Just north of Yonge-Dundas Square, where the ghostly vestige of Sam The Record Man meets the kilometric span of anonymous food/tattoo/variety businesses, is the vinyl institution Play De Record. Scan the street and it’d be easy to miss the shop’s red, black and white sign: the eye automatically flits to next door’s bright lights and multi-storey porny collage, beckoning suckers to spend their ends within the dark confines of Zanzibar.
At one point, maybe to complete, you’d have to walk past glassed-in displays of pornographic material and a cramped convenience store to get to the bins of records in back of the long, narrow space. But in the mid-00s, the storefront tenants moved out and the shop expanded up front. Now Eugene Tam, whose family owns the building and opened PDR in 1990, is getting ready for its next phase.
Relentlessly friendly and mostly interested in what you’re all about, Eugene’s the guy everyone, from long-time hobbyist buyers to internationally famous DJs, knows. He can talk, in that sing-song-y, uniquely Trini lilt, about records or music, but don’t get him started on food. Despite local media’s insistence, Tam laments the lack of good West Indian food downtown, boosting the doubles from Drupati’s in Rexdale instead.
Veering wildly off-track is what happens when you visit Play De Record. Last Saturday I went in when it was light out, talked a lot, made a Deadmau5-y song, and came out after dark pumped through with bass and armed with restaurant reccos. This idea of PDR as a long-time meeting space is what prompted Tam and co-owner Jason Palma to team up with Sean Savage, an engineer/DJ/producer and Centennial College’s Recording Arts program supervisor, to form the Play De Record Academy.
Ten oversized Apple monitors, a worthy sound system, a small stage backed by a projector screen, and MPCs, turntables and synthesizers from Korg, Akai and Technics and Pioneer, line the back half of the shop. It’s been a two-year process, but the Academy is finally ready for its first round of classes on February 9.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 15 and part of the legacy of this store is it being a spot,” explains Savage. “Along with evolving along those lines, part of the impetus is the administrative and other barriers to education I saw working with ‘at-risk’ youth and students at Centennial. I wanted to do this in a really accessible way.”
‘This’ is the new frontier, the new standard, for creating music using advanced software and equipment. Currently, Savage and his small team are focusing on front-to-back immersives of Ableton Live, Traktor Pro and Reason: tools that allow the user to approach music from a variety of ways, from performative to more studio-based work. Seems the key is that positioning itself as a DJ school, Play De Record Academy takes an almost holistic approach, arming students with the tools they need to make better choices about what creative path they want to take: whether it’s producer, DJ, musician or engineer. “Everyone has this idea, especially as a kid, of who they want to be but not everyone can be famous but the Academy is here to show you what you can do,” he says.
And the courses are affordable: $600 for a 15-week, 30-hour course; or $100 for a feature-specific, one-on-one intensive. “I’m not saying it’s cheap and we aren’t offering discounts,” says Savage, who is toying with the idea of keeping couple of pro-bono spots open in partnership with community, youth-oriented organizations (no examples bc it’s TBD). “But it’s not so out-of-scope that a kid working a part-time job can’t save up for it either. And having that goal and dedication is what’s important too.”
Additionally, the Academy is using Play De’s pull as musical landmark — so many rappers and DJs and producers have passed through this place — to rope in guest speakers for workshop intensives, talks and listening sessions. French DJ/producer Onra recently hosted a listening party via Skype link-up for his latest beat tape Chinoiseries Pt. 2. And, in a happy nod to the once male-centric world of production, Savage says they’ll be bringing in Stones Throw Records musician Georgia Anne Muldrow for a workshop at month’s end.
Tam is pleased with the changes to the store (“it’s something I’d been thinking of doing, but didn’t have time for”) and the continued use of Play De as a meeting place. “It’s very challenging. We saw it coming with Stanton’s Final Scratch product and then Rane bringing out Serato,” he explains, candid about digital’s imposition on his formerly analog business. “We used to sell tons of records — thousands per week — and now I’m doing 90 per cent less than what I used to. The DJs we know are coming back mostly for needles and equipment, but we’ve made the stock smaller and are making this place more effective.”
Anupa Mistry writes regularly about music for the Toronto Standard and sends this post out to every ex-boyfriend, friend, and acquaintance who’s ever said, “Yo, check out this beat I made.” You can follow her on Twitter at @_anupa.