The best music criticism has no author. It resides in the soul of the listener, enveloped in sound, sitting centered on a couch, fixed between two body-sized speakers. Instinctive insights from tweeter to woofer, spirit basking in full frequency warmth; the type of hypnosis that makes you forget you’re hearing a recording at all. It isn’t spoken or explained, analyzed or dissected. It’s in the sway of your hips, and the way your head bobs; whatever makes your fist pump, or gives you goosebumps. Electrical impulses recorded and reanimated, melding minds distanced by time.
The truth about music comes from the singer of the song connecting to the listener at home. Though digital technology is the overwhelming favored medium for consumers of recorded sound, CDs fail as a physical product because what is contained therein is so easily procured elsewhere. The internet ended the era of the compact disc. Vinyl remains lucrative because it cannot be replaced by anything other than another record. So begins the collector’s choice: do you store your music inside of a computer, or inside of a crate? Analog enthusiasts answer the question on the basis of liveliness. Here are five Chicagoans who have dedicated their lives to collecting records.
Collection I: Nigel Ridgeway and Marco Jacobo
Nigel Ridgeway and Marco Jacobo have a remix project together called Altered Tapes. In that context, Ridgeway goes by DJ Trew, and Jacobo is known as Maker. The two are also roommates. Ridgeway started collecting vinyl through hip-hop, and tracing the lineage of recorded music through liner notes. He was always on the lookout for the original records being sampled. Jacobo’s path veered when he began producing music: “When I started trying to think about, how am I gonna make a beat, the first thing I thought of, because of the hip-hop background, was to go get some records. So I went to a thrift store and started buying whatever weird records that I could find.” The distinction is important. Jacobo and Ridgeway are collecting for creative purposes.
Ridgeway doesn’t do as much collecting any longer, but he used to collect original pressings of music that were being reissued, selling vintage LPs and buying collections for profit. Lately it’s more like picking and choosing, filling out empty spots in discographies. Jacobo compares collecting records to buying baseball cards and wanting every little thing, all the rookies. Wanting it all. Now Jacobo just collects the stuff that he wants. Good music. Obscure music. Neither one of them can resist a good dig. Jacobo recalls a three-story house full of junk that belonged to a hoarder. “You spend an hour going through some dirty corner, through a stack of records under an old microwave, and find that one.” He smiles to himself, “that’s always fun. Treasure hunting.” How do they even find these places?
Jacobo starts, “everyone has their own way.” Ridgeway replies, “and they hold onto it, because that’s their supply line.” They both agree about the competitive nature of obscure collecting. “It’s a hunt. It’s definitely a hunt,” says Ridgeway. When asked if they would ever give it up, they both let out a resounding no. The process of collecting settles Ridgeway’s spirit. “It’s calming to me. Just the act of record digging. I could spend hours in a shop, going through the entire store, and leave feeling refreshed.” Jacobo is taken by the thrill of finding unknown gems: “This sounds amazing, and I’ve never heard it, and I can’t find anything about it on the internet. What’s happening? Did I discover this right now?” He wants to keep his collection small enough to be mobile. “Purging sometimes is good,” says Jacobo, but it’s more of a cycle, really. The pair sometimes sell to buy more; the money they make goes to lunch and more records. “So it’s sustainable,” explains Ridgeway.
In theory, that’s the case. Jacobo says the city is an ideal locale. “Chicago is a great record city. People say that all the time from other places. A lot of people come here to dig, so we’re kind of spoiled here.” We go check out their stacks. Ridgeway’s is housed in big white wooden shelving, save one framed LP of Jazzberry Patch, a Florida acid jazz/fusion group from around the same time as Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunters.” Ridgeway found someone in the band, and bought the last fifty copies. In the early 2000s, Ridgeway says, that was the thing to do. “Find these private records, buy the stock, and then put them on the market.” Things have changed since they began using Serato to DJ. The software allows the pair to take a digital copy of their record collection from gig to gig, preserving the integrity of the record for home listening.
However, they don’t actually have a record player set up. Ridgeway leaves the room to find a boombox with a built-in turntable. Jacobo recalls buying a box of sealed copies of the Poppy Family’s “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” a late sixties Canadian pop album that sounds similar to Portishead, three decades before the famous trip-hop band formed. Ridgeway returns with a copy of the Mississippi Records reissue of Phil Cohran’s “The Malcolm X Memorial.” This album is essential listening for any fan of Chicago jazz. It turns out Ridgeway wrote the liner notes for the reissue from a series of interviews he did with Cohran for four days in a row, four hours per day. Ridgeway was contacted by Cohran’s manager after selling an original pressing of the LP on eBay. He was also contacted by Eric Isaacson of Mississippi Records. The networking paid off. Meanwhile, Jacobo plays something obscure on the tiny boombox, skipping the needle all over the place, trying to find a particular passage. On playback it sounds like a kaleidoscopic band of radio stations, varying styles of music overlapping, all diverse and groovy. “Every record has a story,” says Jacobo. This is his collecting credo.
Collection II: Charly Garcia
Charly Garcia is one third of Sonorama. The DJ collective’s other two members, Eddy Baca and Marlowe Baca, are stuck at work. Garcia is a dental assistant by day, and record collector by night. He came to Chicago from Mexico City in 1999 and was amazed with what he heard when he first arrived. “When I got here, the Latino community, the music was like ten years behind.” He blames the whims of mainstream press. “Latino media, they prefer just to promote the commercial stuff, because they wanna sell. They don’t want to spend money on new projects, on new kinds of music, because they think the people don’t want to buy that.” With Sonorama, Garcia celebrates “the true roots of latinoamericanos in the fifties, sixties, seventies.” He’s got his work cut out for him. There are plenty of other Latino music genres that are already very popular: salsa, merengue, reggaeton, rancheras, mariachi music. He knows firsthand because he’s had a lot of practice collecting, but when he moved here, he was forced to use the internet to order records, as finding non-commercial and independent Latino music in the city was just too difficult. Stores have since started to carry more of a selection. The culture continues to grow. The time came when he was able to navigate Pilsen thrift stores for good deals. “It’s getting bigger in the Latino community. In Chicago, everybody’s buying records. Everywhere you go.” Cumbia music in particular has been on the rise. A lot of producers are mixing dubstep, techno, house and dub with cumbia. This is music from Colombia that’s as old as the 1950s, yet somehow still sounds fresh. Garcia is in the midst of preparing a vinyl exclusive DJ set with his cumbia selection. He tries to use Sonorama to expand people’s ideas of Latino music beyond salsa and merengue.
Garcia plays music throughout the interview. There are long, quiet moments spent listening to tunes together. Boogaloo music bounces from his speakers, which he explains originated in New York during the seventies. “At that time, they didn’t care about the race. They just care about the music, and to get all the people together, just to dance, just to celebrate music.” The music has begun to resurface through a number of record labels that specialize in reissues. Garcia mentions Vampisoul, Sofrito, Andale, Soundway. Even Sonorama is looking to start pressing records. As part of their four-year-anniversary party, the collective raised money to release a new forty-five from a local band, Dos Santos. Given that Garcia arrived here in 1999 and felt like the local Latino community was ten years behind with music, he now seems to have found a nice niche. What changed? “The internet,” he offers. And social media. Specific communities have been helpful, more than just the Latino community: Bridgeport, Pilsen, Little Village, Wicker Park, Rogers Park. Garcia can’t resist playing records, and the sound spills out of the recorder on playback, loud, bright and beautiful. Everyone must dance whenever Sonorama spins. “Yeah. Some of those, they don’t know what to do with new rhythms!”
Garcia is generous with his collection, handing me sleeve after sleeve as he plays his favorite cuts. A lot of the reissue labels, it turns out, are not from Latino countries, and that’s part of why he wants to move Sonorama in that direction. “It’s because of mostly the budget. It’s real expensive to do a vinyl. Just to make this kind of vinyl, is really a lot of money. Not just to print everything, but to pay permits, to pay for the artist, copyrights. We’re going to start with something in Chicago. We have an agreement with this band. Maybe in the future after that we’re gonna start doing reissues of stuff from Mexico, Chile, Peru, Colombia.” Does he have a special status among local collectors because of this selection? Sort of. American soul music is so much more popular, that it’s too expensive for him to collect. “Everybody’s trying to get the most rare record,” he says. Yet the Latino community has the same problem, with certain records now going for upwards of $500. The price is so high because the records are so rare. Garcia is still willing to bring deep cuts out to DJ. He does not make use of Serato.
Something he’s learned from collecting: “Another thing that was happening back in that time, they’d create one crazy song, and the other ones are very commercial.” He shows me an example of a record from a Texan band. Looking at the cover, you expect rock music, Tejano music, ranchera Mexican music. “For the new generations, they put that one song.” He plays a single that sounds nothing at all like the remaining traditional tunes—it’s sixties psychedelic soul. It sounds like Syl Johnson. Even those with an obsessive knowledge of music end up feeling ignorant about a substantial portion of Garcia’s collection. He laughs at the thought. “I never knew that in Mexico until I got here. I just discovered all this kind of Latino background. They don’t show you that in the school. They don’t show you that, so you need to learn.” He talks about researching everything, and most of all, listening to music. A few of the records he plays share a Miami-based distributor, and Garcia reminisces about when Carnicerias Jimenez, the local Mexican supermarket chain, used to import records.
The Latino community has interesting record-buying habits. One of the last oddities Garcia plays is hanging from his wall. He takes down a framed, die-cut, picture vinyl of what looks like an alien head. It’s “Helix” from Tewz, a local progressive producer. “All my life, I’m always collecting stuff, since I was a kid.” Garcia tells me. “Marbles, ants, insects. (laughs) I was a weird, weird kid. My mom used to say, ‘you’re really weird, I don’t know what we’re gonna do with you.’”
But here you are…
Collection III: Anthony Illarde
Anthony Illarde has just finished a ten-hour shift working as a buyer at a record store. He recently moved into a new apartment where his collection is still in disarray, but he’s kind enough to agree to an interview. No pictures, though. “I don’t think it’s that important. I don’t think my ownership of these records is something to take a picture of. I might be a little embarrassed that I have a lot of records.” And that he does. Illarde has the biggest personal collection out of all the collectors interviewed, and it’s mostly forty-fives. White boxes stacked atop one another, making it impossible to sort through the records with ease. “This is hoarding, is what this is. No, I don’t need it to be made better, I need it to go away,” he says, laughing at himself.
He pulls out a box. The collection is immaculately organized, first by genre, then alphabetically. We’re digging through a box of sixties soul labeled ‘M.’ “I appreciate a nice, quality sleeve, but then you can fling ‘em,” he says, as he flings a forty-five across the room. Illarde retrieves the single: The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays The Fool.” “I have carried this record around with me for years, and I never know if I like it.” Flinging is encouraged. “The thing with these is that you really do buy them by the fist-full. And if you’re lucky, these things that you’re spending a dime, or a quarter, or fifty cents for are gonna tickle your ear for a couple of times. The forty-five mania that I indulge in is about that. It’s like physically going through them and reading and seeing, there’s history on these labels. That’s a pretentious thing to say, but I like connecting the dots.” Illarde has his own connection to music history. As drummer for Rights of the Accused, he spent his youth immersed in Chicago’s nascent punk scene. This year, Alona’s Dream Records will be reissuing the band’s seminal 1984 release “Innocence,” a seven-inch EP that included a million-dollar bill with the insert. There’s a special place in Chicago punk history for Rights of the Accused, a group that was by far the youngest among their peers, and also one of the few bands with a genuine sense of humor.
“I’m never gonna sell my records, but I’m placing much less importance on them.” Illarde is purging at the moment, partially because he moved into a shared space with a friend. “I don’t feel the need to cast a net for everything anymore. I like that it kinda passes through my fingers. I’m definitely in a unique position as a buyer.” He says he’s not sure he’ll listen to everything anymore, but he’s got an Alice Cooper obsession. He plays “Easy Action,” a record he first purchased at age nine. Working as a buyer at a record store is a bit different than being an independent buyer. It’s not strictly about finding and purchasing all the obscure, limited records en masse, or owning all the private-press, dead stock of the world. “That’s just being a savvy art collector. That’s all that is.” Eventually, it ends up turning into more. Those collectors run the reissue market, for better or for worse. “Now that things are a little more mainstream, the reissue culture is also very mainstream. Everything’s available to everybody all the time now. So the idea of reissuing things that have never really gone away is funny. It’s just like, here’s a new version because we need to churn some cash.”
Illarde talks about having a collection that his friends can actually comb through, it’s not about having a collection of unplayed, expensive fetish objects. “They sound good. I don’t care what they’re worth. They sound good. And who’s to say what the fuck anything is worth, what does that even mean? Like, monetary value? This is worth nothing, but I like it.” He plays what looks like a library copy, bound with unsightly tape, of Gordon Staples And The String Thing’s “Strung Out.” The internet has changed the culture of value as well as the culture of collecting. There, Illarde notes, “you have to know what you’re looking for. Or you have to know key words, and then all you’re buying is key words.” It’s a nice insight from someone who has spent much of his life in a record store, but the real wisdom is ineffable. “There’s a thing to it, I don’t even know what it is. It’s just a thing. You just like records. You like being around them. We all got it. I can always tell when someone has the real itch, and when it’s not just buying stuff because it’s colored vinyl.” When you learn history from record collecting, it alters the look of the landscape. In Chicago, you find regional records because that’s what’s here. That’s the same for anywhere. When you arrive in a city you’ve never been, but you’ve already connected to the musical history, things will unfold in a different way. “I can’t say anything ultimately about it,” ponders Illarde, “but it’s been my friend my entire life.”
Collection IV: Nick Myers
After working at a record store for more than a decade, Nick Myers has been on his own for the past year and a half, grinding out a living for himself. “For me it’s a lot of pounding the pavement, and talking to people, and just letting people know that I’m into buying records.” He’s a bit of a unique case. “I’m a record guy who came from the background of rock ’n’ roll and playing guitar and music like that, whereas a lot of these record guys I meet got into it through being into hip-hop and getting into DJing and samples and breaks and all that kind of stuff.” Nick would go out into the field to buy records on behalf of the shop. Thrift stores, garage sales, estate sales—he did it all enough times to now do it on his own, and still be profitable.
This practice he contrasts to sourcing: “where they find the person who made whatever obscure thing, and then they talk to them, and say ‘Hey, do you have any of those records left?’ And then, if you’re able to get some, you have ‘sourced’ the record.” It gets into dodgy ethical issues, befriending someone just to sell their records versus wanting to preserve the music. Obscurity as one-upmanship. “Sometimes that doesn’t equal good. So somebody’s like, ‘Look at this record, man! It’s made by a bunch of mentally handicapped thirteen year olds! They lived in Baltimore and they pressed thirty records! Listen to it!’ And you’re like, ‘It’s horrible. Why would I wanna listen to it?’ Let’s put on a Rolling Stones record, man. Let’s listen to fucking James Brown instead of backwards bullshit that’s just rare. So what?” The real kicker is that Myers still can’t help wanting to hear all the rare stuff.
After spending the last decade in the trade, certain nuances become apparent. The internet has changed digging via easy access to a marketplace where you can sell things for a bigger profit. Especially to foreign dealers: “here in Chicago, we had one of the most vibrant rhythm and blues and soul scenes in the sixties of most major cities in the country. Maybe Detroit a little bit more than us, but a lot of people would argue, especially the British folks, that Chicago had one of the best soul scenes.” The Northern Soul movement from the United Kingdom is gutting local stock. “For me now, when I put a bunch of soul forty-fives up, like eighty percent of them go to the UK. It’s interesting, that phenomenon. It seems like a lot of the older music of the States has been, and continues to be, more appreciated overall in Europe, and Japan. Overseas.” That’s what the market says, anyway.
When you’re involved in the world of record collecting, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture. Myers remains well grounded. “Records are still boutique. The average person that listens to music is not gonna fuck with a turntable and all that when it’s like download, put on my phone…” His own collection sits at about a thousand LPs and a thousand forty-fives. Myers’ collection is prided on obscure rock of every ilk, and he revels in a few compilations he’s been enjoying, one titled “Bonehead Crushers,” and another “Michigan Meltdown.” He’s trying to maintain a stasis. He’s self aware about collecting. Myers says he’s always pruning his collection. No matter what, he’s still chasing that feeling of the first time he heard “Fun House” by the Stooges. “There’s always something new out there that’s gonna blow your mind. You just have to track it down.”