Off the Clock—Tim Luym on Vinyl

What the industry loves, outside of the industry.

July 20, 2015 ● 5 min read

My brother was a hip hop fan, which growing up in the 80s, was kind of taboo for Asian families.

I was in grade school, probably 7th or 8th grade. He had told me about this radio show on Stanford’s radio, 90.1. DJ Kevy Kev had the longest running hip hop show on the West Coast, The Drum, and I became a huge fan.

Kevy Kev is legendary in the Bay Area, and I wanted to get involved somehow with this underground hip hop stuff. I called in, this little groupie kid, who probably didn’t even understand half the lyrics I was hearing, and he told me I could come down to the radio station and intern. He’d find side-work for me, filing records away, every Sunday. It was a small studio, like a bomb shelter. There were different studios, and then a library of records and CDs and stuff. It was alphabetical, and then by genre, so you had hip hop, rock, soul, R&B. As a kid, it was like a toy land.

That was really the beginning of me collecting vinyl. My first record was Nas; I'd save all my lunch money, so I’d just buy the $1 slice of pizza or the $1 microwave burrito, and save the change so I’d have enough for one or two records a week. I started becoming a record junkie. Instead of buying clothes or sneakers, I was buying records.

At the time, The Fugees, the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, all these people were completely underground, and no one knew who they were. They’d all come by his show, so I was able to meet all kinds of crazy artists. I remember Method Man stole my Sharpie. I was asking for an autograph, and he was just like, “This is mine, kid!” and took it.

Eventually, a year later, I got my own radio show. I was the newest person on the roster, so I got the crappiest time slot; they knew I had school on the weekdays, so they gave me the Saturday graveyard, which was Sunday morning from 3-6am. I’d sneak out of the house, do the radio show, and come back before my parents woke up. Just a little kid on the radio who had no idea what he was doing. I was a really bad emcee, as an Asian kid who grew up in a tame household. I was probably pretty cheesy, but I did have a few regulars who would call and request. 

My senior year in high school, I met some mobile DJs. You’d have your own speakers, turntables, you’d bring all your records and do house parties. I didn’t know the difference between commercial music and underground music, so they’d be playing Tupac and Notorious B.I.G and be rocking the party, and then they’d let me get on, this little college radio kid, and I’d clear the dance floor when I played Tribe Called Quest. No one wants to hear about what they’re talking about, they just want to party and talk about girls and getting wasted.  

An "old ass" photo of Luym sifting through part of the stash he acquired from Big Al's Record Barn in Santa Clara. 

When you listen to vinyl, the depth of sound is just...more. CDs are almost two-dimensional in how clean and crisp they are. When you listen to vinyl, especially with decent speakers and a turntable with a good needle, you hear things you can’t anywhere else. Even cassettes, even with that cassette hiss, have more depth than CDs. Vinyl was the cleanest sound. Also, you could scratch on it.

Scratching was a big part of the culture of music that I grew up in. When you’re listening to old, old-school stuff like Run DMC or Beastie Boys, it’s that very basic, chewy, chewy, chewy, right? I think I probably screwed up a few of my brother’s records trying to imitate it. We had this janky turntable, and as a kid, you just want to emulate sounds.

In scratching, things were endless. People would find the most random stuff to scratch, and would use like Alice in Wonderland, or folk. I started collecting a lot of jazz and soul, older stuff, everything that was being sampled. I wanted to find the originals. I’d spend weekends in the city at Amoeba or Rasputin. Vinyl was just so available back then. 

The best part of it was if you dug hard enough, you’d find something. Once people started going to Amoeba, I started going to Streetlight Records in the Castro, because a lot of hip hop dudes wouldn’t be looking there. I dug down in the South Bay; on El Camino, where there are old-time collectors from the boonies, right? They wouldn’t know we were looking for these rare samples, and they would just price everything at $10. We’d just raid these stores. They’d start catching on, and wonder what all these young kids are doing all of a sudden, buying all this soul and jazz. So they caught on and starting marking everything up, and the game got bigger.

I never threw anything away, never sold anything. That’s all I had: turntables, records, and a bed. If there’s an earthquake, instant death.

Discoveries always get outdone, but this one time, a buddy of mine found out that a record store in Santa Clara was going out of business. If you paid them $100, he’d let you take as many records as you wanted in three hours. I had a Jeep and he had a Bronco, so we spent two days planning the whole thing. It was like, okay, you hit up this section and I’ve got this one...We go in, we’re trying to be respectful. We have a list of artists that we want to find. Then we both look over and there’s this other guy just shoving full shelves into his bag! We’re both like, Screw this! and started clearing whole sections out. It was like a supermarket sweep where you’re just grabbing shit left and right. Our cars were filled to the brim with records. I got probably a third of my collection from clearing out that space.

I just remembered the record that I was the proudest finding while digging—it probably has no value whatsoever and no one probably even knows who they are (two rappers from Sweden) but I found it in the clearance 'junk' section at Amoeba's back in the day for $.50 cents. The Hansoul Project, That's Life 12".

I got through the early days of cooking by DJing on the side, because cooks don’t make shit. It got harder and harder, because I had to work nights and weekends, so eventually I had to give it up. I do miss it, but no one wants to see a 50-year old DJ. At the end of the day, DJing is a dead-end. It’s finite.

I still prefer vinyl; I’ve never downloaded a song in my life, to this day. I’ve never bought an iTunes song, or gone on Napster. I guess I’m extreme. When everything was going digital, the Serrado came out. You upload the music from your laptop, but you can still scratch on it. 
To everyone who used to play vinyl, it was too easy. The next generation doesn’t even have to collect, because all the records we spent so much time collecting are available. All the rare B-sides, all of it. Plus, we used to have to crawl into nightclub spaces, handing heavy crates up ladders with all this stuff. Now you didn't have to drag all your stuff through the crowd anymore, you just brought a backpack.

A huge part of the DJ community was hating on it, but you have to adapt or you die. I never adapted, because that’s when I moved into cooking. I phased myself out.

I think people understand there’s a value to it again, to doing things slow, analog. When it started to go out of fashion, my friends would be like, dude, just sell your vinyl. I had held on to it for so many years, I couldn’t do it. Now that it’s making a comeback, it’s been interesting that I still have all these things. A lot of my friends sized their collections down into what they really wanted, but now there’s all this rare stuff out there because they sold out.

It’s all out there, somewhere!

Tim Luym, formerly of San Francisco's Poleng Lounge and The Attic, is currently working on a few smaller-scale projects, including a bodega in Noe Valley, and cruisin' with the good folks at Frozen Kuhsterd.