Some record collectors truly dedicate their life to a specific sound — honing in on every nook and cranny, investigating every style, shade and variant. For Scarlett O’Malley, that’s 60s and 70s soul.
The London-based DJ, collector and radio host is behind The Soul Exchange, a party, mix series, radio show (and soon-to-be imprint) that is indebted to the soulful sounds that have shaped her. A regular on the airwaves, you can find her spreading the gospel about her musical passion on both Totally Wired and Foundation FM, while she also hosts the Youth Club podcast for the Youth Club Archive, which invites guests to talk about famous photography depicting UK youth culture.
An aural personification of her identity, she dubs her Diggers Directory mix as “two hours of my life and soul (excuse the pun)”, moving through crossover, rare soul, northern soul and deep soul. This sits alongside an interview about a life spent immersed in music and her relationship with records.
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?
I suppose it wasn’t so much through my parents’ record collection as it was being raised in a musical household that informed my music journey. I grew up playing the piano, drums and trombone so I was pretty into trying to make music as well as listening to it. My dad is a guitarist by trade and so I was kind of raised on the rockabilly scene in London. He was in a band called The Nitros in the 80s which was a real neo-rockabilly sound, so I grew up listening to pretty much exclusively doo-wop, rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly, which I didn’t realise until much later in life is not normal.
So records played in the house would be everything from The Five Keys, to Elvis to The Keytones. The Keytones album ‘Speak After the Tones’ is a record I still listen to almost daily now and was stolen from my mums collection. Great, great, great album of catchy doo-wop style harmonies and 50s jivey melodies, this is definitely a pivotal record from their collection that’s informed the music I love. Another album I was obsessed with was Louis Prima’s ‘Zooma Zooma: The Best of Louis Prima’ record. I listened to that back to front nearly everyday in my teens as I got really into 40s music, jazz and swing etc. Especially artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, it kind of comes with the 50s music territory. It’s almost like once you’re into old music, say everything from the 40s to the 70s, you can interchangeably be into all of it from r’n’b, to soul to disco. My mum was a mod growing up and then converted to the rockabilly way of life in her later teens, so in terms of her musical influence it always has been on more of the soul/ northern soul side. It was how I got record collecting in the first place with mum and I picking up soul 45s at places like car boots and charity shops from when I was about 14.
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?
I started buying records because when I’d go to car boots or charity shops and I’d find these tunes that I’ve been listening to growing up, I bought them just to have the physical possession. It wasn’t until I went to university in Southampton and actually started playing out that it became more of an obsession.
At the beginning I was only ever doing party gigs so I was looking for stuff that people knew rather than looking for obscure selections. I started picking up more and more records as I started to get booked for more gigs. I actually didn’t know how to use CDJs until a couple of years ago, as before then I’d been an exclusively 45s vinyl DJ because it was the gigs I’d been booked for.
Once I moved back to London and started to widen the net in terms of what I was playing; more house, Latin, a bit of garage here and there and a ton more disco, new and old, I just found myself buying records constantly. Being into rare soul, it’s a minefield and just when you think you can’t possibly discover a new track, you listen to a mix and a whole treasure chest opens. That is exactly what keeps me going, the illusive nature of knowing there are so many rare tunes out there just waiting to be discovered.
Where do you store your records and how do you file them?
My records are all in my room, but the filing system has gone straight out the window recently. As gigs have started to come back and I’ve wanted to switch up my selections they’ve all been getting pulled out at random so I need to get back into the swing of being seriously organised. I started off filing by genre, so I’d have all my 50s sounds together, all my soul records split by sub-genre like Northern together, party soul (the stuff everyone knows), sweet and deep soul and crossover. Then I’d arrange all my disco and Latin together and I have a section for all my 45s with picture sleeves. My LPs are split again by genre between house, garage and newer disco and then oldies LPs, actual albums rather than 12” singles usually from the 50s to the 70s. Then I have a new 45s section, all the stuff I’ve most recently bought that I haven’t played out or used in a mix, and that is all the gold. My taste has really started to grow — I used to buy 45s to play out (party tracks) but that’s kind of obsolete at the moment given the climate. Now I’m digging deep for rarer sounds.
What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?
All of the classics like Sounds of the Universe, Reckless, Flashback and Notting Hill Tape Exchange are decent. Eldica is great if you’re into oldies. Sounds That Swing in Camden is great if you want to pick up 50s bits, or if you’re into the doo-wop and rockabilly sound. Massive International in Camden is also great for reggae and ska bits but also houses some hidden gems. My friend Ryan Brown (RB Records) always has some decent soul and R&B — I got a few tunes for this mix from him. Also Keb (Darge) has started selling records at Paper Dress in Hackney every weekend and he knows what I like so always manages to bring through some absolute gold for me! I have him to thank for some of the absolute heaters in this mix. Apart from that, memorable digs come from across the US notably Shangri-La in Memphis, Euclid in NOLA and Superior Elevation in NY.
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?
When I was at uni I found this little shop called Boo Hoo records down by the stadium one day, and the guy that ran it was an older chap called Barry. From that day forward he almost became my surrogate grandad. I’d bring him lists of 50s tunes and soul tunes I wanted and he’d find them, or he’d have boxes of 45s come in and they’d be a mess and he’d let me get into them first, sort them out a bit for him and get first dibs.
When I visited NOLA I met a guy called ‘The Fez’, because he quite literally exclusively wore a Fez and some other strange attire at One Eyed Jacks. He came to meet me for a dig one day whilst I was there — he was as odd as his outfit but liked good tunes so that’s a plus.
Is there a record (or records), that has continued to be elusive over the years?
Being into Northern and rare soul, this is literally the bane of my life. Trying to find out the name of a tune at an all-nighter you’ll see me walking around with my notes open asking people what tune that was, and then throughout the night as I get more pissed the list makes less and less sense. So with the next morning comes the deciphering, then once I locate these tunes some of them are so rare you can’t find them, or so rare that they’re a couple of grand for a 45. I won’t give away too much because some of these tunes I’m hoping to get the rights to myself… watch this space.
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’m definitely more of a solitary digger. I like to be able to spend my time selecting without worrying I’m holding someone up or getting in people’s way. On my solo trip through the States and Cuba last year and I did a bit of a record shop tour down the east coast and into the South, then checked out records where I could in Havana. I’d quite literally spend whole days in shops surrounded by boxes, sitting on the floor, only breaking for like half an hour to eat and water myself between getting fully immersed. I’m quite a solitary person in general, maybe that’s why I picked up this record collecting habit.
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 like to dig by label then genre, so I’ll always be looking for a Brunswick box or a records subgenres of soul to start sifting through. 45s are usually always in a separate room so all the weirdos can be hanging out at the back out of plain sight. I tend to ask whoever is working about under the counter stuff too, for rare and northern soul bits, when I have some money in my pocket. Just gotta cut straight to it sometimes.
How big a role does album artwork play in your digging?
Well as 95% of my collection is made up of 45s from the 40s to the 70s; album artwork is a little obsolete in my world. I have started buying up a lot of house, newer disco and garage over the past year as I’ve began to play it out more and more, but even then the album artwork has little to do with it. Apart from during summer when I went to a junk shop in Margate and whilst going through piles of dusty house and UKG white labels, in the mix were a lot of off key 80s album covers, in which case I took it to the insta polls and ended up buying them all.
Could you tell us a bit about the mix you’ve done for us?
The mix that I’ve done is two hours of my life and soul (excuse the pun) in one continuous set of crossover, rare soul, northern soul and deep soul. These 2 hours of records are the aural personification of my identity. I have quite a defined taste and sound that I have started to really hone in on over the past year or so, to the point that when my mates hear a tune, I always get ‘This is a bit of you Smal’ (an unforgiving nickname that has stuck). To put it simply, big soul tunas from the 60s and 70s.
Any standouts in the mix you’d like to mention?
I had to open with Leroy Hutson ‘I Think I’m Falling In Love’, because that is my song of 2020. At one point during lockdown I listened to this song at least 30 times a day. I’d have it on repeat constantly in the shower and sing it word for word.
Both of The Miracles tunes I hold very dear to my heart. ‘Whatever Makes You Happy’ from their fourth album is probably the most perfect song ever written. I heard it from a Carib Soul mix I was listening too and as soon as it came on I melted. ‘Can’t Get Ready For Losing You’ is also such an iconic crossover tune. I have no idea how this song entered my life but next thing you know I’m listening to it everyday and having never really listened to The Miracles, they’re now a solid in the record collection. I love hearing the difference in the 60s and 70s sounds too.
Nobody’s Child ‘Shardarp’ was gifted to me by my mate Joel and is probably my current favourite tune, and there’s something about the Fantastic Four ‘As Long As I Live (I Live For You)’ which loops in my head after a listen. The United Sounds and Harold Melvin tunes have also been big favourites of mine for a long time and a permanent in my 45s box for DJing… so basically every song haha.
Casting the net wider now, who are some of the record collectors you most admire and why?
Eliza Rose is the queen! I’ve know her for a good few years now and it’s been great to watch her journey. We have a love for the same tunes, 60s oldies and soul 7s, as well as loving newer bits and pieces and she’s a wizard behind the decks. I have literally nothing but admiration for her. Oh and she likes to party, which is always a plus in my books.
Soul 45 made up of Mark and Neil from Southampton were the ones who taught me how to DJ and I know both have a big hefty collection of soul. They gave me my first 7s boxes, which are still the only ones I own and use today. They also run a shop in Southampton called Overdraft Records if you’re ever in the area.
Keb Darge and Andy Smith are two DJs and collectors I have looked up to for years, since the times I used to sneak into Madame JoJos as a 16 year old to go to their Lost and Found night. It was my favourite place ever. They played a mix of 50s rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop and northern soul — both have always had a great selection of tunes I’m constantly trying to find myself.
Anne Frankenstein is a cool woman and knows her stuff. Great collector of blues and funk, and also has a great voice to chat about her tunes on Jazz FM, so an overall talent.
Butch from the 100 Club, the only man still ‘discovering’ tunes and always bringing something fresh to the dancefloor.
Are there any young collectors emerging who we should keep a close eye on?
Jack Gadsden. 100% of the time. He’s one of my best pals and has also only just turned 21 yet knows more than I could ever hope to imagine. His knowledge about soul music is elite, and he keeps his collection strong and steady in terms of quality. I am always in awe of how much he knows and the tunes he introduces me too. He’s literally a human Shazam which comes in handy down in the 100 Club when you’ve got no signal.
Jordan Wilson is another guy on the Northern scene collecting everything from vinyl to acetates to tapes. I recently had him on my Totally Wired show for the Diggers Club feature and his whole life is pretty much records. He’s all about getting the exclusives. Also, his set our The Soul Exchangemix series got like 450 listens in 24 hours, which is big for us — people know he’s knows his tunes.
Anything on the horizon you’re excited about?
Well I have just had an interview about subculture with Dr Martens come out last week which was major for me. I also just played a Disco Disco gig with Skream which was a dream come true as he’s been one of my favourite DJs since I was a wee bab. Apart from that I am in the process of starting my own label which has been a dream of mine for a while. Oh and hustling to get a show on 6Music, which obviously I can’t say I’m excited about because it hasn’t happened… yet.
Leroy Hutson- I Think I’m Falling In Love
United Sounds- It’s All Over Baby
Visé- Baby I Love You
Flowers- For Real
Mixed Feelings- Sha-La-La
Jax Transit Authority- Life Is A Miracle
Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes- Baby, You Got My Nose Open
Chuck Stephens- I’m So Tired Of Paying For Your Love
Ray Crumley- Loves Traffic
Family of Eve- Please Be Truthful
Coke Escovedo- I Wouldn’t Change A Thing
Timeless Legend- I Was Born To Love You
Tommy Guichard- You’ve Got My Love
The Cavaliers- Without Someone To Tell Me
The Miracles- can’t get ready for losing for losing you
The Fantastic Puzzles- Come Back
Lee McDonald- I’ll Do Anything For You
Sammy Gaha- Thank You
Nobody’s Child- Shardarp
Big John Hamilton- Just Seeing You Again
Darrow Fletcher- Love is my (Secret Weapon)
Creations- I’ve Got To Find Her
Unknown- If It’s Alright
The Artistics- It’s Those Little Things That Count
Nate Evans- Main Squeeze
Larry Banks & Jaibi- My Life Is Not Better
Lou Pride- Your Love Is Fading
Emanuel Taylor- You Really Got A Hold On Me
Jackie Wilson- Because of You
Billy Butler- Thank you Baby
Seven Souls- I Still Love You
Fantastic Four- As Long As I Live (I Live For You)
Love and Brotherhood- Sugar Pie Honey
The Miracles- Whatever Makes You Happy
The Lovelites- My Conscience
Bobby Reed- The Time Is Right For Love
The Artistics- I’m Gonna Miss You
Baby Washington- I Can’t Afford To Lose Him
Billy Stewart- Sitting In The Park
The Delfonics- Baby I Love You
The Five Stairsteps- Come Back
Carla Thomas- I’ll Never Stop Loving You