Mark Grusane: A Life Worth Digging

From running the Mr Peabody Records store with Mike Cole out of hometown Chicago, to DJing around the globe, vinyl collector MARK GRUSANE is recognised for his deep digging credentials as well as a wake of releases that are both elusive and readily available. Having previously impressed with two collections for London’s BBE label – ‘The Real Sound of Chicago’ and ‘The Real Sound of Chicago and Beyond’ – Grusane returns this month with his most personal set to date: a terrific collection called ‘The Real Sound of Mark Grusane’. Included on it are a slew of his edits, some dating back to the days when teenage school breaks spent making tracks in abandoned classrooms weren’t such distant memories. Alongside these are a number of private pressings he has collected whilst excavating dusty warehouses. Below he talks to Jumping The Gap’s PARIS POMPOR about the latest release and some of the stories behind the tracks on it, as well as sharing his views on reissues and a whole lot more. Read the full interview below and/or listen to excerpts from it in a special JTG mix-up of tunes from the new compilation and beyond.

PP: You have a reputation for being a serious digger and collector. What’s the most you’ve paid for a piece of vinyl?

MG: The most I’ve paid for a record was $550 [for a 45]. To me that was expensive. You’re talking to a guy who’s used to getting records fairly cheap. If I do spend some money – presuming I do my homework… I know my chances are pretty much slim (or none) that I’ll see it again. I’ve always said if something’s worth it to you, then it’s worth what you spent. It’s subjective to the person buying it.

PP: For many collectors who are also DJs, the value is in whether they can play the record out for a dancefloor. For others, collecting is about how rare the release is or how much they connect with the music themselves, and whether they can play it out or just at home for personal enjoyment, has no bearing.

MG: Yeah… I mean, I don’t think everything that sounds good has to be rare, obviously. My rare records –  I do have a nice amount – but I won’t bring them out as much to play them… I’m not a vinyl purist like that because if I played everything out, I’d ruin the records over time. I do play quite a bit out… but I pick and choose.

PP: I especially love your edit of the Choker Campbell track ‘Carioca’ that you’ve included on this new BBE comp, and I was happy to see there was a 7” of the original on Discogs in mint condition, for under $10.

MG: On the album [‘Street Scene’, Candy Apple 1977] it’s two separated tracks, part one and part two, and I kind of put them together and mixed it up… It was a warehouse find, maybe early 2000s.

PP: Another tune I love that you’ve included, is the discoesque funk track by Shabadoo called ‘Do It’.

MG: Yeah that’s a 45 on the Dore label. I found that one in London, like two years ago. Shabadoo is actually a breakdancer. I didn’t know for sure when I [first] saw the Shabadoo name [on the record]. I thought maybe it was just a made-up name, but it was actually Shabadoo. He was a famous dancer in the old Beat Street movies like ‘Breakin’. This [record] was the only music he put out. It just so happens they used his voice for that track. He obviously didn’t do a lot of music, but you can hear his voice saying “Do it, do it”. Interesting, I know the [Dore] label, it’s known a lot for soul and other stuff, but you rarely hear that type of music on that label. So it made me look into it, that’s when I found out it was actually the Shabadoo.

PP: When you approached putting this album together, what was the track that you thought had to be on there from the get-go, no matter what?

MG: The first track by Africano [‘Open Your Hearts’] and ‘Mucho Macho’ [by Macho]. I wanted those two on there primarily first. Those are edits I did, probably when I was 21 years old. They were released on a record we did maybe around the late ‘90s/early 2000s on the Truth Is Light label. But we only did 100 copies of the release, just for friends. It was pretty much the novelty of having the edit I did with another friend in Canada out on record. I put some in the store back in the day. It never really sold, so I gave it to a friend of mine Sadar Bahar – a fellow DJ friend. He was playing it quite a bit overseas when he was travelling and… people liked it. That pretty much blew it up to the demand it has now. Now on Discogs you’ve got maybe 400 people looking for it. [NB: When we looked, over 1000 had it on their wishlists, with only three copies for sale, priced at over $300]. But there are only 100 copies of it, so I figured I may as well put it on [this] comp before someone bootlegs it anyway. I know the business and how that goes too. I thought it was appropriate to put them on a comp since they’re so in demand right now.

PP: Quite a few of the tracks on this new comp of yours are private presses, records that often have great stories behind them, whether it’s high school music teachers pressing limited runs of talented student bands, or passionate artist patrons with more money than business acumen funding records that rarely sell at the time of release. What’s your favourite story behind a private pressing?

MG: We did another comp called Night Ride and one of the tracks on it was called ‘Let’s Ride’ by Junei. He’s a guy I got to know, there’s quite a few I got to know like this. It was basically a version we put out from a 45, on a label called Pharaohs Records out of Gary, Indiana [in 1987].  The 45 record was about four minutes long or something like that [but] it’s originally an eight minute song. The back story behind that is, when I finally caught up with Junei when we licensed it, what happened was, he had given the long version to the label… and the label told him they didn’t want it. Some years later he found the label actually did put it out and he didn’t know! When they put it out, they put it out as a 45 version of four minutes. The original is really popular now and goes for a lot of money, because of the reissue we put out, so now everybody is really looking for it… We can’t get to the tapes [of the eight minute version] because of personal reasons with his family, so the tapes are lost at this point. So many stories like that.

PP: As you say, so many great stories behind private presses. I was just reading about the latest Jazzman reissue, of a stage-soundtrack called ‘Two Sisters From Bagdad’. It was originally pressed so that it could be sold as a take-home souvenir at the musical theatre show staged in a Detroit church in the ‘70s. The show flopped and as a result only a handful of holy grail copies were known to exist from the few people who went to the show, while the others were destroyed.

MG: I hate those stories [laughs].

PP: Yeah, it’s awful to hear of records like that not surviving.

MG: One guy we put out – Jefferey Turpin – on the same compilation [mentioned above], well most of the copies he had were in his record store that burned down.

PP: What are your views on the re-issue scene. Are you happy people are reissuing some of these records? It does kind of democratise the music, making it available to more people.

MG: I’ve been doing this seriously probably for about 23 years now. I remember when reissues [first] came out, I did not like it. I didn’t respect them. I said: ‘If it wasn’t an original, I don’t want it.’ I figure today, 20 years later, you see what Discogs is. Every year you’ve got more and more newer collectors. You’ve got some records that are so limited, there’s just not enough copies of them. I totally respect them now. There’s a market for them. It’s to the point where you have a reissue come out and it has value gained on it the week after it comes out; the reissue’s going for hundreds of dollars. I respect it, because as time passes there’ll never be enough records out there and if we don’t have reissues, eventually some records are going to go away. If anybody really cares about records, it shouldn’t matter if it’s a reissue or not, in a certain sense. You can’t be that much of a purist. It’s not like everyone’s going to be able to find every record they want in their life also. When you’re really into collecting, you can respect reissues also, because you know the probability that you won’t find certain records. You know what your odds are.

You’ve got some people that just want to play [records]… and why would they have a $500 record if they just want to play it? [Other] people don’t even want to take them out of the sleeve. I had some customers who just bought records sealed. They’re collecting them like they’re collecting comic books [laughs]. As crazy as I thought they were, I had a few customers like that… if the seal was broken they would send it back. A couple of record collections I bought, the people were into comic books… Always in my head was: ‘What’s the point of having this many books? You obviously can’t read them because you’ll crack the spine… and ruin the value of them.’ They just collect them and keep them in those plastic bags. It’s the same as baseball cards. Some people do that with records. They don’t open them, they want them sealed.

PP: Most of the tracks on this new comp of yours are credited as Mark Grusane edits. Given the explosion of the edit scene recently, what, to your mind, is the art of editing?

MG: I have a kind of golden rule with edits. It’s like, if you can’t make it at least as good – especially with remixes – or better than the original, I don’t think you should mess with them at all. For the most part, what I mess with is usually to make it more dance floor friendly… [for] blending it in and making longer to give it a better, longer, listening experience. I definitely like to do them to the point where people wouldn’t even know they’re edits unless they have the original. I don’t like to butcher the records. I try to instil some integrity. There are some instances – edits I’ve done to just play out on a dancefloor in the frenzy of a night at a hectic moment – that might be something you can say obviously it’s an edit, but as far as releasing people’s music, or re-releasing it, I try and keep the integrity of what they put together.

PP: I loved reading a story about you spending your high school lunchtimes in abandoned classrooms producing house tracks with your friends. What a great way to spend your breaks.

MG: [Laughs] Basically, man this is like, ’89 maybe? We were all into music and we didn’t all have a lot of money… We had parents and we couldn’t have company in our houses so much, so I would bring a piece of equipment to school and in lunch period, instead of going to lunch, or we’d eat lunch really fast… we’d go into an empty classroom and plug all our shit in on the desk. One of my friends had what was called a Song Machine. It was basically a very early karaoke box. We used that as a speaker and amplifier [laughs]. We’d trigger MIDI notes and made one thing do another, and we were fucking making tracks!

PP: Fantastic. Have you kept any of those recordings?

MG: I have a couple, yeah [laughs]. I have about maybe 200 old tracks, just through the years that I’ve made and some early ones too from high school. I’ll do something eventually with them one day. I’m always playing around making stuff.

PP: So at that time in school, was DJing your first love, or did you aspire more to being a producer?

MG: It was DJing. I grew up DJing. I started going to record stores and DJing really young, at the time I was seven or eight. My brother, was a few years older than me, that’s how I started so early. I used to go to record stores with him. I started mixing with his records. I got technical really, really young and then I got into the collecting seriously, maybe aged about 15 or 16… I ended up getting a cheap drum machine and making tracks… Back then, at the time when DJing, you’d have a drum machine hooked up to the mixer. You’d be playing a record and you’d play your own track live out of the drum machine through the mixer. I used to do that a lot too.

PP: Can I ask you why Mr Peabody Records closed down? You ran that for about eight years in Chicago, right?

MG: It was just time to close it man. The US economy wasn’t the same, the demographic of the area. We were there seven years, that’s quite a long time for a record store anyway these days. We were there before the new explosion we have now. Like I was saying about the reissues now, that wasn’t a problem when we were open… We’re in a huge explosion now, as far as vinyl. Back then, we were on the opposite side of town. The overheads outweighed what we were making on-line. We just did better on-line and it was time at that point to give it a rest.

PP: You’ve been to Australia before to DJ, can we expect to see you again?

MG: Yeah, just one time, this past September. It was the Crown Ruler family that bought me through there. I had a really good time, I like it down there. The flight was long as hell, but I really liked it. That flight is a beast! [laughs]. I tried a few things to psyche myself out, there’s not much getting by that flight.

Seriously, I listened to a lot of music and it actually made the time go by, and boxing movies. I’ll tell you what I did get out of it: Europe seems like going down the street from my house now, compared to Australia. I’d love to come back.

Hopefully locals won’t have to wait too long to see Mark Grusane down under again. In the meantime, ‘The Real Sound Of Mark Grusane’ is released on January 26, 2018, in a double vinyl or CD package on the BBE label. Buy it direct here

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