November 29, 2016
Our Crate Diggers series profiles record collectors around the world. This time, we head to Brooklyn to drop in on veteran collector, DJ and compiler Amir Abdullah.
One of the world’s foremost crate diggers, Amir Abdullah may not be a household name, but with 30 years collecting and numerous game-changing compilations behind him, there are few people out there as fitting for this feature as him.
Last time we caught up with Amir, it was to talk Detroit and the vast untapped well of Strata Records music he’s now the custodian of. Now fresh from completing his first solo comp (away from sidekick Kon) charting the Latin influence in NYC, we caught up with him again to get an insight into the mind of at true digger.
Every collector’s nightmare, we began with Amir dealing with a water leakage that had displaced a large part of his collection.
How did it make you feel when the water entered your record collection?
I felt like all hell broke loose and I’m getting greyer as the days go by. I feel like President Obama, when he entered office his hair was really black and now there’s so much salt in his hair because of all he stress he’s gone through. It’s particularly stressful because water seems to find the rarest records first.
How many records are we talking?
Well I live with my girlfriend and she already had a thousand or a couple of thousand records, but I came in with like 5,000, and then we’ve got several thousand in storage too. And we live in a small place.
Do you keep your records separate so everyone knows who has what, or do they go together?
We combine them together. We have all our disco 12″s and stuff that we play out together on a couple of shelves and then all the hip-hop. The only things I keep separately are all my rare records so I can access them as soon as possible. But we pretty much keep everything together.
And you guys play out together too?
Not as much as we’d like to. She’s actually a lot more well known here than I am by far and gets a whole lot more work than I do. She’s also an amazing DJ.
Where are you based now?
I’ve been living in New York for almost 22 years now. I’m originally from Boston, I was born and raised there but I left 22 years ago and never looked back.
Maybe now is the moment to look back a little! What was your first experience of music growing up?
My father is not alive anymore, but he was in the army in the Second World War and when he came back home he worked for the VA hospital. On the weekends when he had time off, he would listen to all his jazz records. He would come home and he would sit in the living room and he would just listen and you’d know not to bother him. My father was into hard bop, be-bop and stuff like that, and my mum would listen to her gospel records and my brothers and sisters were much older than I was and they were listening to their disco and funk records. So I always had music around me growing up.
When did you start joining them with your own records?
When I got old enough to have allowance money I would go and buy records. My brother showed me a Stevie Wonder record and I had a photographic memory so would go and buy the record because I remembered the cover. At this point I’m like 8 or 9 years old, so I didn’t know that much.
And then, with the advent of hip-hop, I bought a lot of things from Sugar Hill Records and Grandmaster Flash, and so then I started having my own collection. And when I got into my early teenage years and I started listening to Peter Piper and all that stuff and I was like, “wait a minute, that sounds like that Bob James record that my brother used to play,” and it just sparked a lightbulb because I really loved that sample and I used to like that record. I hadn’t really wrapped my head around sampling until then.
Was there a lot of hip-hop around you in Boston in the ’80s?
In Boston we had a lot of great college radio stations and they would play a lot of the underground stuff, all that “random rap” as they used to call it. And a lot of those groups used to come through Boston because there was such a market for them to come and play, so hip-hop was around us all the time.
I used to play basketball a lot at school – and there was this one time we were practicing at the YMC and some guy was like “there’s this dude called LL Cool J playing in the other room” and I’m like “who?” Those early experiences I had, random stuff like that, were all about just being around music.
Were you already Djing at this time?
No, I wasn’t DJing in my teenage years, in fact I didn’t start DJing until I came to New York City years later. I was just a collector. I would have the disco 12″s and the jazz and the hip-hop 12″s and hip-hop albums but it wasn’t until I got immersed in a different kind of DJ culture here that I wanted to try it.
Was making compilations a natural progression for you from being a collector and DJ?
Yeah, Kon and I started doing the On Track stuff in ’96. We decided we wanted to throw our hat into the arena. We quickly progressed from not just putting in the samples that everybody used but sharing new shit, new things that could be sampled that we had in our collection already, just to let people know that we have this kind of stuff too.
Your taste matures as a collector and as a person in general, and we just wanted to not be known only as crate diggers. We love music, we’re record collectors, we’re not just looking for thirty second samples, we’re looking for albums that are really great to listen to, whether that’s on a Sunday afternoon with your girl, or to play out.
So what is it that you listen for now when you go out digging?
I’m looking for stuff that really captures my attention in terms of a groove, whether it’s a ballad or whether it’s something I can play out. Or it’s just an album that I want to keep in my collection because every song on there means something to me, it hits me in a certain way, provokes a certain emotion in me that is reminiscent of something happy or positive. Or it provokes an emotion of sadness too, but it’s a good sadness, something you may miss.
Can you put your finger on something recent, or not so recent, that just blew you away at first listen?
There’s a few records on this new comp that can fit into that category. The Orchestra Soledad, that’s one. I went into this local shop in Brooklyn, which is in an area of Bushwick that is mainly Puerto Rican and the shop owner pulled out this record and was like “what do you think of this?” And I had to control my excitement and have the poker face, but it was really dope and I knew it had to go on the comp.
One of the records I’ve had for more than 20 years now that’s on the comp is Dax Pacem. That record I got in A1 when it first opened, and they had a box of them for $5 each. And now… I don’t know what price it is now, but it used to go for $300.
The price doesn’t make it good but the music on this thing really blew me away because it was the first time I’d ever heard a Latin record which was using a lot of electric piano, a huge horn section. You had that with Willie Colón and a bunch of other people but it was kind of in a different style.
It’s interesting that these are records you’ve picked up in the neighbourhood, given that a lot of diggers spend a lot of time now going a long way from home for rarities.
Yeah, I mean that’s just knowing the demographics of where you live, and there’s a lot of Latin artists from these areas, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Park Slope. There are like 2 million Puerto Ricans in New York City and the highest percentage were in Williamsburg, and a lot of those guys who recorded for Fania and those other independent labels were from Brooklyn, so perchance you’re going to find some of these records.
The thing is with the Orchestra Soledad, the guy at the store said that one of the guys from the group came in one day, he was old, he had a little oxygen tank and everything, and he walked the record into the shop and said “this is a record that me and my childhood friends recorded back in the day, I have no need for it.” Those kind of stories still happen. And that just gives me hope that there’s so much more out there. There are 10 million people in New York City so, you know, that’s a lot of records.
With this, and the boroughs on the Off Track series, it seems like communities and a sense of space are quite important to you when you’re putting tracks together for a compilation.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a New York-centric salsa comp, and that’s the kind of salsa that I grew up on. I grew up in a neighbourhood where there was a significant Puerto Rican population in Boston and so I heard it all the time and that’s the kind of Latin music that I gravitate towards.
I lived in a project and right next door to me was a Puerto Rican family and their son Julio and I became friends and every time I would come over the house, his family was always playing salsa music, whether it was Hector Lavoe, Willie Colón, all that stuff. And again having a photographic memory, I would see the covers and just buy whatever I remembered and that’s how I started off first. I love the other stuff too, but this really speaks to me personally, and I really wanted to pay homage to that.
And I guess it puts it in the context of the history of New York, as a city that has thrived by welcoming immigrant communities and being open to different cultures.
Yeah and it’s funny because you have the Puerto Rican aspect with the salsa music, but you also have a lot of Dominicans here, and they’re cool with salsa but they’re more into Merengue and Pachanga, which is a faster type of music, with more percussion and some horns, but not really a lot of piano like in salsa.
Where were these records played originally? Were they shared in public too?
Some of that, but also, like in hip-hop, where you have Kool Herc and Bam just going outside in the park to jam, you had a lot of that too. There’s a really great salsa film from the ’70s called Our Latin Thing and features a lot of the Fania All Stars, and you see them outside in a lot of parks performing.
There’s a famous one with Tito Puente, with his big grey afro performing in some park in the Bronx. They would do that because a lot of the cats from the neighbourhood where they grew up, they had a lot of fans who couldn’t afford to come to the shows, so they would come to them and perform in a park. So that was already ingrained in the fabric of New York City.
I guess having to deal with this flood in your apartment gives you a moment to reassess and reorder your collection. How do you do that?
I don’t have it in alphabetically order, I have it by artist and I have all my soundtracks together and we have all our hip-hop on a couple of shelves, all our disco and boogie and stuff we play out, that’s all together.
But you know, both my girlfriend and I make our living from DJing, and it’s not a lot of money, so we have to do things when we can afford to. So to get new boxes or new 45 sleeves, those things have to take a back seat to real life stuff like paying rent.
Do you think there’s a more competitive edge in that diggers scene now than before?
It’s definitely more competitive now. My friend Egon and Cut Chemist had this interview 20- odd years ago about how they used to look in telephone books in different cities and tear out the page so that no-body else could see the stuff. We all used to do that! I still don’t really go on eBay to buy records, I’d still rather go to a store and go through the dollar bins because you find some stuff that’s overlooked that no-ones. I’m still a little old school in that sense. Online with Discogs, everybody has the same knowledge, so everybody’s going after the same records.
Are there any records you can put your finger on from the last few years that took you in a different direction or meant a lot to you at a certain moment?
I remember in the late ’90s, when I used to work at A1 and I was running Fat Beats Records, these two French guys who were working there had two friends come in and they had brought all these European jazz records like Placebo that I had never heard of. And when they played that Placebo record, I was blown away. At the time it was expensive for me but now those records go for so so much more. And Cortex and so many more, he kept coming back with all these European records! Those records definitely brought me into another stratosphere.
One day I was cleaning records downstairs at A1 and I walked upstairs and almost stepped in this record that was on the floor in no sleeve and I looked down on it and was like “holy shit”, it was this rare Ashford & Simpson 12″ ‘One More Try’ – a $600 record just laying on the floor. And I thought, if it’s laying on the floor, no-body gives a shit about it. So I just cleaned it, put it in a sleeve and took it home.
What does your collection mean to you?
Well, part of my record collection is inherited from my father, and I loved my father very much I’m sure like most of us do, and he taught me a lot about music, so it’s just a good memory that I have. I do this thing on Instagram called Sunday Jazz, and I’ll take a photo of a jazz record and explain the significance to me and a lot of it has to do with that it comes from him.
Being a record collector and collecting for as long as I have – 30-something years now – music is always going to be a part of my life. At this point, being 46, I’m just really settling in to knowing what I want and knowing what I like in terms of music and just being about that. Maturing in my tastes in terms of DJing and skill-wise you never can stop working, it’s a good blessing to be able to still put out compilations.
DJ Amir presents Buena Música y Cultura is out now on BBE Records. Get it on double vinyl here.
Photography by James Hartley