JEFF "CHAIRMAN" MAO

Harlem, NY

Jeff “Chairman” Mao – Harlem, NY

Words and Photos by Eilon Paz
J

eff has been a key figure in the underground hip hop world for many years and has tons of knowledge and grooves under his belt as a result. He is also a prolific music writer. I first heard about Jeff by reading his essays on RBMA and egotripland.com.

Jeff lives in a humble Harlem brownstone. When I get there, I notice a modest collection of records in the living room, which wasn’t quite what I expected. The living room also sports lots of kid’s toys and I think maybe Jeff has had to move his more precious pieces to a spot where they won’t get damaged by his children’s curious hands!

Jeff walks me to the other side of the brownstone and my suspicions are confirmed. His collection reveals itself to be as expansive as I thought, maybe more so. There are floor to ceiling shelves filled with records and the floors are slanted, probably due to the weight of all that gold.

We bunker down for our photo session and get in the groove. Jeff thoughtfully goes through his collection. He spans genres, reggae to hip hop to funk to African fuzz, and spouts incredible digging stories. He reveals that his go-to comfort record is, somewhat surprisingly, by Leonard Cohen. Jeff’s son Trevor wanders in to hang out with us and shows me his favorite record, the Ramones’ self-titled debut. He proudly holds it up for my camera while Jeff spins some 45s. It is a truly relaxing day peeking into the head of a dynamic collector.

What was your first album? How did you get it? At what age? Can you describe that feeling?

The first album that I remember my parents getting for me was the Jackson 5’s Goin’ Back to Indiana TV special soundtrack, which I guess I must have gotten when I was 3 or 4 years old. One side of the album featured comedy sketches from the show with people like Bill Cosby, and then side 2 had a live concert recorded in Gary, Indiana. I remember being fascinated by the clothes the Jackson 5 wore in photos in the gatefold – specifically the groovy patterns on their pant legs and shirts. They weren’t clothes like regular people had.

J5: the foundation

What prompted you to start collecting? What age did you start? Was there a specific event in your life, an era, which signified your transition from music lover to a collector?

There were always albums around the house when I was growing up, mostly classical and opera and random pop music like Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song.” The stuff my parents listened to. But then at some point I realized that my older sister was into classic rock. Boston’s self-titled first album was really big then and she had a cassette on which she recorded their hit song “More Than a Feeling” consecutively – over and over and over again on the entire tape. She was also into new wave and punk-related stuff. In both a direct and roundabout sort of way, that had a big influence on me.

Even though my sister and I never really hung out together, I kind of credit her with sparking my interest in records. She’d have Rolling Stone magazine around and it seemed really cool (so you know this was a long time ago). I realized that publications and books were a resource to learn about music. I would eventually start getting magazines and record guide books and read up on whatever sounded interesting. One of the books I was really into was Dave Marsh’s Book of Rock Lists – which would eventually provide the inspiration for ego trip’s Book of Rap Lists. After studying up, I’d try to find the actual albums that I was reading about so I could hear what they sounded like. My mom took me to the local department stores, which all sold records back then. I got interested in rock, soul, jazz and then this relatively new thing, rap.

When my sister moved to New York to go to college she was living with her then boyfriend on 106th street, off Amsterdam. He was the first real avid vinyl collector that I ever encountered. I went to visit them once and remember that their apartment was full of records. Records and roaches. I remember the two of them having a funny conversation about how King Curtis would have felt being filed next to Culture Club on the record shelf. When they would come visit us during the holidays in the town where I grew up outside of Boston, my sister’s boyfriend would hit up all the used vinyl shops in his van and come back at the end of the each day with this crazy haul. Once he gave me a copy of the Specials’ “Ghost Town” EP and I was really ecstatic about that since it was the sort of thing I couldn’t find on my own. By around high school, when I figured out how to get to the used record shops on my own via subway, I started to get hooked. And by the time I was living in NYC – and started meeting more people with the same interests – I was more or less in collecting mode.

Manu x 2: US vs. France

Do you think it’s important to preserve vinyl records?

I love records, obviously. But I think the bigger thing is that it’s important to maintain the quality of how music is created and packaged and presented, no matter what the format. If someone presses up something on vinyl today but it’s done poorly (pressed off center, shit sound quality) then, honestly, they’re doing a disservice to the medium and just making a case for why the format is largely considered obsolete by the majority of people. I generally prefer to own music that I really enjoy on vinyl in addition to having access to it digitally. In part, it’s because old habits die hard. But in general, records are just more inviting and intriguing as physical objects than anything else; there’s a reason records are far easier to romanticize than CDs and tapes and it’s a shame to lose that part of the listening experience.

What was the main difference between buying records growing up in Boston and when you moved to New York City for college?  Were you digging for the same kinds of records in Boston, or did NYC’s flourishing hip hop scene influence you to go a different way in your record buying?

One of the great things about New York City when I arrived in the late ‘80s was you literally couldn’t walk down the street without coming up on records. There was always someone selling records on the street. So an essential part of making the rounds going to record shops in the Village included picking up stuff on the street as well. Ultimately that’s where I wound up getting a lot of a lot of the basic soul and funk 101 stuff that got me started: from befriending the guys who’d set up on the street (usually around Broadway near Astor Place) and staying in touch with them whenever they came up on a good collection. I got a lot of classic pieces that way: 24 Carat Black, Weldon Irvine, Lee Moses, all the good Kool & the Gang and James Brown LPs, etc. All that changed after Giuliani became mayor and eliminated a lot of the street vending culture.

The music scene in New York during those years definitely greatly influenced what I was picking up. Going out to hear bands at the Ritz or Maxwell’s in Hoboken kept me buying indie rock. Also, hearing what hip-hop records were getting played on the weekend mix shows on the radio was a big deal. You couldn’t help but feel the impact of this explosion of music and culture coming from the street. It was just really exciting. Once I understood the concept of producers sampling older records to create beats for hip-hop records, that kind of brought the interest I’d had in soul, funk and jazz full circle.

Sounds Of Unity and Love.

How has being involved with ego trip and freelance writing for music magazines helped your vinyl addiction? Did you have more access to vinyl you wouldn’t normally have had access to or would you just have kept buying tons of these records anyway?

I honestly got into music journalism primarily as a way to get promo records for free from the labels. That was really my main objective and it just kind of accidentally turned into a career. I thought it was such the ultimate scam: actually getting paid by someone to write about music that you were going to be listening to and internally critiquing and analyzing anyways. I went to NYU film school and wasted my degree doing production assistant work for years. It was a total dead-end job for me. I was always more interested in music. Once I was on a production gig where someone in charge was obviously a DJ and record collector and had the originals of every single record that was on Ultimate Breaks and Beats in the office in these homemade record bins. My mind was blown. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t want to do anything but look at the records. Even after my work day was done, I wanted to stick around to look at the records.

But as far as getting free promo records once I got into the industry, it actually required quite a bit of maneuvering to get on not just the publicity list, which would get me access to tapes and CDs, but the DJ promo list via which I could get the vinyl. That was a lot tougher than it sounds and required constant monitoring because you’d get kicked off those lists really easily if you weren’t a known person doing mix shows and clubs. But it was worth it. I got the bulk of my hip-hop collection as promos.

Straight out the (transparent) Jungle

In the time you were part of the Bumpshop party at APT, did you ever think in hindsight that you were preserving the vinyl medium by exposing people to this rare funk and soul music, mostly on 45 rpm vinyl? You had some heavy hitters as guest DJs. Who was your favorite?

The object of the party wasn’t specifically to preserve vinyl but to enjoy this music – rare soul and funk – that largely wasn’t available any other way than on 45s. So it was an outgrowth of musical appreciation, fundamentally. I’d definitely say it exposed folks to a lot of great music that they wouldn’t have heard otherwise, but that was also an outgrowth of the general vibe of APT and what made the venue so special for so many years. When people came up to the booth and saw that we were playing 45s, it might have sparked some curiosity. But, where the 45s thing is super trendy now, for us when we were doing Bumpshop, it was really about the tunes and not the format. The format just happened to coincide with the music we wanted to play and hear.

Man, there were so many great guests. I mean, it’s really tough to single out my favorites. Kenny Dope, Dante Carfagna, Jason Perlmutter, Tony Janda (RIP), Brad Hales and Aaron Anderson (RIP), Chris Burgan, DJ Spinna, Cut Chemist, Muro, George Mahood… Every guest was different and I enjoyed something different about each one. Definitely good times.

 ‘Hot Wheels’es

What’s your digging habit in these digital days? Do you still go out digging?

Well, I try to get out to the NYC shops downtown when I can but it’s tougher for me these days because family and work take up most of my time. And going out on the road to look for stuff or going to record shows is even tougher to manage, time-wise. If “digging” (as we used to call it) coincides with my traveling for work or DJing out of town, that’s usually the most convenient way for it to happen. Otherwise I can’t help but buy stuff online. All things being equal, I’d rather support the physical stores and individual sellers I know whenever possible because it just feels more human. Going by the shops and running into friends and coming up on records and learning about stuff you didn’t know about is still kind of a perfect way to spend an afternoon for me.

Your Red Bull Music Academy interview series takes you all over the world. What’s the best record you’ve dug up in these travels?

I don’t actually get to explore as much of the host cities as I’d probably like to during RBMA because I’m usually busy working on the Academy grounds most of the time, so the record buying isn’t as indulgent as maybe folks might expect. In Capetown during my first tour of RBMA duty in 2003, I wound up picking up a Pye gatefold pressing of the Demon Fuzz Afreaka! LP, which was kind of cool. I also found both Rodriguez albums, at the time not realizing why finding those in South Africa would be significant. I’d say Toronto in 2007 was probably the easiest host city to get records in because of the Academy building’s proximity to Cosmos, the city’s renowned high-end vinyl collecting shop. It was literally down the street, so that was trouble. Also on that trip I was able to hook up with a local DJ/seller and I wound up getting the Boogaloo Combo album with “Hot Pants Road,” which I was pretty happy about.

Demon Fuzz – Afreaka! Seeing double.

Pye issue Afreaka! inner gatefold

In a world of endless musical sources (streaming music, MP3’s, Serato and other digital substances), do you sometime stop and ask yourself, “what for?”

Well, I’m actually not anti-Serato. I use it regularly when I DJ and love what the technology enables you to do, and I don’t miss the back and shoulder pain I used to suffer with from lugging records around all the time, but I don’t get a lot of satisfaction out of acquiring music digitally unless it’s friends hooking me up with their own remixes and edits. The digital format is of course great for work and extremely convenient. But generally I don’t think sifting through links and buying WAVs online can compare to the ritual of hunting down records or even going to the store and buying new releases on vinyl. I just enjoy those activities.

Book of Mandrill

Even more Mandrill

How do you organize your collection?

Alphabetically by genre. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s not organized at all, which can get really frustrating if I need to find something and don’t have a ton of time. Every now and then, I make a fruitless attempt to organize my 45s and give up after a while.

Tell me a useful record storage/shelving tip.

If you can afford to do it, get custom shelving. IKEA is an accident waiting to happen.

I see your floor is slanted, is it from the weights of the vinyl?

Unfortunately, probably. But when I go to other brownstones in Harlem, notice that the floor is slanted and don’t see any records anywhere, I don’t feel so guilty.

What do you look for in a record?

I used to chase titles for the sake of checking off wants from a list. I still keep a want list, but more often now I just check for music that speaks to whatever my mood is. It could be anything as long as it’s something I think I’ll listen to and enjoy. Or sometimes I look for something that’ll specifically work in a DJ set. Buying what’s “hot” on any given circuit will send you to the poorhouse fast. So really, in the end, you just have to trust your ear. Every in demand record out there was once something nobody was really checking for.

What’s your partner’s reaction to this obsession?

My wife puts up with it and understands that it’s something I love. Sort of.

Now, as a family man, how does vinyl fit in?

The good news is my kids get excited to see a record spinning on the turntable. The bad news is my kids get excited to see a record spinning on the turntable. They try to get all up in everything sometimes, which can be dangerous. I can’t leave the records I really care about lying around within their reach.

These guys were onto something.

Name some golden grails from your collecting history.

Stark Reality, Damn Sam the Miracle Man, East of Underground, Har-You Percussion Group, Jackson Sisters LP, The Invaders, Milton Wright, Bobby Williams, Roy Porter, Phil Ranelin, Syndicate Conveyance, Andrew Wartts, Rammellzee vs. K-Rob’s Beat Bop with the Basquiat sleeve, Willie Wright’s “Right On For the Darkness,” Norris Vines & the Luvlines’ “Give In.” A lot of the heavier pieces I have are ’90s and early ‘00s wall of fame type stuff.

Rammellzee vs. K-Rob – “Beat Bop” 12-inch, original pressing on Tartown with Jean-Michel Basquiat sleeve art.

Original pressing of the Har-You Percussion Group

Harlem Youth label heads

What great lengths have you gone to just to dig for records?

Damaged relationships with old girlfriends, pretty standard sort of thing. Back in the early ‘90s, my then-girlfriend and I were visiting Monterey, CA on a coastal drive vacation. While going through town, I saw a used record store and was like, “great – records!” I go into the store and right away find Wally Richardson’s Soul Guru for dirt cheap. Trust me, at the time it was one of these really in-demand pieces. Big score! I’m like, “look, isn’t this great?” Then my girlfriend fesses up and tells me that she’d seen the record store earlier but didn’t tell me because she didn’t want to wait around for me to look through records. I pretty much knew at that moment that the relationship was doomed. [Laughs]

Also, not “digging” related, but when I was a production assistant working on TV commercials, I’d regularly abuse my petty cash privileges by putting generic receipts from records stores in with my other on-the-job expenses. A lot of receipts got submitted simply marked “batteries” or “supplies.” That was always fun. Rock & Soul was always good for those non-itemized receipts.

Out of your great collection, there must be a few records that you like going back to at any time, your comfort zone record.

I tend to go back to the albums that are quieter and more introspective. Terry Callier’s What Color Is Love, definitely. And then things like Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, which feels very intimate yet is also kind of unnerving. I remember sitting with a friend in an old burrito spot on East 7th street one afternoon in the late ‘80s and hearing that Leonard Cohen album for the first time and having it kind of seep into my subconscious. I didn’t even know what I was hearing at the time. When I actually got the album some time later and heard it again, all the pieces reconnected and it took me back to that specific moment. To this day it still does. I can smell the beans right now!

Cohen way back.

Did you have any covers that scared you as a child?

I remember seeing the covers to both Parliament’s Up For the Down Stroke and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters for the first time on the same night at a friend’s house party. It was after a school play. We were all in the pit orchestra together and he invited a bunch of us to come over. Naturally, I gravitated over to the record shelf and I just bugged when I saw those. The covers didn’t “scare” me so much as just make me think, whoa, this is some truly next level, really different shit. Hearing those first bass synth notes of “Chameleon” while looking at the Head Hunters album cover made a tremendous impact on my impressionable young mind.

The LP covers that would forever alter an Asian-American youth’s impressionable mind

Ain’t no party like a Parliament party

What’s a bad album cover that hides great music inside of it?

Bobby Thurston’s Sweetest Piece of the Pie. Absolutely sublime soul album that looks like some kind of shitty Duncan-Hines cake mix print ad or something. Just awful.

Is there a specific musical instrument that attracts you when listening to music?

Like a lot people from the “beat-diggin’” era, I’m a sucker for electric piano and vibes. But for whatever reason I tend moreso to remember unfortunate instrumental solos. Like bad sax solos. That phenomenon you always associate with “Saturday Night Live” but it actually predates SNL. It’s really ruined many an otherwise good song.

Tell me about a dollar bin record you would never part with.

Sir William Portis Jr. & the Elements of Sound LP. I found it at Red Beans & Rice in Atlanta during the store’s going out of business sale, for a buck. Kind of obscure private press electric jazz that has a couple of really nice things on it. I was on a Universal Records press junket at the time but dipped out to go record shopping while everyone else went to Gladys Knight’s restaurant for brunch.

What about digging buddies? Do you share or you go solo?

My main digging partner on the road for several years was my friend Georges Sulmers who used to run an independent hip-hop record label called Raw Shack Productions that put out some great records in the ’90s. We went on a lot of trips together all over: Pittsburgh, the Midwest, New Orleans and all through the South. I think if you can roll with record-friends who aren’t too uptight about shit, it’s a much better experience. Way less mercenary and soulless. One of the last big trips I went on was with my friends Jared Boxx, who was one of the fellow residents at Bumpshop and later opened Big City Records, and Alec DeRuggiero, who was the original music director at APT. We went through Chicago and Milwaukee in the dead of winter, and it all culminated in our making our way through a classic Midwestern blizzard to get to Dante Carfagna’s funk and soul night, Sheer Magic, at Danny’s Tavern. One of the most fun trips I’ve ever gone on, not just because of the records but the fun and camaraderie.

Tell me about a closed down record store/flea market you will grieve all your life!

Any time a record store that I’ve frequented shuts down, I’m bummed. Like I alluded to before, it’s not so much about the records themselves but the loss of the sense of community that develops around some of these places. In the summer of 2012, Big City Records closed and that really felt like the end of an era. And in many ways it was.

Patrick Gammon “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Italian issued modern soul gem.

Tell me a particularly sad record story!

Records aren’t that sad. [Laughs]

Tell me about a record you still regret not picking up.

Oh man, so many. But actually, my biggest regret is going to Robert & Co. in Columbus, Ohio (a famous vinyl warehouse from back in the day) and Georges and I were so overwhelmed that we didn’t even try to go through the 45s. Um yeah, that was a huge mistake. But we were more focused on albums back then and this was the place that had its own RAMP and Stark Reality sections. Like with the names on divider cards and everything, if you can believe that.

Tell me about these signed albums? Where and how did you get them?

When I interviewed Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay for ‘Rap Pages’ magazine back in the day I got my copy of ‘Death Mix’ signed by the both of them. I usually refrained from fan-boy stuff like that when I was doing stories back then, but in this case I couldn’t really resist. Nowadays I’m less scrupulous about getting records signed – if the situation feels right. When I hosted Gary Bartz’s RBMA lecture in San Francisco in 2012 he was cool enough to sign my copy of ‘Harlem Bush Music: Uhuru.’

Another Zulu Nation sureshot

Signatures from Bambaataa & Jazzy Jay

Tell me the story behind this Andy Bey album

Andy Bey was the singer in Gary Bartz’s Ntu Troop. Apparently, Bartz – inspired by Pharoah Sanders’ work with Leon Thomas – had wanted to incorporate a vocalist into his ensemble and settled on Bey, with whom he worked on Max Roach’s great ‘Members Don’t Git Weary’ LP. The ‘Harlem Bush Music’ LPs are both incredible, which naturally sparked my interest in finding out a little bit more about Andy Bey. This LP is one of his earlier 60s efforts when he was performing with this sisters in more of a traditional jazz vocalist style – very different from his stuff with Bartz but still pretty cool.

Bey area

Signed copy of Gary Bartz’s ‘Harlem Bush Music: Uhuru’

Who has the toughest record collection that you have ever seen?

Probably too difficult to single out any one person these days because so many people are deep in different ways. I mean, I always learn a lot from hanging out with friends like Dante, George Mahood, Matt “Mr. Fine Wine” Weingarden and Kohji “K-Prince” Maruyama. But the collections that have always stuck in my mind and made the biggest impression on me are the ones I saw back in the day by people who schooled me on stuff.

San Woo was a collector and seller who one was of the first people I met who had pristine copies of every significant soul/jazz/funk LP you could name. A cut-corner copy wasn’t good enough for him, he’d upgrade to a sealed copy if he could get one. He introduced me to Marcus Belgrave’s Gemini II, Lyman Woodard’s Saturday Night Special and many other classics. Bob Gibson from Boston was legendary as well as someone who was way ahead of the curve for the era. Bob worked at a store called In Your Ear and introduced me to stuff like S.O.U.L., Harlem River Drive, and many, many other titles. He would later become very well known to the NYC hip-hop producers via the famous Roosevelt Hotel record convention. Jeff Brown, an old DJ colleague from Brooklyn, had the best rare groove, jazz and Latin/Brazilian collection of any DJ I’d seen firsthand back then. He hipped me to a lot of stuff, helped open up my sensibilities to not just “funky” tracks but things that could work on a dance floor that were a little more sophisticated and exotic. I think I’ve only seen the Ricardo Marrero album A Taste once (before it was reissued by Jazzman, which is how I have it) and it was in Brown’s collection. He also hipped me to the stuff on the far less tough-to-find 2nd LP, Time, which has a nice version of Eugene McDaniel’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love.”

Ricardo Marrero – Jazzman repress (the music’s still good, y’know)

Ricardo Marrero ‘Time’ LP with a nice version of ‘Feel Like Making Love’ (not the Bad Company song, though that would be interesting).

A message to the vinyl heads out there?

I think the thing to take away ultimately about this game is that is you never stop learning about music and records. There’s too much of it out there to know everything or even a fraction of everything. And that’s part of the fun. It’s not really even about getting the records – it’s about the journey, learning about stuff and having a good time doing it, and continually developing an appreciation and ear for things. Then when you get that record you really want it’s like your indication that the whole cycle, the whole process begins again. Maybe that’s why I’m often nostalgic about past eras of collecting. In those days you didn’t have much choice other than to learn via word of mouth, to go out to hear things firsthand played by DJs, and put in your own research based largely on trial and error. You couldn’t just sit in front of a computer and set e-snipe bids (which I do as well, believe me – we all do – even though it’s tough to find a lot of joy in that act). I mean we all want the records we want. But spiritually it’s a little more interesting and fulfilling to let your interest in the music lead you to some places you didn’t necessary expect. So sure, get the records you want, or as true record addicts would say, “NEED!” But when it takes a while, you know, enjoy that part of it too.

More from Jeff:

Editorial musings by my ego trip family and myself at egotripland.com. My monthly RBMA Radio show “Across 135th Street” can be heard at rbmaradio.com. Otherwise spinning records with friends wherever the vinyl life leads me. Follow me on The Twitter and Instagram if you should feel so inclined: @chairmanmaonyc

Interview edited by: Sam Swig

Jeff and many other vinyl collectors are featured on the Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting book.

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9 Responses

  1. Paul

    Another great interview…The Chairman” certainly has an impressive collection and once again I find myself turned on to something new! I have really enjoyed reading (and rereading!) all these articles…the history and personal stories behind the records are as interesting and exciting as the music! Thank you!

  2. Pingback : egotripland.com | Chairman Mao: A Mixed Bag Mix For Dust & Grooves (AUDIO).

  3. Krautrockmaniac

    After so many years of being heavily into progressive and psych stuff i finally realize that funk, jazz and soul is a fantatstic expansion. nice photos, nice article!

  4. Pingback : Mix Of The Week - JEFF "CHAIRMAN" MAO | Mi Casa

  5. I’m playing fellow Detroiter Marcus Belgrave’s Gemini II now, thanks to this interview. Alas, on Spotify, not vinyl. Great stuff either way though. Keep up the good work.

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