Techno Tuesday: J.Phlip on the art of crate digging
Techno Tuesday is a feature on Dancing Astronaut documenting the culture of underground dance music. We’ll bring you exclusive interviews, tracks, and narratives from artists within the techno, tech house, and deep house world in an effort to shed light on some of the best talent outside the world of mainstream dance music.
J.Phlip is the kind of DJ who is just as likely to throw down some industrial techno as she is some ravey, ’90s breaks. It’s this kind of versatility that has earned her widespread recognition in DJ circles and festival settings alike. With her mixing credibility and seemingly endless record bag, we thought it’d be appropriate to give her a platform to share her love for crate digging. Her response, however, was something far more substantial than we could have ever imagined. Clocking in at over 3,000 words, J.Phlip has essentially provided a mini dissertation on the art of collecting records. The entire thing reads like a beautiful autobiography told through her favorite record stores. It’s a fascinating — and deeply inspiring — thought-piece, and quite possibly our favorite Techno Tuesday yet.
“DJ’s are selectors. Some might be mixers or turntablists too, but if they don’t have heart in choosing their music then I would probably just call them a person with a skill at playing some music. (I’m talking about DJ’s in the sense that we default to, for instance some radio DJ’s and wedding DJ’s can be excluded.) Real DJ’s dig. We need a special selection of records like a painter needs a special selection of paint colors and textures. Our libraries are the palette from which we create our art.
Dancing Astronaut asked me to write some words about the art of crate digging and I thought “Hmm, it isn’t too exciting to talk about sitting on a laptop clicking through promos or online record shops and waiting for the wax in the mail.” But, I was lucky enough to start DJing when the record shops were just as important as the parties and were a huge part of dance music culture in America. I was doubly lucky to live in Berlin for three years and have the chance to experience record shop life again in the way I used to.
I decided to write about some of the experiences I have had digging throughout my little DJ life, with hopes to inspire myself to get back into that whole IRL crate digging thing again. Oh god I been watching too much Broad City, did I just say IRL? That’s ok, I wouldn’t be my friend either.
CHAPTER 1: FIRST STEPS
I’m not sure if there is really an art to crate digging. You just figure out how to get your grubby little hands on some vinyls and listen to them ALL. My first digs were when I first got decks. I NEEDED records and I was broke. I raided my parents’ collection and anyone else who would let me have/borrow/buy ANYTHING. I bought 200 vinyls off a friend for $200 bucks. He was a drum ‘n’ bass DJ mainly but there was a bit of everything in that stack. Gimme gimme gimme.
I made a small order on dancerecords.com for a few specific tunes that I had been dreaming about playing whenever I finally got decks. Armand van Helden – “Flowerz” & “You Don’t Know Me” and Basement Jaxx – “Red Alert” were among those. I did another order on Turntable Lab for Atmosphere’s Overcast! and some of my favorite hip hop. I didn’t know what sound I wanted to play yet, so why not just dig up a bit of everything? My first gig ended up being a 4 hour set, so it didn’t hurt to have a whole bunch of records. I picked out my favorites from my library of scrounges and went with it. I played so many genres of music that night, even classic rock. It totally didn’t make sense but everybody somehow had a great time! Lesson #One: Learn how to dig in your own crates.
CHAPTER 2: MAKING MOVES
When I had enough money to graduate from the “art of scrounging” to “the art of digging”, my friends and I began frequently making the two hour drive to the record shops in Chicago. I became really tight homies with the I-57. Shopping in Chicago was way more fun than ordering online. Plus it was cheaper and there was the possibility of seeing some of our favorite chi-town DJs in the shop! Oh my! (dorks)
We would usually stop through Hot Jams first. It was on the far west side of the city and didn’t get as crowded or picked over as Gramaphone. Andre from Hot Jams was such a character. He loved to pull out records for anyone and play them on the house system and tell you a story about it. Dude didn’t care if you were big time or small time… He just wanted to sell a record, or 10, or 100. Talking shop with the employees and owners was part of the experience. After a few visits they usually took the time to get to know your tastes and show you some new digs when you walked in the door.
My favorite time of any dig session is my solo digging time, talking to nobody and just flipping through record after record, listening one by one in the headphones on a listening station, bobbing your head and imagining you’re on some dancefloor, dropping the needle on each of the breakdowns to see if you like how they drop, and waiting until that moment comes when you’re like “Dude, I HAVE TO HAVE THIS.” Or it doesn’t.
The listening stations are necessary, but sometimes the headphones can be shit. Hopefully not the needles. I don’t know why the owner of the shop would want to risk any damage to the vinyls, but I have definitely seen some sketch needles at the shops. All you can do is try to use the EQ (if there is one at your station) to make the best of how it sounds at the listening station. I never thought about it that much until recently when I was shopping with one of my biggest digging DJ friends, Karina. She says to me, “I don’t usually come to this shop because I don’t like how the listening stations are setup across from each other, so you are face to face with other people who are digging.” DJs can be pretty particular about their digging environment! Maybe in that way it is an art. Hmmmmm…
Speaking of stations, the listening stations at Space Hall in Berlin crack me up. Sometimes the headphones pick up that weird cell phone radio frequency interference noise. When it starts happening, the signal picks up in everybody’s headphones and everyone looks up to try and find the confused person who doesn’t realize that their phone is communicating with us all. Everybody pulls their phones out to check and turns them off and has a laugh. It probably happens at other shops too. I guess weirdo creepy cell phone technology doesn’t mix with the analog records and equipment. Just like it doesn’t mix with the club. (Don’t get me into the smartphone thing… smartphones should never have been allowed to enter our world of dance music.)
Back at ol’ Hot Jams in the early 2000s, my li’l flip phone didn’t seem to interfere with any of my deep digging sessions. My stack of wax would slowly split into “definitely(s)” and “maybes” and would grow and get whittled down again, and then I would go on more rounds scoping the floor, pulling from the features up on the walls, stumbling across a weird box of odds and ends, trying to find a record that looked old or blank and mysterious, choosing some of my “go to” labels and artists, and picking up some randoms based on ‘who knows what?’ reason. Maybe the label had a funny slogan on it, or it was pressed on crazy colored wax, or had some etching and looked like a rare promo, or had trippy art or graphics. My favorites were the blank white labels. And there could be so many of them sometimes! I would grab a few of them at random–as many as I had time to listen to. There was no other way. White labels are a 100% by chance selection, that’s why it feels like winning the lottery when you get one that’s gold. Playing the white label game was the most fun! And you can’t really play that game on the internet, because the shop usually knows what it is and they reveal it in the title or description. Boo!
After Hot Jams, it was over to Gramaphone for round two. Walking into Grammys was always a special feeling. It was usually nightfall in Chicago by the time we got there, and the shop would have a glow when you looked at it from the street. It had these classic black and white square pattern floors, and every surface that didn’t have a vinyl hanging was covered with posters and flyers of Chicago parties, and advertisements for bigger releases hung in some sort of neat, artistic, repetitive way. If somehow a surface didn’t have a poster on it, then it had for sure been “stickered” by someone. Every inch of the place radiated all your favorite djs and music and clubs. Walking into Gramaphone is about as close as it comes to being able to physically walk into house and techno music itself. Ok, probably more house than techno since it was the Chi, but Josh Werner crushed on the techno section there.
As far as I know, most or all of the employees there are very active DJs in the Chi scene and beyond… and probably a legend of sorts. You can feel dance music happening when you’re there. It has so much energy! The shop moved to a new location a few blocks down the street many years ago, and I love the newer shop too, but I’m really happy I got to see the OG shop and I’ll never forget the first time I ever went to Gramaphone.
There is also usually some other legend of sorts blasting his digs out loud from the DJ booth and on the house system, so you have the benefit of eavesdropping on his digs and trainspotting something he has in his crate. That is, if you have the balls to ask him what it is. I usually had no shame back in my fearless days, and I always wanted to know so I would ask! Then you find out it was the only copy in the shop and they were saving it for mister legend up there. Oh well! Those are the perks of being around for a long time and being a regular at a shop. Don’t be mad little DJ, you gotta pay your dues.
Gramaphone was right across from Smartbar, which was my club home back then. Weekends were buzzing in Grammys with the energy and anticipation of whatever was going on across the street later on in the prime hours of our vampire time, deep down in the dark basement of Smartbar. Having a personal crate digging pre-party with my pals at Grammy before the best night of my life at Smartbar was what I lived for back in those days. I’m sure many can relate.
CHAPTER 3: THE START OF THE SAN FRANCISCO ERA
Tweekin Records (uhhh no autocorrect not “TWEETING records”, god the Internet era) was San Francisco’s “go to” record shop and was one of my favorite shops for years. I dreamed about the magical land of San Francisco and moving there someday… Sometimes you just know you need to be in a place without even visiting. That day finally came and I got to go to San Francisco for the first time for one night for a gig in 2005. I was on a tour opening for Colette and Reid Speed.
We landed at SFO and a freaking limousine showed up to get us. Haha what?!!? We were playing at Ruby Sky and apparently Colette got the limo treatment. Not sure if Ruby or Om records was responsible, but dude…. ballerrrrr. They took us to our hotel right away but I was like, “Nah! Fuck the hotel I’m only here for 18 hours, ‘hey mister driver can u gimme a ride to Tweekin?’” Reid and I got dropped off in a limo at Tweekin in the Lower Haight, the prime block for homeless and hipsters and thugs and druggies and hippies, all combined. I never knew it was possible to feel really damn cool and like a total chump douchebag at the same time.
Nikola Baytala was working in the shop that day. I didn’t know at the time that he was (and still is) one of the kings of digging. If there was a hall of fame for crate diggers he would definitely be in it. He was friendly but also had a layer of acting way cooler than everybody else, but not in a way that put you off. Maybe because he totally was cooler than everybody else, because he absolutely knew more than everybody else when it came to music. He told me a bunch of the music I picked out was crap, and I can admit some of it was. I was young and still lived in my hometown (Champaign, Illinois) and had so much musical growing to do – but I was in the beginning of a musical transition then and I think he could tell.
That’s why these little moments and experiences at the record shops are so important. Because sometimes you need to be told the hard truths from a music snob and let him show you some new shit to expand your mind. Don’t get butthurt about it. Hold back your ego and keep doing what you do and someday you will be thankful for this mean, mean record store guy.
He showed me this record Jeremiah “Moves!” on Coiner’s Den and I think maybe Global Communication “The Way” and a weird Joshua (aka Iz) whitelabel and probably some new wave thing that I didn’t understand at all. I so wish I could see a list of everything I bought that day. It would be interesting to look back. Galen and Manny “M3” might have been there too… They were the Tweekin guys. I didn’t really get to know them until later.
My other mission at Tweekin was to find out about another party, THE other party. I had a feeling Ruby Sky was not the place where the Dirtybird gang or the “kids” that I wanted to party with would hang out, so I asked Nikola what else was going on that night. He gave me the address to the Gingerbread Warehouse. I snuck out of Ruby Skye after my set (it was an awesome show by the way – sometimes people need to put their club snobbery aside). I hopped in a cab alone to some warehouse in a city I had only spent a few hours in. I later learned that it was in a really sketch part of town. But that’s what we do. That’s what we live for. You would do it too. M3 rocked Gingerbread so hard that night. I’d never felt a place so free. My life was changed that night and I left my heart in San Francisco just like everybody does.
CHAPTER 4: DIGGING IN THE NEW WORLD
Crate digging isn’t just about finding records, it’s also about the people you cross paths with and the chain reactions that may trigger and create your life. You don’t realize its even happening. The music leads the way. (Sorry I’m getting all emo now, I’m listening to the Jamie XX album on a plane home right now. This is my emo time after the ravey weekend.)
So those are some of the record shops that shaped me and my crate digging memories. It was different times then, and I’m sure it was different times before my time. This shit is always changing.
I remember that anytime you went to a new city, even if just for a night for a gig, you would stop in their local dance record shop to meet some of the fine folks who keep that shit going there, and hear about what the local DJs and producers are doing, and get some new jams for your show. Every city had a shop.
When the digital DJ movement came along, many shops in the US did not survive. Europe seemed to have kept it going strong. I’m curious as to why, actually. That would be a super interesting article or mini documentary (hint hint).
Karina, the queen of crate digging in the hall of fame, recently told me she loves to dig in the USA much more than Europe. She finds her gold mines in Detroit, Chicago, and NYC. Detroit still has (and better fucking always have) places spilling full of histories of music on vinyl – a crate digger’s dream. Some of the places in Detroit are more underground, where you have to know someone or have an appointment to go there, or are only open a few times a year. From my understanding, I think a lot of cities have places like this – a little secret society for true diggers. My friend Arthur (also a future member of the crate digging hall of fame) took me to this shop in Berlin with no name or sign and with newspaper covering the windows. Holy fucking jackpot. I’m not sure how exclusive top secret it was because there were quite a few people there, but secret enough to weed out the “crate digging tourists.”
Hmmmm, I guess that leads me to the topic of “crate digging tourists.” Maybe I’m a jerk, but I don’t know what else to call these people so I’m going to just give them a name. I never realized these people existed until one day – I was digging with Karina at a really intimate shop in Berlin, completely owned and run by one guy who you just knew had been living, eating, breathing house and techno since before you were born. We will call him a “dig master shaman.” So this kid walks into the shop and goes straight up to him and says, “I’m visiting and I went to Panorama Bar last weekend and decided that I want to DJ and I want to sound like Chicago and Detroit, do you have anything like that?” A dig master shaman is just going to laugh at a person trying to cheat at the art of crate digging. The situation might not have been as bad if he hadn’t spewed out the 2 most “hyped” sounds in Berlin, which is absurd in its own right because “Chicago” and “Detroit” are such a wide spectrum of sounds spanning histories of dance music. Basically, the guy didn’t actually want to dig, he just wanted to sound like what he heard was hype. He was a tourist, visiting the land of DJing. Sorry buddy, but crate digging at a shop like that is for people with ears and true passion.
…Ok so now maybe I have become that music snob – old and jaded and think I know everything.
I have some moments, but I know I’m just small potatoes when it comes to the art of crate digging, especially because I will always compare myself to my ultimate digger hero, DJ Shadow. He is the epitome of a crate digger. He is obsessed with finding each little sound he needs pressed somewhere on a piece of vinyl, like he’s searching for the answers to some puzzle that will save the world. He climbs lost archives of vinyl, forever digging. He is inspiring. You should check out his story online or on the “Scratch” documentary sometime.
DJ Shadow seems like a peak moment to end my public trip down memory lane, or else I’m afraid I could keep going on and on with stories. I have never actually taken the time to think about crate digging this much, it’s just something I do, almost instinctual. Writing this was neat and all but it’s time to stop all the talking and go back to just doing. So hey, does anybody know of a good record shop in Portland? I need to go digging tomorrow.”