‘The trick to crate digging is to simply go at it: Dive into the sections, flip through the jackets and trust your gut.’
I was stuck trying to write in my Brooklyn apartment, overthinking a sentence as usual.
In these moments I turn to my records.
For inspiration, I tend to need music from some faraway place and time. Perhaps an underground spiritual jazz reissue from 1974 or an Afro-disco record from ’80. Something with noticeable ringwear and audible crackles. Maybe even a pop or two. I’ve learned that this is the music that people come back to decades later. These are the songs you hear in a bar or a film and try to Shazam before the final note fades.
On this day I also needed some air, so that meant walking 15 minutes to Head Sounds Records in Fort Greene to plow through the stacks. I went right for the jazz section, and that’s when I saw it: Pharoah Sanders, “Live at the East,” released on Impulse! Records in 1972 — nine years before I was born. I had to snatch it before some other crate digger scooped it up.
Pharoah did the trick. The hypnotic swing of the opening track, “Healing Song,” was the meditative balm I needed to quell my writer’s block.
But it’s not just the music that heals; the practice of discovering it to begin with, especially when it’s on vinyl, works wonders, too. Whenever life gets heavy, I go to the record store.
The fact that shops like Head Sounds and Academy Records Annex in Greenpoint have survived the pandemic and, in some cases, are even thriving, speaks to the heart of New York City, a place that accepted me with no strings attached.
I’m from Landover, Md., a small town outside Washington, which also counts the comedian Martin Lawrence, the boxing legend “Sugar” Ray Leonard and the basketball great Len Bias as natives. I grew up in a musical family with a mother who played all kinds of pop, funk and soul around the house; a grandmother who loved traditional gospel; and aunts, siblings and cousins who embraced everything: a homegrown strain of funk called go-go, rap groups that were new at the time like De La Soul and N.W.A., R&B luminaries like Al Green and Marvin Gaye, and pop superstars like Madonna and David Bowie.
My cousin Eric, a D.J., had an ear for buzzing underground musicians. In the late 1980s, fresh off a trip to California, he told us about a guy named MC Hammer who was making noise in the Bay Area. Around 1994, he popped in a cassette of this rapper from Chicago named Common Sense. By the time he had shortened his name to Common, his star was rising in underground hip-hop.
Indirectly, Eric and the rest of my family were teaching me the concept of crate digging. While it was fine to like what I heard on the radio, there was less-heralded talent that deserved the same attention. I walked that perspective through high school and into my career as a music journalist, author, editor and curator.
Long before I moved here in 2016, I’d hop buses to New York City to dig for records. It seemed there weren’t that many shops to choose from. It was the mid-2000s, music streaming was starting its domination of the industry, and many mom-and-pops were being forced to close.
“Record stores as we know them are dying,” Josh Madell, co-owner of Other Music in Downtown Manhattan, told The New York Times in 2008. “On the other hand, there is still a space in the culture for what a record store does, being a hub of the music community and a place to find out about new music.”
Mr. Madell, whose store eventually closed in 2016, was onto something. Just as record stores were failing, vinyl also started to make a curious comeback. The Recording Industry Association of America found that the shipment of LPs jumped more than 36 percent between 2006 and 2007. There was no clear-cut answer for the resurgence. Fellow heads will tell you there’s nothing like analog sound. While digital music sounds cleaner, vinyl sounds warmer and fills the room. There’s also nothing like poring over the album jacket and diving into the liner notes. It’s a time capsule.
When New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, local record store owners found themselves in familiar territory: Even though vinyl sales had surpassed CD sales last year for the first time since the ’80s, would the record shops, along with many of the city’s other indie storefronts, survive? Turntable Lab, a niche record shop in Manhattan’s East Village, closed its doors that year to focus on online sales. Other stores like Academy and Limited to One, also in the East Village, managed to keep their leases, but pivoted to online sales to make ends meet.
Nowadays, crate digging is done as much online as it is off. A stroll through the virtual music emporium Bandcamp can unearth everything from South African boogie to forgotten ambient. But clicking around doesn’t replace the act of visiting your favorite record store and discovering a rare find that either you’d been looking for, or didn’t know you needed until you saw the cover. Every place is different: Where Head Sounds is in the back of a barber shop, Academy is a vast spot with a bit more dust on the album jackets.
A new shop, Legacy Records, just opened on Water Street in Dumbo. I visited a few weeks back and landed an original copy of the Fugees’ 1996 album “The Score.”
Store employees tend to let you do your thing. A turntable is there for you to sample the work, and of course they’re around to answer whatever questions arise. But the trick to crate digging is to simply go at it: Dive into the sections, flip through the jackets and trust your gut. More often than not, you can judge the music by its cover (if a band from the ’70s had the word “Ensemble” in its name, the album is probably great).
In a time where we’re all trying to navigate space and distance (or just being in public again), the idea is to foster community around music, even if the spirit of competition is still there. I wanted to get the Pharoah album before anyone else got it. That I could be the one talking about it was an incentive.
For me, crate digging is preservation. It takes me back to my childhood in Landover, to playing my cousin’s EPMD albums when he wasn’t looking, and dropping the needle on De La’s “3 Feet High and Rising” at my aunt’s house when heads were still trying to fathom the group’s psychedelic blend of hip-hop (they’re also the subject of my next book). Buying records to share with the world is what I’m supposed to do. I’m just paying it forward like my family taught me.
Marcus J. Moore is the author of “The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America.”