Back through the looking glass
Where's the fun in returning to London from dirt-cheap US record stores? Camberwell, that's where.
I'm back in the UK. Initial observation: records here are expensive. In fact I'd only started buying them again in the first place because I was going to the States, where vinyl is cheap and I knew the hunt would take me to parts of cities I'd otherwise never explore.
The problem for the adventurous British smoker comes when he returns from the tobacco fields to be reminded that his recently reinforced habit will now mean taking out a small mortgage to buy a pack of Marlboro Lights. I'm experiencing similar torment now. Here's how the addiction process works: watch episode 15 of Hot Buttered Soul’s record videos. They’ve teamed up with DJ Format to interview John Schroeder, a guy who produced the amazing UK funk outfit Cymande back in the 70s.
Note that Schroeder seems a dude. The next day while ambling around central London, pop into On The Beat, an old secondhand record den in an alley off Oxford Street. Spot an ace-looking LP by Schroeder from the 70s, called The Dolly Catcher. Notice the ace cover, and that it costs £40. Have the three-stage realisation: I can’t afford this record; this record definitely exists; now I know where this record is. Then watch the next episode of HBS, in which they discuss this particular LP with Schroeder, banging on about how amazing it is. Help.
Now I’d never really intended to simply write about me spending money I don’t have on old records just because people I’ve never met have told me they’re good, no matter how much I like their show. That seems a stupid thing to do, and not really very interesting. In fact I’d not really imagined necessarily writing about records back in the UK at all.
Then I get this unsolicited text from my mate Sadeagle:
But if it's cheap good hip hop we're talking about...
I look up Rat Records online to find they have an interesting system: the place regularly puts out whole racks of secondhand new arrivals every Saturday. They even put a photo of the racks up on Facebook every Friday, to taunt vulnerable vinyl heads with hints of the dusty classics that may be slumbering there waiting for their nerdy Prince Charming to come and wisk them away to a better life. I spot Public Enemy's 'Yo! Bumrush the Show' peering out at me.
I head down ready for when it opens at 10.30, and am greeted by around 10 dudes in their 30s and 40s, milling around outside, nodding to other regulars, separated from the booty by an imposing metal grill. Who are these poor souls, I wonder. These aren't impressionable tribal teens, seeking solace from the loneliness of growth in the wails of their indy heroes. These blokes have bald spots and paunches, and presumably wives, girlfriends and kids who are left at home while they drift out of the house following a lilting Saturday morning call from the flat black Sirens.
The shutters come up, and everyone files in behind the guys who'd arrived first. Then comes the scrum. Everyone flocks to the back like a pack of scavengers. Record rats. I hang back because I’m skint, confirming my suspicions that I'll remain a beta male even among this nerdiest of brethren.
From the back two things catch my eye: the PE album and Eric B & Rakim's debut LP ‘Paid in Full’. The record addiction starts to kick in. I can feel myself tensing up, a little be-horned 7-inch devil on my shoulder going: 'Dave, move in for those...' But I'm too skint to fight, little record imp. The good thing is that everyone’s after different things. After a good hectic few minutes that sees blokes one-by-one disentangling themselves from the homo-erotic rumble and stumbling out of the pack with armloads of albums, Eric & Ra remain there, sat still and strong amid the chaos like a rock in a long-exposure shot of a foaming river.
I ask the flat cap-wearing guy in front if he’s not going for it: ‘No, you go ahead mate.' Then he adds what I take as a disparaging comment about the Greatest Rapper Of All Times: 'Just take it away.’ Now I feel my protective instincts kicking in. I am honoured to give this record the home it deserves.
While Rat Records may not have the history, the dusty scope or the high-end boutique appeal of some of the record spots in Chicago and New York, they're priced to sell and the ethos, of keeping stock moving, works. Within minutes of the store opening the tiny place is swarming with vinyl hunters and the till is ringing. And this in an age when record shops are supposed to be going the way of the phone box.
Another plus: after gorging on old soul, jazz and gospel in the States, it's a pleasure to be back in this country for the old UK hip-hop that crops up – Rat has tons of classics on old '90s labels like Kold Sweat. I retrieve the 12" copy of London Posse's 'How’s Life In London', a record I bought on mail order when it came out in 1993, and lost around 1995. Whoever has my original copy may now sleep easily. Anyone who owns a Dizzy Rascal record really has a duty to check out these founding fathers of British hip-hop:
So where do we go next? This whole thing started as a document of Cornish car-boot shopping which, while maybe not leading to the rarest, oldest or deepest records, will be cheap and is guaranteed to be funny. I need to get back to Cornwall to carry on. Not least because I finally saw this short documentary, Secondhand Sureshots:
‘Do you have any methods for cleaning off the dust?’
‘Keep the dust. It’s part of the seasoning.’
It’s a beautiful film in which four producers are sent out to separate thift stores and challenged to buy five records for $5, and to make something new from what they find. It taps into the power of serendipity in record hunting, the beauty in creating new art from old trash, and the cockroach-like survival instinct of Barbara Streisand records in charity shop bins. When the button's pressed and even the rats are killed, they're the only things that'll survive a nuclear holocaust.