The Scramble for Vinyl

The trend among rare-groove DJs to make money of "discovering" and "rediscovering" old vinyl in Africa and then rereleasing the music under their own labels.

Image by Malick Sidibe.

Spurred on by the rise of sampling in hip hop and electronic music and despite a downturn in vinyl production, in the 1980’s and 1990’s a rich vinyl collecting culture exploded in places like the US, Europe, and Japan. For years young hip DJs from the city, traveled to forgotten about record shops in backwater towns, the dusty basements of aging record collectors or the back rows of an inner-city record shop looking for rarities that seemed to pop out of thin air. Collectors scoured their neighbors’ backyards for rare jazz, rock, and funk, motivated by unnamed sample sources, hoping to find that illusive breakbeat. The best DJs were the ones with the deepest crates.

Around the early 2000’s, hip hop stopped using samples and turned back towards synthesizers, the internet started a deeper collective crate, and a vital source of inspiration dried up. For collectors, all the stones seemed to be overturned, the market had too many buyers, and people, starting to realize the value of what they had, turned to Ebay to make money off of their collections. With much of the rare vinyl being plundered locally, a few intrepid explorers decided to try their luck in uncharted territory. Of course, they made their way to Africa.

Map taken from the Soul Strut forum.

This map (that has been circulating on Facebook and other social media) and the above scenario may both be a little hyperbolic (the map was originally posted by Reynaldo on the Soul-Strut forum), but it does seem that the current mad-dash for rare African vinyl could be analogous to Europe’s 19th Century Scramble for Africa, a mad-dash for rare African minerals. There is a trend among rare-groove DJs to “find fortune” in the (re)discovery of musical gems in places where the value of vinyl and recorded music from the past has diminished. Just go to your local record shop (if one still exists) and peruse the display shelves to encounter dozens of new releases celebrating the recently uncovered recordings of Africa’s unknown musical heritage.

The image of these guys as plundering opportunists isn’t helped by their reception in The West. As one music writer puts it, “Frank Gossner’s DJ sets burst with exclusive tracks that are so rare that they can’t be heard anywhere else on this planet” (from Rare music from planet Africa!?! Who wouldn’t want to get a piece of that? Sadly, as history shows us, the cataloging tendency tends to be a colonial one.

On the other hand, vinyl culture has been long dead in most African countries. Perhaps, these diggers are doing a service by restoring historical and cultural memory. Much of the music they are interested in is music from the independence era, an important and optimistic time period. Many of the artists they are tracking down have been retired for years and some enjoy a revival. TP Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, Orchestra Baobab, Mulatu Astatke, are all touring and enjoying popularity with a young hip crowd. For various reasons in places like Benin, Senegal, and Ethiopia (and also the US) younger generations don’t know the previous generation’s contribution to the popular musical landscape.

The DJs are engaging in a pop culture archeology to teach the masses about their own history, and at the same time are showing Europeans and Americans that our shared tastes and desires prove that we’re not that different after all. The European powers of the 19th century, sought to change the face of the continent through the colonial project. In contrast, the boldest vinyl diggers amongst us are trying to preserve what’s being lost.

Perhaps then, what we have to question is for who’s value is it being preserved? My biggest personal gripe is not that they are going to Africa to shed light on these “lost” recordings and forgotten about artists. I’m instead worried that they concentrate too much on those forms of music that fit nicely into the story that they, the DJs, want to tell about themselves discovering the music, which in turn enriches them individually through either social- or actual capital.

On a positive end note, if you’re interested in discovering more about the history of African pop, now is a better time than ever. While the blogging world may at times suffer from its own imperial tendencies, there have been some great free sources of information on African pop music history like Benn Loxo du Taccu, Likembe, with Comb and Razor, and Africolombia.*

For a nice visual on the typical digging journey, check out the trailer for Frank Gossner’s yet to be released documentary, “Take me Away Fast“.

  • I have to mention that South America is included in this “colonial project” as well, but it is through visits to Colombia that Soundway Records met the rich vinyl collecting culture of Colombia’s northern coast, a community in the midst of its own project to preserve African musical history. It’s an interesting comparison to look at the contrast between a community mediated project motivated by their own cultural heritage, and one that is more motivated by a commercial venture.


Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.