Your pal DJ Es here – and I have some important news.
I’m moving out this week. I’m headed back to where I came from. I’m looking forward to full-time employment, no more homework, and even longer bike rides. Living with my parents until I can find a place of my own. Rummaging in the men’s section at Goodwill and finding middle school lacrosse jerseys from the kids who used to make fun of my name. You know, all that good stuff that comes with the next stage of life.
Despite all this hope for the future, it hits me. I’m. Leaving. Philly. My home for the last 5 years. And, since my record collection has quadrupled in size in that timespan, I figured I’d round up a handful of my favorite Philly cuts. Where you live influences what you like, after all….
Panic Buttons – O Wow
First heard on The Philly Sound Get Down – a CD comp put out by Funkadelphia Records. Dug the original 45 at Sit n Spin Records.
To round out 2016, WKDU DJs wrote about their fave music memories of the year. We’ll share some each day until New Year’s Eve. Here’s the third, and stay tuned for more tomorrow!
By Es Hamidi
Some of my favorite musical memories of 2016, in order of appearance:
The Snails at Kung Fu Necktie, March 4th, 2016.
The Snails (no, not that corny Philly band of the same name!) are the most fun rock and roll band I have come to know. Featuring Sam Herring and William Cashion of Future Islands and a few more of their friends, the amicable arthropods produced a concert experience that was as sweaty as it was musical. They captivated the room, even playing one song twice in a row in the middle of their set (“Wow, that one was so good, we’re gonna do it again!”). Their album, Songs from the Shoebox, is no slouch either.
As FM radio began to advance technologically in the late 1960s, it was common for radio stations to invest in an FM license to augment their AM signal.
At the time, AM was the dominant force in commercial radio – FM was experimental, unproven and new. Its higher fidelity meant that it would be suitable for all kinds of music, not just loud wall-of-sound 45s. Also, at the time, it was really hard to fill a full 24/7 week of programming, because radio automation was limited to creepy, finicky electromechanical systems.
With the AM station serving as the primary revenue stream, programming on FM was often less of a concern for station management. As a result, a lot of FM programming came out of the gate unencumbered by program directors, ratings, and other stifling nonsense. These new FM stations needed people to independently pick and play records, while tolerating late hours and little pay. With little oversight, these people had to be DJs, music historians, and entertainers. On the FM, they created freeform radio.
A radio format describes the typical “sound” of a station. Radio formats are defined inside the industry by radio station program directors to describe their audiences to prospective advertisers, not to describe genres or styles of music for the sake of art. When a station adopts a format, they take control away from the DJ, and formalize the process of picking music. It becomes less organic, less personal, and more commercial.
Freeform radio contrasts with the glossy inhumanity of commercial radio, and the fumbling ineptitude of some college radio. Freeform radio isn’t just the absence of a format: The idea of freeform radio rebels against any notion of what “should” be played, thumbs its nose at advertisers trying to quantify its audience, and places complete control in the hands of the DJ. He or she is your friend, playing records for you on your living room stereo. It’s a tasteful, intimate, trusting connection. They’re not barking at you about “today’s hottest music,” they’re not telling you about this Sweet New Product™ they just endorsed — they’re just hanging out and playing records. And that is…beautiful.
So where’s Toilet Radio come into this, you ask? My previous Toilet Radio Manifesto outlined the finer points of rediscovering the crappiest, cheesiest parts of the 1970s. As Nick and I have done more radio shows under this nom de guerre, they have led me to more revelations on what Toilet Radio is, and what I want Toilet Radio to be:
An updated version of the classic freeform/progressive radio programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Think Joseph “Butterball” Tamburro and Jocko Henderson on WDAS, Michael Tearson on WXPN and WMMR, or Alison “The Nightbird” Steele on WNEW. What would they play if they were my age in 2016? What would they find notable in today’s indie music slushpile, and in WKDU’s hulking vinyl library?
Where Nick and I discover music new to us live on air, in real time. Sometimes we’ll play something only having heard a few seconds of it. Sometimes our guesses and risks pay off; sometimes they don’t. This is okay. We’re not just DJs – we’re music fans too, and discovering music is just plain fun. We’re also both just really busy guys, and it’s hard to find the time to bounce music off of each other. This is that time.
A weekly, radio-based teleportation to an imaginary living room. This living room is outfitted with thick shag carpet, wood paneling, two turntables, a 10,000 watt soundsystem, and an assortment of ugly but comfortable chairs. On the walls, there are amateur oil paintings of Hall & Oates next to ratty, screen-printed posters from punk shows. You take a seat and sip whatever you’re drinking on a muggy Monday night.At 8 PM sharp, your friends Nick and Es drop the needle on a record. You haven’t heard it before, you may never hear it again, but damn, those 1970s studio musicians could play….
After a 9 month hiatus, Toilet Radio is back on WKDU tonight, June 27th, 2016, at 8 PM EST.
Well, a lot of times things happen to you, and the only thing you can say about it is, “what can you do?”
So this blog entry is a big one for me. This blog entry covers the tape that started this whole project.
The John Minnis Big Bone Band was a 21-piece ensemble headquartered in North Philadelphia. They were headed up by its namesake, John Minnis, the trombone player and vocalist. Among their ranks were some of the finest studio and touring musicians of Philadelphia, many still active today. And guess what radio station interviewed them in 1977?
Back in the winter, I found this tape in a dusty box with many, many others. Some of my findings on the Black Experience programs in the ’70s have been covered in Part 1 and Part 2. But this one is definitely among the crown jewels of KDU. The music they play from the band’s then-newly-released album, Classic-I Live, is top-notch. The tape’s in perfect shape. The interview…is pretty funny, to be honest. The hostess and musicians cover lots of info, with plenty of the goofy awkwardness endemic to college radio. Based on the remark that John Minnis’ birthday, May 22nd, was a Sunday coming up, I can (pretty confidently?) date the interview to Spring 1977. We might be dealing with some unreliable narrators here: given that the record is supposed to have been released in 1979 (and how everyone on the tape seems to be feelin’ some kind of way), this date seems unlikely, but who knows.
I’ve probably listened to this interview fifty times. There was a period in the winter where I would listen to it on the way to class every morning. And while its 35 minutes are jam-packed with, well, jams, I knew I needed to track the full record down. According to the interview, if I was around in 1977, I could have picked it up at any of ten record stores – the long-defunct 3rd St. Jazz and King James Record Shop among them.
Trying to find the record: I put out feelers to all my record-collecting friends, with no luck. Apparently it was reissued in Japan in the mid-1990s, but a friend’s travels in Japan failed to yield anything other than directions to the “big band” sections of numerous record stores. Blast. I ended up finding a copy online, and paying a stupid amount of money. But I got it. Score.
The record itself has some great rough edges. The decidedly mid-fi production value of the live cuts leaves some flubbed notes out to dry. But – after all – this is a big band! The idea of 21 musicians (count ’em – 21!) churning out grooves like this live on stage is positively electrifying. I cite the extended percussion workout of “What Can You Do” (evident at the 11:30 mark in the interview) as a prime example. They just keep going. And the studio cuts are genuine rare classics. There are covers of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye tunes in there (WHAT?!?) – someone’s bound to sample this one of these days. If you ever see this record while digging, grab it….
One of the most fun parts of this project is the alumni of WKDU I’ve had the pleasure of talking to. In gathering information, they’ve been invaluable. So first thing, I’d like to thank everyone I’ve spoken with so far: Kevin Brown, Johnpaul Golaski, Mel “Average Guy” Holmes, and Al Knight.
Today’s find was by way of Facebook. The alumni of WKDU have a group where they keep in touch and post the artifacts of those days. Browsing some shots from the 1974 Lexerd (Drexel’s yearbook) yielded this:
A few months ago, I discovered a long-overlooked box of reel-to-reel tapes in the studio. After blowing my nose and clearing the dust, I grabbed a few and headed over to a friend’s place to hear them. Thank heavens for friends with reel-to-reel decks.
Every other tape we tried had already completely disintegrated into a pile of dust and polymer goo. When tapes are old and dying and you play them, they squeal in pain. The dried out oxides that make up the tape scrape across all the parts of the tape machine, peeling and crumbling everywhere. It’s pretty much the worst thing ever.
But after wading through tape after tape of hiss and warble, I found some true gold. And it was in pretty nice shape, too.
This is a portion of a live tape recorded at the Kim Graves nightclub on December 29th, 1978. The Black Experience crew was there to record a band called The Production, a local group headed by Curt Campbell. The show was to be aired later on Kevin Rice’s show. They hit record when the house band was warming up….
It’s an amazing listen, with tight funk and hilarious crowd banter. The band finishes up with a cover of Expansions by Lonnie Liston Smith, which rules. WKDU alumnus Kevin Brown was present for the recording. Here’s what he has to say about it:
“This is a very interesting piece here because you have major stars in the Philadelphia music and sports scene in attendance. The host is Dr. Perri Johnson one of the top [personalities] on WDAS-FM whose music sometimes overlapped with what we were playing on the Black Experience in Music. Also Kenny Gamble one of the founders of Philadelphia International Records. Darryl Dawkins [of the 76ers] was also one of the judges of the show. The hilarious comedian was “May West” a black male comedian in drag doing a spoof on the real Mae West.”
Now, the plot thickens: Since hearing this tape, I’ve determined that The Black Experience on WKDU was the catch-all name for a group of DJs that ruled the weekend airwaves from around 1972-1981. Jazz, funk, disco, and other smooth styles were the focus. Little information has survived from that era, but as I talked to alumni and others, it’s clear that there was a lot of cool stuff going on. Patience, college radio historians: I promise there’ll be more on this in the near future.
Kevin Brown was nice enough to send me another reel full of station IDs, promos, and other cool stuff. Here’s a station ID that’ll flip your lid like it flipped mine:
A couple Friday mornings back, I went to the station. When I got there, this was leaned up against the door….
Inside were about 50 records. All were tagged WKDU circa 1971-1981. I can only speculate that maybe a former DJ, in an act of redemption, decided to give them back after “borrowing” them.
At KDU, there aren’t a lot of rules, but one stands out: NO STEALING. Says so on the door, probably written in DJ blood.
It’s interesting that these records made it back, but even more interesting that they were left on the outside. It implies that whoever gave them back is far enough removed from the station that they couldn’t enter. Otherwise, they could’ve put the records back themselves, or hidden them somewhere within the station’s many nooks and crannies. The plot thickens….
So I started looking through the records, because that’s what I do when a random bin of records appears on my doorstep. Here are some of my favorites from the stack. Oh, and in case you’re curious: Yes, I did put them back on the shelf, where they belong.