The Lost Art Of Cratedigging
Discovering rare vinyl once inspired music producers. Not anymore.
I don’t make beats. I just hoard them for safekeeping.
My obsession with collecting records began in my early teens. One day I was down in the basement looking for my Cabbage Patch Kid (I have no idea why). Climbing through boxes labeled “Christmas” and “Easter,” I found one of my mother’s stacks of old 45 rpm vinyl. Inside were singles from The Beatles, The Doors, Joni Mitchell, anything and everything I either knew or was about to discover from artists that lived in an era that I now like to call “Kathy Was Born Too Late.”
That action, though—the climbing, the unearthing—it stuck with me into my 20s as my tastes changed and I became a fan of hip-hop, a music constructed (initially) from bits and pieces of old records. I became a bona fide “cratedigger.” During college, I would leave campus on breaks and head to downtown Bloomfield, New Jersey where I believe the best-kept secrets in vinyl discovery were really located. I headed to record stores like Crazy Rhythms (R.I.P.), book stores with secret cellars, instrument fix-it shops with random record piles and even church swapmeets, all the while doped up on Claritin and wearing a surgical mask to ward off the effects of my severe dust allergy. As one of the few girls who has taken part, I would get looks from the guys on their vinyl searches as they observed my selections at a distance, but politely gave me my space to work alongside them.
Cratedigging isn’t merely “record shopping” though. It’s a hunt for the DNA of a popular song you’re in love with. An addiction to origins.
That addiction lasted a long time too. When I worked on Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor album at Warner Bros. Records in 2005, I obsessed over her song “Hung Up,” which I recognized contained a sample of ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” I risked mesothelioma in some dank basement in Brooklyn to find their single “The King Has Lost His Crown” because “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” was the B-side. Keep in mind I didn’t own a turntable until five years after I started cratedigging because I wanted a “collection” first. I was constantly on the chase to acquire; lifting the needle to hear my discoveries was ancillary. That’s my story, and every cratedigger has one.
So what’s the point, right? Well, there is a utility for cratedigging that dates back decades to the earliest days of hip-hop production, because records were the raw materials for hip-hop tracks. The art of sampling was awesome albeit arduous. A producer would find a “breakbeat” (an instrumental section or drumbeat) or a snippet of sound from a record that they liked; play the vinyl on a turntable; and record that piece of music onto a sampler or a sampling-enabled drum machine where it could be replayed and layered in conjunction with other sounds in the beatmaking process.
To acquire the vinyl, they would hunt. They raided record stores and hit record fairs in the early morning hours to scour through crates and crates of wax. The Roosevelt Hotel Record Convention on E. 45th Street in New York City was a big one. Dealers would gather and legends of hip-hop’s Golden Age would arrive and peel through the layers of vinyl to find what they needed.
“The Roosevelt Hotel Record Conventions were legendary,” producer Diamond D recalls. “Everyone from myself to Salaam Remi to Rashad Smith to J Dilla to DJ Premier to Lord Finesse to Showbiz to the Beatminers to 45King to Kid Capri to Q-Tip all under one roof at 7:30 am. Shit was incredible. We were on the come up looking for treats.” Diamond still digs to this day and lives up to the acronym for the collective he founded: D.I.T.C. or “Diggin’ In The Crates.”
“For lack of a better word, we called it ‘raping’ the records,” says DJ Premier, who made records for rap giants like The Notorious B.I.G. and pop starlets like Christina Aguilera. “There would be certain spots where we were like, ‘Aw they raped it already,’ meaning there was nothing really good left to look for. As much as we were all friends and we’re all connected, we wanted to get [to the record conventions] early. It was a sport.”
Premo also still digs and keeps his samples strictly vinyl. “For me, when I dig, I look at the producer, I look at the label, I look at who played the instruments,” DJ Premier explains. “I read all of that stuff. If someone is great, I’ll follow everything they do. There’s no way they can hit something great one time and not do it again.”
Veteran producers of hip-hop were scientists dissecting tracks, librarians of musical culture, mathematicians of the BPM, and above all music historians. But the dawn of the new millennium brought a cultural and technological shift. In 1999 Napster arrived, ushering in digital bootlegging and introducing beatmakers to the relative ease of pulling songs off of the Internet in the form of an MP3 file, dragging and dropping them into sampling computer software. The production technology became more sophisticated. Bedroom producers could now create entire songs from start to finish on a small laptop. Downloadable music meant not having to “digitize” music from old pieces of vinyl. In addition, the upswing of sample-light Southern hip-hop eclipsed the sample-heavy hip-hop of the East and West coasts. As younger producers entered the game, the ritual of cratedigging became archaic.
“I think a lot of the younger kids that are learning to make beats may not have the same love for samples that somebody from my generation or older has,” says J57, producer of Homeboy Sandman and other indie acts. “They’re probably ripping stuff off YouTube 99 percent of the time, so they kind of aren’t connected to the record. It’s not even a real thing; it’s not physical. Think about this: when they were little, guys like Lil’ Wayne were really big at the time, and a majority of what they were doing was sample free.”
During 2005, I worked with J57 at New York’s Fat Beats record store, the kickoff of a five-year-long death watch that ended when the store closed down. Another colleague of ours was Audible Doctor, who in recent years has produced tracks for 50 Cent and Smoke DZA.
“Even while I was at Fat Beats, I could see the climate kind of changing,” says Audible Doctor. “I can understand why there’s a [decline] in the culture of digging. It’s easy not to, especially when there’s no real cultural upbringing surrounding vinyl. [Younger producers] don’t understand the importance of how special vinyl is. They never bought it. They were never around it.”
The new beat-centric producer works differently in an industry that delivers digital music instantly rather than taking months to manufacture physical product. He churns out tracks that within minutes of their creation can leak on blogs and over social media. So hanging out for hours in the few remaining, dusty record stores doesn’t quite fit with the pace of the market and the attention span of the listener. While “digging” has reconfigured itself in a new ritual of scouring websites for MP3s and ripping music off of YouTube, even that process is still very time consuming. And with the points you have to give away on publishing, why sample at all?
Says producer Vanderslice: “A lot of the artistry is gone in production today because so many people would rather just get a quick fix and download a program and start making beats today than put anything into it. That’s why everything sounds the same.”
Two years ago I interviewed producer Clams Casino on his beatmaking process. I was geeked at the opportunity to sit with him and discuss Imogen Heap and Bjork—two ethereal female artists who specialize in electronically obscure music sometimes called “trip-hop”—because a few of Clams’ beats leaned on their recordings. Clams’ abstract production made rapper Lil B more palatable and A$AP Rocky a nouveau leader of the “designer rap” movement. But when I tried to chop it up with him, I found that Clams didn’t know much at all about the catalogues of the artists he sampled. “Oh, nah I just skim their albums and pull what sounds good,” he said.
Here I was picturing Clammy Clams wearing a dust mask in downtown Bloomfield (he’s from New Jersey too) searching for the original release of Bjork’s “Human Behavior” because he was obsessed with the drum pattern. My disappointment is my own fault. Why should Clams Casino be some die-hard connoisseur of electronic music? I’m 35; he’s not. He has WhoSampled.com, Shazam, and finally YouTube to grab what he needs and run. I had liner notes and a Numark. He’s not from an era where you need that kind of knowledge to succeed.
It’s a sign of the times; it’s the death of a ritual.
And while vinyl saw a 32% increase in sales last year, it doesn't increase any hope that cratedigging will become a producer or music aficionado’s new norm. For the tangible music lover, vinyl has straddled the line between nearly dead and surprisingly still alive for quite some time. The new idea is to save vinyl as an artifact, not for the art that’s on it. That’s the reason why Urban Outfitters has a whole vinyl section with vinyl picture frames conveniently located next to the endcaps.
The scariest thought for any current or retired cratedigger is imagining a world where the sport no longer exists. Some producers will remain adamant about the practice, and there will always be a basement somewhere filled with a hoarder’s secret treasure. That’s where you’ll find producers who love vinyl for the music woven into it. DJ Premier bought his three-year-old son a turntable and some 45s for his introduction to music.
“I was like, ‘Let me give him the basics,’” Premo says, who bought his son a NuMark turntable and some Stevie Wonder records to start.
That’s a glimmer of hope for the next generation of music lovers. While cratedigging feels more like an analog detachment from a digital world, what’s wrong with taking a step back? Even before they can read, toddlers can manipulate vinyl and remember songs by label color, a pleasurable tactile experience that can be a gateway to more music appreciation. I know I’ll be saving some dust masks for my future children, just in case.