Oliver Wang – Los Angeles, CA
I remember when I first moved to the US, the first mixtape podcasts I subscribed to were from the Soul Sides website. I didn’t know the guy who ran the site, but I loved his selections.
That guy is Oliver Wang.
On my recent trip to LA, Oliver was the first collector to host me in his house and talk records.
We took the opportunity to conduct a short interview for his website, which was a great honor for me and also some kind of a closure. 4 years after arriving to a new country and new scene, I’m here talking close and personal with the people who helped shape my musical taste.
Enjoy this feature and look forward for some more west coast collectors.
Q: Who are you Oliver?
A: Oliver Wang, 40. I was born in Ann Arbor, spent the ‘70s outside of Boston but have been in one California city or another since 1980. Since 2006, I’ve been in the Los Angeles area.
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: The first album I ever bought was a cassette copy of In Visible Silence by The Art of Noise. I remember hearing songs off that album, including “Legs” and their cover of “Peter Gunn” on “alternative rock” radio back in the mid ‘80s and even though I hadn’t really formed an awareness of hip-hop as a genre, I already drawn to music “with beats” and The Art of Noise certainly qualified. I probably bought the cassette around the spring of 1987, back when I was 14, and I do remember buying it at Pennylane Records in Venice, CA. I still own it; it’s probably boxed up in our shed, along with most of my other cassettes. To be honest, I don’t remember the first album I bought on vinyl but the first 12” I bought on vinyl was “Tired of Getting Pushed Around” by 2 Men A Trumpet and a Drum Machine (which I’m sure I still own but I have no idea where I’ve filed it). It’s weird to realize, looking back now, how I absolutely gravitated to music influenced by hip-hop’s aesthetics even though I wasn’t even aware, back in 1987, that there was a style/genre called “hip-hop”. At that point, I was mostly listening to new wave/modern rock but looking back, it’s interesting to note that the songs that resonated with me the most were often ones that had “breaks.” That includes New Order’s “Thieves LIke Us” or even the breakdown on Huey Lewis and the News’s “Heart and Soul” where they strip the song down to hand claps and guitar. I had no musical vocabulary at the time to describe or explain what it was I liked in those moments.
One of the first 12”s I ever bought: a copy of ATCQ’s “Bonita Applebaum” that had some remix I couldn’t find on cassette. I bought this,new, from Leopold’s Records in Berkeley (RIP!)
Q: What was your Initial interest in music? Did you have any influence from your family? Or perhaps your best friend ?
A: Neither of my parents were much into music though my dad likes the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, etc. I mostly got into music via listening to the radio. It wasn’t until I was 17 or so that I became interested in actually buying music vs. just listening to whatever was on the airwaves. Hip-hop had everything to do with that transition. Run DMC and the Beastie Boys circa 1986/87 was my initial introduction but the actual gateway moment was in 1989 with De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. My desire to hear other songs/artists like that was what pulled me into buying music in a concerted, conscious way (plus reading magazines, listening to rap radio, etc.)
Q: Why vinyl?
A: In the very beginning, it was purely a matter of wanting to hear/buy certain songs that were only available on vinyl rather than cassette. I was a tape kid initially and the stuff I’d buy on vinyl, I’d just dub down to tape. But that’s how I ended up buying my early 12”s, including a version of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebaum” that had some UK mix I couldn’t find on cassette. Of course, had I known how much vinyl I’d eventually end up buying, beginning a few years later, I would have gotten a jump start earlier! C’est la vie.
Even when I first began to DJ, in 1993, I don’t think I really had caught the bug for vinyl. It was more of a tool than anything else. It wasn’t until I began – like many rap fans – to track down “original samples” that I really began to understand the particular appeal of vinyl records as these objects imbued with histories and stories, not to mention cover art and everything else.
They’re a marvelous form of media on even just an aesthetic level – there’s the pleasant symmetry in the squareness of the cover/jacket and circularity of the record. That’s to say nothing of the cover art and the ways in which every jacket is a 12×12 canvas. And then there’s how the record itself is played, laid onto a turntable (itself a work of mechanical artistry), and then tracked by a needle across its face. Whereas other musical media generally hides the mechanisms that recreate music – CD players especially – with vinyl, it’s always there in front of you and that hasn’t changed since the earliest days of the gramophone. I think there’s something awe-inspiring of technology that hasn’t fundamentally changed in 100 years, not because people are invested in its archaicness but because it still works really well. And heck, I haven’t even gotten to the actual music on the records.
De La Soul’s “Say No Go” test-press with the “Baby Huey Skit.” When I put out Incognitos, a “rare hip-hop” mix about ten years ago, I knew from early on, this would be the very first cut.
One of the better known Korean psych albums out there. Love the cover art ; it’s textured!
Q: Do you currently focus on a specific music genre?
A: Like a lot of collectors, I do have “pet” genres though I’m hardly a completionist in any single genre. For example, I do have a soft spot for soul/funk albums featuring Asian or Asian American musicians on them. My collection isn’t remotely that heavy overall in that respect…the amount of great psych out of countries like South Korea or soul-influenced Thai music is staggering and I only own a small handful of records in those genres. For a variety of reasons, least of all geographic distance and linguistic differences, it’s not easy to come by many of those records without traveling to the source. But all that said, it does tickle me to learn about groups like Please (all-Filipino, recorded in Germany) or the Thai group, The Impossibles, who put out a kick ass album on Phillips in Sweden but also recorded locally in Thailand.
From what I can tell, this is a Russian LP for some kind of Chinese themed play/opera. The records are whatever but I bought it for the cover art.
Singaporean rock groups, The Quests. They bang out a great cover of Ben E. King’s “What Is Soul.” I got this from a fellow DJ in Shanghai about ten years ago.
Please was a group of Filipino musicians. Their better known album was recorded in Germany and has a killer version of “Sing a Simple Song” but I bought this one mostly for the cover.
The Steps were a Malaysian rock band. This falls into both my “covers” and “Asian artist” collections since they do a great medley of The Turtles’s “Buzzsaw” and Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” I did an all-international covers mix called Deep Covers 2 which that medley ended up on.
I consider this the crown jewel of the “Asian artists” albums I have: a Manila-based rock/R&B band called Bits n’ Pieces. I don’t know this for certain but I’m convinced members of this group were traveling back and forth from the Philippines to the Bay Area; it’d explain some of their song
Japan-only copy of Bruce Lee’s “The Big Boss” soundtrack, complete with full-size poster. Win-win.
I met Asha Puthli at a music conference a few years back and since she was living in L.A. at the time, had the pleasure of interviewing her. A totally fascinating women with a remarkable life, in and out of music. Born in Bombay, trained in both classical Indian and Western music styles, ended up moving to the U.S. by herself in her 20s and befriended Salvador Dali amongst others.
In my opinion, her best album (self-titled on CBS, 1974): she’s got some fantastic covers on here, including one of Bill Withers’ “Let Me In Your Life” and a funky version of George Harrison’s “I Dig Love.” I put “Let Me In Your Life” on my female-soul mix, Love Me, Love Me, Love Me.
My “main” soft spot as a collector though: records with cover songs. There’s something about that combination of the familiar with the novel that gets me, everytime. I’ll pick up pretty much an album that has a decent cover song on it, even if the rest of it sucks. I often combine my interest in covers with other collecting interests…most of my Asian artist albums are ones with cover songs and I especially love gospel remakes of “secular” songs where they take the basic arrangement from the original but redo the lyrics to make them into gospel themes.
A few 7”s from my covers section. From the bottom left, moving clockwise: The Funkees (“Breakthrough”), Brenda Holloway (“Never Can Say Goodbye,” sung in French), Tyrone and Carr (“Take Me With You”, original demo version), The Exciters (“Morning)” and buried at center, Pepper Smelter (“Let a Woman Be A Woman and Let a Man Be a Man”). I’ve used almost all of these on various covers mixes I’ve done.
Budget “hits” compilation out of Hong Kong, features a cover of Boz Scaggs’ “Low Down”.
Dutch steel band album with a devastating cover of “Down By the River.” Heavy heavy heavy. I made it the centerpiece of my first all-covers mix I made years ago called Deep Covers. Bit the cover art too!
Mark Holder is from Guyana and this album features a slew of cool covers, including one of Clyde McPhatter’s “Mixed Up Cup” (with break, natch) but I actually like his cover of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” even better since it gives the song a bit of a tropical swing to it. Totally works. That one made it to Deep Covers 2 as well.
I also collect boogaloo/Latin soul albums and while my collection isn’t as completionist as it could be, I feel like I’ve made a good go at all the major NY titles and these days, have focused more on boogaloo records from outside the U.S. The style was huge in Colombia, Peru and Venezuela from what I can tell. I love how boogaloo traveled like that, especially as a style of music that was always about the crossroads of style between African American and Latin music traditions.
Hands down, the best Latin funk album that’s out there. Venezuelan if I’m not mistaken and 80% of this is pure fire.
Enrique Lynch is/was a popular bandleader in Peru and in the 1970s, he put out a series of Latin dance albums, all featuring attractive women in different outfits/settings. The on in the bottom right is the best: it’s on some Che Guevera/rebel tip (that’s a water machine gun in her hand and a grenade in the other). Hard to go wrong with “Como Canon” though, especially if you want to discuss the potential phallic imagery there.
Best Latin soul album of all time and being the ridiculous nerd I am…I own a mono gold label and a stereo cloud label…now waiting to cop that stereo gold label so I can flip these two and consolidate. Normally, I wouldn’t really care this much but for this album? Yeah, I’ll go through the trouble.
Best. Cover. Ever. Har-You Percussion Group with a phenomenal Latin soul album. This was one of my Top 3 wants of all times and I finally just threw down for it after pocketing a stash of cash for a few hundred records I was purging.
Q: Tell me more how your passion for vinyl has affected your life.
A: When my now-wife and I first moved in together, she was always very understanding (read: not about to break-up with me) over the fact that I owned a lot of records and that this would create its own challenges around space. Our first place together, a small apartment in San Francisco, lacked extra space so she was ok with us giving up one of the two bedrooms just so I could shelve my records. In hindsight, that was a ridiculous thing to do, especially since we had a newborn on the way. Luckily, when we finally bought a house together, we found one with a spare, standalone storage room that was exactly the right dimensions for my record library. That way, the records stay out of the house and the peace is kept.
I started Soul-Sides.com out of my passion for records and it’s spilled over into my professional life in unexpected ways. It did help that I was already established as a music writer but writing Soul Sides gave me a different kind of exposure and lead to everything from getting to compile two albums for Zealous (Soul Sides Vols. 1 and 2) to, these days, gigs to DJ people’s weddings!
Great cover art. Great Bay Area spiritual funk album. I bought it for around $150 in the early ‘00s and have been amazed at how it’s ballooned upwards to a $1G now! Never ever been tempted to sell it though.
Q: Flea markets, record shops, personal dealer, ebay and online stores. how do you get your vinyl fix these days?
A: Mostly online. It’s just easier (but certainly not cheaper!) than other means and given that I’m busy enough with work and family life, it’s hard to devote the time to traversing the L.A. area in search of records. I know it’s cliche to complain about the size and sprawl of the region but it really does make things more challenging here vs. a more modestly sized city where you could hit up most of the best spots inside a day or so. In L.A., the store scene is uneven, you have a massive flea market/swap meet scene that’s hard to stay on top of unless you’re willing to devote the footwork, plus storage units, estate auctions, et. al. There’s absolutely no question that L.A. has insane records out there to be found; because of the history of record labels and movie industry folks out here, millions of records were either produced or sent to people in L.A. But the trick lies in efficiently hunting down where they’ve ended up. I’ve never had the time or capital to get down with chasing after entire collections and I feel like that’s a necessary route to stay competitive with the heavier collectors out here.
I’ve actually been thinking lately that I should either commit to stepping up my record game to the proverbial next level (i.e. consolidating my current library, liquidating middling material, and focus on assembling the best collection possible for my tastes) or simply being happy with the thousands of singles and albums I already own and spend more time appreciating the music rather than chasing the records. I think “music vs. records” is a classic conflict that all collectors must run into at some point and I think, lately, I’ve felt more annoyed at organizing my collection and have, instead, been trying to remind myself to appreciate music more. (Of course, I also just shuffled my turntables around to sell off my high-end unit – a Linn LP-12 – and get a new one as my dedicated digitizing unit, a Technics SL-Q2. Clearly, I’m not abandoning records anytime soon).
Dan “The Automator” Nakamura’s first album. Looks schlocky as hell but was an early example of a DJ/producer making a “breaks”-style record for other DJs.
Q: What other goodies have you found while looking for records?
A: I get to travel for DJing and academic work and in stores I’ve been visiting in different cities, I’ve found some cool vintage record cases from the ‘60s and ‘70s. For example, I was in Cleveland a year ago for a gig at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and a store up the lake had all these well-kept, fake leather LP cases for what I thought was a surprisingly good price ($10-15, tops). If it had been easier to transport them home, I might have bought out their entire stock even though, realistically, I only need a couple of cases at any given time. But as I recently wrote, I am a sucker for a good record case, however impractical it is to own more than 2-3.
I feel like I should hit up swap meets more because I’d like to chase after concert posters and similar artwork. Ironically, as someone married to an art critic who also works, part-time, cataloging movie posters, we actually don’t have much artwork in the house and I’d love to get more posters up on our walls. Speaking of which, it wasn’t until our interview that I remembered I have a full-sized poster of a Bruce Lee soundtrack that I should get framed!
Q: How do you organize your collection? Can you give me a useful shelving tip?
A: My organizational system is rather ordinary: I do it by genre and then alphabetical within there. I should really consider hiring a few data entry folks to come through and help me catalog my collection into a spreadsheet file because I’m at the point now where I’ve definitely bought stuff twice, not realizing I already own it.
I can’t front: label makers are useful.
My long-term pipe dream is to have some custom cabinets built, specifically with “card catalog” style drawers for the 7”s. I’m just not a fan of having to rifle through vertical shelves to find stuff; I much prefer flipping through them horizontally. For a while, Target was selling these 3-drawer organizer units that actually work very well for 7”s (they could stand to be a little deeper, but I’m nitpicking). At least on a design level, I may be able to incorporate something similar into a custom unit for more of my 45s, plus a few LPs drawers on the floor, built on casters.
Q: What do you look for in a record?
A: It’s hard to articulate since, over time, you develop an intuition based on past experiences and expectations. Your brain processes visual cues about whether a record “looks good” or not based on a criteria that gets so deeply memorized, you’re not even conscious of it.
Another “bought it for the cover.” Gospel LP from the 1970s (natch) which isn’t very good musically but it’s all about the art.
Great cover, great record: a soul LP out of the Bay Area on the Reynolds album. Harris was the bandleader and his main female vocalist was called Lady Bianca; she totally kills it on the LP’s best song, “Stop Telling Me Lies.” I put that one on a female-only soul mix, Love Me, Love Me, Love Me a couple of years back. (Same song is also on 7”).
Q: Do you think collecting vinyl helps preserve our musical heritage and culture?
A: I don’t think collecting vinyl, in and of itself, “preserves heritage” but I do think collecting records can be a catalyst to people wanting to chase down histories and testimonies from artists and label owners that provide some of that preservation. For me, as a music journalist, I think collecting records enhances my journalism and vice versa but I never confuse or conflate the two with being the same thing. You can collect records without ever having an impulse to journal/document the stories behind the records. And certainly, many music journalists don’t collect records (or at least, not vinyl). They’re two different impulses that can be complementary but that’s not a given.
Q: Do you have a record collecting philosophy or routine when you enter a store?
A: I do have a routine but it’s a poor one: I usually go to the new arrivals bin but of course, that’s where everyone goes first. Smarter collectors I’ve seen at work usually try to chat up the clerk/owner first, find the stock that has NOT been run through already and work from there.
I used to always go to the jazz section first, but that’s largely because when I first started collecting records, I was mostly focused on “funky jazz” albums. Even though I don’t chase after those records much, my eyes are used to looking towards the jazz section first. Old habits die hard.
Q: Out of your great collection, there must be a few records that you like going back to at any time. your comfort record. What makes it so special for you?
A: Most of the time, it’s not albums so much as artists who I find comfort in, especially Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. But if I had to pick an album…it might be Duke Pearson’s The Phantom. I can’t quite explain why it’s this album vs. other jazz albums but I suspect it has something to do with the subtle Latin influences plus a beauty of a ballad in “Say You’re Mine.”
Duke Pearson’s “The Phantom” on Blue Note. One of my comfort records; I never get tired of listening to this.
Top 3 best soul album. Pure perfection.
Q: Bad album cover that hides great music in it?
A: Is Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle too obvious? Dr. Dre at the height of his craft but just a terrible cover, even by hip-hop standards. I think Marvin Gaye’s Hear My, Dear is a sublime album on many fronts but I always forget that the cover is just a wreck of bad ideas though it’s not hilariously bad.
Q: Tell me about a dollar bin record you would never part with!
A: Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul. The way that he reinterprets pop standards like “Walk This Way” and “By the Time I Get To Arizona” is majestic; absolutely genius.
Q: What about digging buddies? Do you share or you go solo?
A: I mostly go solo but that’s not because I’m trying to keep stuff to myself. I tend to go digging on a whim so it’s usually hard to drop a line to someone to join, least of all in L.A. where my friends are strewn throughout the area. I would actually prefer to roll with a friend or two; it makes everything more interesting. Alas, just hard to schedule.
This is Toro, a Latino rock album on the Coco imprint. Their band name is actually formed into the bull’s head, much like how the Latin Jazz Quintet album does the same thing. I still need the latter LP, just so I can have a matching set of “bull’s head” albums.
Q: Tell me about the most unlikely place/occasion where/when you found records?
A: I once found a copy of Manu Dibango’s African Voodoo, the original PSI release, online from a record store in the United Arab Emirates for $20. That still seems utterly random to me (but it’s not like I was hanging in the UAE and came upon it). I’ll be the first to admit though: I have very poor record radar. Some friends can just sniff out where vinyl might be in unexpected places but I’ve always depended on more conventional spots: record stores, flea markets, etc.
Q: Tell me a particularly sad record story!
A: I once ordered a Latin jazz album from a seller in South America and for some reason, he not only shipped the LP with no cardboard insert for protection, but he placed the vinyl outside the sleeve and on the side facing where the boxed closed. Therefore, when I used a razor to open the box, I ended up slicing directly into the record. This happened many years ago but to this day, I never open a record package directly down the line, just in case.
European pic sleeve singles are the best, especially for singles that make you think: “wait, they reissued this in Europe?” This is for Dee Edwards’s “Why Can’t There Be Love?”
Q: Tell me about a record that has healed heartbreaks! Name one that made them worse!
A: I never think of this question in terms of records; I think about it in terms of songs and on that note, one song that could go either way in both healing and deepening a broken heart is John Coltrane and Duke Ellington’s recording of “In a Sentimental Mood.” It’s possibly the most melancholy, most romantic song I’ve ever heard recorded. Devastatingly so.
Q: Mentor. Has there been a person in your life that inspired you to collect records and has been a role model, a guide in the art of record collecting?
A: That list is very long. Matthew Africa, who tragically passed over the summer from a car accident, was a huge influence on me, as was his friend, Ben “Beni B” Nickleberry, who was one of the first DJs I met when I moved to the Bay Area in the early 1990s. Both of them were the first “diggers” I met though I was still too new to that whole culture to fully grasp the game at the time (I’m still learning!).
I think in terms of a single person though, “Cool” Chris Veltri has been an enormous friend/mentor, especially since he runs The Groove Merchant in San Francisco, my favorite record store anywhere, mostly because he runs it. Chris is just such a kind, helpful, knowledgeable guy and when I lived in the Bay, I probably sat in his store at least a few times a month, just trying to soak everything in. For certain, my records drastically improved in quality once I began going to the store and learning from him.
Now that I think about it though, Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, might have been the first guy to show me a “collectable” record: the test pressing of De La Soul’s Say No Go that had the “Baby Huey Skit” on it (which didn’t get sample clearance and thus never made it only a commercial release). I fiended for that 12”, hard. I’m fairly certain, it was the first “rare” record I ever tried to hunt down and it took me at least 5+ years to finally cop one!
Despite being devoutly non-religious, I have a real soft spot for gospel soul albums…there’s such earnest depth of feeling on many of them. The title track off this is a beaut but I just found out that it’s also on 7”. The hunt begins anew!
My gateway into gospel soul was finding a 7” by Charles May and Annette May Thomas called “Keep My Baby Warm.” I eventually comped it for my Soul Sides Vol. 1 anthology that Zealous Records put out. This is the LP by the same duo, featuring that song plus one another gem of a gospel R&B cut. They were out of L.A too and backed by a monster house band of Stax-connected studio players, including Paul Humphrey on drums, Wilton Felder on bass, and David T. Walker on guitar.
Q: Who would you like to see next on Dust & Grooves?
A: Biz Markie!
Q: Let’s seal this interview with a few words from you to fellow collectors. maybe a one liner that sums up the experience of collecting vinyl.
A: Ha, I recently saw this Barbara Kruger aphorism in reference to Black Friday that seems all too apropos for record collection:
Want It, Buy It, Forget It
Ouch (but true!)
My personal thought:
“Part of the romance for records is how they literally record a specific time and place via the music, the liner notes, the cover art, etc. It’s as rich a cultural medium as we’ve ever had.”