Behind the Black Crack: An Interview with Eilon Paz, the Man Who Photographed Record Collections All Over the World

'Dust & Grooves' is a 416-page book that documents vinyl collectors from all over the world.

Apr 28 2014, 3:37pm

All photos by Eilon Paz. Above is Los Angelos-based DJ Cut Chemist.

When photographer Eilon Paz moved to New York in 2008 from his native Israel, he didn’t anticipate that year’s crippling recession or that it would leave him and millions of other Americans out of work. New in town, unemployed and with nothing better to do, he started hanging around local record stores and blowing what little cash he did have on the black crack.

Paz fell into a world of documenting acerbic and eccentric collectors and DJs that spend their free time going through hurricane-wrecked disaster zones in search of records that could wake the dead or move grown men to tears. Soon, he realized the photos he’d been snapping of people and their collections felt appealingly voyeuristic, peering into the peculiar private lives and passions of these collectors. He took this inspiration, packed a suitcase, and ventured around the world to document the lives of music lovers—hopefully illustrating how music moves throughout humanity.

He photographed record dealers in West Africa to various hip-hop producers' collection in Japan. Seriously. Dude went everywhere. Everyone from Gilles Peterson to the Gaslamp Killer to Joe Bussard and what is likely the world’s greatest 78RPM collection in Maryland. The end result of his conquest is Dust & Grooves - Adventures in Record Collecting, a 416-page hardcover behemoth the size of a phonebook. Noisey sat down with Paz in a Brooklyn coffee shop to talk about the book, retired Tuskegee Airmen turned record dealers, and just how you much you can learn about a person through their record collection.

Noisey: How did this whole thing start for you?
Eilon Paz: I was unemployed and wanted to do something productive and came up with this personal project to kill my time. Then I read the story in The Village Voice about African record collector and DJ, Frank Gossner and that just blew my mind. We met up and I told him I had this idea to photograph record collectors and stores. He took me around to meet people.

I then visited the now-defunct Tropicalia in Furs store where I met the owner Joel who immediately opened up his back room and started pulling stuff. That was my first post that I did on my blog. It was an instant response from people saying wow this is great.

Joe Bussard of Frederick, MD and his massive collection of 78s.

Why do you think people reacted so strongly to seeing other people's record collections?
Usually these collections are hidden. These are their prized possessions—their trophies. I wasn't even aware of that when I started out. I was just interested in nice photos for a project. But immediately, I realized this was beyond that. Also the fact that I wasn't dealing with big names. Just people like you and me who are doing amazing work by collecting and archiving music. They're saving our heritage in a way. Some of these collectors look for really rare records that you probably won't see again or put together reissues like Frank. They have an important roll in preserving a culture but they're behind the scenes.

Why do you think it's records that resonate so much with people as opposed to CDs?
Beyond the nostalgic element, the size of the artwork, it's more tangible and tactile. It's a cliché to say but it also has that warm feeling and crackle. It doesn't sound that perfect. I think that in a way it makes people connect to it on a different level and more so than CDs. We lost touch without any physical contact with music. It shrank with CDs and then disappeared all together with MP3s.

There's something about making it a little harder on yourself to get music, then you appreciate it more—to go hunt for it and pay money instead of downloading or streaming it. You remember much better and you appreciate it more.

Mickey McGowan of San Rafael, CA

So it's a more rewarding listening experience?
Definitely, you ask people what was the first record they bought and they'll know. But ask them if they remember their first download, nobody knows.

What was your first record?
Paul McCartney Pipes of Peace. Really cheesy stuff.

So you've been all over the world for Dust & Grooves. How long have you been working on it?
I've been working on this project for five and a half years now. Sometimes it was more intense; sometimes it was an occasional shoot. I didn't have funding for this thing. All the travel was me going on other jobs or going to see my family in Israel. I'd plan layovers in Europe.

People kept asking me what I wanted to do with it and I didn't want to do anything with it. I'm busy with my work and this doesn't pay my bills. Then some people said well maybe you could make a book out of it. I didn't have the confidence. When King Britt approached me, it was a really nice pat on the back.

Philip Osey Kojo of Ghana

You felt encouraged?
Yeah, when I met King Britt after our photo shoot, he said, “Look man, you have to make a book.” He made it sound so easy and I guess that just inspired me and gave me a push to do it. It was a real transformation for me. Then it became how to do it and get a Kickstarter and how the community gathered around the project, that was a life changing experience. It made me feel like everything was possible.

How much did you raise?
The plan was to do a two-month road trip across the US and document collectors. I wanted to share a sense of adventure with people. I asked for $27,000 and that was to print 500 books. I didn't know shit back then. The book was supposed to be eight by eight, soft cover and it transformed into a giant, 416-page hardback. It tripled in size. It became deeper and more professional.

How long did it take you complete your goal?
Two and a half weeks and it went up to $43,000. It was crazy.

Keb Darge of London

You visited some rather unusual locations including the attic of Eddie 3 Way's record store in New Orleans. That place was fucking terrifying before Hurricane Katrina turned the roof into Swiss cheese.
Yeah, you have to climb up into the attic with an extension ladder and it's just a sea of 45s. It was definitely a memorable day. We thought we were going to chill out after that but then we got a tip from a friend about this other place in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

This old guy there, Mr. Caldwell is a real character that owns Aikei’s Pros Records and sells loosies out of his shirt pocket. We spent the entire day with this guy in Mississippi. He told us all these stories, about serving in the second war and flying as a Tuskegee Airman. He started crying at one point. He was so kind. There are just mountains of records with one small path through the store.

When we went to Ghana, we met this guy Philip who hadn't heard his records in 30 years because he didn’t have a working record player. We had a record player and got to see him listen to his records for the first time ages.

How did people react when you show up and ask to take photos of them and their record collections?
99% are cool with it. I come with real curiosity and passion for what they do. I think people can see it and they open up for me. Every now and then, people are reclusive or are scared that people are going to break into their places and steal their records or something.

Margaret Barton of Brooklyn, New York

There's a quote in your book from Colleen Murphy, "My record collection probably tells the story of my life better than I could in words." Do you think there's truth to that?
Of course there is. You collect these things, these musical artifacts that have so much impact on you. It becomes something of a habit but music is just pure passion that changes your life. If it stays there on the shelf, yeah, you can say this was my first record, I was naive. Or I like pop music and then suddenly metal. What happened there? If they stay there they can tell your story like milestones in your life.

Brett Koshkin's first record was Falco 3 and he is somehow not ashamed. He's on Twitter @bkoshkin