Category Archives: Biographical

I Listen by Color Now

As some of you know, I have been listening to digital music for a long time now. And I have only just gotten into collecting records, especially those 7 inch treasures known here and elsewhere as “45s” (called that because the record needs to spin at 45 rpm… for those few readers who haven’t heard of google). But in the short while that I have delved into this new scene, I have noticed a dramatic change in my perception and appreciation of music.

I first noticed it a few months ago when I was spinning at a house party (at my house) and a friend of mine was on deck for fun. I was teaching him what I knew at the time about mixing which at the time was just how to fade in and fade out. He picked up and played one of my records at random and wanted to know what he should play next. Immediately I knew what would be a great song to follow up the current title with and I started flicking through the stacks of records looking for that particular single. But, and here’s the subtle but important point, I was not searching for the song by its title or by the artist name even though that information was right there for me. Instead, I was searching by color.

Color?

Yea, the color of the actual single. At that party, I noticed that I have subconsciously developed color-song associations for my records. Montego Joe’s “Soul Man” is purple, Darondo’s “Didn’t I” is off-white, Inez’s “A Stranger I Don’t Know” is red. For the first time in my life, my perception of music was not restricted to the auditory world, but instead has begun to use up visual, tactile, and olfactory cues. Unlike MP3s, records have weight and feel to them. Some are heavier than others and some have sharp edges. And I can actually smell the dust on some of these older joints! My appreciation for music has reached a new level because each song, each record, takes up physical space in the real world and forces me to use up all of my senses to experience it (except taste the record… unless i’m enjoying a tall frosty one with a 45 under the needle).

The music is no longer just digital files that can be deleted, duplicated, or emailed at the push of a few keystrokes. Each record has color, sound, stickers, scratches, and nuances of its own. And as a collector or a DJ it becomes impossible not to make a connection with that piece of music.

Inez is Red

Now I’m beginning to understand what DJ Illiterate and Skeme Richards meant when they told me I have to “make a connection with the music”.

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Foolishness

I bought my first 45 at Rooky Ricardo’s Records, but not on my first visit to the shop.

I first walked in during my initial exploration of Lower Haight, the neighborhood that I had just moved into. I didn’t buy any records then, mostly because I did not have a reason to buy any; it would take a few more months after that point before I came to terms with my disconnection with music. I shyly entered the store and walked around mindlessly, I was trying to make myself look as confident as possible. The storeowner, a man by the name of Dick Vivian, whom I will later develop a close friendship with, asked if he could help me. I thought my cover was blown, that the storeowner saw through my feeble attempts to look coolheaded and knowledgeable. I said no and quickly walked out of the store with my gaze glued to the floor. It would be months before I saw the inside of Rooky’s again.

I made my second visit on December 5 of last year. The whole experience seems like a blur, but I at least walked out of the store with something in hand. Dick, once again, asked me if he could help me find something; I later found out that he asks all his customers if they need help, even if they look coolheaded and knowledgeable. This time I said yes, and that I was looking for “funk 45s”. In hindsight, this was a silly answer because almost everything in Dick’s shop could fall under that category. Nonetheless, Dick didn’t laugh at me and instead pointed me to everything in the store. I browsed around and then bumped into the James Brown stack in the $2 soul section; I thought to myself “finally, something I recognize!”. The first 45 I ever picked up was Soul Brother Number One’s, “These Foolish Things” with “(Can You) Feel It” on the A side. This gave me the confidence to pick up a few more records in the vicinity before moving towards one of the store’s listening stations, a collection of four technica turntables lined up against the wall, each with a differently colored headphone set.

James Brown and The Famous Flames

I bought about $55 worth of records that day but, aside from “These Foolish Things”, I don’t remember what all of them were (a very scratchy “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earl was in the pile though).  All I know is that I had a bag of records in my hand, and I was happy. I went home and put them on my desk. Now what? Well, that’s about all I could do with them at that point. I couldn’t listen to any of them because, well, I didn’t own a turntable.

I would return to the shop again and again, on a weekly basis, each time buying a sizable stack of records and making a financial dent in my pocket. Dick caught on to the type of music I liked and started suggesting 45s from the “Girl Groups” section. I was shocked and surprised at how dead-on his picks were, and now I was buying high quality 45s that weren’t so scratchy. I, in turn, caught on to what labels I should keep an eye out for and I began to understand that anything on Galaxy, Invictus, or Stax was going to be good. But the problem was still there though. I still didn’t own a turntable and I was too ashamed and embarrassed to admit that to Dick. I continued coming to the shop and buying records, and then placing them in neat stacks on my desk at home. It would take at least another month and several stacks of unheard records for me to buy my first turntable: a Numark pt-01.

I bought it on DJ Foxx Boogie’s recommendation (if you don’t know about Foxx Boogie then check out Control Freaks and The Get Free Movement). The Numark is portable, can run on batteries, and it came with a built-in USB connection so that I can convert the vinyl records to mp3. In hindsight, I think that a small part of me didn’t want to completely give up on digital music. But the more honest answer is that I naively thought records were incredibly fragile and that I had to preserve them as much as I could. It seems I had a lot to learn, and my journey was just starting.

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Disillusionment

Less than two years ago, I went to Amnesia, on Valencia between 19th and 20th, and heard Vinnie Esparza spin records with his friend who I currently only know of as Chris. They have incredible taste in music and I highly recommend you check them out. They also own a record shop on haight called Groove Merchant that only sells gold.

On that night at Amnesia, I heard them play this crazy funk track, and I had to know what it was. I got on stage and asked the DJ what he was playing. It was a 45 by Lou Courtney called Hey Joyce. I was happy to get the name because I thought I’d rush home and ask my friends back in Philly if they can find it for me. But turned out, I already had the song on my ipod. This was embarrassing and a little depressing. I’ve had this music for so many years and I didn’t know about Hey Joyce; who knows how many other gems were hidden in it?

This was the first major step towards my entry into the vinyl scene.

The second step was more of a giant leap. It happened about nine months ago. That’s when I traded my entire digital music library with a friend.

(Side note: If you are working for some copyright legals department and you are thinking of filing some case against me then you should realize right away that (1) there is actually no proof that I did this and (2) there is a non-zero probability that this entire post is fictional.)

Anyways, it wasn’t my idea and I was reluctant to do this. I was willing to share music but just not my whole hard drive, and especially not all in one go. Something felt off about doing that, almost like I was giving a big piece of myself away. But we traded music nonetheless and just like that, I went from having 60 gigabytes of music to having 120 gigabytes. In sum, I doubled my music collection in less than five minutes.

And that’s when it hit me. A feeling I can only describe as a complete disillusionment with digital music. How worthwhile was my collection If I could double it with a push of a button? And what is keeping me from deleting all of it with the same effort?

60GB is worthless under this mentality.

But it took me years to get to that 60GB mark. And yet I did not listen to the majority of it. Otherwise I would have known about Hey Joyce long ago. The reason I did not know about Lou Courtney’s song was simple. I had no connection with the majority of the songs in my library. For years I’ve been dancing to music; I thought I knew music. But I couldn’t be farther away from the truth. I had no real grasp of my collection. And that reminded me of an important discussion I had with Skeme Richards (world famous, Philadelphia bred, Dj of the legendary Rock Steady Crew and Sesion 31).

Skeme and I had a working relationship when I was in college. And, I think in 2007, while I was helping him carry his equipment back to his car we chatted briefly about what music means to new DJs. His contention was that the DJs he saw in the scene now were all playing digital music. He claimed that many of them didn’t own a single record and that they have no connection with their music. He said that when you buy a record, even before listening to it, you begin to build a story. You see that “this cat on the right side has this crazy afro, and this black girl on the cover looks hot as hell in those bellbottoms” and immediately you connect with the artists, the musicians, just by looking at the album cover. At the time I did not own any records and I did not truly understand what Skeme was talking about. I could not fully appreciate what he meant by “forming a connection” with the music. But his message rang loudly in my ear on the night that I doubled my library. To reconnect, or more accurately, to truly connect with music, I would need to follow his advice. I would need to go analog and step as far away from digital music as possible.

And that’s when I walked in to Rooky Ricardo’s Records on Haight street, between Fillmore and Webster, and bought my first 45 record. There are probably many more reasons for why I went to Rooky’s and not any of the other half dozen record shops in the vicinity. The most important reason being that I had a strange fascination with the 45 rpm record that would quickly develop into an intense love. But later would be a better time to explain myself.

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Music

Two night ago, on Friday July 29th, I provided two hours of an all vinyl set at an event simply called “Mama Knows Best”.

MNB was held at Koko Cocktails, a San Francisco joint on Geary Street, and it was my first real gig. This blog is not about how I got to that point and where I’m going next. But it will focus on my journey through music, on my five to six years of dancing in Philly, on my genuine disillusionment with digital music about nine months ago, on my Sundays spent at Rooky Ricardo’s Records, and on my current experiences in this new scene.

I wish I could say “it all started with that…” but I’m sure I can dig up a long forgotten yet pivotal memory that happened much earlier than “that”. So I won’t kid around and I’ll tell you this instead. I moved to San Francisco a little less than two years ago. Prior to that, my formative years were spent in Philadelphia, the city that taught me about breaking, James Brown, Cornbread, and, above all else, what it means to have soul. My entry point into the music scene was haphazard and accidental; in high school I wanted to learn how to breakdance. And here I should take time out to talk about my first mentor, The Infamous Chiskee. But Chi is deserving of a more detailed blog entry that will come at a later time. For now, bare with me while I fast forward through two to three years of misguided showboating and the uncoordinated and random twitches of major muscle groups I called dancing to a pivotal change in my thought process. I can remember two practice sessions that were momentous for that realization. The first was at the Newman Catholic Center on 37th and Locust. It was a practice space maintained by my dance group Freaks of the Beat and it was open to the Philadelphia bboy scene. Every so often I would ask one of the Philly dancers for dance tips or training drills that I can use. Most of them were forthcoming but a few really stood out. One that was a real eye opener was a session with a bboy a lot of us called Joe Stun, who now goes by Stunn Gunna.

His teaching was simple. He played a song and told me to dance to it. (I can’t remember the name of the song, or rather, I never really knew the name; this is a problem I will touch upon in another blog entry.) Actually, it would be more truthful to say that Stunn played only one song and told me to dance to parts of it. The first part was easy, he told me to dance to the beat. I happily did that, thinking at the time that I would impress Stunn, especially because I had spent nearly a year learning how to keep a beat. All Stunn said was “good” and then he replayed the song, this time asking me to dance to the horns. I was confused by what he meant because the song didn’t have many horns in the beginning. So instead of listening to him I started dancing on beat and whenever the horns came in I would try to step to the notes I heard blasting through our static filled amp. He stopped me and repeated himself: “dance to the horns only“. More confusion from my part but I dutifully waited, while thinking how ridiculous I must look, for the horns to pick up. And I did my best. The lesson continued for no more than ten minutes with Stunn repeating the song and telling me to dance to the horns, or the keyboard, or the drums again. It was confusing at the time but it provided me with an essential epiphany. A song is not just a song, that it is made up of parts, of different people playing different instruments. This may seem like a silly or esoteric point but it opened up a whole world of ideas and multiplied my creative potential almost exponentially. I was no longer limited to the basic beat of the song. I could chop up the song in as many ways as there were instruments. I realized that at any instant I could be stepping on beat and then sliding on a horn, or picking out the piano parts. In just ten minutes I changed from being a 2-dimensional character to, potentially, an expression of the actual music. Stunn may not have realized the importance of that lesson for me. It was beautiful in its simplicity and yet profoundly complicated. But most importantly, it increased my love of the music to a new level. But while my internal appreciation for the music reached new heights, my external expression was still faulty. I knew I could be doing so much with the music but i didn’t know how. The idea was there but my body wasn’t trained to do it.

Until sometime later when I was training with my friend Ronny, now known as The Boogie Bandit, one-half of the international DJ duo, Control Freaks. Ronny was essential in my dance training. He was a friend first but was also co-president of Freaks of the Beat with me. Together we trained hard to better ourselves and to maintain and deserve the respect of our club. We always helped each other out and kept an eye on each other’s progress. It was Ronny who helped me learn how to execute what I had learned from Stunn. Ronny realized that my dancing was all feet, something I did not see until that point. He said that I had no problem dissecting the music but that my dancing was not going to get any better if I did not break out of this below-knee style. He told me to stand there, without moving my feet, and to just dance with my upper body. This was one of the most awkward dance experiences of life, as I tried to keep my feet in place while jerking my arms to the music. It didn’t look good for one main reason: I was trying to use my arms in the same way that I used my legs. By which I mean, I was trying to “step” with my hands. It took months of practice to finally realize that I could express the multilayered richness of the song by exploring different kinds of movements: head shakes, shoulder shrugs, wrists, elbows, even my back. All of it was at my disposal now! And my love for music sky rocketed.

From that instance, I would say it took me two more years, if not more, to really start creating what I imagined in my head. I passed down these two lessons to my students, Ed and Corey, as best as I could. What took me years to stumble upon was taught to them as a given prerequisite. Unfortunately I met Ed and Corey too late in my Philly tenure to teach them much more than that. And shortly after, I left for the West Coast.

Lately, I have moved away from breaking as a whole, instead choosing to focus more on the fundamental aspects of the dance: the toprock (i.e. the expression) and the music (i.e. the impression). I’ll wax poetics on this some other time though.

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