DJ LEXIS

Digging Is His Sanctuary

Lexis

Interview by Jessica Lipsky | Photos by Eilon Paz

M

ontreal-based collector Alexis Charpentier is nothing if not eclectic. He’s equally comfortable digging for fusion jazz records in Serbia as he is vibing to Quebec hip-hop. With a voracious appetite for musical knowledge, DJ Lexis’ collection spans genre and medium to create the best collection in the world—for him, anyway.

Lexis has said that he wouldn’t trade his 10,000-plus albums for anyone else’s, not even those of his biggest influence, Gilles Peterson. Each album holds a special memory, personal history or intrinsic magic that’s a result of an intense dig or memorable moment with a friend. Yet Lexis will be the first to say that he doesn’t only collect for himself. He’s traveled the world to dig for vinyl and spin, exposing an untold number of ears to obscure Canadian sounds and unique mixes.

Through his website and podcast Music Is My Sanctuary, parties such as 24 Hours of Vinyl and even the world’s first TEDx Talk on vinyl collecting, Lexis’ biggest joy is sharing his love of music. We caught up with the French Canadian digger this fall to talk about rare finds and why you shouldn’t be ashamed to fanboy a little.

Hey Alexis, tell me about yourself.

I come from a very artistic family. My mom worked all her life in movies as an art director and my dad worked a good 25 years as a professional musician; his father was also a musician and composer. I went to music school when I was a kid from age seven to my teenage years.

Music was a big part of my life from a young age. I think I can remember buying records pretty frantically at the age of ten, and from that point it’s always been kind of “clothes, food and records.”

What about collecting piqued your interest at such a young age?

I think it’s the ritual, the artwork, and the sound quality and the warmth of putting vinyl on a turntable. I am a record collector, yes, but in my heart of hearts, I’m a DJ. For me, records are a tool to work with.

One of the most interesting things about vinyl is that 90% of the time I can remember the backstory of how I got any given record. That’s where I think vinyl as a format is far superior to MP3s or streaming or CDs or whatever. I’m super serious about my digital collection as well, but when I scan my MP3 files, there’s no magic around it. There’s no “I remember who gave me this MP3” feeling.

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

Fight The Power by Public Enemy. I think I saw the video just once and for a 10-year-old kid who saw that video on a Montreal music channel, that video is very, very powerful. It’s black power, very militant, and it just leapt out of the television and slapped me in the face.

First record ever purchased: Public Enemy – Fight The Power (1989, Motown)

What were your early musical influences?

I was really, really a hip-hop kid. I think my first and most influential album was A Tribe Called Quest The Low End Theory. It’s not even about original pressing or format, what I would kill to have is my cousin’s bootleg tape that she lent me.

At that point I was already starting to be into hip-hop, but I was listening to Public Enemy or whatever was being played on more mainstream music TV, but they weren’t playing A Tribe Called Quest. Low End Theory, for me, was really the gateway album into another world and another sensibility of jazz and soul and funk. For sure that didn’t start me necessarily into digging for samples, but it did kind of clearly open the door. In ’92, ’93, ’94, I was really young, but I was fortunate enough to be there in the early years, those golden years of Digable Planets and Gangstar and all the jazz influenced stuff. If I took that same moment and transposed it, I don’t know if I would be on the same path.

I think my first contact with DJing, which made me think Wow, this is something that looks really cool was maybe at 12 years old with the movie Juice.

Montreal was pretty close to New York and American culture, but culture moved a little slower than it does now. Hip-hop or A Tribe Called Quest or any other of my early influences got to Montreal one or two years after the fact.

Since we’re talking about hip-hop, tell me about Canadian rap.

It finally broke through about 5-6 years ago and now I think everyone’s paying attention to Drake and The Weeknd and all that sound. Quebec and Montreal are very different in the sense that, since we rap in French, it was never gonna break through in the States. And since we rap in French with a Canadian French accent, it wasn’t gonna work in France either, so it stayed really, really contained in Quebec.

Sans Pression – 514-50 Dans Mon Reseau (1999, Les Disques MONT REAL) Without question, this is the Quebec hip-hop classic. For its heavy east coast production à la Mobb Deep and Black Moon, but with rapping in Quebec Frenglish slang and Haitian Creole.

The Montreal hip-hop scene has always been very, very insular. There’s been interesting records here and there, but it’s been really, really difficult also because there’s not a huge population, meaning the market isn’t huge to sell records to. There’s been a handful of Quebec records, maybe around ten, that are important records that have survived the test of time, but I don’t think any of those people succeeded in making a living from their music.

514-50 Dans Mon Reseau by Sans Pression is, without a doubt, the most influential Quebec rap record ever made and it’s quite hard to find on vinyl. You ask anyone in our province and it’s the blueprint for us. It’s a cult classic that never went outside of Quebec, never even broke in France. It’s in the same tradition as Mobb Deep and Black Moon; a kind of East Coast hip-hop. It’s not jazzy at all, but a little rougher.

You’ve been seeking other rare Canadian records. Tell me about your quest.

In the past six years, my joy has moved into a slightly more academic kind of sense. The No. 1 reason to buy records will always be: do I like it or not? I won’t buy it just for cultural significance. That said, I’ve been really enjoying buying records specifically to know and chronicle the history of certain countries. I had already started down that path but I was ignoring my own country.

1001 Est Cremazie – Self-Titled (1975, Phono Grass) One of the rarest private press records in Quebec, this school band covers some jazz classics and kills it with   few originals for a “perfect imperfect” sound.

It’s really been a joy the last two years to discover extremely deep records that are rare, that are amazing, that have been sampled by Madlib or whoever. I think Canadians are very lowkey and I think Canadian music is always underestimated. It’s always a surprise when a record is from Canada.

Yves Laferrière – Self-Titled (1978, Le Tamanoir) I was really surprised to hear Anderson Paak sample this super deep Quebec record featuring “Anastasie Oh! Ma Chérie (Thème Du Film)” taken from a movie score.

Canada had amazing disco, had amazing jazz, there was a lot of great folk and psych stuff also. I discovered this wonderful Yves Laferrière record from my hometown of Montreal via Jean-Claude from If Music in London. It’s a very unusual record for Quebec because it sounds like a spiritual jazz record. We never did spiritual sounding stuff—Quebec was either a rock or a disco place in the ’70s. The last song on the b-side is a goose bump-inducing sound.

Can you tell me a bit about Montreal’s jazz scene?

I’m not an expert in the history of jazz in Montreal, but it’s extremely deep. It’s a scene that’s existed for 100 years. For many, many years a lot of the great Canadian jazz records were coming out on RCA Victor, which had a huge pressing plant in Montreal, or CBC, which is our nationwide equivalent of BBC. There are quite a lot of jazz legends from Montreal—pianist and composer Oscar Peterson being the most widely known. He and pianist Oliver Jones and a few others. Today, Montreal has the biggest jazz festival in the world.

Nick Ayoub – The Montreal Scene (1964, RCA Victor) This mid-60s record is one of the truly essential modern Quebec jazz albums.

Prohibition in the US and other provinces in Canada helped create the explosion of Montreal nightlife in the 1920s and ’30s. Montreal was a very welcoming place, especially for black musicians, which also helped create the foundation for the jazz scene. It was a little like Europe, where a lot of black musicians went, and it was also known as a party city.

Herbie Hancock – Dedication (1974, CBS/Sony, Japan-only release) The track “Nobu” is often referred to as the first techno track ever for its use of a computer drum track and Arp synth.

Has jazz always been a big part of your collection?

I don’t know if I’m the stereotype of a guy who’s getting older and starting to collect more jazz [chuckles]. Jazz is a very intimidating genre to get into. I’ve been collecting jazz actively for five to six years, so I wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means, but I think that’s my approach to record collecting in general—passion and hunger and humility. I’d rather have the approach that I don’t know anything. Every year I know so much more than the year before, and that’s what keeps me going.

Joe Harriott & Amancio D’Silva Quartet ‎– Hum Dono (1969, Columbia / Vocalion Reissue) A much-needed reissue of one of my favorite jazz records featuring Jamaican-British saxophone player Joe Harriott. The late 60’s “Hum Dono” track is absolutely hypnotic and still feels very modern.

Jose James – Equinox (2007, Brownswood) Picked up in London, this amazing 10” features Jose James taking on two John Coltrane anthems and was my favorite vocal jazz record for a long time.

The Awakening by Ahmad Jamal is widely known as one of the most sliced and sampled jazz records in hip-hop. To me, it’s just a beautiful record that glides and breathes effortlessly. I tried to track this one down for a while before I found it in New York a couple years ago.

The Ahmad Jamal Trio – The Awakening This  was Jamal’s first album for Impulse and features two original compositions plus a few covers of Hancock, Jobim, Oliver Nelson. It’s one of my comfort records I love to play on Sundays.

You mentioned a few dancefloor jazz records in your collection. Can you define that style?

It’s something I fell in love with because I played a gig in Paris five or six years ago on a night specifically focused on dancefloor jazz, a scene that’s quite big in the UK and in Japan and a tiny bit in France. People will think it’s like swing, kitschy electroswing. But that’s not really what it is. It’s really dancing on kind of ’60s and ’70s Art Blakey, or more fusion stuff. It’s really dancing on hard hitting jazz at tempos that you would be accustomed to dancing to on house music or faster.

Larry Young – Larry Young’s Fuel (1985, Arista) This jazz-fusion classic is  a challenging record to play out and is only for the most discerning dancefloors.

Larry Young’s Fuel is an absolutely essential record when it comes to jazz fusion and dancefloor jazz. I’ve played in digital forms for so many years and was waiting to get my hands on a vinyl copy. It’s my most recent purchase and dancefloor bomb for its electric jazz that’s very, very fast and funky.

It was really, really interesting and one of my highlights in terms of gigs I’ve ever had. It just opened the door for me in terms of collecting dancefloor jazz records. It was really amazing to make a crowd of 400 people dance on Horace Silver and eastern European fusion records. I wish people would get it in North America.

Horace Silver – That Healin’ Feelin’ (1970, Blue Note) “Wipe Away The Evil” is my favorite dancefloor jazz tune, and I waited for years and years to find a vinyl copy before finding it at Cosmos in Toronto. Shout out to Aki!

As a touring DJ, I guess you collect a lot while travelling.

That’s the No. 1 perk as a DJ and being booked out of town. At some point in whatever city you’re from, you feel like you’ve found everything there is to find. So now digging in different countries excites me.

Whenever I go to different countries I try to focus on records that are from that country or that region. That’s an interesting way of visiting that country and learning a bit of its history. There’s a place in Serbia called Yugo Vinyl where I go once a year and I buy specifically ex-Yugoslavian records. Every time I go, I go to the same stores.

My digging highlights are always about going to places I never dreamed I would go to and discovering things I didn’t know existed or that I needed.

Boban Petrovic – Zora (1984, Diskos) Petrovic is a legendary pop singer from Serbia who only released two solo albums in the early ‘80s that keep gaining in legendary collector status. Think the Marcos Valle of Yugoslavia.

What interests you about eastern European records?

Jazz records that were made under communist regimes are unique. For musicians to make those records, surely they were influenced by American fusion jazz records from the ’70s, and someone had to smuggle those in. So you have to imagine the political history and how those records came about. You can imagine someone smuggling in Head Hunters by Herbie Hancock in Poland or Serbia, or something like that, and musicians kind of flipping out.

It’s interesting how music can tie into the socio-cultural history of a country like former Yugoslavia. There’s like one period in ex-Yugoslavia records, the late ’70s to mid ’80s that’s just fantastic and then you kind of wonder where all those players went. Well, music started changing in those years because there was a war, so the tone and making joyful, soulful, jazzy records maybe weren’t so much the thing anymore. I think they had other things to worry about.

Vladimir Furda – Furda (1985, Jugodisk) Every year I go to Yugo Vinyl in Belgrade and scoop up some Ex-Yugoslavia gems like this dope ’80s fusion album.

Have you learned anything worth transmitting from all that digging abroad?

Any time you go to a different country, you come into its musical history from the starting point. You might know a few references, a few names, maybe two to three labels, maybe one or two players to look for, but that’s pretty much it. The record collecting community can be quite competitive sometimes, but often there’s a lot of sharing of information among diggers.

Dimenzio – Pepita (1981, Pepita) This album from Hungary’s Dimenzio was the beginning of my love affair with east European jazz and dancefloor jazz.

At least half of the discoveries I’ve made are the result of someone putting me on to a record or a player. One of the fun things about digging in Serbia or Poland or wherever, is I have friends there who I go digging with. They’re the ones who put me on to a record, something that’s an absolute must for Polish jazz or Serbian new wave or whatever. A lot of the culture is transmitted from person to person.

What are some of your favorite places to hunt for records?

My top five would be Sound of The Universe in London, Yugo Vinyl in Belgrade, Cosmos in Toronto for sure, Superior Elevation in Brooklyn, and La Rama in Montreal.

Adelhard Roidinger- Computer & Jazz Project 1 (1984, Thein) I prefer to find records in person but after spending 2-3 years searching for this Austrian jazz record I had no choice but to buy it online from a Japanese seller.

How is your collection organized and can you name a few titles in your upstairs “heavy rotation” crates?

I have two crates of records, maybe 100-200 records max, that are more my home listening records. I don’t necessarily play club records upstairs, it’s more jazz and soul and whatever.

Downstairs, I organize everything by style and sub-genre. But it always just becomes a mess because I’ll pull 200 records out to play a gig then come back that night and be too tired to put them back in their place.

I also have a whole coding system for my records, a way of writing on the label so when it’s dark in club, I know which songs to play and which sides.

As a record digger, I like to dig in all kinds of sources, whether its books or magazines or the internet or Discogs, but the thing I love most is reference books. I have about 10 Japanese reference books where everything is in Japanese except the info about the records like, the release year and title.

It’s hard to choose the records that make it to my upstairs listening boxes.

You also have a thing for signed records, I’ve heard.

Any time I play with an artist, I try to get a record of that person signed. I’ve had the pleasure of opening for Wally Badarou or Shuggie Otis or Dam Funk, and I always try to get a signature from them. I’m not ashamed of being a bit of a fan boy [chuckles] when I play with an artist that I love. Wally Badarou signed an album for me—it’s not the only album he ever made, but it’s the one thing that he’s known for as far as a record under this name.

Wally Badarou – Echoes (1984, Island) In 2016 I had the honor of opening for Wally Badarou, a legendary producer and musician behind countless 80’s stars. He also released some incredible solo records.

Most collectors absolutely hate when they buy a record that has something written on it from a previous owner, but I buy quite a lot of records with funny inscriptions. Recently I found a record that had “To Jean Paul from Linda” on it, the whole thing was struck through, then written underneath, “Linda.” You could kind of imagine that Linda gave that to Jean Paul as a gift and then something bad happened and she took the record back. It goes to show that records are not just objects but have a life, and once you’re gone, hopefully they’ll fall into the hands of someone who will appreciate them. I really don’t mind when I find records that have phone numbers on them—sometimes I’m tempted to call numbers from the ’70s on an Al Green record or something.

You did a TEDx Talk a while back, the first on the culture of collecting vinyl. Tell me how that came about.

I was initially very excited and then, soon after, very scared and terrified. When I realized that it was the first one of all the TED and TEDXes that was ever done on that subject, I was like wow, fifteen minutes to introduce people to this obsession is quite a task.

Digging some 45s in the fabulous Tucker & Bloom bag.

I was trying to find the right middle ground between speaking on behalf of a worldwide, very substantial hobby and community, but also bet that 99% of the audience didn’t know this was a thing. You have to start back at the beginning.

I really liked what you had to say about diggers acting as cultural historians.

What’s interesting about record collectors is I think the reason why we do it and reason why it’s important aren’t necessarily the same. I don’t think record collectors view themselves as cultural historians or having a grand sense of purpose when they do this, but I think they do this because they love music and because they’re addicted to the thrill of the hunt, the thrill of the chase, the feeling you get when you find something great.

There are so many ways to find vital record digging information. Magazines,  reference books, online forums, and other DJs. I think there’s something great in all these sources.

People have been archiving records for the past 100 years; it does have cultural value and, yeah, if it weren’t for collectors, there’s a whole chunk of musical history that would be gone forever, especially people who were doing it in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.  They protected records that were disappearing and were helping restore records where there were literally one or two copies.

I don’t think whoever was chasing down those records was doing it with an educational purpose. None of the record collectors I meet along the way talk about music in academic terms; they don’t view it as that. But it was interesting for me to build the TED Talk and take a step back and look at the culture and community as a whole.

Another aspect of digging for you, of course, is sharing your music through DJing and your site/podcast, Music is my Sanctuary. Why is it still so important for you to produce the site, considering there’s so much information online about various records?

It’s a site I started ten years ago in a real, real simple way with the motivation of getting a podcast out there. In those days, I was still in the mode of DJing and walking around constantly handing out mix CDs to people in clubs. Then, to create a podcast online, your audience is worldwide.

It grew organically from there. After three or four years, I started taking on different collaborators to the website where we produce content and host events. It’s only for the past year that I quit my job and I have been devoted 100% to MIMS; I’m trying to transform it into an actual viable business. It’s a challenge. Right now what’s difficult is there’s an imbalance between supply and demand—there’s too much content out there. There’s only so much time in the day for people to read blog posts and listen to DJ mixes, and because companies like Red Bull have now become content creators, it makes things even harder for independent players.

Tell me about 24 Hours of Vinyl. I know it’s a big party that, obviously, lasts all day and night.

It started five years ago and we’ve done 18 editions in nine cities, including London, Paris, San Francisco, Toronto and New York. The event travels and it’s meant as a showcase for the DJs and the scene of that city. I book a variety of younger DJs, older DJs, local guys, people who have international reputation, from soul to jazz to house to hip-hop. It’s a way to see how the London sound is different from the San Francisco sound.

Show Stage Passes. I always dreamed that my DJing would take me around the world. It’s really a privilege.

I’m there for 24 hours and get to see the dopest, dopest records because we book fifteen DJs and everyone comes and brings their best shit. Every edition I walk away with, like, 100 discoveries I wouldn’t have discovered on my own, or things that would’ve taken me ten years to find. It’s a streaming event and also one to come to in person.

I’m from San Francisco, how’s our sound differ from other cities in your mind?

The music that was played there was really interesting. Montreal is such a cold city that when I went to San Francisco, you could really, really feel the difference—at least a third of the lineup was playing balearic sounding tracks, the kind of music you would listen to on the beaches of Spain, Italy or California in the ’80s. Balearic as a sub-genre of electronic music is hard to define, though. The sound is more about a vibe and a setting; they’re very sunny sounding records. In Montreal, no one plays that.

The San Francisco edition included Shortkut from the Beat Junkies, Nina Sol, Vin Sol, and Platurn, an Oakland legendary scratch DJ.

Radio seems to be a theme for you, and you mentioned you had a radio show in college.

I’ve always loved radio as a medium. I think playing on the radio allows you as a DJ so much freedom. Yes you can play bangers, but you can also play stuff that’s a little more listening vibes or maybe versions and songs that wouldn’t necessarily make people dance.

When I started DJing at a Montreal internet radio station in 2000, I DJed strictly UK garage; it was my first obsession and first style as a DJ. I was in university and didn’t have any money, but UK garage was extremely expensive and hard to find. We had to import all records for, basically, $20 a record, so I took the furthest thing from the easy road with DJing. I’ve always been like that. I’ve always followed my heart when it comes to DJing; I won’t jump on the bandwagon just because I think it would get me more gigs.

Groove Chronicles – Another Endless Groove (1998, Groove Chronicles) “Stone Cold “ is hands down my favorite 2step track (a sub-genre of UK Garage) ever. The production on this 20 year old track is a cutting edge as it was on day one.

No one cared about UK garage. I think I had the first UK garage radio show in North America, maybe outside of England. In those days you couldn’t say “Hey come to my UK garage night.” I had to explain it like, “It’s kind of like Timbaland combined with drum and bass.”

Montreal is probably one of the worst radio cities in the world and has been for the past 30 years. We don’t even have a hip-hop station. There’s not a station for urban music and it’s 2017. It’s either top 40 EDM kind of stuff or adult contemporary. It’s really depressing. When you go to a city like London and look at the quality of the radio there, it’s insane. No wonder people in London have a deeper appreciation for music, because they grew up on better music.

Angelillo & Hamel  – Complicité (1974, Barclay) This deep Montreal record has a  Brazilian bossa nova flavor , an unusual feel for a city that has snow on the ground 6 months a year.

I went on a radio interview for CBC, and they asked me to play rare Canadian records and I brought a bunch, except I didn’t have Angelillo & Hamel Complicité because I didn’t have it on vinyl. The host played up the fact that I was looking for this record and within five minutes someone called the station, and two days later someone sent that to my house.

Are there any songs or genres you specifically play out as opposed to those you just enjoy curating and collecting?

Whenever I buy a record I try to find a place for it, whether it’s playing it in a club or playing it on a radio mix. Music is my Sanctuary is always a way for me to play stuff that wouldn’t necessarily make people dance. An ideal month would be one gig that’s very, very dance floor for house and techno and broken beat and stuff, and one gig that’s more on a listening tip like supper club and soul and Brazilian and jazz.

I don’t necessarily like the word collector. The world collector feels like something that’s more centered toward you. It’s almost like the act of collecting means you go out into the world, find something that means something to you, you bring it home and save it for yourself and you enjoy it alone in your basement. I have nothing against that, but it’s never really been my mission. The first reflex that i have is to share it with someone in some way. Whether it’s sending it to a friend or putting it on a show, playing it in a club, writing a post about it.

The beautiful part of being a record collector is having an outlet for it. The way of keeping your sanity and sense of purpose, otherwise you’re just kind of buying records for the sake of the object and for being a completist.

Did you have a mentor?

In Montreal, my two biggest musical influences were Christian Pronovost and Dr. Love. I used to work with them at the legendary Montreal spot Inbeat Records. I was the young kid just soaking it all in when I started DJing.

From a more general standpoint, I would say my biggest influence is Gilles Peterson. I was always an extremely open minded music lover, but he was the one that taught me about eclectic or freestyle DJing, radio hosting and overall passion for music past and present.

Who would you like to see next on Dust and Grooves?

I would say either Aki, who runs Cosmos Records in Toronto, Jean-Claude Thompson of If Music in London, my good friend and talented producer Onra and Chee Shimizu, a fantastic digger from Tokyo.

 

Learn more about DJ Lexis and Music Is My Sanctuary & 24 Hours of Vinyl

 

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