12 Years of Dope Jams with Paul Nickerson
Interview by Josiah Oberholtzer, Edited by Christopher Orr
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Tell me about the history of the store and label. There has obviously been a bunch of articles written about Dope Jams the store, the label and the in-house productions. And we should hash some of that out again for the people who don’t know. What’s the story you tell about how it all happened?
Paul Nickerson: A long time ago we decided to follow our instincts and sail the sea of consequence. Through many crash and burn situations, aiding people in following their dreams, we realized the worst that could happen if we did it ourselves was just another crash and burn. So we said, “fuck it” and went for it. Through all the different arms, the store, the labels and the parties the point was always to communicate a story and allow people to suspend reality momentarily. The different arms were just tools to help do that.
I think everyone feels frustration with the state of the world and people want things to operate by a different set of rules. They walk around with that frustration because the world never bends to what they want that reality to be. We found a space and created a situation, behind our door, in which things functioned, for the most part, by the rules we felt were important, not by the rules society sets outside our door.
Nowadays people start labels or open stores or make music to get notoriety and DJ internationally. Through the whole thing that was never the intention, we knew what it was like to DJ at other people’s parties, where the sound was always fucked up or there was no lighting or the crowd sucked. We wanted to create a space where we had complete control over every aspect of it and could ensure that none of those problems came up. It started with about five people at the beginning and organically grew until there were lines around the block.
How has the state of record stores in NYC changed over the last decade? We’ve seen a lot of closures, for a variety of reasons; Kim’s, Other Music, Satellite, your own store and a number of other underground shops that I can’t think of right now. I actually get really emotional when I visit NYC because of the state (or lack thereof) of the shops, but vinyl, and definitely dance vinyl, keeps coming out, all the time, worldwide. Do you think the tide in NYC against brick-and-mortar record shops will turn back around? Has the energy moved elsewhere? Or is it just over? What do you think the slump means for the scene locally, globally?
It’s just over. Not just in NYC but, worldwide. The whole thing is broken in so many ways it’s beyond repair. The internet broke the world. It has created this politically correct happy land where everyone washes each other’s balls all day long and no one will speak the truth. The internet hasn’t necessarily prevented people from knowing the truth but has just stopped them from publicly saying it. So, people stroke each other off about their shitty track or movie or short story online but, in reality, will never purchase that thing they were saying was so great because in their heart they know it sucks. So this floods the market with crap and the song or movie that is really great gets lost in a sea of horseshit. What happens next is the guy who made that really great song, or movie, and put everything into it, gets frustrated and either gives up or decides to relax his standards because no one else is really trying. There are very few with the fortitude to continue with the same determination after repeated upsets like that.
Everyone likes to spew this nonsense about it being great that the artist can get his music out to the people so easily now without a major label or any label at all but, it’s all bullshit. What music needs now more than ever are those gatekeepers at major labels and larger independent labels and the restrictions of equipment and studio time being very expensive. These things prevent mediocrity and weed out those who really want it from the weekend warrior trying to add producer to his resume as a renaissance man.
There are so many problems tied into all this as well. When dance music thrived it was because the records were readily available to DJs and the general public. Records like “Big Fun” by Inner City or “Knights Of The Jaguar” by Aztec Mystic were massive hits and you better believe UR was doing everything they could to press and sell as many of “Jaguar” as they could. Nowadays, people are just trying to manufacture interest in their release on sites like Discogs by limiting the pressing run to 214.5 copies because they think it makes them look more interesting if a copy is selling for $40 — the problem is they do this with records that are actually good as well, records that could have sold many more. So the DJ who wants that record, would expose it to people and actually make people give a shit about dance music again, because the song is good, can’t afford it and feels frustrated. It’s the most bonehead logic on the planet. Or you have labels like FXHE, which sells the record to the consumer for less than he sells it to the shop or distributor. As a shop owner, why would I want to invest in FXHE records if I can’t mark them up and make money? I mean who is going to buy a FXHE 12” from me for 11.99 when they can get it off his site for 8.99? It’s just a fucking stupid business move.
You have to think about the economics of the whole thing, much as America is run by the 1% with disposable income, dance music is the same thing. You CANNOT make money off selling 300 copies of a record, and that is the stone-cold truth. I have pressed hundreds of records, sold them for every price point between $4 and $25 each and it is simply impossible. So what this means is the only people who can afford to press records continuously are the trust fund kids and then they in turn become gatekeepers because they can afford to press other people’s music. The problem with this scenario is that great art comes from strife and turmoil and those two words sure as hell aren’t in a trust fund kid’s vocabulary. So, the broke, hungry kid busting his ass figuring out his equipment and trying to say something musically is left defeated. That is the real problem, the real music people, whether they be artists or just connoisseurs, who really care and do their homework, are left feeling like the whole thing is a joke and they walk away from it. It’s the greatest crime in the world. And what you are left with is a bunch of rich knuckleheads trying to outdo each other with their white label stamped releases.
What does it feel like to start over with the shop? Or do you even see it like that? Besides the location what are you doing differently this time?
It doesn’t feel like starting over, it’s just another wave. The store has died and been reborn many times at this point; I think that is what I love about it so much. What is different about being up here is that I am afforded the ability to actually follow through on the development of the things in the store, such as the sound system, the inventory and the look of it, whereas in Brooklyn we were living to pay rent. Nothing could ever be upgraded properly because we were constantly hustling to survive.
You’ve been buying, selling, collecting, curating, spinning and listening for decades. That’s an incredible overview of dance music culture and history. What aspects of the music stick out for you as significant changes, what’s stayed true?
Sadly, I’m not sure anything has stayed true. If you asked me ten years ago, I would have said parties stayed true, as disposable as a lot of the music was, there was always a party that would provide that escape from reality and would remind you why you got into the whole thing in the first place. A dope party doesn’t take much, a good sound system, a blacked-out room, some basic lighting and somebody playing music sincerely; then you can really feel transported. If you went to a party pre-internet it was always dark, all you could see from the street was a door with no window in it. Once you walked through that door the outside world didn’t exist. It seems like such a simple concept but somehow it has been lost. Now every party has to be broadcast to the world and they need sensory overload by way of massive light shows and a stupid fucking LED screen projecting what you are supposed to feel.
The formula used to be that the music was made to be played in the clubs and producers are inspired by the vibe at the club but, if the clubs are a sea of nothing but 90 million pixel LED screens then it’s really no surprise that the music is as empty as it is. If you see a ’72 Plymouth Road Runner and the body is redone, pristine, and it looks like a fucking monster but, then you get in the driver’s seat, fire up the engine and it’s a shitty stock engine that was put in after the fuel restrictions in the early 70’s you are never gonna get those goosebumps. It’s all style, no substance.
When you look at tracks to curate for the label or just for yourself, what do you look for: a particular sound, or specific artists or labels, or some kind of historical thread?
If it still sounds relevant and swings, then that’s what I look for. I don’t care if there are 100 copies on Discogs for $2. How rare the original is means absolutely nothing to me in the decision-making process. The “CORE” 12”s and mix CD’s are not meant to be what the “Slow To Speak” label is. They were meant to show the foundation from which the label came. If you listen to the actual releases on “Slow To Speak” they are much more electronic-based and contemporary sounding. “Slow To Speak,” the actual label, hasn’t really even started yet.
So, yes, the “CORE” releases constitute the historical thread of the label. I think that is very important and probably why so much material is bad now, because people have no understanding of the history of the genres within which they are working. I feel that if they did, they would not only be inspired by that history but, would also think twice before they put their music out into the world, because they would realize it had been done 100 times before and at a higher standard than their music. Hopefully this realization would inspire them to try harder to create something unique.
When I was a kiddo, I used to sneak away from school trips to NYC and make a b-line to the closest DJ-oriented record shop I could find. And I kept doing that — just going to the shops, not playing hooky — as I got older. It’s a big regret of mine that I never really covered any ground in Brooklyn. Looking over all of the photos I can find of the old Dope Jams shop I think I would have been floored by the architecture, the ambiance, the hand-made quality of the whole thing. It’s got a level of workmanship you don’t see very much anywhere. And I see that repeated in the photos of the new spot. How did it come together? Who designed and built everything? What’s the intuition behind it?
I designed the shop. I have always been fascinated by wood: the feel of it, the look and the smell. It has substance and that’s what we were trying to do with the shop, stock it full of records that would still sound dope in thirty years, songs with substance. Wood was the natural choice. I’ve never believed in God but the chills you get from music had me pretty much convinced that if God was real, when he spoke it would make you feel the way Carl Craig’s remix of “Domina” makes you feel. So it only felt right that the shop should look like an ancient church. And it was through this ‘church’ that I got to meet a strangely enticing community of outcasts, rogue adventurers and veteran music obsessives!!!