The practice of crate digging grew out of the early days of hip-hop, when DJs and turntablists would peruse hundreds of bins for a single hook or beat they could sample, cut or mix. In the mid-1980s, the rise of the compact disc flooded garage sales and used-record stores with relinquished LPs, a treasure trove that continues to lure vinyl enthusiasts into spending long hours and money reserved for rent in pursuit of their fix.
"It's an addiction," says DJ Kristen Zoller, whose '60s-centric Mod Dance Party at the Saturn Bar with Matt Uhlmann (aka DJ Matty) is in its ninth year. "If I don't have money, I can't even let myself walk in, because I'll be in the negative, for sure."
Today, as overall album sales decline, the war between the recording industry and inevitable digitization is especially evident in New Orleans, where a handful of independent record stores — led by the Domino Sound Record Shack, Louisiana Music Factory and Jim Russell Rare Records — resist becoming collateral damage. A potential defense: vinyl, whose popularity among collectors and club selectors bespeaks the staying power of the original storage medium. According to Nielsen SoundScan, annual sales of LPs in the U.S. almost doubled from 2007 to 2008, jumping from 782,000 units to 1.4 million.
"Only vinyl is real," says DJ Pasta, a San Jose, Calif., transplant who started spinning records in junior high. "I remember when CDs invaded planet Earth. It was unbearable, because they migrated and then multiplied. It was like a horror movie."
An across-the-map selector, Pasta currently lords over three vinyl-only residencies: "Alligator Chomp Chomp," co-hosted with Uhlmann every other Friday at Mimi's in the Marigny, which focuses on Louisiana and Gulf Coast swamp-pop classics; "Drive Inn" Saturdays at the R Bar, featuring projected movies scored by everything from garage punk to space rock; and "Hangover Tavern" Sundays at the Saint, a countrified weekend comedown.
"Cookie and the Cupcakes, Jimmy Donley: This is music that I cherish and love, and I think it's forgotten in some ways," Pasta says of the Chomp Chomp regulars. "Kind of buried music that's the last archive of the beginning of rock 'n' roll."
Then there is Melissa Weber, aka DJ Soul Sister, the world-renowned Queen of Rare Groove. Her "Hustle!" Saturday night at Mimi's, which marked its fifth anniversary in April, serves as a generational bridge between the '70s artifacts she spins and the twenty- and thirtysomethings who frequent her dance parties.
"The thing about rare groove, and really being into it, is celebrating musicians who did it simply for the music," Weber says. "They might have cut a record in their garage and pressed up 200 copies, and hoped they could sell them to their family. Years later, there's this second life for this music. It's celebrating the essence of the musician and the music."
The origins of Zoller and Uhlmann's partnership grew out of such an experience. While chatting up host Uhlmann at an early Mod Night at the Circle Bar, Zoller mentioned her father and uncle had been in a garage band. "[They] put out a record that they recorded at Cosimo Matassa's studio here," she says. "It was a band called Substantial Evidence, and the name of the song was 'Death Angel.' It sounds a lot like 'Walk Away Renée.' I was telling Matt about this, and he was like, 'Wait a minute, I think I have that 45!' There's no way. He whips it out and plays my dad. We've been best friends since."
"I got it at a garage sale," Uhlmann says, laughing. "There's probably nowhere else you could get it." — Pais