned and abandoned as many of our heroes abandoned their creative integrity and drifted towards fame and money. We turned our backs and began the search for new sounds. There’s a lot of nostalgia about the 90’s, but I remember a complex and frustrating time. After Punk “broke” I was left sprawling and directionless for the first half of the decade. I flitted from one genre to another, looking desperately for music that was honest and outside the the temptation of corporate interest.
It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago in 1996 that I began to find my feet. When I arrived in the city, I encountered a thriving scene of independent music that was modeled on the ethos of Punk, but sounded nothing like it. Honesty and integrity came first, and at all costs. It was an incredible moment in the city, and for music. The sounds I encountered were part of a sprawling network of independent music that stretched across the country. Each band and iteration was distinct. There was almost no overlap. Many bands sounded unlike anything before or since. They had one eye on the future and the other on the past. Their sounds grew from hybridizing a vast world of sonic reference points. It was a new language – decidedly non-hierarchical, and offered listeners like me far more than we could have imagined possible.
Independent music during the 1990’s was largely defined by sounds external to itself. Its creators were fans first – avid record collectors who delved deep, believed in the value of all music, regardless of origin or history, and made this position public. Most were more interested in discussing other people’s records than their own. This made a big impression on me. It was the last gesture of Punk – breaking down the final barrier between audience and band, exchanging sources, reference points and a love for music. Rather than the internal discourse of a single scene, it encouraged conversation across culture and genre. The antithesis of the corporate industry: it was overwhelming, incredibly exciting, and came to broadly define my relationship to music for all the years that have followed. I went from a void to drowning in options. A vast world of contemporary music opened before me, and with it an unfathomable expanse of recordings that its musicians suggested their fans explore.
I don’t listen to much Rock and Roll anymore. What began as a process of exploring reference points offered by the musicians I loved, became a passion for a vast territory of music spanning countless cultures and histories. It’s my generation’s curse. We are restless, curious and hungry. We want to know as much as we can. When pointed in a direction, we don’t give it a second thought and dive in head first. We follow tangent and thread after tangent and thread, never knowing where it will lead us. We’ve made discoveries, broken down barriers, and laid our mark. Our work is never done. Our tastes have changed the face of music. If you walk into a record store today, you will encounter music from cultures vast and wide, and spanning the entire history of recording. Twenty years ago you’d be lucky to find more than American Rock records. Our habits and interests have changed what is acknowledged, approached and respected. We took what we inherited from the generation that proceeded us and exploded it. We are the culmination and advancement of their efforts – our shelves are the realizations of their influence. We are a generation without boundaries.
I thought I could quit for a while. When Jenny and I left Brooklyn a few months back, for London and beyond, I had planned on abstaining from buying records while we traveled. I’ve spent the last couple of years digging, and recently suffered the heavy bill of shipping a couple thousand records back to England. I figured I could handle laying off for a while. As the tittle of this piece suggests, I’ve failed. During the 2 1/2 months we were in London, I picked up a stack of wonderful things – 85 LPs and 107 45s to be exact. It turns out the desire to learn, to explore and hear new things was too great, and too connected to who I am. Before I put them into storage, in addition to making some mixes, I selected a few of my favorites to profile.
Pulling these albums from the pile wrote the narrative that you have just read. Their diversity and breadth spoke to the character of my collecting habits and interests in music, as well a pointing to a lager generational condition. They are record collecting as it goes – an exciting plunge into a diverse spectrum of sound which never ends. I hope they will open new worlds for you all, and as you discover them, you will enjoy what you hear.
Babel – Babel (1976)
This album is stunning and mysterious. I’ve been trying to track it down for the last couple of years, and a copy finally fell into my hands. It was released in 1976 by Phillips France, and offers no indication of who plays on it. The only clue is the cryptic text “Recorded at Aïd El Kebir 1395 in the church of Rough place Rudeville, Ruigoord, NL, during the time to kill and eat our sheep 13th december 1975.“. There are rumors that the French vocalist Catherine Le Forestier and the American saxophonist Steve Potts were part of the ensemble, but there is no confirmation. Babel sums up everything that was wonderful about music in France during this period. It’s pointedly avant-garde, while weaving a sonic landscape that’s incredibly inviting. It blends folk traditions from Europe and North Africa with American Free-Jazz. My dream come true. It’s a wild, complex, intricate and beautiful ride. Anyone who is interested in Free-Jazz will love this record, but this one goes further. The Guembri (a North African bass lute) playing, and the vocals take it to an incredible place and make it it’s own thing. The closest reference I can call to mind are Areski and Brigitte Fontaine’s collaborations from this same period, particularly their record Comme À La Radio, made with The Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969. It’s a writhing sonic tapestry of experiment and joy. I can’t recommend it enough.
Akaba Man & The Nigie Rokets – Akaba 82 Volume One (1981)
This is one of my favorite Nigerian records, and in my view one of the most criminally neglected. It’s absolutely stunning. Like many records from Nigeria from the late 70’s and early 80’s, it’s very hard to pin down exactly what to call it. It’s not quite pop, it’s not disco, it doesn’t sound particularly African, but it also couldn’t have been made anywhere else. Here’s all you need to know – it’s funky as hell, and absolutely overwhelming. If it doesn’t get you dancing nothing will. Akaba Man comes from the same sonic landscape as William Onyeabor, so I would recommend this album to anyone who is a fan of his music. Akaba 82 is its own beast. It’s on the high end of production value, and though it uses some of the same synth sounds as Onyeabor, it employs a larger range of instrumentation and more complex arrangements. Like many of his peers, Akaba Man clearly drew a great deal of influence from Latin music. If it weren’t for his chanting vocals, and some of the weirder sounds that flit in and out, a blind sampling might lead you to believe this album was made in South America or Cuba. It’s just great. One of the triumphs from an incredible legacy of music.
Jean Schwarz – Anticycle II (1974)
Jean Schwarz is a French composer and ethnomusiclogist. He is best known for his recordings for the INA-GRM label, but this album, one of his early efforts, has long been my favorite. I’m happy to have finally found it. Technically speaking it is comprised of pieces of Musique Concrète, but my interest in it is an extension of my larger interest in recordings focused on percussion. This album is a series of tape loop constructions of drum and other percussion instruments. It’s wonderful and unexpected, and displays the surprises that occur when technology takes an upper hand. Beats rattle against each other, cross and fall in and out of time, making new patterns and rhythms as they go. It can be difficult and uncompromising at times, but also is very rewarding. It will be interesting and exciting for anyone who is into Musique Concrète, avant-garde and experimental music, or pure percussion recordings.
U. Brown – Satta Dread (1976)
Like most Americans, I grew up with the banal and commercial end of Reggae. It wasn’t until I moved to London in 2005 that I realized what I was missing. Britain’s relationship to music from Jamaican music spans more than half a century. Where America had R&B, Soul and Funk – England had Ska, Rocksteady and Roots. Music from the island is everywhere and has seeped into everything. I fell in love with it shortly after arriving. It’s hard for me to think of a genre of Reggae I don’t like, but my heart has long been stuck on Rocksteady and Deejay.
Dancing has always been important in Jamaican culture. In the colonial period, most people of African descent couldn’t afford night clubs. Like anybody with a need, they improvised. During the early 60’s, traveling sound systems started to pop up and play records in fields and empty lots. People danced under the stars. As time went on, the DJs began talking and rhyming (toasting) over parts of the records. It probably began as a way to get the listeners on the dance floor or excited about what they were hearing. Within a few years it was acknowledged as it’s own art form, with its own leading lights. Historically Deejay is probably seen as most significant for having given rise to Hip-Hop. It was the transplanting of Deejay culture to the Bronx by Jamaican immigrants that grew into the genre we all know. Toasting became rapping. U-Roy is generally credited as the originator of the form (though there are earlier realizations of it in Caribbean music), and U.Brown was his early disciple. The early incarnation of this music is pretty straight forward. The DJ toasts over a Rocksteady or Ska 45 as it plays through. As years went on the backing track might be edited slightly to give more freedom to the toasting, and eventually the backing track was often dropped and original music would back the DJ’s vocals.
This album, which is U. Brown’s first, is a bridge between the DJs who proceeded (Dennis Alcapone, U-Roy and I-Roy) and those who followed (Dillinger, Big Youth, Prince Far I). It employs the iconic toasting over Rocksteady (as well as Rockers and Roots) tracks, while also utilizing the sort of studio interventions which became more characteristic as the 70’s rolled on. It was recorded at King Tubby’s studio, so predictably this is a pretty dubby affair. It’s great, and definitely worth adding to the collection of anyone who is interested in Jamaican music.
Master U. Srinivas – The Adorable Child Prodigy (1985)
This album represents how the endless and often frustrating hunt for records becomes incredibly gratifying. I’ve been searching for records by U. Srinivas for years. They are incredibly rare, and until stumbling upon this one in a record shop in Bristol, I hadn’t had any luck. Prior to picking it up, I believed only two had been released on vinyl. It turns out there are three. I had no idea this one existed. There’s no reference to it anywhere. It doesn’t happen often, but finding something wonderful and outside of the sphere of common knowledge is one of the greatest thrills a record collector gets. As the title suggests, Srinivas was a child prodigy. He was a member of the Carnatic tradition of Indian Classical music, and one of the few to adopt the electric mandolin. India has a long history of introducing western instruments into its traditions, but this rarely happens without struggle. It was the virtuosity and singularity of Srinivas’ playing at the age of 9 that brought this instrument wide acceptance in a single stroke. Something very rare. He was highly regarded by fans of Indian Classical music both within his own country and and without, but like much of his tradition he was largely neglected in the west. This album, like all of his efforts, is thrilling. Carnatic music often employs much faster tempos than it’s northern counterpart, and Srinivas does not disappoint. His playing has a depth and aggressiveness at break neck speeds that is hard to describe. It’s mind boggling to think anyone could play so well, let alone someone of his young age. Both because of the singularity of his instrument and his playing, he takes these ragas to an unfamiliar place. It’s almost as though you are hearing the Carnatic tradition for the first time. Though I can’t recommend this one enough, I also think it will be a while before another copy turns up. Who knows. For now you can find one of its ragas on my Carnatic mixtape from a few weeks back. Happy hunting.