Since a young age, DJ, radio host and label boss Nicole Mckenzie AKA Cherrie Flava has been surrounded by music. From Jimmy Cliff soundtracking family Dominoes matches to learning the lyrics of the 90s R&B hand-me-downs procured from her sister, it’s no surprise this passion went on to become a core part of her daily practise.
Formerly found behind the counter at Sounds of the Universe, the Soho record shop that she managed for a decade, in 2017 she made a move into the label world launching her own imprint MIC Records – abbreviated from Music Inspires Change – as a space to spread music that chimes with the label’s name and ethos. The inaugural release unearthed lost recordings from the late Mike Collins of Sun Palace, and since has been home to Glasgow-based duo LAPS’ debut record, Lord Tusk and two instalments from Greek woodwind musicians Kolido Babo.
Also something of a radio veteran, Nicole’s graced the waves of several stations across London, from Soho Radio to Worldwide FM and NTS Radio, where she hosts a monthly slot under the MIC Records umbrella that connects the dots between contemporary jazz, post punk, dub and hip hop.
From tales of 6.5 hour digging sprees to a record shop visit from Prince, we talk to her about her relationship with records alongside a vinyl mix of contemplative jazz selections to stimulate reflection and thought.
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?
Definitely. I have a large family and there’s lots of strong musical personalities. Country and western was played a lot in the house, which is not unusual for Jamaican families. Lots of Johnny Cash, Don Williams, mixed in with reggae classics from Toots & The Maytals ’54’56’, ‘Pressure Drop’, John Holt ‘1000 Volts of Holt’ album, things like that. I suppose the one that sticks out the most is Jimmy Cliff’s album ‘The Harder They Come’, my family rinsed that – it featured in every dominoes game, probably four or five times over! The lyrics really resonated with them and it was a really powerful record at the time and had a lasting impact.
Later I found out that my mum used to write for the first black newspaper in the UK called West Indian World, plus a couple of other newspapers in the early 80s, and she interviewed Jimmy Cliff! So that record in particular holds a special place in my heart, and strangely years later I ended up doing a warmup set for him when he was headlining a festival in Finsbury Park. Full circle!
Probably the biggest influence however, was my sister. She was really into 90s R&B, she would blare out the tunes ALL DAY and we were lucky enough to have cable quite early on, so MTV Base was the dominant channel in our house. There are too many good albums to mention but Mary J Blige ‘My Life’ and Erykah Badu ‘Baduizm’ were big ones. Still got some so much love for this era!
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?
Well I suppose, when I was little, records were the first thing I was introduced to through hand-me-downs from my sister, so I cherished them. In fact I still do, as I’ve got all the records that I had when I was 8yrs old in the corner of my collection. It’s an emotional thing, those records maybe a bit crap, but I remember sitting on my bed trying to learn the lyrics and writing into record labels to win photographs of bands. Now, I chase the rush of hearing something amazing for the first time, the desire to listen to a track so many times that I think perhaps I’ve lost it, or floating off into an epic daydream from hearing a beautiful album.
Where do you store your records and how do you file them?
Some are on shelves, some are in a lock up and all the 7 inches are in clear plastic boxes. I file them by genre and there’s also a feelings section, which is a selection of records that I believe hold the ultimate feeling I’d want to create on a dance floor. That section is a little nuts and makes no real sense but I keep adding to it.
What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?
Alans Record Shop in Finchley is great, we know each other quite well so I always get a cuppa and some quality conversation. He’s not your archetype ‘record store guy’, just a really decent bloke which makes it a joy to give him my cash. Reckless always have something and I like hanging out with my buddies at Sounds of The Universe – they know what I like, so I can be in and out of there in five minutes with a quality record.
Out of The Past in Chicago was incredible, I went there with my friend Neal on a little record pilgrimage, it was one of the best shops I’ve ever been to. I think we spent about 6.5 hours there!
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’ve worked in record shops since I was 16, first in a small shop in Croydon called Buy or Die, and then later I managed Sounds of The Universe for over a decade. Those shops were like a revolving door of colourful characters.
There’s a lovely guy called Robin that use to bring in homemade over proof rum (off the scale) with the shot glasses and everything. He’d then pull out a piece of cake for you, that was quite often a really odd combination of colours and looked a bit like a science experiment. It was sweet and felt a bit dangerous.
I’ve met so many characters with an encyclopaedic knowledge on music, that would really humble anyone that calls themselves a ‘digger’, but also folks with crazy obsessions about particular artists and labels. I’ve encountered people that karate kick when listening to hip hop and people that command your attention for hours to pick out music for a ‘heavy jazz head’ that was actually a five year old. I could write a book about it. 99% of them are beautiful people, that I feel very lucky to have met. Though Prince was probably the most colourful person who walked in.
Is there a record (or records), that has continued to be elusive over the years?
I’ve never been one for the big money records but even though it’s been reissued, I still would like a copy of Gloria Ann Taylor – ‘Love Is A Hurting Thing’ on 12″. It felt like the best kept secret for me for a while, she really brings you into her personal space with the emotion in her voice.
Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends to nerd out with and search or strange sounds together? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?
I like to go record shopping with one of my friends called Jim, it’s like walking around with a music guide and a jukebox. You get little renditions of the songs – they all sound the same the way he sings them but it keeps me entertained.
Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting experience. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after?
I’m driven by covers but most of the time, if I’m in a shop that’s ultra-alien to me, I make a beeline for the friendliest looking member of staff and spark up a conversation for some recommendations. I did that in Paradise Bangkok in Thailand and got some great stuff. If the vibe doesn’t feel right, I usually start in the soul section and pick out the interesting covers or look through the credits until I see something familiar.
How big a role does album artwork play in your digging?
Massive. If it’s something unknown to me, I hone in on a photo or typeface and try to fit it into other records or genres in my mind.
Could you tell us a bit about the mix you’ve done for us?
It was a bit of a challenge to create a mix with a centralised theme, that’s not really me. I listen to music for a living in a different way, connecting the sounds rather than the genres. So, I had to think about what was in my heart and what style of music I generally return to, so I chose jazz. It’s a mix, I like to call ‘contemplative jazz’, tracks that make me think and reflect – something I’ve been doing loads of during the lockdown!
Any standouts in the mix you’d like to mention?
Probably Ronnie Foster – Fly Away. It makes me feel really alive for some reason.
Casting the net wider now, who are some of the record collectors you most admire and why?
I’m not really interested in the ‘collecting’ part of record buying, it can be really dry and a sometimes elitist. So, I’d probably say a guy called Mark Houghton, who will champion a record that’s a pound as much as a record that is a hundred pounds. He has really unique taste in soul music and the times I’ve seen him play, I’ve rarely known a single track. There’s always something that destroys me (in a good way).
Cherrystones is another person. I’ve got huge amounts of respect for him. He gets so excited about music, that his face really screws up with passion when he tells you about a track – even if it’s something you’ve never considered checking, by the end of his chat you want to own it. I’ve always felt like he has the time to listen to just about anything.
Are there any young collectors emerging who we should keep a close eye on?
Poly-Ritmo, I know Stamp The Wax is aware of her but she’s dangerous and must be monitored.
Anything on the horizon you’re excited about?
Plug! Plug! Plug! Without a doubt I’m extremely excited about the new album I’m releasing on my label MIC by a killer new band called Tvii Son.