FOR THE HOUSE MUSIC faithful there are few places on the planet more sacred than Gramaphone Records. For decades it has been the source from which Chicago’s House sound has flowed. Luminaries such as Derrick Carter, DJ Sneak, Ralphie Rosario, DJ Heather, and Colette began their careers behind the counter at “G-phone.” Globetrotting out-of-towners typically demand that their handlers bring them to the hallowed ground on Clark Street before food, rest, or the much needed Buddha session.
Last month the announcement was made that Joe and Carl, Gramaphone’s owners, would pass the business to one of the store’s managers: Michael Serafini. Michael Serafini, a top notch DJ and beloved figure in Chicago’s House Music community is now the new high priest of the record bins, and is in a position to drop knowledge about the state of Chicago House Music because he is also in a place where he can help determine its future.
Between his residency at one of Chicago’s most revered House nights, the Boom Boom Room; an 11 year old residency Tuesday nights at Cocktail; frequent guest spots around the city; and his new responsibilities as the owner of Gramaphone, Michael Serafini is difficult to pin down. In order to have a word with him, I had to meet him in the back room at Gramaphone. With the workings of a record store swirling around us we eeked out the following interview.
How did the ownership change in Gramaphone come about?
Joe and Carl wanted somebody to take over the business to keep Gramaphone alive. They needed someone to do the things that need to be done, which means you have to be a social person. You have to be nice to customers and interact with them. You have to be knowledgeable about many types of music. You need to have some stability and foresight. I guess I am that person.
Were you surprised?
It was surprising to me. I mean my reason for working at Gramaphone were like everybody else’s: we love House or electronic music and we want to use it. Gramaphone is an icon in this city and in the industry. And it is a place to network. One of the good things about it is that it is a business but it has always fostered people to be creative and use it as a platform to further their career.
Where are you from?
I’m from Chicago, from the Southside. I grew up in Bridgeport and by Midway Airport.
How did you get into DJing?
I dabbled in it starting in the ’80s, back in ’88 or ’87 but I didn’t start DJing in a club until ’93. I started by playing music videos well before I started playing records. You used to be able to mix videos. You’d play different styles but match BPMs.
When did you do that?
Back in ’91.
What got you into video mixing?
It was the music scene. I mean I liked music a lot but I wasn’t necessarily trying to be a House DJ at the time even though I loved House music. I used to go out and dance to it. I actually got hooked up at this bar up on Halsted Street called Christopher Street playing videos at their video bar. I then networked with a couple people who worked at Berlin.
At that time at Berlin we used to play comedy videos along with music videos. That was kind of what was going on at the time. We’d sometimes mix records for things that didn’t have videos. Then after a while the music video business started sucking. It was in the late ’90s – at least for dance music. There just weren’t a lot of cool cutting edge videos for dance songs so we got more and more into playing records. I got to practice more and more and do my thing. I got a following there. They really liked me and I was able to have them suffer through all my bad mixes for years until I got good. It kind of went from there and after a few years Berlin really blew up, especially when Ralphie [Rosario] started playing there with me. We had a couple really big nights there. Thursday night was called Foundation and went from ’94 until they let me go in 2002.
When did you start at Gramaphone?
In 1993 and ’94ish. I was only working a couple nights a week. I was working at Best Buy as the supervisor in the music department. I worked there full time while working here [Gramaphone]. Best Buy at that time was like Tower and Virgin where the music buyers bought the music for the store. They weren’t centralized like Walmart. They changed their policy a few years down the line to where the music was bought at first by a regional person and then the corporate offices. Soon they didn’t stock imports or anything that pertained to the local area. We just got the generic major label crap. That’s when I decided I didn’t want to be there anymore. At that time I was working here part-time too and started to ease my way in.
At first I was pretty much just a person who worked at the counter. Back in those days you worked at the counter all day, your entire shift. After being there a few years, Keith Ware, who was the “club” buyer, which pertained to the more gay-oriented dance music, quit. They needed somebody to take over that small section of buying and I took it over. Because I was a manager at Best Buy I tried to be a manager of receiving product at the store. I was taking care of returns and receiving product. But Gramaphone is Gramaphone so there wasn’t a lot of structure. Everybody kind of did everything. So they would just joke and call me the backroom manager for years, making fun of me.
After a while the section that I was buying got a little bigger. One of the things I always wanted to do for myself at Gramaphone was, well – I can remember many people not being helpful or being rude. I remember some record stores not being helpful at all. You couldn’t listen to anything. And being a young DJ who was trying to find all the good music, there would be stuff you were missing and probably didn’t know it. You couldn’t hear it at some stores. At a place like Gramaphone where there were 5 million records, you wouldn’t know where to start. I always wanted to help people who came in the store by recommending things. Whether it was something new or a good old record that they may have never heard before, I wanted to help people find what they were looking for. I think people that came in started to like that. They would start to ask me to help them. I think that made my position here a little more prominent rather than just being someone who was buying for a section. I just wanted to help everyone who came in because I just didn’t think it was cool that just because you worked at the store YOU got the cool records. Why couldn’t everybody else get them also?
When I first started shopping at Gramaphone a long time ago, it was very intimidating. People working there were assholes at first.
Yeah. A great guy, Carl Meyer – I love him. He is a really nice guy and even nicer after he mellowed over the years but I can remember when I first came to the store he was like, “Whadda ya want?? Whadda ya lookin’ for?! I do techno. Don’t bother me.” I’d be like, “Sorry, I don’t know who else to ask around here.” I thought stuff like that was kind of fucked up.
So do you think you brought on that change in outlook?
Naw, I don’t know. I just know that I did it. I mean especially nowadays when business is the way it is, you want to do everything possible to sell music. A lot of people don’t want to dig. You do get people who do want to dig and don’t want your help. But then again there are a lot of kids, especially young guys, who think it’s intimidating when you walk in, wondering “Where do I start? What are the cool records? Where do I go to find what I’m interested in?” I would help them. I mean DJ-wise, a lot of guys who are younger than me and who came in a generation after me look up to me because of that, as opposed to some of the guys who’d already been coming in for years. They were just used to it being the way it was.
You mentioned how business is. Can you elaborate on what is happening and what you think is going to happen?
It’s really hard to say. I don’t think vinyl is going anywhere just yet. I don’t know if its still going to be around in 10 years, but its not going anywhere just yet. There are so many records that were made and put out that used vinyl will probably still be around because not everyone can have everything online and available for download. Maybe eventually, someday, there will be a point like that, but I don’t see that happening soon.
Right now it’s not very good, but it is good for the people that are still hanging in there. Dancetracks in New York closed down so that only leaves Joe Claussel’s store that actually has a physical store and is dance music related. There are other records stores in New York but most of them are small and more indie or CD oriented. On the West Coast, Tweakin’ is for sale. There is Amoeba and Primal, but Primal only has a web site. Amoeba is the only thing around there that is a large institution of a record store. I think Record Time is still around in Detroit so that only leaves a few record stores. I mean there are only about six record stores in the country that are major record stores. In the United States there are millions of people.
It may not be very good but if you’re hanging in there, the people who are still looking for records are coming to you. Once we get our website up we’ll be able to see that. We see it on our eBay store definitely. Our eBay has blown up. We do really well on eBay. Hector, Andy, and Tracey have really done a lot of stuff to make it work.
You see it’s turning almost how it was 30 or 40 years ago. Only mom and pop records stores are opening up because now you do it because it is what you want to do. And you know you’re not doing it to make tons of money. It’s like it used to be back in the day.
Almost all the records coming out now – at least 90% – are from independent labels. They are not coming from major labels. Major labels send out downloads to their constituents. You’re able to buy their stuff on Traxsource or what ever. There are only a few like Defected, which is a sub-major label. Its not like Columbia, but it is fairly major. They are one of the few who is still doing vinyl constantly. Most of the stuff now is coming from small labels or guys who want to have their stuff on vinyl. They do it because they love it, not because they’re going to sell 5,000 copies.
That’s why someone will pay $150 for Capricorn I Need Love. When he was doing it, it wasn’t because he was looking to sell 5 million copies. It probably didn’t even sell 50,000. So now with records like that – the ones people are looking for that are so rare – they want to pay a lot of money for something like that. Now you get people doing runs of 500 or 1000 and you’ll be lucky if you ever see it again after that. You need a demand to do a second pressing and a lot of times you don’t have it.
The economy hurts too. The fact that the price of oil is so major hurts. People are also trying to be eco-friendly so they say, “Don’t buy vinyl because it’s made from oil.” Plus the dollar is down and all the pressings are done overseas so you are paying overseas’ prices for records while the dollar is at its lowest. So all those things are against the domestic market. If you go overseas to England, France or Japan you’ll find that their vinyl sales are doing okay. There was an article in Billboard and an article in Wired magazine that said vinyl is on a comeback. That is probably because out there, it is costing them a lot less than it is costing us.
As far as DJing – where are you trying to take it? What are your goals?
I feel that I have already reached one of my goals, which is to play at and be a part of one of the biggest and longest running nights in the city. But taking over the store has put a little side thing on that. I don’t push as much with the DJing because of all the stuff I have to do now.
I’m hoping with Gramaphone and a couple good nights that I play that I can help get the scene back to being a descent House scene. I want to reach out to more people and a younger generation. As much as I love my House community, I get sick of seeing the same people at every venue. I mean I love them all and love to talk to them, but I kind of wish there were a little more people going out like back in the day. Back then you could go anywhere and hear House. Now there aren’t a lot of places playing it. Most of these places that book a House DJ tell them they have to play some hip hop too. It seems the regular shmoe doesn’t understand House Music and doesn’t really care either.
So what would you propose? If everyone would listen to Michael Serafini what would you propose?
[Laughs] Stop playing hip-hop in nightclubs. That would be my proposal. Only play hip-hop for the last 15 minutes of the night. That’s how we used to do it back in the day. They did that at Shelter and Crobar. You’d have House music all night then when it was time to go home at the end of the night you’d throw a couple hot hip hop records and then drop a James Brown record or something. Everybody loved it and went nuts. Now when you hear hip hop all night it s just too sexual and too aggressive.
One thing – if I could do it and I would do it and I probably wouldn’t make any money from it – is start throwing underage parties like they used to do back in the day. That is one of the reasons why the house scene was so good is because all the young kids could go and hear this different music – different than what they heard on the radio and they loved it. It is just like with how you now see a lot of the old rave kids out when you go to clubs now. Something like Medusa’s or Prime and Tender.
Michael Serafini was interviewed by Jeremiah Seraphine