“What keeps me going to this day is that I truly love to collect music” – Mark Grusane
Diggers Directory: a mix series that salutes the diggers, record enthusiasts and music lovers. For more in the series, browse through the archive.
Co-owner of Peabody Records, compiler of the brilliant Windy City comps on BBE and a selector with three decades of experience, very few people embody the sounds and spirit of Chicago more than Mark Grusane. For our next instalment of Diggers Directory, we spoke to Grusane about an obsessive love of music and some relationships formed along the way, his favourite Chicago musicians and the rumours circulating about a new record store. He was also kind enough to put together a superb, all vinyl, 140 minute mix.
Catch Mark touring Europe in November and December, stopping off in London, Cardiff Bristols and Geneva.
DJs and producers often mention their musical education came through their family’s record collection. Was this the case for you? Can you pick out any pivotal records from your upbringing that informed your musical journey?
Yes, I remember my dad’s records, he loves music. Records he played that stuck out to me as a kid were records like Booker T & The MGs (Melting Pot & Green Onions), Jimmy Smith (The Sermon) and blues records like B.B. King, Bobby Bland, also radio from Herb Kent. Another memory I have is having a kids turntable. Outside of Cartoon record/books, I remember I used to like to play ‘Ring My Bell’ by Anita Ward over and over again, obviously a record that came from my dad. As I grew up, my older brother got into DJing during the early 80s. I learned blending from him using his records. Just after that, I was maybe 8yrs old when I went to my first DJ record store, called Imports etc. That day, my brother bought two copies of David Joseph (‘You Can’t Hide Your Love’), amongst other records released at that time. Back then DJs sometimes did edits live on turntable (a.k.a boubling) thus most people’s reason for buying two records as it was popular. Record stores were everywhere but it’s the store where I first learned DJ culture, Technics 120os turntables, underground dance music etc.
People buy records for a multiple of reasons. What first drew you to collecting records and what motivates you to continue digging after all these years?
The music that’s on them first of all. A vinyl record is nothing you can make in five min. It’s a process, real thought, artistry and engineering go into these disc. When I started collecting, it was the primary medium, alongside cassette tapes, with 8-Tracks were going obsolete then. When I got serious it was the early 80s. I liked the house sound, mixes on radio, local DJ mixes from the hood etc. As I got older, my sound preference widened into many genres. I had mostly all the records that were popular, and was totally taken over by music itself. At this point, I was past “what to collect” but more like, whatever sound I loved. The task was to have them all. It turned out to be an endless fun game of collecting to feed my obsession. I started selling extra copies of records I would fine to make money to buy more records – my earliest days as a record dealer. As I was younger than mostly everyone, I would enjoy the challenge of making friends happy finding music that they had been searching for. What keeps me going to this day is that I truly love to collect music.
Where do you store all your records and how do you file them?
I haven’t had them in order in years LOL. As I have been doing a lot with them and also relocating a few times. When I did have them all filed, it was alphabetized, separated by genre, and tempo. Now, I keep them on shelves to conserve space but prefer them in boxes. I store them where I am living now and also in climate controlled storage
What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?
Everywhere is a favorite, it’s like a treasure hunt. So many places to dig. To narrow down some, locally, my favorite spots to dig in Chicago are Kstarke, Dusty Groove and Gramaphone. These stores I’ve been checking out for some time. When new things are added, I usually find them quicker in order to preview. Outside of Chicago, I’d say digging in Japan is also great. I always said, “shopping in Japan is like shopping all around the world in one area”. It makes sense because I’d see the Japanese dealers everywhere – many cities, and globally – all the time. They leave no territory unturned and when you shop in Japan, you learn that.
Digging isn’t just about the records you find, but the people who help you find them. Who are some of the colourful characters you’ve met on your travels in record stores round the world? Any unsung heroes you’d like to shout out?
I was in High School or just after (pre-Internet era!) I would go to the library and get phone books for different cities, called record stores to buy stuff I wanted. I was past the point of no return, collecting records had turned into an obsession for me. I found this Store in Pittsburgh (The Attic), ended up calling and forming music relationship with the cat that worked there (John). The store was pretty well known for 45s and I was interested in the soul and disco stock they had left. He told me he used to run a pirate disco radio station in the 70s locally in Pittsburgh, and wanted to sell some of of his collection at the time. This guy was incredible, my earliest extensive knowledge of what turns out to be B-side and/or rare records today. I got many of my first copies from him. He was my first connection to independent labels that came out of the east coast, for example Heavenly Star, P&P, Hitmakers, Golden Flamingo and Disco International. This guy was had a very extensive knowledge of disco, mainstream and underground. At first buy, I bought from his suggestions then, over time, we figured what I would like based on a scale. So I didn’t have to hear them but he would say “Mark, this is Class A, B, C”. Some I didn’t like, but moreso many titles I liked. He is my unsung hero because meeting him was my first exposure to getting large quantities of music that mainly wasn’t distributed to my area. It was the start of many relationships I built over the years of buying, trading, and selling records.
DJs and producers often talk about a number of records that never leave their bag. Do you have any records like this?
Of course, they are special records to me. Not worth a lot, or rare mostly, but records I love to play to set a tone for the room I’m playing in. There are many, but I rotate my records quite a bit. Anyone that hears me play out, knows or has heard some of them. I guess I’d call them my constantly rotating warmup records.
Is there a record (or records) that you’ve wanted to own but cannot afford or find in print anymore?
Yes, this test pressing of a track someone played at WKKC-Fm in Chicago during a house show for High School DJs called The Network Connection in the late 80s or maybe in 1990. I played there in freshman year of High School for about two months. This time slot had DJs from the very early Dance Mania days and pre-Juke Music era. It was a house track a DJ from the West Side played (can’t remember his name) and I never surfaced it. It was never released I don’t think and I never saw it again. It was indeed on vinyl as a test pressing. This track was mad crazy, sounded like a computer going nuts. All it said on the white label was something like “Etroy”. Probably was pressed out of (Barney’s) Dance Mania. I’d pay some serious bank for this record. Also another one was at a house party on my block were I grew up a little earlier. Another serious house track, one side of the label has three bodies with dog heads on them standing next to a tree. Maybe I’m getting old now but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that one again either I believe. Both were independent Chicago tracks from late 80s / early 90s.
Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends to nerd out with and search for strange sounds together? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?
It’s definitely a personal experience to me first, however it just depends. Ideally, I think if the records are a nice fresh unseen collection, like one I acquired, I’d handle that fun on my own. But there are also times where some friends and I will take a day and as you say, nerd out! Record shows are a good nerd out zone for me with a group. For the most part we chill, catch up since our last meet, play tunes, pass some off, suggest and take suggestions. Like a workshop day for vinyl.
Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting process, with some many different genres and formats. Do you have a digging process that helps you home in on what you’re after?
I guess, if I could make a comparison, going into a record store to me would be be like sitting down at a table with a larger than average meal I probably won’t finish, and eating what I like first LOL. I like mostly all categories so when I enter a record shop, I check as many areas as I have time for, but I purchase based on the sound that strikes me, and of course prices play a roll as well. Additional factors could be based on mood and occasion. If time permits, I will play everything in front of me I have not played before, or don’t remember. I am a vinyl first guy to the bone, but I also will browse CD/digital, as it’s the primary media now for many releases. I don’t leave it out, else I’d be missing out on tons of music, only to try to go back and find later. I take in as much as I can, but as I tell peeps, “when you get deep in it, it’s an endless game”. There will always be a record out there to find.
How big a role does album artwork play in your digging, esp. if you’re not familiar with something you pick up?
It means a lot to me. I personally look at mostly any record I haven’t seen before, good cover or not. I like to read them. The design of the cover is the form of marketing to attract attention from the buyer. Going further, the musicians on the record, the cross referencing of musician credits plays an important role. Especially with having to take a guess on what kind of music is on the record, styles, etc.
Could you tell us a bit about the mix you made for us? the idea behind it?
The approach to this mix was to be as a soundtrack in a sense, yet every soundtrack is different. So with this one, I wanted to display my way of mixing style and genres. I started with a midtempo chill groove, building up slowly while playing a selection of different genres of sounds I like, adding some weirdo curve ball stuff and eventually evolving to upper tempo dancefloor stuff. In this mix, you’ll hear modern and past genres of soul, funk, latin, house, disco, rock, Caribbean, new wave, minimal wave, cosmic, techno and afro-jazz sounds. I was going to play a record for record format, but as I started the mix, I just started blending the songs that fitted together to me. I guess that’s the DJ side of me adding to the music lover side. I like them both equally.
We asked you to keep the tracklist secret (to get listeners to dig deep for their IDs!) but are there any standouts from the mix you’d like to shout out?
Not really, I’ll say not everything on this mix is hard to find, I’m a KTDA-KIF) advocate, meaning: Keep The Digging Alive – Keep It Fresh.
With Peabody Records and your compilation for BBE’s you are often seen as a selector who embodies the Chicago sound! Are there any new artists, producers or DJs from the Windy City who you are particularly excited about at the moment?
Yes, there are plenty. Too many to name some, else I’d have to name all just to be fair. However, I do plan to share music soon of newer independent music I like locally, and then some. My intentions are to promo the new music and send support to the artist. I’m always interested in hearing new things. As for some of the artists/producers that “rung my bell” with my formative years earlier of what I like. If you ask me to name 3? I’d say Larry Heard, Patrick Adams and Roy Ayers.
In our current climate with gentrification, rising rent prices and stagnating wages, it seems opening a record shop seems even harder than when you started Peabody. What advice would you give to those who have plans to start and maintain a successful record store in 2016?
I don’t think there is one answer of course, but I’d say that most records are available and sold on the internet these days. If you actually go through with a “brick and mortar” storefront, it only makes sense to have that kind of overhead if you, have the proper walk in traffic, or it serves as a better way of getting inventory in. Most of the successful stores today are internet only, or stores with a strong internet presence.
There are rumours that you are opening another new store in the future. Is there any truth in this?
Yes, I’m taking my time with it though. Stay Tuned.
Finally, what are your plans for the rest 2016 and beyond?
Continuing to get out DJing, playing music for the dancefloors and music lovers of the world. Also, releasing more music, as I’m soon wrapping up my first solo album. Also, you can check out my previous releases, ‘Space Mountain’ on the Sounds Familiar Label. Or also, ‘Stand Down’ on my Mark Grusane Music label. It will give you an idea of what to expect with my upcoming album. Also, don’t forget to check my other releases on the Spacedust Label out of Toronto, MGM Edits Vol 1 & 2. I have good things and ideas in store for the future. Hopefully we can all enjoy them together. For bookings contact: Ornella@soundsfamiliar.it