Doc tells the story of Toronto’s Play De Record store
In the 1990s, the Yonge Street strip between Gould and Elm was Record Store Central.
There were the two multi-storey retailers that everyone was familiar with – Sam the Record Man and A&A – which sat practically next to each other, while Cheapies and Sunrise Records were located a stone’s throw from the other side of the street. If you wanted the latest popular hits from the major labels, this was the place to go.
But if you were a club or radio DJ with a penchant for something beyond the mainstream, there was only one destination to get the latest in hip hop, drum and bass, house, techno , funk, Latin, electronic, jazz, soul and other underground dance music offerings: Play De Record at 357A Yonge St.
Eugene Tam, the Trinidad-born store owner who started the company in 1990, went to great lengths to ensure that when it came to getting the latest in dance music, Play De Record was de facto ground zero for vinyl enthusiasts, catering to – and ultimately usurping – a crowd served at the time by record retailers Starsound and Carnival.
“We had what no one else had,” Tam says in the new two-hour documentary “Drop the Needle,” which will premiere to a sold-out Saturday screening at the Hot Docs Cinema, with a second screening on November 6.
Directed by first director Rob Freeman and crafted by freelance sportswriter Neil Acharya, the film offers a fascinating look at the evolution of the underground urban music scene that was virtually ignored by the vanilla Canadian music industry, and the role of Tam as a catalyst in his development through Play De Record.
Operating out of the back of a convenience store next to the famous Zanzibar Tavern, Tam initially stocked mostly calypso, soca and reggae records until a local DJ, Jason “Deko” Steele , connects him with a Montreal connection and convinces him to carry more. obscure titles.
Tam quickly recruited other niche-specific DJs to work in the store – Jason Palma, Peter Primiani, Aki Abe and Shams Tharani – and word quickly spread among the underground music community to the point that turntables and Influential broadcasters ranging from CFNY hosts Chris Sheppard and “Deadly” Hedley Jones, Paul “Mastermind” Parhar and future DJ-turned-comedian Russell Peters gathered every Thursday for the latest vinyl gems.
The mood was friendly but competitive, said David “Click” Cox, who sent music from Play De Record to his University of Edmonton radio show before moving to Toronto in 1994.
“It’s part of the culture, especially hip hop: I’ve always wanted to play fresh, new music that no one has ever heard. I wanted to be the guy they heard from, me first.
To put the era in context, there were virtually no Toronto radio stations supporting hip-hop, with the exception of Ron Nelson’s “Fantastic Voyage” show heard on CKLN from 1983 to 1991. mainstream alternative radio station CFNY finally gave the dance crowd Saturday night with shows with Sheppard and MuchMusic chiming in with a pair of shows, “RapCity” and “X-Tendamix,” which helped give some of that music—and seminal Canadian hip-hop artists like Maestro Fresh Wes, Ghetto Concept, Kardinal Offishall, and Saukrates—a national platform.
“One thing that surprised me was the real lack of support that underground music, especially Canadian hip hop, received during this time,” director Freeman said in an interview. “South of the border there was great music coming out every week in that genre and we in Canada absolutely had the talent.
“We had promoters. We had artists… And the fact that all these talented individuals didn’t get the recognition they deserved, I hope the film helps with that.
Over the years, Tam has done his best to grow and support the community: being the first to introduce mixtapes; offering the latest DJ sound equipment; even the construction of a studio to accommodate the first recordings of artists like Saukrates; and later, starting a DJ school when he moved to Spadina Avenue due to excessive property taxes.
Before hip-hop enjoyed the popularity it enjoys today, concert promoters like Ron Nelson brought artists like Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Queen Latifah to town and sold tickets at Play De Record.
“I was also a concert promoter and used the place as a hangout for so many people,” Cox recalled. “Drum and bass or rave or hip hop: people wouldn’t go to Ticketmaster to buy those tickets. They used to go to record stores, especially in the 90s. It’s a big part of culture and history.
Of course, life goes on and things change. As the film shows, the Internet, free access to music and software slowly eliminated demand for Tam’s many services, and although Play De Record still exists 32 years later at 411 Spadina Ave., it is his only sentinel, always pushing the vinyl he loves so much.
With nearly 60 people interviewed for the documentary, “Drop The Needle” is not just a Toronto musical story that needs to be told, but a testament to Eugene Tam’s legacy: one in which resilience, perseverance and innovation illustrate this hitherto unrecognized hero of the underground music scene.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION