One of the UK’s go-to rare record dealers, Nick Girdwood, AKA Nick The Record, has stories. He got his start DJing free parties in London in the early 1990s, was one of Arthur Russell’s first champions, and took his zeal for hard-to-find disco, soul, funk and house music to Japan, where he DJed the country’s first-ever outdoor rave in 1993. It was a moment that hatched his dance party, Lifeforce, which he hosted every three months for almost 20 years, as well as his world-travelling DJing and collecting career.
In September 2014, around the release of the fourth edition of his Under The Influence compilations, Nick The Record sat down with Bill Brewster to talk about his first and favorite record finds, changing collectors’ trends, his wildest digging stories, and clubbing in Japan for the first time.
What year were you born?
Did you have sisters that were into music?
I had two older sisters, but they weren’t really into music any further than the charts. But obviously Lover’s Holiday and The Jacksons were in the charts around that time and they used to love what they called “disco.” I didn’t think it was all that cool at the time. I was into the Specials. I used to like dancing to disco.
When did you start collecting?
“Oliver’s Army” was the first record I bought when I was eight. And I actually did my impression of Elvis [Costello] and sang in class at school. Then I used to save my pocket money and every other week I could buy a little single. Later I got into the 12"s.
Do you remember the first 12" was?
No. Back then they weren’t very good value for money because you often got the 7" version but on a 12".
The age you are, you would’ve been into StreetSounds weren’t you?
Oh, totally. That’s what got me into dance music. What I did discover through them was that I loved electro. I didn’t even know what it was called. But there was the odd track on the StreetSounds by Tyrone Brunson, “The Smurf” and I absolutely loved it. So I was really into that sound and I didn’t even know it was called electro. I already had [Afrika] Bambaataa’s album by then.
What was the vibe at school, were there other people into it?
There weren’t many other people into it. I schooled Paul and a few other mates. I guess I was the oldest in our little breakdance crew.
Do you remember the first house record you bought?
I remember buying Adonis’ “No Way Back” but not knowing it was a house record. Genres were all mixed up then — you just bought a dance record. I’d have mixed it with a hip-hop record or whatever. I was buying things like T-Coy, “Carino,” without really knowing they were house records.
Where were you buying them from?
There was a shop in Watford called Past & Present where I bought a few bits. Think I got the Afrika Bambaataa from there. Then there was a market stall in St. Albans and he had a deck set up and you could play stuff all day, hang out and listen for good stuff. He was the first place I saw who had imports.
What was your first job after you left school?
Before I’d even left school I worked in a CD shop, ironically enough. It was in Watford on a Saturday. I also worked at this stall inside a mall in St. Albans. Worked there for a while can’t remember if that was like after I left school. Think it was. I did have a boring office job.
I started out trading with friends but they weren’t keeping up with me, so I started selling them.
What was your first full-time job in music?
I worked in Quaff when that was a record shop just off Ladbroke Grove, in the back of a clothes shop just off Portobello Road.
Was it associated with the one on Berwick Street?
This was before Berwick Street.
Was Roy The Roach involved?
It was his shop.
What did it stock, because he was into rare groove at one stage wasn’t he?
That’s what we had: rare groove, a section of disco 12"s, quite a lot of 7"s. I just did Friday and Saturdays then. But every week there’d be new stuff to look through. At that time there was guy, can’t remember who it was, but he was supplying them with 12"s, like West End [Records] and so on.
Were you there as a specialist?
I was there because I was enthusiastic really. They had a shop in Finsbury Park before Ladbroke Grove, which was also open at the same time as LG. It stayed open when LG opened. I went to that one as a punter, got on really well with them, bought a load of stuff. Then they offered me a job at the LG one. Not even sure it was open that many days a week. I did that for about a year, then I got a job in Red in Soho which later became Unity. Think it was in Beak Street.
When did you take the plunge and become a dealer?
When I left there I bummed around for a bit, and I’ve been picking up the odd double here and there. I started out just trading with friends but they weren’t keeping up with me and coming up with swapsies so I started selling them to a few friends. Started with a box of doubles.
Where were you going digging?
In the suburbs of London. Not that many people were up on the 12" thing so you’d find a shop that was more into soul LPs and 7"s and they’d have a lot of 12"s, but it was their worst selling area. So I was exploring the early garage and the disco stuff before too many other people were taking an interest. I went down to a shop in Croydon and bought a stack of 12"s. Just in London and the outskirts basically.
Did working in a record store provide a good grounding for what customers wanted, what would sell, etc?
I guess it did to a degree, but it was more that I was passionately investigating things, but never thought I was going to make a living selling records until much further down the line.
I was ahead of my time ‘cause not many people were looking for 12"s, especially for garage, but it sort of made sense to me that if I like this record then others will too.
I was trying to push Arthur Russell when people weren’t ready.
When did it become a business?
It was gradual. I started doing record fairs. Basically me and Gerry Rooney used to go to the fairs then Gerry said, “Why don’t we set up a store?” I remember I only had four boxes then and that was half a table. I’ve got a lot more now!
Was it good enough at the fair to be encouraged?
Actually a was a bit discouraged actually. “I got all these great records still here at the end of the day!” So it was a bit of a reality check. I remember not being able to sell my copies of Tree House for six quid! But I was trying to push Arthur Russell when people weren’t ready.
What were you looking for when you hunted for records? Just the stuff you liked or other stuff that you sensed might have a market?
There was always a bit of that, but I would concentrate far more on stuff I liked. Even to this day, I might price a record lower because I’m not that mad on it.
So there’s still some sort of emotional connection to them even though you’re selling them?
Oh yeah, definitely. I got a house full of ‘em!
Is it harder to make a living from selling record than it was 15 years ago?
Not really. It’s definitely harder to find the records. If I hadn’t started 20 years ago there’s no way I could do it now.
I could go for a three week trip and I could probably buy 100 records a day and sooner or later I’d hit the jackpot and find a disco collection.
Really? Because you’ve already got a lot of stock to sell?
No, because I’ve got a lot of contacts. When I first started going to America, I could go for a three week trip and I could probably buy 100 records a day and sooner or later I’d hit the jackpot and find a disco collection. Someone would have them or someone would give me a number of someone. Then I’d buy 500 or 1,000 records in one go. It was possible then, whereas now if I went to States without having set up things to go and look at, things would be really difficult.
So you can’t just rock up to a town or city now and grab the Yellow Pages and work from there?
It would be time-consuming and you wouldn’t get many records. People are still finding stuff occasionally so you might get lucky. But back then, you didn’t feel like anyone else was looking for 12"s. Even less so in America. Maybe in New York, where they had history, but in other parts on the country it was like, “Please take them away!”
Tell me about a typical trip to the States 15 years ago.
I’d choose an area. Maybe there would have been a record show on. So that’s a good place to start. Once you started spending money at a record shop, people would start inviting you back to their house to look at more stuff. Everyone would tell you about what shops were around. You’d look in the Yellow Pages. Canada was even friendlier. People would give you phone numbers of collectors. I’d run around hitting shops, and sooner or later you’d hit one decent-sized collection through a collector or shop who’d bought a disco collection but it was sat out in the back ‘cause they didn’t know what to do with it.
What are the logistics of getting records back here? Did you use a boat?
I’ve only used to a boat once or twice, I’d usually use air freight. You just have to pack them well. The difference in cost between ship and air is so small unless you’re importing 20,000 records. You gotta pay import duty. It costs about $1 for every record I bring back with shipping and tax.
Without giving too much away, which are the top digging spots?
To be honest, I’m mainly buying collections these days. I’ve bought a lot of DJ collections. Or music business people’s collections. If you look after them, give them a good chunk of money, they’ll be hapy to tell you about their friend who’s also selling. In recent years I’ve bought more quite big collections, people with 10,000, 20,000 records. I’m getting people who thought they’d never sell theirs but they need the money or the space or whatever. One of the collections I bought recently, the guy needed the money. But then another just wanted the room back. That was one of the biggest DJs in Philly.
How would you assess it?
I’d go over there, but you can get an idea by how old they are, what record pool they were in. But the main thing I look at is condition, whether they’ve had anyone else in and bought the best stuff already because that’s often the case.
How have collecting trends changed since you started?
There’s been loads of genres that have come and go. At the moment, island stuff is quite hot — stuff from places like Trinidad. There’s actually quite a lot of that stuff in New York because of the Jamaican community, and Canada is definitely good for reggae, but it’s not the run of the mill stuff which is why it’s expensive. Saying that, a lot of it is terrible. There’s a lot of very average, very sloppy ones that people are paying money for. I’m more consistent, I just like any good record. Whether it’s out of fashion now, it will always come back into fashion. It might not sell now, but it will sell eventually.
There’s a guy called Stinky Steve...he’s banned from most record shops. But he keeps coming up with rare records so they kind of have to let him back in.
House has become very collectible now, hasn’t it?
There’s definitely been a resurgence in house. I’ve always had a bit of house on my website, some real classics from Chicago and New York, but mostly nothing after 1990. I wouldn’t say it’s gone up in price particularly, but it sells much more easily.
Record collecting does attract quite a lot of nutcases. Have you dealt with many madmen over the years?
Oh God…. [chuckles] I possibly am one. I’ve dealt with some strange ones in England, but it’s next level in America. There’s a guy called Stinky Steve who pretty much lives in his car. He’s banned from most record shops. But he keeps coming up with rare records so they kind of have to let him back in. He’s a bit of a legend. There’s other guys who’ve just got crazy houses, where you can hardly move for records. There’s one guy, he’s always asking me about Northern soul. He’s really into ’50s, the era when you’d ask a girl to dance, and he can’t get his head around guys dancing on their own. He thinks it’s a bit dodgy…or gay. He’s asking me about this newfangled Northern soul stuff, a little example of how record people get stuck in their era. There’s lots of people from my era who’ve bought all the 12"s from those electro compilations. They were seminal and no one could afford to buy the imports back then.
What’s the best haul of records you’ve ever had?
There have been a few. You know the moment in High Fidelity where he finds the ultimate record collection? I get one of those every two years. They’re all slightly different but I always get one killer collection every few years. I’ve found pockets of smaller stuff in England, but it’s usually in the States. I can’t really pick one, but the first haul that really set me up and took me to a new level of selling records was this warehouse in Chiago called Horizons. They had a little shop and a warehouse. They’d had a catalogue that they went me through the rare groove era. I’d bought stuff like James Mason from them and things like that. Their catalogue had priced records by the year. So if it was 77/78/79 it was $15, if it was 74-76 it was $20, if it was 70-73 it was $25. They didn’t know what any of the records were so this was as good a method as any. So they did really good business through the rare groove years. They also sent out a 12" catalogue, $6 each.
When I finally went to the warehouse, they basically said the only really good customers were me and some people in Japan. They worked on their albums but they weren’t hot on 12"s. Eventually I went to their warehouse when I started going to America and I walked in and got chatting. Pretty much the first shelf I looked at…You know that purple P&P sleeve? There were about 300 copies of every P&P release just sat there. So I bought every copy of every P&P record and tons of great stuff. Went through that warehouse and he had a second warehouse. He didn’t really want me to go there because it was a floor in a massive warehouse complex. There was no toilet even. I’d got to the point where I’d been to the first warehouse and I had money to spend: let’s do it. Started going to this warehouse every day. First day I got locked. I was too busy looking at records and they locked the doors at four o’clock. Had to jump out of a second floor window to get out. Then I did the same again next day! Also there was no toilet there so I took this massive detergent bottle with a big hole at the top. Pissing and shitting in that. A week’s worth of piss and shit in this bottle.
Back then you’d make up a price based on how rare it seemed and how good it was.
When we came to leave, we had like a pallet with 20 boxes on it and I put this bottle on top of the boxes of records and we’re pushing the pallet over to the lift. And the floor was uneven in the lift as we did it the bottle fell off. Luckily it didn’t get the records. There was a weeks worth of detritus pouring down the lift shaft and all over the place. The guy who’s business it was was freaking out. He was really worried ‘cause he was renting it off some bigger company. Cleaned it up and driving back to his place finally after 40 minutes he cracked up laughing.
Are there any records you’re after you’ve never found?
There are a few I’ve had to buy for big buy money, giving up on the fact that I’d find them. I justified it to myself by saying that when I found it in the wild I could always sell it again. The things we do to justify our buying habits. You know on every trip there was always records I’ve never seen before so there’s always something to surprise you.
Do you ever find stuff that when you Google it, there’s nothing at all on the net?
How would you price it?
Back in the day before the internet, if I had 50 copies of something I used to price them quite friendly. But now because everything’s harder to track down you’ve got to get what it’s worth. Back then you’d make up a price based on how rare it seemed and how good it was. Whereas now, if I’ve got one spare copy and there’s no information about it, I’ll hang on to it.
How much stock do you keep at any one time?
Probably 20-30,000. Not all of this is stock I’ve sorted through. At least 15,000 good records I’ve got in stock.
What’s your favorite record fair and why?
Fairs are a bit dead these days.
What about Utrecht?
I only really do Utrecht. I’m not trying to do lots of them but Utrecht is still good. It’s not nearly as good for finding bargains as it was. The last three or four fairs, I buy 100 records and now I’m buying maybe 20.
Tell me about putting the album together.
Because it’s called Under The Influence, I’d be a bit more varied in my choices. It felt more like it should have a variety of stuff on there. So I guess I drew from a few electro era tracks, plenty of disco, there’s an island version of “Can't You See Me.” There’s a few what I would call after hours tunes, some slow ones. “Touching The Times,” “Music For Us,” the Italo one. They’re the sort of things I play as encore records at seven in the morning in Japan. I wanted it to represent what an eight hour set would cover. A bit of history. Under The Influence, basically.
How did you first end up in Japan?
This guy Massa started coming to score off my roommate when I lived in Kentish Town. He was always fascinated by my room full of records. So we’d sit and smoke and listen to records together. And he started coming more frequently – he lived in Wales – then he started coming to a few pre-parties I was doing and outdoor parties I was doing in the early ’90s. Then he started going to a few clubs I was doing in London. Then one night he said, “Shall we try and do something like this in Japan?” To which I of course said, “Yes. Let’s do it.”
Now there are outdoor parties every week in Japan, but then there was just clubbing.
First went over in September 1993 and it was very grassroots, friends of friends thing. It grew quite slowly, but basically I had planned to go travelling for six months after the first trip, but he wanted to do it again for three months. First one was like an outdoor festival, sort of hippie festival, and the last night was a rave party. I’m told that was the first outdoor rave in Japan, with someone playing records. Of course there was a great club scene already but we took the party/rave element over there. Now there are outdoor parties every week in Japan, but then there was just clubbing.
Do you still do them?
We don’t do Lifeforce anymore. Massa got a bit difficult to work with the last few years. So I said I’d take a break. I’m still going to Japan to do other things. We’ve managed to corrupt them. When I first went there was very little in the way of drugs there, but you wouldn’t have known because the atmosphere was new and exciting; it sort of looked the same as a rave in England. There were a few doing acid but there were very few Es about. It’s grown a lot.
How has the internet changed record collecting? Good and bad.
Every town you go to now, there’s at least one really smart internet-savvy digger running round every spot, every week. That’s why it’s much harder. Whereas in the past, some obscure 12" could sit in the racks for six months. Now with the internet, and even worse looking up stuff on their phone while they’re in the shop.
I can sell a wide variety of stuff now. Whereas before I would’ve ignored sealed Rolling Stones records, now with Discogs, they’re very easy to sell. A couple of years ago I went on a trip to a guy’s collection and he used to work at Atlantic. He was a promotions guy. He’d failed to tell me he’d sold all his 12"s to someone else 20 years ago. It wasn’t what I was hoping for but sealed rock and pop stuff, Madonna promos, Rolling Stones sealed. It’s not as much fun and it’s not what I’m looking for. But when it’s in front of you, you might as well buy it.
So the internet has helped with sales and people seem to buy much more variety of music. But it’s obviously made it harder to find records and a bit more tricky to buy records, because people will look up records and see they’ve got a few valuable things and think that everything they’ve got is valuable. Now I only sell on Discogs but my priority is my own website DJ Friendly. Discogs I’ll put all the non-DJ Friendly stuff plus some DJ Friendly stuff to encourage new customers.
This interview was conducted in September 2014. © DJhistory.com