Saturday, August 4, 2012

Diggin' Your Own Crates, Then Crying About It

I'm Dr. Dre, gorgeous hunk of a man 
Doing tricks on the mix like no others can.

Yup, that's Dre -- the motherf-n' doctor, b- hopper -- from The World Class Wreckin' Cru's 1985 “Surgery."

I bought this 12-inch when I was 13. The awkward electro-style beat didn't move the b-boy circles much, but it made a few mixtapes I did then. Nowadays, when I kick it with the old homies and a new Dre song comes on, someone will start to chant the “Surgery” chorus:

Dokta Draaayyy, Dokta Draaayyy, Dokta 
(then we'll all join in)

I'm reorganizing my record collection. Keeping it simple. There's the boom-bap hip-hop. Funk and R&B. Breaks and battle records. Electro. Jazz. Rock and pop albums. Soundtracks. And everything else.

When I was gigging more, I'd further organize the singles by tempo. I also kept a crate of guaranteed hip-hop bangers. It was limited to the 70 records that'd fit comfortably inside a Hollandia milk crate.

It was like the starting squad on a sports team. The money crate. A number of singles would still be there today: “Buddy,” “Can I Kick It?” and “Sound of the Police.” Some maybe wouldn't: “Aint No Future in Yo Frontin',” or “Check Yo Self.” Now they're all together -- even with Kwame's “Ownlee Eue.”

I'm resigned to the idea that hip-hop's heyday passed ten years ago. Going through the records makes me think in those ways. Maybe that's why I don't do it more often. It's like the first day of starting an exercise routine. There's no escaping the realities of age and idleness. You're face to face with your lucky finds and the old radio hits gone awful, yet you keep them for comic relief. It's Galt MacDermot sitting next to Samantha Fox. But it's all good. To sample Alice Walker, the duds are like “tears that pepper the smile.”

I've heard some DJs diplomatically liken their records to their children, that there are no favorites. If that's the case, I have a house remix of “Macarena” that's the accident punk kid who needs to be sent off to boarding school.

As kids, whenever my brothers and I got out of hand, our Filipino parents would threaten to send us to the P.I. Maybe my “Macarena” house remix would do better there. I think it's still in shrinkwrap.

Each record has its story. It becomes much more than the song itself. Over time, each one becomes imbued with its own myth. Each crease in the record's cover signifies some greater importance.

Planet Patrol's “Play at Your Own Risk” has a 1-inch crack over the introduction from trying to straighten out a warp. To flatten it, my oldest brother would sandwich it between two oven pans in his car trunk in summer. I theorize that the heat treatment made the vinyl more brittle, and it cracked as I tried to bend back the warp. It plays well enough, with just with a pop over the first eight bars or so. It's an original printing from 1981. A friend left it at my house one day and never asked for it back. He also left an original printing of “Rapper's Delight.”

I picked up John Coltrane's Stellar Regions in 1995 from Tower Records in Point Loma, San Diego. That purchase included Jack Kerouac's On the Road. (Yes, I was in college.)

The elder surfer-scruffy cashier said of my selection, “Wise – this is gonna change your life.” I listened to the record here and there and the book stayed on the shelf for months. I made my first move to SF after reading it a year later. With less cliches, I hope.

My mom bought Frankie Smith's “Double Dutch Bus” in 1981 from the MCRD retail shop, also in Point Loma. It was a rare moment of selfless spendthrift for the frugal woman. This was solely for me and my brothers' enjoyment. It wasn't even one of our birthdays. Now, in the post hip-hop era, the song has become sample fodder and even your Uncle Tikroy uses the “izl” speech first popularized on this record.

As with Dre mentioned earlier, it's fun to trace an artists' development, their pitfalls and their triumphs. Run-DMC (RIP, JMJ!) has always been a streaky crew. They hit rock bottom with the New Jack Swinging “Pause.” A few years later, they got necks thrusting hard again with “Down With the King.” Remember the first time you heard that record? It got you smiling big, didn't it?

And as with artists, it's also fun to trace a genre's evolution. Or mutation. Scratch battle records weren't much to look at back in the day. Maybe this had to do with litigation over un-chopped and un-layered sampling.

It was like being in the generic aisle at the drug store. I swear, half the scratch records had the phrase “ultimate weapon” in the title and little else. I got a few that read simply “DJ” on the labels. Today, we got titles like Call Me, I'm Horny Breaks. Scratching has gotten just as outrageous.

And then it's back to the many duds in the stacks -- flavor-of-the-week, production-line teenie-bopper singles picked up for some specific gig. I sold a few crates of these records before moving to SF.

NuShooz's “I Can't Wait” was one of them -- by terrible mistake. It took years, but I found it on vinyl again last November at a used bookstore in Albany. I was on a first date with someone who didn't mind my dorking out over the chance discovery. (And no, I didn't take her out to go crate digging with me. I imagine it'd be like a guy hanging out at a fabric store.)

As may be the case with any other DJ or collector, I can spit a bit of nostalgia on just about every record on the shelves. This is my photo album. The physical form of my life baggage. Half of it is still in San Diego. On visits, I flip through the stacks to see what's ready to bring back with me.

The collection grows ever so steadily in a corner of my apartment like kudzu vine in the South.I'm much more picky with what gets added nowadays, though. I'm paying rent on the space. They gotta mean something. In the summertime, I wonder if it'd be safer to move them to the other side of the studio, away from the sunlight. Then I open the window. The skies are clear. There's a breeze coming off Lake Merritt. Nah, it's cool.

This story appeared originally in the Summer/Fall 2003 issue of