On Myrtle Avenue at the northeast tip of Clinton Hill, a historic handful of blocks sandwiched between Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy that Walt Whitman and Biggie Smalls have called home over the years, sits a storefront that at first glance might pass as one of these little churches. (Its current proprietors still get mail for one that once occupied the space.) Somewhere between the distinctive house thump emanating from its black façade or the perpetual cloud of incense wafting through its green door, though, and you quickly realize it's something else entirely.
But to call Dope Jams a mere record store doesn't quite do the place justice, although in its capacity as such, it's easily one of New York's best places to dig for classic house, techno, disco and beyond. "Storefront church" might capture the scale and the locale, but I wonder if the Hasidic Jewish communities of South Williamsburg provide a better metaphor for the kind of insular religious fervor and unyielding dedication to a particular reading of faith and tradition you'll find inside.
Then again, you probably can't walk out of a yeshiva on Kent Avenue with a magic wand and the Masters At Work back catalog.
"We just wanted to make the shop as dope as possible," co-founder and day-to-day point man Francis Englehardt told me one afternoon on the main floor of the shop, a dark purple room whose handmade shelves display deeply curated new vinyl releases, occult knickknacks and a bundle of keffiyehs. Gigantic custom speakers buttress the corners and an altar-like DJ booth hide out against the back wall. "Paul [Nickerson, his partner in the shop] is really into design—and not from an architectural standpoint, just like—he wants everything to be a cathedral from like the 1600s or something like that. And both of us have always been into—first of all, real wood, which is a key factor, right? Obviously. It has a feeling to it, you know what I'm saying? Like a warmth, that's not there with anything else."
Randy, a clerk, chimes in from the register. "Rocks."
"Rocks, exactly," Englehardt says. "You don't think of comfort when you think of rocks, do you?" Everyone cracks up, and the reference isn't lost on me, either: another record store popular with the dance crowd in a more robustly gentrified corner of Brooklyn features similarly distinctive (though vastly more contemporary) interiors, replete with sections of pebbled flooring. It's a lighthearted nudge, sure. But to this fortress's keepers, like practically everything outside these walls, those little pebbles become a symptom of the malady the stronghold was constructed specifically to defend against.
Anyone who's spent a bit of time in Dope Jams has probably encountered similar jabs: these guys are infamously salty. "You have to understand," Englehardt explains, "we are complete assholes. We are complete fucking assholes. We know that we're assholes and we're okay with that. And, like, the people that like us are usually assholes, too, or appreciate the fact that we're complete assholes, you know what I mean?" Chat with Englehardt, and you're likely to come away with the impression that everything—from the shop's bread-and-butter clientele ("DJs have always been the most closed-minded music shoppers that I've ever seen") to Nicolas Jaar's recorded output ("It's boring, watered-down trip-hop from the '90s with an Ableton twist. Fuck you.") to my RA colleagues (a description on their website offered this summation of Vakula's Leleka 2: "Further proof that Philip Sherburne should go before Ethiopian Emperors and be decapitated")—sucks.
Combined with their reputation as unapologetic bootleggers and general shut-ins (don't look around for Englehardt or Nickerson at the Bunker or Mister Saturday Night; they're not there), their shtick can be off-putting—a bit more extra baggage than you'd like to accompany the $15.99 asking price of an import 12-inch in America these days. But Dope Jams isn't merely a clubhouse for dance music pranksters; it's the embodiment of a critique, though one that falls outside the realm of the strictly intellectual. It's the last reserve of dopeness in a world they see as increasingly bereft of it.
I'm telling you that I'm flat broke.
I am flat fucking broke."
Englehardt and Nickerson came of age in Ipswich, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, in the early '90s. ("It was just a bunch of working-class shmucks," Englehardt explains.) Englehardt's mother and stepfather were regulars at The Loft, an after-hours, members-only house club in Boston helmed by Armand Van Helden, and when he was a teenager, they snuck him in. He was immediately hooked and started bringing his friends, including Nickerson. "I went every week for a year straight," Englehardt remembers. "I never missed a Friday night."
The party gave Englehardt and Nickerson an unparalleled education in American house music's golden age, from deep stuff a la Prescription Records and Wayne Gardiner to "the hits" Van Helden played by the likes of Robin S. and Cajmere. Pumping through a hefty Richard Long soundsystem, it left an indelible impression on them; hearing this kind of music this way became the only way to hear it. "To walk into a room and see 400 people dancing was such an intense experience, I think especially being a teenager, you know what I mean?" recalls Englehardt. "I can remember hearing—even Jazzy's 'Lonely,' like hearing that record for the first time, and hearing the sounds that came out, I was so blown away. I couldn't tell what the fuck was going on. "
As the '90s wound down, with Englehardt working as a record buyer at Boston's Satellite Records and Nickerson making pilgrimages to New York for Danny Krivit's nascent Body & Soul party, the duo picked up the torch of The Loft with LIFE, a party that spent much of its three-year run in a club at the top of a Howard Johnson hotel near Fenway Park. "We're doing a party right in the middle of Kenmore Square playing soulful house music, right? People [were] coming out of the Red Sox game and then trying to get into our club," Englehardt remembers. Just as they do in Dope Jams, "We used to have a list of rules outside that club being like 'Look, don't ask for requests, this is not that kind of place,' but people used to come and have a fucking blast, you know? They would just react to the music. And that's the whole thing."
Though New York was always on the periphery of what they were doing, Englehardt says relocating here was never a foregone conclusion: "I fucking hated New York," he told me. "I don't know if it was the chaos or—yeah, maybe I just hadn't embraced chaos yet, in that way." But after LIFE ended, "I wasn't doing shit in Boston. I was working on making music, but beyond that, I wasn't doing shit. I had no real desire to start a party or do anything; I was just fucking bored. And Paul had already come down here. He was like, 'Come down. Just fucking keep doing what we've always been doing.' And that's what I did." Whatever misgivings Englehardt had about New York, it had always represented utopia for a guy who used to spend three hours in transit every weekend to go record-shopping. But by the 2000s, that dream had evaporated, a victim of, as Englehardt puts it, "the same old fucking fights—the landlord, the this, the that, the money. There's no money in this."
"What we've always been doing," then, took on newfound significance for Englehardt and Nickerson: if no one else was going to put up with the bullshit necessary to keep the dream alive the way they thought it should be kept alive, then they would. If they didn't save the world as they knew it, at least they would bottle up enough to sustain the reaction. As Englehardt puts it, they had no other choice. "What do you do in your life? Whatever the fuck—like whatever gets your dick hard, you go for it all the fucking way. And if you don't it's just too fucking bad: you've wasted your life... We knew [the physical record store model] was over. It didn't fucking matter to us…. It was really simple. We're gonna fill the store up with the dopest music we can find. And we're gonna put it in other people's hands. And we'll do whatever we have to do to keep it going for as long as we can."
If that impulse hasn't gotten them tangibly in trouble, it's certainly ruffled some feathers. The wall behind the DJ booth at Dope Jams frequently features an outlandish display of 12-inches by rock and pop artists you have definitely heard of, though you're not likely to recognize the editions. Their origins aren't dubious, which would imply some lack of clarity about their parentage; these are straight-up bootlegs, notwithstanding the superior quality of their pressings. I asked Englehardt how he and Nickerson justify the practice when their store is basically a testament to a shrinking industry, and I can tell I've touched a nerve. "If you're asking me if I'm making money, I'm telling you that I'm flat broke. I am flat fucking broke."
He puts the process in distinctly Brooklyn terms. "When graffiti started, graffiti artists were spray painting on buildings, and they were putting their mark on someone else's building, and they were 'defacing' it, right? It's just what the fuck we do... We find these dope songs, and it's like, 'I want to have a 12-inch of this. I want it to sound dope, I want it to look dope, and I want other people to have it. They should have it. It's not like we just keep it for ourselves, or we do it to try to run the prices up on Discogs or any of that shit. No. That's just the record geeks freaking out."
"But do I feel guilty?" Englehardt asks himself, growing reflective for a moment. "There might be some things in my life that I feel guilty about, but that's not fucking one of them, you know what I mean?"
Forthright as they've been about the pedigree of these 12-inches (which often feature edits or remixes by Slow To Speak, the shop's in-house production team), they've been equally adamant that CORE, their canonical series of '90s singles and EP reissues responsible for putting classics like "Forever Monna," "Morning Factory" and Bobby Konders' House Rhythms EP back in circulation, is completely legit. (The controversy, appropriately, played out on Discogs.) "The Prescription records are interesting specifically because we paid to license all those records," Englehardt says, "and then we had people calling us up and telling us that we didn't pay to license those records. And like screaming at us." I ask if he wants to set the record straight. "Yeah. We paid for all those—the original DATs on those. So, how do we get the original DATs without paying somebody? You don't." He promises an expansion of CORE in the near future.
King Street Sounds? And what the
fuck happened to them? They're putting
out fucking euro dance stuff now."
The most recent iteration of their critique takes its most transparent form yet: they decided to take on King Street Sounds, the vaunted New York house label. "In the mid-'90s, it was a very solid label," Nickerson told me in an email, "one of the big three NYC labels alongside Strictly Rhythm and Nervous. At one point you could buy King Street records on sight, without listening to them."
But in Nickerson and Englehardt's view, the label had faltered in their stewardship of the King Street legacy, both with how their back catalog was recirculated and their current signings. "That whole New York dance legacy thing is so weird, because you think about labels like Strictly Rhythm, obviously King Street Sounds? And what the fuck happened to them? They're putting out fucking euro dance stuff now. I don't get it, I don't understand it, I don't connect with it," Englehardt says.
"We were constantly disappointed with the Mix The Vibe series," Nickerson explains, referring to the label's raiding-the-vaults mix series, "and couldn't understand why it was so hard for someone to nail it, considering King Street had such a solid catalog. At some point I think we figured we had talked enough shit about the Mix The Vibe releases in the past, and instead of continuing to be frustrated with them decided to just do it ourselves." The result is Classic House Grooves: Dope Jams, an ebullient journey through the Ananda Project, Kerri Chandler and, of course, Tears Of Velva's "The Way I Feel," the jewel of King Street Sounds in Nickerson's estimation. Though the mix wasn't commissioned, the guys pitched it to the label anyway. "We took it to them and said, 'Here, put this fucking thing out.'" And they did, making it Dope Jams' first officially released commercial mix.
For the pair, constructing a mix is an undertaking: "It starts off with two turntables and a mixer," Englehardt explains, "and then it goes crazy… It's done a million different ways. Yes, sometimes it's one pass, and then we chop the dead pieces out, that's it. Other times, it's like record-by-record, like, fighting your way through the goddamn mix, you know what I'm saying? It's a little bit of everything, honestly. We use everything at our disposal to try to make the best mix that we can every time." This often means creating edits, acapellas, and chops, lending the mix a distinctly Dope Jams-ian feel. "When you think about the way old hip-hop mixtapes were done, you just got smacked over the head record after record, like bang bang bang bang. And we try to do the same thing with house music, because, to me, that's honestly the way it should be played live."
Not surprisingly, it's a level of effort Englehardt wishes more selectors would exert. "The whole journey thing is great, you know?" he says, referring to the Platonic ideal of the techno mix. "And at the end of it, I definitely hope it feels like that, but I think that people use that as an excuse not to do anything. I think that's most mixes now. You download mixes off of fucking Resident Advisor or any other site where they put up mixes and it's like, really? This is what you want to put out there? You know what I mean? Like, have you ever heard a good mixtape or CD? That's not what it is. It should be more than that."
music is so bad right now.
It's so bad right now, I
don't even know what to do."
"I can't walk away! It's like I'm a fucking idiot! I'm a total fucking idiot!" As the afternoon grinds on, more diggers have shown up, pulling big stacks to take into the three-deck listening booth, which appears to be wallpapered with pages from an old calculus textbook. Randy is mixing records in the booth, cueing tunes up with lollipop headphones, Larry Levan-style. "It's unreal. I've wanted to walk away from this place a million fucking times. A million times. And I can't. I can't fucking do it. Why? Like right now, I'm sitting here listening to this Dana Kelley record, and I'm like, it's so fucking good. It just feels right to me. I mean, never mind the fact that the dude is one of the coolest people I've ever fucking met and did so much to help me out, but it's so important what he did. It's so important. And people need to know that. And who the fuck else is gonna say anything? Nobody else is gonna say anything. They don't give a fuck. They care about Nicolas Jaar and fucking—I can't even remember that stupid fucking—that shitty techno group? What is their names?"
There is plenty to complain about in contemporary dance music these days, particularly here in New York: new records take forever to show up in the shops; a drink can cost an hour of wages in the big Manhattan clubs; your favorite underground party is always under threat of getting shut down before the out-of-town guest even steps up to the decks. Even across the ocean in the supposed promise land, producers are under pressure to release and tour more to stay relevant, undoubtedly to the detriment of their art and sanity.
"The fact of the matter is, for me, most good music comes from suffering or from feeling some sort of extreme emotion," Englehardt says. "I was talking to somebody [recently], and he was talking about how right now, this is, like, the 'zero generation': it's about kids getting enough medication to numb themselves so they don't have to feel anything, and the music is a direct result of that—especially electronic music. There is no funk in it, there is no emotion, there is no jerk. It's fucking flatlined." After talking about some current artists who haven't—Theo Parrish, Jeff Mills, Legowelt, even Jack White—I think I've got a handle on this "dope jam" thing and point to a copy of Floating Points' Shadows EP perched prominently on one of the walls. "Not for me, no," he answers, which leads into a takedown of James Blake and some hand-wringing about the direction Burial is headed in.
"The quality of dance music is so bad right now," Englehardt laments. "It's so bad right now, I don't even know what to do. It's so hard for me to find records that I really like."
Any regular visitor of Dope Jams' online store has seen the blurbs just below the "add to cart" button. Of Boo Williams' Moving Rivers, they posted, "A subtle reminder why 1999 won't go down as one of house music's finest years." Of a Repitch Recordings 12-inch, they opined, "New techno. That deep dark shit you play when mom says she is gonna put money in your account and she doesn't. Or one of those days when your boy says he is gonna let you DJ on his internet radio show but then doesn't answer your calls. These are the times we know real rage, that shit is techno. Rebel. Your a dark mutherfucker [sic]." It would be so easy to just copy-and-paste from the one-sheet, to give their new arrivals the Boomkat treatment, but they can't. This is bigger than moving merchandise.
"We have to buy the stuff that comes out and keep it in the shop for customers who come in and try to keep things moving. To a certain degree, you have to do that. But, we do the fucking bare minimum, you know? Because it's torture. It's torture, man."
As a guy whose whole life is contemporary dance music, I can't help but want to argue with Englehardt, to challenge him on the veritable Cormac McCarthy novel he weaves out of the narrative of club music circa 2012. But it's hard to deny the power of something like Classic House Grooves, which they passed me earlier this summer under the condition that I not let it be background music while working at my computer. It really does have a certain emotive heft missing from so many podcast downloads. And you'd be hard pressed to spend a more exhilarating evening dancing to house in New York than at Celebrate LIFE, their monthly party, in which the shop is transformed into a sweatily deranged but ultimately good-vibing pleasure palace. (On my most recent visit, on a Saturday night in the midst of a heatwave, the bartender downstairs refused to take my money when I ordered water bottles for my friends and me. "It's too hot to take your money," he told me, adding, "I bet they don't say that to you in Manhattan.")
But Englehardt and Nickerson must know their model isn't for everyone, that, like the ultra-orthodox Jews living a few blocks up from the shop, they ultimately have to coexist with an outside world operating under very different rules, for better or worse. I ask Englehardt if there's something we could take away from the Dope Jams experience, something small but meaningful that could make the industry and the wider dance music culture just a little bit less shitty in his book.
"Yeah... I don't really believe in little things, as you can tell by this place."