Living as a Mod in the 21st Century

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Search For Soul & RnB records in New York

When you only have 3 days to spend in New York, it's impossible to visit every record shop. And between radio shows, a DJ gig and visiting friends, that makes it a challenge. When you can combine hanging with mates and record digging, you're coming close to my definition of nirvana.

So with a tight schedule, I didn't even enter a shop in Manhattan and concentrated my digging efforts in Jersey City and Brooklyn. I arrived on Friday, in Jersey City, just early enough to visit two shops before heading over to the WFMU studios for my appearance on Sheila B's show Sophisticated Boom Boom. You can read all about my experience here.

The first stop was Stan's Square Records, 737 Bergen Ave. The place was empty and according to the only employee, I was the first one to come through the doors that day.

The owner Stan has recently died and apparently the shop is on the verge of closing. You can tell that the stock hasn't been renewed in a while but with enough time and patience, a few gems can be unearthed.

I managed to buy a few Mod Jazz singles but the condition is far from pristine. A copy of the Northern Soul classic Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson for  $1? Sure, I'll take that. My favorite find has to be the Ramsey Lewis Trio doing an instrumental rendition of the In Crowd on Argo.

When I asked if I could go through the row of 45s sitting on a dusty shelf behind the counter, I was told that the family wanted to keep those. I don't get that. What is the point of having records in a store if you're not going to sell them.

Anyway, on to the next one. Iris Record (114 Brunswick St) is, on the other hand, a lot less gloomy. For one, it resides in a century old pharmacy. How cool is that? Drugs and Rock and Roll under the same roof? Sort of makes sense to me.

There are plenty of 45s to go through and for you, LP collectors out there, you won't make the trip for nothing. Just like at Stan's, I didn't find anything mind blowing but the prices are more than reasonable. All the records are sleeveless, a bit worst for wear and in need of a good cleaning but there's potential to find a few good tracks.

The guy behind the counter was really nice and when I was ready to pay, I saw a copy of The Horse by Cliff Nobles just lying there. When I said that I really liked that track, he just added it to the pile as a gift. There's no way that in my own town I would ever come across a Cliff Nobles 45, as common as it may be in New York, on a regular basis.

The next day, I met up with my man Kurtis Powers, from The Face Radio, at his brownstone in Brooklyn for a second round of record hunting.

Just a couple of blocks from Kurtis' place is a memorial to an old Mafia boss.
Now to go hunt for records on a Vespa Sprint was certainly an added bonus. I had packed my helmet for the occasion and I was sure glad I did. How else should a couple of Mods in New York spend the last days of summer anyway?

Can't start a packed day of intense record diggin' without a hearty breakfast.
My guide made sure to take plenty of detours to cover as many Brooklyn neighborhoods as we could. What a pleasant surprise it was when Kurtis decided to take the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. The memory of following him on his stunning white Vespa VBB on this historic bridge on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon will be forever etched in my mind.
For those of you that think that New York has the best bagels in the world, you obviously have never tried a Montreal bagel. Don't believe me? Google it!

Our first stop was Co-Op 87. According to my friend, this is one of the best kept secrets in Brooklyn. He was hesitant reveling it to me knowing that it would make the pages of this blog. I reminded him that a quick Google search of record shops would reveal its identity.

I did understand why this is a favorite digging spot of his. Everything is so neat and organized. Some of the 45s are even classified by label. You're missing a certain Motown single? Boom! Pull out the Motown box.

The most surprising part is when it comes time to pay. The owner simply scans the tiny bar code on the sleeve and gives you the total. Now that's impressive! I didn't leave with a ton of records but I was happy to leave with this very funky song. Actually, I think the title says it all.

Our second and final stop of the day was Superior Elevation Records, 100 White St, #B. The shop is situated in the industrial neighborhood of Bushwick and just exploring the surrounding streets near the record shop was fascinating to me.

The selection at this place is impressive. The lack of time held me from digging deep. I only got to scratch the surface. This doesn't mean I left empty handed. Au contraire my friends!

The service is top notch! And I'm not just saying that because they offered us free beer.

Just before heading back to Montreal on Sunday morning I had time for one last halt. After a hearthy brunch with my budy Scott, aka DJ Bjornlate, in the beautiful neighborhood of Park Slope, I was headed to Northern Lights Records.

Breakfast of champions with my mate Scott.
And what would be a day of driving in Brooklyn without witnessing an accident? I was a minute away from the record shop sitting at a red light when a car behind me, too impatient to wait in traffic, decided to speed up in the upcoming lane only to slip in behind a truck at the edge of the intersection. The only thing he hadn't foreseen, in his infinite wisdom, was the bicycle behind the truck. All I heard was a large thump. Fortunaly, the cyclist wasn't injured. I saw him emerged walking beside his bike with no apparent damage. The only one who seemed to have sustained any damage was the expensive car's paint and the driver's ego.

Northern Lights has a large collection of inexpensive 45s. If you have time on your hands, you'll manage to sniff out a few records to add to your collection. The condition of the 45s aren't the best but they have a VPI machine that will take out most of the dirt.

Their Jamaican and Caribbean section is enviable but like any Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae collector will tell you, the condition is always rough.
The staff was friendly and helpful. This place should definitely be part of your itinerary.

What awaited me after a rather intense 3 days was a 9 hour drive home (with all the stops). I'm already looking forward to my next visit.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Mod On The Road: The New York Adventure

I hadn't been to New York in years. To give you an idea, the last time I set foot in the Big Apple, the Twin Towers were up and I visited the Moon Records Ska label. I was long overdue for a visit.

I don't know if any of you have a bucket list but I have a vague one set in my head. One thing is clear though, in the #2 spot, was to one day DJ in New York. So when the ever vibrant and charming Sheila B asked me to join her on her WFMU show Sophisticated Boom Boom and later share the decks with her at her Sh-Boom night in Brooklyn, it was like the clouds had parted in the sky and a beam of light had speared through. To say that I was elated is an understatement. Of all the DJs in this great land, to be asked by her was truly a dream come true.

Truth be told, I did bribe her. When we were both asked to DJ the East Coast Classic Rally together, I had brought a couple of records as gifts. And in my machiavelic plan to woo her, I had tailor made my DJ set to her specific taste. Sheila has a worldwide reputation for being a Girl Group expert. That's why I had brought the best French and Quebec Girl Group 45s I had in my arsenal. The mission  "charm Sheila B" seemed to be working. I did spill the beans and confessed my crime. My ulterior motive didn't seem to deter her from inviting me. A couple of months later, here I am under the brights lights of the big city.

I have no hesitations in declaring that Sheila and I are kindred spirits. Not only do we share very similar taste in music (aside maybe for her love of Heavy Metal) but I believe that we have that same palpable zest for life. For those familiar with her radio show, she's every bit as fun and passionate in real life as she is on air. Her positive demeanor is highly contagious.

The hour we spent on air together went by in a flash. I had the pleasure to program the second hour of her show and decided to put 60s Quebec rarities on the map.

Holding a copy of Don Norman & The Other Four
Sheila had only provided a single question in advance to prepare for the interview part. Here it is: "What are your top 5 favorite songs of all-time? Songs that really mean something to you, move you, that you can't live without. And they don't have to fall into the 60s mod / soul category. They can be from any time, any place."

Now you all know that for a DJ / record collector that is an impossible task. Our musical taste constantly evolves and changes. I could think of way more than 5 songs that I can't live without. But this is radio. One thing was for sure, I wanted to surprise her. And I certainly managed to throw her a couple of curve balls. This is what I came up with.

1) The Reflections - (Just Like) Romeo & Juliet
2) Madness - It Must Be Love
3) The Kinks - All Day and All of the Night
4) Timon & Pumba - Hakuna Matata
5) Adam Sander - I Want To Grow Old With You (from the movie The Wedding Singer)

The first 3 were easy to pick. The Reflections song I lipsynched while walking down the aisle at my wedding while my 3 best men did the back vocals. The Madness track played when it was my future wife's turn to walk down the aisle and The Kinks played after we had exchanged vows and left hand in hand. Songs #4 and #5 were the curve balls.

The other answer that unmistakably perplexed the host was to the question: "Name a person, dead or alive, that you would love to meet." It's a shame you all missed her reaction when I answered: Oprah. What can I say? I admire the woman and I think we would have a very interesting conversation. You can listen to the whole show here.

After the radio show, it was a race from Jersey City to Brooklyn through Manhattan to get ready for the night’s festivities. I don’t know how many of you have taken the Holland tunnel on a Friday, during rush hour, but that is an event in itself.

As soon as I stepped in my hotel, I knew right away that I should reconsider booking rooms through Hotwire. At first I thought that being booked at the BPM Hotel was a good sign for a DJ. Wrong! Trying too hard to be a boutique hotel with an all white lobby, purple neon and blaring techno music, it was nothing to put you at ease. It’s when I was greeted by the attendant in a dirty white t-shirt that has been washed so many times that it has become see-through that I knew I was about to live an experience worth writing about. Her « colleague » standing next to her had a baby on her hip, playing on her iPhone trying to find some Hip-Hop to drown out the custom techno soundtrack she had probably heard a million times. I had to move the baby formula from the front desk to lean on it. Are you all starting to get the picture?

Standing in front of the hotel employee, hidden behind her computer screen, it was impossible to make eye contact with her. 

- Long day? , I asked.
 - Yes…
- Don’t worry. I’m here to make your life easy. Take a deep breath. I have a reservation, I said trying to lift her spirits
- I don’t think you’re going to like me…

At that point she still hadn’t made eye contact with me. She was shuffling papers, clicking on her mouse and trying to look busy. She did this for no less than 4-5 minutes, mumbling to herself. Long story short, the hotel was overbooked, I had to find a new hotel in Brooklyn on a Friday night, take a shower, suit up and get to the venue where I was DJing, that was 30 minutes away, all in an hour and fifteen minutes.

I spent almost an hour on the front desk phone with Hotwire trying to find me a room for 2 nights. We managed to find 2 different rooms in 2 different hotels. The only good thing that came out of this is that I got rooms that were twice what I had paid for and Hotwire paid the difference.

Thank Mod for Sheila! She was already at Our Wicked Lady getting the party started and covering for me. It’s a good thing she had my back because I hit some major traffic on the way to the venue. I couldn’t believe that at 10:30 pm I was hardly moving on the expressway. When I saw the car in the right lane that looked like a pretzel, I understood. If the driver survived, it's a miracle.

Our Wicked Lady is a cool little venue in an industrial part of Brooklyn. To give you an idea, I parked in front of a ramen noodle factory. Can't get more Brooklyn then that!

Sh-Boom is Sheila’s monthly party and I had the distinct pleasure of DJing on her birthday.

Anna Copa Cabana, the resident Go-Go dancer got a nice little dance floor going and cupcakes were passed around the bar once I started playing Happy « Soul » Birthday.

It was every bit as exciting as I had hoped being a DJ in New York would be. Thanks to Sheila, I could finally tick item #2 off my bucket list.

Once I finally got back to my new hotel room, I just realized that I had been up for 24 hours straight. In New York, you go big or you go home.

The next day, after a solid 4 hours of sleep, I met up with my mate Kurtis Powers, host of The Face Radio. He was going to show me around Brooklyn, while making stops at his favorite record shops. We would also set an hour aside in the afternoon so we could record an hour of his radio show together.

Visiting New York on a tour bus is one thing, using the subway is something else, but you don’t get to see much being underground. Doing it on a Vespa Sprint, now that’s the way to go! When I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan following Kurtis on his white Vespa VBB on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I kept pointing to my arm showing Kurtis I had chills. I was in awe for hours!

I’ll keep our record digging for a future post but we did manage to find a few gems. We rode back to his beautiful brownstone apartment late afternoon just in time to record the next day’s radio show. This hour of musical programming was all about Soul and RnB. It was fun, unrehearsed, real and very natural. After we were done, Kurtis gave me the best compliment. « Man! That was just so easy! I’ve interviewed a few people and it was never this smooth. » « What do you expect? We were just 2 friends chatting. Plus, we practiced all day!"

So this is what happens when two mates get together, shoot the breeze, listen to some great Soul music and say a bunch of nonsense. Listen to all the banter, the tunes and the shenanigans on iTunes here (episode 91), on Google Play here, on Podomatic here or on TuneIn Radio here.

New York is intense. Just the way it should be.