Interview by Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen
Photography by Alan Ng
Can you tell our readers about yourself and how you got started in the record game?
I am Eugene Tam. I was born in Trinidad, a country in the West Indies, in the 1970’s. Everyone in Trinidad loves music. My brother and I loved music. When we were young we had those old ghetto blasters and we would listen to music all the time and record everything off the radio that we could. Once we started working and earning money, we could buy records. My father owned a jukebox store and we used to sell Jukebox 45s, tons! We hooked up with this lady who owned a bunch of jukeboxes and we bought all her records and started selling them. So I when I came over here to study and when I finished, I wasn’t really doing anything. I tried many different kinds of businesses but nothing was really going well so we decided to open a record store here, at the back of the building. Everyone thought we were crazy because our store was not in the front of the building, facing the street, but the back spaces are cheaper. So we opened a record store and that was how we started out.
Tell us more about the origins of Play De Record, like what year were you guys established and how did you come up with the name?
We opened the store in 1990. As for the name, well, I was so busy trying to set up the store that I had no idea what to name it. Then I just came up with Play De Record because it’s got a west indie vibe to it, you know? And I had a friend design our logo, which is black, red, and white, the colours of Trinidad. So that is how we established the store.
I am pretty sure that since you opened in the 1990’s till now, the products that you carry have definitely evolved and grown. Tell us a bit about the products you carried when you started off.
When we first started off we only carried records, that’s it. It was just purely records. Then we started selling some hats, some tee-shirts and some jewellery, like hip-hop jewellery, stuff like that. Bling bling, you know? (everyone laughs) But mainly, it was all records, purely records, and CDs and cassette tapes.
Moving forward in time, when did you expand and take over the front of the store as well?
Well, when we started, it was just here. We just had this space at the back of the building. Then we took over another extra half of the space at the front of the building. Then about 3 years ago, the people occupying the front space left and we were able to take over the whole thing. And a year and a half after that we renovated the whole thing and it’s what you see now.
We can see at the front of the store that you carry a lot of merchandise and a whole range of musical equipment, so can you elaborate on what types of products you currently carry?
Well, records were losing popularity because of Napster in the late 1990’s and Final Scratch in 2001. We were a little scared, but not really, because nobody was really switching away from records yet. So we just kept on doing our thing, selling records. But when Serato came out, that was it for records. DJ Dopey bought it, liked it, and started using it. Then all the big DJs started using it for their turntables as well. That was the end. We knew that was going down so we started selling more musical equipment, because we were selling a bit before, but because of that, we had to seriously expand our range of products. So now, the new thing that I am working on now is a school for DJ’ing and music production, so hopefully we can get that going before Christmas.
Nice! Speaking of the DJ school you are establishing right now, what is the concept behind it? Who are the people that are going to be instructing or teaching students?
I’ve got a friend of mine who has a curriculum from college, so I am working with him now. I have some other DJs in mind but it is still an evolving process right now, you know? We will be using some good guys.
Speaking of the impact of technology and especially Serato on the record scene and record industry, tell us what the effects of this technology are and how it is changing the whole DJ’ing culture in general?
For the store, business wise, it changed a lot for us. I think our record sales went down 80% or more. That is why there aren’t any record stores around. There are hardly any record stores around. Everything is in mp3 format now. DJs don’t use records much anymore now. Drum and Bass DJs only want to use records. Andy C, a top Drum and Bass DJ from England, only uses records. He does not use mp3s at all. But most DJs use mp3s so that has caused the record industry to change a lot.
With every new technology or medium, people feel that they begin to render their predecessors obsolete. Take for example, how digital is gradually replacing print. But there are always people who can appreciate the old technologies and mediums, like enthusiasts who love records and have huge record collections. Tell us what you can expect from vinyl that you cannot expect from mp3s.
Well, the songs on vinyl are warmer because everything is analog, right? If you compare it to a CD in this respect it’s always going to be better. Younger people cannot tell because they have only been hearing mp3s and music from the computer so they really can’t tell the difference, but DJs and people who grew up listening to records and were around to see the beginning of mp3s can tell the difference. There is a difference. People who buy records nowadays are collectors. There aren’t many DJs still buying records.
Moving forward, technology is progressing every day. Mp3s are getting leaked onto the internet every day. The whole music production industry is changing. Even CD sales are decreasing because of mp3s. You guys have been at the forefront of keeping this medium alive because of your appreciation for this medium. I mean, the store is still here after all these years. What other plans do you have for sustaining this store and records in general, besides opening a DJ school. Is there another plan to keep records alive?
I don’t know. I don’t know what the future holds, because while we want to keep records alive, things change in this technological world. Everything is changing by the month. We don’t even know if the Apple I-phone is going to be…right now Apple is riding high. Maybe next year it won’t be. Nobody knows. Who knew records was going to die like this? Nobody knew. We knew records would die eventually, but we didn’t know how fast it was going to go down, right? And now they say that records are coming back. Like we have people buying old vinyls and what not, and maybe some of these people understand that records sound better than mp3s, but mp3s are free and records cost some money. I don’t know how long renewed interest in records will last, nobody knows I think.
You being a music lover for so long, can you tell us a bit about your record collection, like what are some of the rarest records you have?
This question you have got to ask the other guys. I don’t really keep up with records now. I take care of the other stuff now. But you know who you should interview? Jason. He is a record collector, oh man.
Does he work for Play De Record?
Yeah. He has been here since maybe 1993 I think.
Oh, and speaking of Jason, can you tell us more about the people that are part of the store?
For the owners, it’s just me and Jason now. Jason, he does parties and he DJs also. He was part of a movement. It was four guys and they started this Afro Latin night once every month and it was going on for a good few years but it’s stopped now. But it was the party at one time, you know?
People we know in Toronto consider it the New York of Canada, where there are a lot of things going on and the music scene is the most prominent and busiest in all of Canada. Please tell us a bit about the music scene and DJ community in Toronto, especially the DJ culture.
In the 90’s we used to have all these raves. Now we don’t have any raves anymore. I think one kid died and that kind of messed things up, you know? The police started getting involved and they wanted certain restrictions, like for example they wanted to have at least forty police officers at every party. The cost of doing these parties were expensive anyways. I think it was the same all over the world because all the raves started cleaning up, right? Everyone wants to be a promoter now. There are lots of parties going on. We have more events than we have ever had before. Everybody thinks they can make money, I don’t know. But it’s spread out, you know what I mean? Some parties are smaller. They are nice, but I don’t think you can make money. The only way you can make money is by jacking up your price. But there is more variety now. There are so many artists in Toronto now. We have everyone coming here now. They are coming two, three times a year now. It is pretty vibrant. We get a lot of concerts now.
Play De Record seems to have a great reputation as a record store, not just in Toronto but through Canada as well, based on the relationships that you maintain with all these DJs and your fan base. Is it your passion for music that keeps this store going? What drives you to still continue with this store?
Pssshhh…I don’t know either. (everyone laughs) Because when I first started off I loved music and it was good. I really looked forward to every week because we would get new releases every week. When we first started out there were other stores and we would try to be ahead of them with the releases: they would get their new releases on Fridays and we would try to get ours on Thursday in order to be ahead of them. Man, every DJ wants new music and to be the one to break new music to people. That was my passion. I wanted to let people know about new music, the independent artists, or artists that have yet to make it big. I wanted to be the one to introduce new music to the masses. So, with records, we could do that because there were only two ways for a new record to break: people hear its songs on the radio or they hear it in a store. Now, if you want to find new music, you just go on the internet. Nobody knows what is going to be big now. Who knew Justin Bieber was going to be big? Independent artists can put up their stuff on Youtube now and get exposure that way. It’s a little harder to break records now. I hear some stuff I like, I will push it, I sell it, but it’s harder now. When I used to play records here, there would be forty people around and I would sell forty records at a time, or thirty. Now, I play a record I only have one or two people around, that’s it. Or I am selling mostly one on one. So it’s a lot harder to push stuff onto people now. People ask me, “How come we don’t hear all this good music?” Well, it’s because you can’t hear it on the radio and they don’t know how to find it on the internet either, unless they know the name of the song. But it’s hard, because if I play something good for somebody, they might buy it, or they might say, “I can get it free on the internet.”
DJ Mensa told us how everyday on Thursday, every week, back in the 90’s,it was crazy here and there would be lots of people here. Tell us about a typical Thursday in the 90’s
Whoa man, I used to go down to Buffalo, pick up the records, and rush up here before the other stores get it. When I get here there will be people lining up already.
How many people would be lining up?
Maybe around 60 people? Every Thursday.
And they were all DJs?
They were all DJs. It used to be fun because all the DJs see each other, everyone is talking, and mixing it up with each other. You hear what is going on and what’s the latest gossip. Now, no one is doing that anymore. They sort of do that through Twitter, you know what I mean? Because Twitter is sort of like that, everyone is “talking”, texting, and bbm-ing. But it is always nice when you see everyone together, face to face. All the DJs used to meet each other here. It was nice. And sometimes we would get some rare records, like limited editions, white labels. And they would be like sharks man. Some DJs used to call them sharks because they would be grabbing stuff with their hands, it was like fighting.
And how would one get their hands on those?
You see, I wasn’t a DJ so I don’t really care. Other stores, they hold stuff back sometimes, but I wasn’t a DJ so I didn’t really care. I just wanted to get the music out there. I would want to save a few for my regular guys, but mostly I would try to get as much as possible to sell to everybody. And I come out here and they are just grabbing shit out of your hand, you know?
Speaking of vinyl, it really created a community where people aren’t just collecting records but were interacting with each other, like in your story about the DJs. It seems that with technology, like twitter and bbm, everything is losing the human touch and interpersonal experience of before. We aren’t even talking directly to people anymore. Vinyl is definitely a thing that some people will still buy, but its popularity is not as widespread as before. Do you see vinyl coming back, or in what ways do you think we could possibly bring everything back to a certain point.
I don’t think everything will come back again like that, with the internet, you know? Even at home, with the kids, nobody is talking! Everybody has their own thing going on. When my nephews and nieces come over, the younger ones play, but the older ones are on the phone, checking their texts. They aren’t even talk, they are just texting people. You go on a trip and everyone is just doing the same thing. It’s everywhere now. I see families walking and the teenagers are all on their phones, texting. I don’t know, I don’t know if things will ever be the same. As for vinyl, it could be a phase, with all these young kids buying vinyl again.
I think there are some aspects where people who really love music will keep on buying records, even if they only buy special records, like the J-Dilla re-release.
Yes, for limited stuff like that, even DJs will come and pick it up. But I don’t know if they are going to make records five years from now. It costs money. You have to sell a certain amount to be profitable.
Yeah, and even the price of vinyl and CDs are really similar now.
Yeah, the price is rising. It’s going to rise because they can’t sell millions or even hundreds of thousands anymore.
Yeah, it’s not mass produced anymore.
Yeah, not anymore. You really got to do it for the love boy, you know what I mean?
Yeah, even choosing records and stuff, it talks a lot of time and is heavy as well. But in the end if you really appreciate this form of music, it’s all good.
Yeah, when you play a record loud it still sounds great. I have heard some mp3s played loud and they sound terrible, don’t you think so?
What is HYPE?
What is HYPE? Man, tough question boy. What is the name of your magazine?
It’s called iustalilhype!
Ohhh, that’s why. Well, HYPE is trying to blow up something, that’s my definition of HYPE.
Kind of like back in the 90’s when you were bringing the records here.
Yeah, we would try to HYPE up certain records and try to break new records to the public. And it used to work. I had all the top DJs in here too. We would HYPE up a record, saying, “This is going to be big.” Then we had all these DJs playing the record in the store one night and then there would be all these people wanting to buy the same record the next day. That is HYPE.
Cool, and speaking of that, are people dropping by Play De Record to sell you their records?
Yeah. People always want to sell their records, like DJs. People are always trying to get rid of their records.
Do you see that as a sad thing because these DJs have been collecting records for so long?
For me, it’s sad. I can feel it in some of them too. They spend so much time digging, because a long time ago, people would spend lots of time to look for records, they had to search for them.
They would travel too.
Yeah, they had to go all over the place. It would take them ten, fifteen, twenty years! Now kids just flip on the computer and get a new CD in two, three minutes.
When people drop stuff off do you sometimes convince them to take it back?
Yeah, because we couldn’t take anymore records. We had like 500,000 records downstairs at one point, and we had to clear them out and sell them because we are building a school.
So where did all these used ones go?
Well, I hate to throw away records. We try to sell them. We used to have a vintage store right across the road . In fact, that is how we had so many records at one point. A couple stores down from the vintage store across the street was another vintage store that was closing down. We bought that store’s record collection, and there were a few hundred thousand records there. There were some in the attic too.
And that was the point where you guys had the largest collection ever, right?
Yeah, that was crazy boy. And we only had a certain amount of time to get rid of them, and I couldn’t get rid of them. So what I did was try to give them away at first, but then the date was coming up close, and people wanted to take them, but they had no room. I am talking about a few hundred thousand records.
Was it in the basement?
No, it was on the second floor. And there were records in the attic. We had a ladder and we had to go up there and there were stacks of records piled to the ceiling. It was so dusty, we had to wear masks. That was the best man.
Which year was this?
Maybe four to five years ago? That was the best, because we found some gems man. Hardly anyone went up before because the attic was kind of shaky, it felt so unstable. Man, I should send you some pictures
Throughout the interview, we talked about some of the things that we love about vinyl. But out of all the things that vinyl can do, what is your favourite thing about vinyl records?
You know what, the information on the album covers. Mp3s, there is hardly any information on the cover, you don’t even know who you are listening to sometimes, I think, I don’t know, I don’t really listen to mp3s so I don’t know. I love flipping through records and I like looking at the pictures on the cover. People also love reading the back to see who produced it, the history of the group and the making of the record, and who they thanked. A long time ago, records came with a book of information and through that book you really got to know the group, their history, and the laboured process that went into the creation of each record.