Words: April Greene | Images: Eilon Paz
ing Britt’s real name is King Britt. King James Britt, to be exact. Fitting, as the man’s demeanor is royal, his words poetic, and his record collection simply divine.
Sacrilege aside, we did have a glorious day with King. After navigating the unfamiliar Philly subway system on a rainy, windy Sunday afternoon, we alighted from the elevated train in King’s Fishtown neighborhood and wound around some blocks of funky corner stores and community gardens to find our man.
King answered the door with a warm smile and we de-shoed in the entryway, then followed him up a flight of stairs. We took seats in the living room, the TV-less epicenter of the beautiful townhouse. Beside a wall’s length of bookcases filled with vinyl, the room sang with style – from the big framed black-and-white Michael Halsband photo of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat above the three turntables to the big book of Swoon’s artwork on the coffee table to the vintage lightbox ad for Schmidt’s beer perched high on a bookshelf.
We chatted easily about his upcoming tour dates and the Philly music scene and Rucyl Mills, a frequent creative collaborator and singer popped in, offering us delicious rooibos blend tea and homemade Quinoa (“Jesus food,” as she calls it, I gather for its miraculous blend of nutrition, simplicity, and ease of preparation). He complimented her tea recipe and she blushed; they both grinned with stars in their eyes when Portishead’s Sour Times was mentioned – it had been a bonding record during the beginning of their friendship.
For the next four hours, we were like kids in a candy store. King had picked out a small stack of records to share with us before we arrived and we blazed through them, thinking of a thousand other gems as we went. When he wasn’t putting needle to wax, King stood sentinel at the bookcases and patiently unshelved LP after LP from his lovingly curated and intelligently broad collection to play for us. He revealed his love for good album art and soundtracks, showed us some of the many scores he made while working at Tower Records in the late ’80s, and dug extra deep to find his dad’s prized collection of James Brown 45s – for years in heavy rotation at the barber shop he owned.
Along the way, we got some priceless gems:
– King shaking his head with disbelief at the coolness of the DJ Shadow & the Groove Robbers picture disc: “Come on, man!”
– King on the rarity of Sun Ra records: “Any Sun Ra you see, you have to get.”
– King on the Tears for Fears record The Hurting: “That got me through high school.” (Rucyl would ask us later, “Has he told you about Tears for Fears yet?” causing everyone to crack up.)
We also got to take a trip to King’s basement music studio, a cozy enclave housing a couple hundred more records, at least seven different keyboards, and posters of Grace Jones and Cat Power. Eilon asked if he would play a little on the Fender Rhodes, and King humbly scratched his head and mumbled something about how he “just plays around” on keys before taking a seat and immediately endearing himself to us even more with a minute’s worth of fluid, melodic phrases just off the dome.
We stayed there, pleasantly suspended in time, looking for Heatwave’s Central Heating, one of the first records King ever bought, listening to the quirky Cat Stevens’ “Was Dog a Doughnut?” 12-inch, and peeping the awesome taxicab-yellow “Record Burger” mini record player King found in Vancouver for $4 while on tour.
Eventually, we had to make tracks and look for an outdoor place to take some portrait shots. King suggested the street beneath the Market-Frankford line’s steel trellis, a path he said he walks almost every day. It was so windy, our jackets blew off the planter we had slung them on, and we had to yell “car!” like Wayne and Garth whenever one approached the photo shoot area, but that was how it should have been: easy, carefree, and a little fantastic. Once the photos were taken, we hugged King goodbye, got a candy bar at the deli, and took the train back to Broad Street, feelin’ groovy. Here’s to you, King – our favorite nobleman.
Q: What was your first album? How did you get it? At what age? Can you describe that feeling? Do you still have it?
A: It was Heatwave’s Central Heating album. I bought it with my first allowance money when I was 9! I was so proud of having it and buying it with my own cash. I do have it although can’t put my finger on it.
Q: What prompted you to start collecting? What age did you start? Was there a specific event in your life, or an era, which signified your transition from music lover to collector?
A: My parents were collectors at the time and had vinyl everywhere in the house. My dad would go to the record store a few blocks away to get tunes for his barbershop. They would give me free records and stuff. When I was 6 I got my first turntable (Danny Kaye), that came with like 100 records from Sears. From then on it was on!
Q: Tell us about a few of the first records that heavily influenced you as you developed a musical style of your own.
Talk Talk’s Life’s What You Make It, has to be one of the illest breaks ever!
Ramsey covers all Beatles songs on this with Rotary Connection’s band…damn!
A: All Herbie Hancock and Doug Carne records. Then moving onto Sun Ra and then the 80s…Trevor Horn and ZTT label were HUGE influences.
Q: What was your Initial interest in music?
A: I was born into it with my parents. Dad – Funk Mom- Jazz, so it was natural.
Q: Can you describe your family musical background and it’s affect on you?
A: My parents didn’t believe in babysitters, so they would take me to all the shows. I saw every funk and soul act. My mom had all the jazz records and would take me to see Sun Ra all the time. She still has signed Sun Ra albums somewhere in her house, which I’m not allowed to touch.
My dad had a barbershop and would buy records weekly for the vibe there. James Brown was the biggest records there. I still hear the sounds of clippers when I hear a JB record. I inherited all his 45s.
Q: Why vinyl?
A: We had vinyl and 8 track growing up. Something about the feel of vinyl and the size of the album covers!!!
Q: Can you describe your current digging habits these days? Have they changed during the years?
A: Yes they have changed big time. There was a time, I wouldn’t care how much a record is. Then it was more about ‘ego’ than the process. Now if its over $3 I don’t bother really. I’m digging more for sounds and textures to include in production, not so much records to play anymore, although I come across many.
Q: Do you have a record collecting philosophy or routine when you enter a store/flea market?
A: No. I just dig in.
Q: You toured with Digable Planets for two years – did you use that time on the road to look for records in different places? If so, how did that affect your collection? How did it affect your own music?
Original tour vinyl for Digable Planets first tour….cherished!
A: Hell yes. That was my first time touring the world, other than going to UK. I had all my connections from Tower Records (I was buyer) and when we would go to each city, I would call up those labels and go and get promos. At the same time, hitting all the dope stores worldwide!
Q: Did you contribute any of your own vinyl records to the production of Digable Planets’ albums?
A: No actually, it was all Butterfly’s collection (Ishmael). The whole concept and everything was his ….
Q: The Cosmic Lounge: how was this idea conceived? Can you show us a few records you used for it?
A: I had an idea of putting a compilation together called The Cosmic Lounge (which is from my Sylk130 project). A collection of my favorite free jazz artists. BBE was down with it and we did it. It was a bit difficult to clear a few things but all in all I loved it (except the cover)
Some of the joints from the Cosmic Lounge compilation!
Philly legend Monet Sudler…one bad ass lady!
Flora Purim…the one and only!
Q: The Sister Gertrude Morgan album: can you tell us about this concept and show us some albums related to it?
This is the original pressing…only 100 made.
A: She was a famous folk painter (Smithsonian/Folk Art Museum) and evangelist who thought she was the bride of Christ. She would stand on a corner in the French Quarter in NOLA and preach with a tamborine. Preservation Hall went on to record her in 1970 and release Lets Make a Record.
In 2005 Andy Horivitz from Rope-A-Dope thought it would be amazing for me to re-produce the album in today’s context and not just vocal/tamborine of the original.
It went on to be huge and was featured in everything from Miami Vice (Michael Mann) to True Blood (HBO). And its still going strong!
We toured Europe with the project as well.
I now only have what I need.
Picture disks have always been a passion since I was little but sold a lot of them to play video arcade games back in the day. But the ones I have are more recent but rare.
Cmon son… Dave Grusin soundtrack for 3 Days of the Condor …what!
Futura x UNKLE … $$
One of my first record when I was a kid. It’s a narration!
Soundtracks man…check the top one…lol
Thanks to dj Mochizuki in Japan for the original Ultraman!
One of the best and longest electronic tunes ever…
Library records always have fun breaks. They were used mainly for radio jocks to talk over or for commercials. The Producer series is ill!
Tito Puente signed my NuYorican Soul Box Set before he passed. Rest in Power
It was wild to find out this is Jean Grae’s mom. Respect!
Q: Who has the toughest record collection that you have ever seen?