On Secondhand Sureshots

by Thomas Brett

The idea behind the documentary DVD Secondhand Sureshots (Dublab Collective 2010) was to invite four DJ/Producers to each build a new track based solely on their vinyl finds in California thrift shops. (Out Of The Closet Thrift Stores for you collectors out there.)  The DJs Daedalus, Nobody, Ras G, and J. Rocc (see pic below) would each have five dollars to buy any five records they could find (and which could not be previewed at the store). The rules for assembling tracks were equally strict.  A track can only be built out of sounds sampled from the  found vinyl, and only cuts and effects (reverb, etc.) can be added to the track.  No drum machine beats, other instrumental sounds, or extra samples can be used in the compositional process.  The goal, as the opening credits frames the game, is for each musician “to make musical magic out of dusty thrift store records.”

And so the four DJs set about combing through the detritus of 20th century material culture, excavators of our sonic past.  As the camera pans over the thrift store aisles full of used odds and ends it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe for how much sheer stuff North Americans plow through each year, most of it eventually consigned to either the trash or stores like these.  But there is rebirth here too: the thrift store as a space where (durable) objects sit quietly waiting for the next phase of their lives.

The DJs rifle through stacks of LPs, beginning their search by assessing the coolness of the record covers.  They’re not necessarily looking for funky looking records, but rather anything that seems like it may have the potential to offer a few seconds of loopable bliss.  As J. Rocc notes, “it’s all about looking…you can see the audio.”  The DJs are feeling out whether they may be able to “discern a moment that stands free from the song”–intros, outros, a novel chord or sound combination that will suggest the makings of a future (funky) track.

How do they know when they’ve found something good?  Intuition, gut feeling, or they’re just plain taking a chance on a cool cover.  There are a few odd rules though: stay away from Concord Jazz and Barbra Streisand records, for instance. (their sounds are too recognizable?), and easy listening records usually have cool sample moments.  (Lesson: Very uncool music can eventually become cool again.)

Ras G refers to records as feminine presences, speaking of “taking her home.”  When asked how he cleans his records, Ras says that no, no, dust is good: the audible crackling it creates functions as “seasoning.”  Then he finds an LP of traditional Japanese koto music and says: “this guy is about to get molested…musically.”  Ras also has vision of blending it with a Deep Purple find so he’s justifiably stoked by the prospect of this sound combination (probably never before achieved given that Japanese koto and Deep Purple don’t generally travel in the same social circles).

With their five vinyl finds in hand, the DJs return to their home studios to start listening, chopping and sampling sounds.  Listening involves having the patience to scan through entire albums, waiting for anything interesting to jump out.  But interesting isn’t all in the sounds themselves.  The DJs also bring their experienced ears and sensibilities to bear on their records.  Says Ras:

“It’s all how you hear it…You want to hear it in the machine…It’s you breathing life into the machine.  I’ll throw it onto the machine, [but] there’s nothing in it.”

Chopping, as J. Rocc puts it, involves “editing the sample to the parts I would want to use.”  Rocc and Ras use an Akai MPC to do their sampling and chopping, Daedalus uses Pro Tools, and Nobody does his work on a keyboard.  But regardless of their working methods, each DJ aims to make something new and personal out of something old and discarded because it was thought to have lost its value.  As Daedalus notes: “The game isn’t to make it unrecognizable; the game is to make it your own.”

After the tracks are finished they’re mastered and pressed to vinyl and the DJs meet to listen to one another’s work and share their vinyl finds.  (J. Rocc eventually picked up an old Barbra Streisand LP after all.)  Meanwhile, a new piece of composite record cover art has been rendered from shards of the twenty LPs used to make the new tracks.  Assembled onto one disc in this new composite record sleeve, the work of the DJs now forms yet one more piece of vinyl destined for…you guessed it, the thrift shop.  And so, in the final scene of this efficient, under 45-minute movie, we watch Daedalus, Nobody, Ras G and  J. Rocc return to the thrift stores and secretly drop off copies of their new creations into the dusty bins.  (Some people call this practice “shopdropping.”)  “Remixed and recycled” roll the final credits, “the music lives on…Now, make some music of your own.”

Secondhand Sureshots makes a few things clear. First, without question there is enough recorded music in our world to form the basis for new tracks for many years to come!  Why throw out old music when it can form the DNA for new hybrid mutations such as koto-Deep Purple lifeforms? (Actually, why compose new music at all?)  Second, whatever your view of sampling–Is it theft or a creative practice of building new musical texts out of old ones?–it’s hard not to see the skilled musicians in this film as anything other than kinds of sonic anthropologists/archeologists doing work that reveals new meaning in discarded relics from another time.  Extending the legacy of hip hop sampling, not only does this crate digging and record collecting feel like important archival work, but it looks like endless fun too.