Words by Josiah Titus Photos by Eilon Paz
ustin Salinas stands in his Minneapolis living room, flipping through a stack of 45s propped against his belly. He pulls one and in a single motion un-sleeves it, puts it on the record player and drops the needle. Surface noise gives way to a quick rhythm played out on keyboard and electric guitar. Then comes the voice of Freddie Hill singing “Mr. Lucky.” Justin’s response is subtle but whole. “This is my music,” he says. “Small Chicanos, nasally voices, everyone trying to work together. The high notes and harmonies. It’s just beautiful.”
Justin was born and raised in Alice, Texas, a small town west of Corpus Christi, but it wasn’t until he moved to Minnesota and started collecting records that he became interested in Chicano soul. The shift, when it came, was felt. He is now an ambassador, traveling with records in hand, ready to share the good news. His collection, though small—a dozen cases of 45s, a knee-high stack of LPs—is mighty. More importantly, it’s filled with heart.
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Justin Salinas, but some people call me Rambo. I was born and raised in Texas, and moved to Minneapolis twelve years ago. I’m a blue collar, working man. Been collecting records for about as long as I’ve lived in Minneapolis.
What was playing when we walked in?
Paul Rios and the Riveras, “She’s My Woman, She’s My Girl.”
Do you remember your first record?
Some people grew up with records in their hands. I never did. In Alice, there wasn’t really a place to fix things like record players. When the needle broke, that was the end of it. By the ’80s everyone had moved on to tapes and then CDs. The Jensen stereo in our house had a record player, but I never saw any records. Then one day, digging through a closet, I found a 45 of Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” I was like, “Oh shit, I know where this goes!” I went over to the stereo and was trying to figure out how it worked. The band inside was weathered and the sound was off, but it worked. The needle fell on the groove and it didn’t make any sense. How was that passing through the speaker? I wondered. I was amazed.
You don’t forget why you have a record. You remember how you got it, why you wanted it, and most importantly, you still play it.
Years later, when I was in community college, I was giving a talk to my class on medical marijuana. I don’t know if it had anything to do with that, but after class that day my teacher came up to me and asked what kind of music I was into. I told him I was looking for records and he said he had a Led Zeppelin album at his house that he would be willing to sell me. I was into Led Zeppelin at that time and all I had was that shitty Taco 45. Two weeks later, he brought Zeppelin IV to class and I gave him ten bucks for it. That was the first record I ever paid for. That was the beginning.
When did you start collecting?
I moved to St. Paul when I was 21. My brother had already moved up here and my dad, a truck driver, sometimes did runs to Minneapolis. One day he came to me and was like, “If you want to go live with your brother, this is your chance.”
My brother was a shy fellow. He would go to his job and do things, but he wasn’t really exploring. When I got here, I was like, “Let’s go see things—let’s go see the city.”
We started exploring record stores. Moving to a big city gave me that chance. For me, this was the land of opportunity. My brother bought a shitty record player at Best Buy. I started collecting records, getting more into it. At first, I was sticking to what I knew—more Led Zeppelin, other stoner stuff—but that lead me to the blues. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, George Harmonica Smith, Bo Diddley . . . represses of Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson.
I decided at that point that I wasn’t going to buy CDs or tapes anymore; I was only going to buy records. CDs get scuffed, tapes get eaten . . . records can actually take a beating. Surface noise and all that stuff don’t even matter. Your mind learns how to separate that stuff. When you really love a record and the first copy you find is a beater, you still love it. I’ll play a beat record over and over. You separate the crappy noise from the music. With a CD, you can’t do that. Once it’s scratched, it doesn’t work anymore. A record isn’t fucked unless you put a deep scratch into it. Even then, if you get in there with a needle, you can sometimes fix it. Sure, it’ll never be perfect again, but that’s okay. You still have your music.
The durability of vinyl and what else? Why records?
For a lot of people, when they hear something they love on record for the first time, it affects them. It could be Rick James, Miles Davis or whatever. They know they love it, they’ve listened to it a million times, but then they hear it on vinyl and it sounds different. It only takes that one time, when they’re in that one situation . . . they feel like they’re hearing it for the first time.
Plus, there’s just so much out there. That’s a big part of it. Records are our history books. If you’re really a fanatic and you go into certain regions of the country, you can actually see the progression of music. You can go back through a song from the ’90s and hear a sample is from the ’60s. When you find out who really did it, you don’t want to listen to R Kelly anymore. You want to listen to the source. Thing is, so much music is only available on vinyl. If you want to listen to it, you have to buy a record player. For a lot of us, too, we want to be where our parents were. We want to go back to their years, or to our childhood years, or even our grandparents’ years . . . knowing that you can go back and get that feeling, that you can listen to it on the same format as them, it connects you to them and to that time. Because of that, and because of the way records sound, you are more connected to the music. Somewhere in there, you realize that you don’t have to get all this digital shit.
Los Apson – “El Arado” (Mexico)
When did your focus shift to 45s?
I eventually moved from St. Paul to Minneapolis and got a place by myself. I was getting more and more into records and I started meeting DJs and I’d ask them if I could play a set. They’d let me come up for a couple of seconds and that’s how I got my taste for it.
My friend Ben Carey and I started going to Hipshakers, a soul 45 night run by Brian Engel and Greg Waletski, two pioneers in the scene here. We were introducing ourselves, always running up to the DJ booth, asking about the different records they were playing. Then we’d go home and look them up, see who made them, who produced them. Eventually, we started our own night called Hotpants.
The Eptones – “No One Else But You” (San Antonio,TX)
Carlos Guzman – “El Tren” (Corpus Christi,TX)
Steve Jordan and the Jordan Bros – “You Keep Me Hanging On”(McCallen,TX). Steve is the Hendrix of the accordion and is one of the pioneers of the electric sound with a squeeze box.
Is this where the nickname Rambo comes in?
I was about to DJ for the first time in an official capacity and my friend who was putting the night together called and asked what my DJ name was. He needed to put something on the flyer. I was like, “I have no idea.” He said he would think of something. When I saw the flyer, there it was: Rambo.
As you shifted your focus to collecting 45s, did your digging habits have to change? Were you able to find the records you were looking for in stores?
Brian Engel started putting records in my hand. That was a turning point. He’d give me something and say, “I have an extra.” I also started looking on eBay and asking around. Stores still to some degree, but mainly in the beginning.
Are there seasons to collecting? Sometimes you have cash, sometimes you don’t. Or maybe you’ve just discovered a new sound or artist and you get obsessed.
Tax season and right before Christmas. (Laughter.) Everyone’s selling shit to buy shit. It can become very competitive. Talk to my ex girlfriend. (More laughter.)
The moment it first changed for me, and I’m sure it changes like this for a lot of people, is when you hear something and you know you want it but you know you can’t find it in your neighborhood store because you’ve been there a hundred times and you’ve never seen it before. You start asking around and maybe you’re friends with a guy who owns it, but he doesn’t want to let it go. So you look on eBay, or you look up other collectors who might have it or who might know someone who has it. Once you go off the grid, once you spend fifty bucks, that’s when it starts taking your life over.
It can get in the way of family and relationships. It becomes like any other drug—you want it and you obsess about how you’re going to get it. Somewhere in there, you start flipping records. When you sell a record to pay for another record, you start thinking that it’s paying for itself, but it’s not. It never does. You don’t actually get your money back—you spend more. You sell something to get something bigger. It snowballs.
Freddy Hill – “Mr. Lucky”
How did you move from collecting northern soul to Chicano soul? Was there a particular moment when your focus shifted?
I was into soul and funk, and I was hitting them both pretty hard. I was in Chicago one weekend, DJing with some people and I was hearing what everyone was playing and I could tell everyone was after a lot of the same records. I realized that a lot of this was going to be stuff I couldn’t afford. I already had a small Chicano collection, but it was really on that trip that I decided to focus my energy on that. Chicano soul records were a little cheaper, the community was a little smaller, and more importantly, it was my music.
There are variations of chicano soul, but at this point, to me, anything that has heart in it is soul. It could be anything from Conjunto to Tejano to sweet soul.
Say more about that transition. What did you have to learn? Where did you begin?
Right away, I lost a bid on a copy of Dimas III, “So Funny.” I couldn’t stop thinking about it, but it had gone for $100 and I just couldn’t afford it. When I finally got a copy, it changed my thoughts as far as Chicano soul and its different sounds. I started to realize that it’s not as simple as good Chicano soul and that’s it. There is, in fact, Chicano r & b, Chicano mod soul, and so on. After realizing that, I started focusing on two main regions: South Texas and East L.A. In these communities, you’ve got second generation kids growing up with a mix of their roots and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. They used the sounds of their parents and then gave it their own twist.
Did you have any favorite labels or producers?
Abe Epstein and Max Uballez are two big ones. For the rest, you’ll have to do your homework. Same goes for labels. There are some big ones—Whittier, Teardrop—but I can’t share the rest. People hear a name or label and they embed that in their mind. The next box they’re digging through, they see that name and they know to grab it. It just means I have one more person who’s after the same shit I’m after.
Are there variations of Chicano soul? What’s the spectrum?
Yes, there are variations of Chicano soul, but at this point, to me, anything that has heart in it is soul. It could be anything from Conjunto to Tejano to sweet soul.
A big change came when they started getting rid of more primitive instruments and bringing in more modern instruments. Out went the accordion, in came the keyboard or Hammond.
Sunny Ozuna hanging out with Danny and the Dreamers, and Charlie and the Jives.
You had already moved to Minnesota when you started collecting Chicano soul. Did you find yourself reconnecting with your own roots? Did you go back to Texas to look for records?
When I started looking into Texas records, I felt my brother and my dad in it. I could hear us hanging out in it.
Ben Carey and I went to San Antonio to dig. I knew about this guy named Raul, who apparently had some of the rarest Chicano soul records around. I went to all the addresses I could find, called 411, and I finally found a number for him, but all I got was a machine. I left him a message and said who I was. Finally, on the last day of our trip, I got a call from him. He pointed me to a Taco stand near the airport and said he’d meet me there. He pulled up in an old Volvo and showed me two shoeboxes of 45s. He was hooked up to oxygen and couldn’t talk. That’s where I got the Freddy Hill record.
I came back from that trip feeling like there was more to be done. I knew I needed to move back.
And you eventually did move back.
I quit my job of ten years, told my boss, “I need to leave; this isn’t what I want to do forever.” My girlfriend agreed to go with me. I paid $600 for a ’99 Ford Contour that had hit a deer. We packed our shit up, sold the rest of our belongings—I had my records and a Califone—and then we hit the road.
We got to San Antonio and slept in the car for two weeks before eventually finding a place. I discovered Saluté International Bar, one of the only places in town with authentic Chicano music. Flaco Jimenez would come in. Max Baca, Joe Jama, The Royal Jesters—they all came in and played there. It was run by a lady named Azenith Dominguez. She was in her fifties; a beautiful, gentle soul who could put you in your place. She would give me odd jobs, let me hang around. I met a guy named Eduardo “Plata” Hernandez who ran the open vinyl night there.
I spent the rest of my time going to local musicians, introducing myself as a record collector, but things weren’t working out. I wasn’t making enough money to survive, much less dig for records. Eventually, I had to pack everything up and move back to Minnesota.
How did this change you as a collector? Did the challenges change your perspective on what records mean to you?
I went down there to dig and wound up too broke to buy anything. I started having to sell my stuff just to survive. You come back from that and you get smarter. When you’re not a rock star and you can’t just buy a bunch of records, you get strategic. You start questioning why you want something—why it should be in your collection. It left me more humble, especially as a DJ. Establishing myself down there, reestablishing myself when I got back . . . it’s hard to describe: you forget the steps it takes to start a night or get into a scene. But I think it’s something everyone has to go through. You have to go through low points to realize what something means to you.
CDs get scuffed, tapes get eaten . . . records can actually take a beating.
Have you met any of the Chicano soul artists you collect?
Joe Jama, Robert Gomez. There are a bunch of them. It makes you look at your records differently when you meet the artist behind them and you see them in their regular life. It makes you care more about the record, realizing it was made by a regular Joe. A lot of those dudes are still playing but they’re not huge rock stars. Frank Rodarte is an amazing sax player. Played with all kinds of different groups. He could just blow. You don’t hear dudes playing like that anymore. He sounded so good when I saw him. Robert Gomez was like that too. I had been looking for him. I found out he was playing with Randy Garibay’s brother, Ernie, at this bar. I walked in, had a beer, and after their set I met them out having a smoke. I just walked up and told him how I loved his music and we started talking. He wrote some of my favorite Chicano soul songs when he was fifteen.
With a small collection, you don’t have some of the same burden some collectors have, wondering what to do with it all, how to sell it, where to store it, or who to leave it to. Some of that has been the result of circumstances, but is it also by design? Would you like to have a large collection someday?
The good thing is, when you do it this way, each record becomes part of your family. You don’t forget why you have a record. You remember how you got it, why you wanted it, and most importantly, you still play it. I’ll never have a big collection and I don’t want one. I just don’t live life like that.
What about when you’re gone? What would you like to see happen to your records?
Right now, because I don’t have kids or anything, I’d want my brother to have my records. He would know what to do with them.
I like to think of these records as knowledge. I’m always waiting for someone to pop up and be like, “I want to know more about this!” That hasn’t happened, but I’d love to share what I’ve learned, and when I think about this collection, more than how much it’s worth, I’m thinking about the knowledge that’s here. I want someone to get excited about this kind of music.
That’s how I started. I traveled to LA to meet Ruben. I remember going through his play box. It completely short-circuited me.
I would love to see more kids to get into this. I want to pass it along.
Would that be your advice to new collector?
If you’re starting out, befriend a collector. That’s how you get records you can enjoy and how you can get into that circle. Brian Engel was the first person to do that for me. I would like to do that for somebody else. You have to show initiative, you have to show that you’re serious. But once you get involved, the community will recognize that you’re passionate and they’ll help you out. The community is actually pretty small.
The other thing I’d say to someone starting out is to look for records that you enjoy listening to when you’re by yourself and that you have some kind of connection to. Don’t necessarily buy records for playing out or because they’re valuable. I buy my records for myself—I have to want to listen to them when I’m alone.
What are you looking for now? What’s at the top of your list?
No names, but there are three records I have my eye on, and I know where two of them are. I’m waiting for the price on one to drop. The other is overseas and the dude doesn’t want money. He wants to trade for modern soul. I don’t collect modern records so I’m having to call up people who I know have modern records and ask them to sell me stuff that this guy wants. I’m waiting to get lists from them so I can send it to him and be like, “I’ll buy any of these records to get a deal done.”
Right now it’s all up in the air, and I know that if I can figure out a way to make it work, I’m going to have to sell one of my big records to pay for it.
I always love to have records in my possession, but when their time comes, I’m ready to let them go. Using one to pay for another is how I go deeper.
Isn’t it hard to let a record go—especially something rare?
You have to let them go. I always love to have records in my possession, but when their time comes, I’m ready to let them go. Using one to pay for another is how I go deeper. That’s how I’m able to find the things I really want. And that way, you’re letting someone else enjoy the record and that feels good.
This is a post I put into my 45 box. I had a few fellow DJs leave their record box on a train or bus only to cry in tears. Im taking at least some proper precaution, In case a nice person is out there.
What about record shows? Do you go?
Record shows are probably the best place to dig for records, but you have to get there early. It’s like an estate sale; unless you get there before everyone else, you’re not going to find anything. I go but not every time.
What about record stores?
When I travel, I like to check out stores, just to see what they have, but I won’t touch a record store unless it’s really early in the day or really late at night. That’s when they’re putting stuff out. Closing is the best. They’ll close and you don’t have a choice but to leave. If you go earlier in the day, you can be there for hours without realizing it.
Johnny Chingas aka Rulie Garcia-Pachuco. This Lp is a staple among the LA cruising scene since the 60’s. Warning to Bootleggers. The Lp was bootlegged many times and could be heard out of every lowrider on the strip. Hence the warning sign.
You’ve made a few mix tapes. Where does this fit into vinyl collecting?
Mix tapes have been going on for a long time, and there are different ways of thinking about them. It’s how a lot of people find out about music from other countries. A collector will put a mix together and share it. Anybody that’s into records is usually making some kind of mix tape, but as far as why I make mine, I just like doing it; I like sharing my records with people. I also like that they’re a marker of a particular time. You can see what you were into when you go back and listen to a mix tape. You can see how you’ve progressed, how your tastes have changed and how your records go deeper or if there have been records that stay with you for a long time.
When I make them, I’ll do a few copies and sell them for $5. The last one I did was “Love and Malt Liquor” for Valentine’s Day. It was all sweet soul and malt liquor commercials. But not everyone does it like that. I only have a few friends who actually hand me a cassette and say, “This is a mix tape.” Not everyone does it that way.
Royal Jesters, “Use Your Head.” I already had a copy but I wanted an extra. The funny part is, I got it from this guy in Texas that most people on eBay know as the Nacho Man. He shows up at the Austin Record Convention with nachos and sets them on records and flips through stacks with his greasy fingers. He has some serious Texas records, but he usually charges too much and there are stories about him pulling one over on people; you probably don’t want to invest more than ten dollars on anything he’s selling. I purchased it but saw that his shipping fees were too much. I asked if he would send me the difference back with the record. It would have been $5. He agreed but instead he sent me two other records—one was Kool & the Gang “Emergency,” and the other was a Stray Cats record. I looked at the Stray Cats sleeve and figured I might be able to get something for it, which would be fair in the end, but then I thought to myself: wait a minute, the Nacho man would never let this ride. I pulled the record out of the sleeve and sure enough, it was something else. Both of them were.
What about a feel good record? Is there one you always go back to?
One that stays in my playbox is Sunny and the Sunliners, “If I Could See You Now.” But there can’t be just one. Once you crack that beer and play a record, you start down that path of wanting to hear this or that and the night just goes on and on. It just doesn’t happen that way.
Sunny & The Sunliners – “My Dream”
Justin and many other vinyl collectors are featured on the Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting book.
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