Play That Funky Vinyl

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Wax Poetics was nominated for the 2011 Utne Independent Press Awards in both the “Arts Coverage” and “General Excellence” categories. This article is part of a package called “For the Love of Music.” For more, read Really Fresh Air and Good Karma in Stereo.

Andre Torres longs to listen to music the way his grandfather did. “I would see him put a record on and sit down in a chair and stare at the stereo,” says the thirtysomething co-founder and editor in chief of Wax Poetics, the Brooklyn-based magazine dedicated to funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz, and the other obsessions of record collectors worldwide. “Now, I’ll listen to a record and maybe have the TV on, muted. I’m online, answering e-mails, doing a billion things. Music for him . . . it really did require that kind of time and patience. I wish for a day where I can actually sit like my grandfather and listen to a record and be that engaged by it–that’s maybe a bygone era that I still hold onto in my mind.”

Wax Poetics lionizes that kind of nostalgia, from its reverent history-lesson writing style to its gorgeous vintage photography to its cover stars: classic names like Miles Davis, Slick Rick, Rick James, Mandrill, Too Short. It’s a godsend for hard-core audiophiles, but with immediate appeal for anyone who remembers the vinyl era, long before tapes, CDs, and certainly the cold, bloodless computer files that house our music now. “There is no aura to an MP3,” Torres notes.

A record–a warm slab of vinyl, round and thick and shiny and oddly comforting–is all aura. It’s music you can feel, smell, almost taste: “tactility,” Torres calls it.

“There’s a sort of ritual attached to listening to a record,” he says. “You open ’em up sometimes, the gatefold, and find weed from people rolling joints back in the old days.”

For Wax Poetics‘ core constituency, the ritual of listening to a record might not be as important as finding it. These are the “crate diggers,” devout record collectors who scour flea markets, estate liquidations, sidewalk sales, and what few dusty record stores still remain, seeking out names both famous and obscure–preferably obscure, actually, and the more obscure the better. Rare soul 45s from artists even devout music lovers have never heard of can sell for big money on eBay and the like. (Yes, in this field, the Internet is actually good for something.)

Torres acknowledges that a good deal of the world’s unheard music went unheard for a reason, but sometimes you can unearth something truly wonderful, and it’s the thrill of the hunt that drives these devotees, and drives Wax Poetics.

First published in late 2001, the magazine has sped from a half-year lull between issues to quarterly to, at its current pace, bimonthly. But from the outset, its lush, full-page, full-color photography was suitable for framing. Torres figured that if he started low-quality, it would be tough to justify snazzing it up later, even if every issue cost him “tens of tens of thousands of dollars” to reproduce. Pounding out the first one required him to borrow money and declare nine dependents on his taxes. He also was fired from his job selling software at the World Trade Center a month before 9/11, partly due to the distractions of his new venture.

It comes a little easier now. Wax Poetics has 15,000 subscribers and a total circulation of around 65,000, Torres says, and he’s branching out. The magazine’s lawyer structured the business so the Wax Poetics brand could eventually make a smooth transition to publishing books and putting out records. Everyone found this hilariously far-fetched when the magazine launched, but the Wax Poetics record label has just put out its first release, East of Underground, a reissue of an extremely rare 1971 collection of songs played by U.S. Army soldiers who’d won a battle of the bands.

Even better is Torres’ first foray into book publishing: the hardbound Wax Poetics Anthology, Volume 1, a collection of articles and photos from the magazine’s first five issues. (Look for Volume 2, covering the next five issues, soon.) Finally, Torres is readying a digital-downloading hub on WaxPoetics.com; yes, he’ll be selling those impersonal, auraless MP3s, but he’s striving to make the site feel as though you’re sifting through a record collection.

To handle all this output, Torres presides over a small crew, no more than a dozen, convened in an airy loft nestled under the Brooklyn Bridge. Though the space doubles as a stockroom, stacked high with back issues, it’s clean and well lit and, naturally, a great place to do some light listening while you’re multitasking. A pair of turntables sit against one wall, one platter piled high with CDs, the other, on a recent visit, spinning a record playing warm, funky throwback soul. I walk over to read the label as it spins, figuring it’s some vintage ’70s obscurity, but an employee comes over and hands me my own copy–it’s something the guy’s own group just put out.

He gives it to me on vinyl, not CD, and I’m grateful, because there’s one other reason that vinyl will always be the superior medium: the album cover. Compared to the woeful postcard dimensions of CD insert art and the laughable thumbnails on our iPods, beholding an album cover, huge and bright and colorful and evocative, is like staring into the face of God. Wax Poetics fully exploits that appeal. You can read it for the articles–lengthy career-spanning essays on major artists, movements, and historical phenomena that shaped the music–or indulge in cheery, softball-tossing Q&As with lesser stars beloved among the crate-digger set. (James Brown sidemen are legion.)

The magazine also has the exhilarating visual sweep of National Geographic, deifying vivid oddities like 1978’s rare picture disc for Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair, featuring vivacious funk godfather George Clinton–wearing fur chaps and a cowboy hat, with a boom box held to his ear–grinning wildly as he glides across the ocean, holding the reins of the dolphins strapped to his feet.

The best writing in Wax Poetics concerns the collector just as much as the collected: Anthology highlight “Make Checks Payable to Charles Mingus,” written by Karl Hagstrom Miller and reprinted from the first issue, details the ultimately failed efforts the domineering jazz bassist made to establish his own mail-order record label. A rarely discussed, facinating history, it’s bookended by the surprisingly affecting saga of Karl himself discovering three Mingus releases in a junk shop in Catskill, New York. Though he’s thrilled at his find, he’s also honest about when money trumps nostalgia: The piece ends when Karl sells all three exorbitantly priced records and buys a laptop.

Letting go is important in this business. Torres says he owns about 3,000 records, and that’s after paring down quite a bit–his wife and children now permit him to display them in their living room. As any music lover knows, deciding what stays and what goes is an arduous process, but he’s got a good guideline for identifying a keeper: It has to be a record he might enjoy as his grandfather once enjoyed his records.

Rob Harvilla is music editor of the Village Voice. Adapted from an article published in the Village Voice (Oct. 30, 2007). Subscriptions: $99/yr. (52 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.

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