Zoom Records in Camden Town, north London, is bucking the trend towards CD-ification by selling only vinyl, and most of it in the form of 12-inch singles. In the quick-moving world of club music, everything still revolves around wax. Zoom only stocks about 500 records at any one time, taking on around 100 new ones every week, but this narrow margin has been enough to see Zoom recently move to bigger premises with space for its own merchandise stall, studio and even a DJ chill- out room.
'We need a chill-out room for the DJs so they can come after the shop's shut and hear records all the way through,' says Dave Wesson, the shop's owner and manager. 'It can get a bit hectic out there, with everyone scrambling to hear the tunes. I reckon about 20 per cent of our customers are professional DJs, but about another 50 per cent want to be, so you have to treat them right as well.'
As you enter the shop you're hit by a blast of sound from the hefty PA. The speakers, 300 watts per channel, rest on concrete slabs on the floor, insulated by a sheet of corrugated paper to stop them shaking their way out the door. Above them, Wesson proudly points out, 'we're going to have a big spinning light. We'll hit the kill switch every now and then, when the music reaches a peak, and give the place a real club atmosphere.'
Music in specialist dance shops is loud. You don't listen to the tracks they play in places like Zoom (very simply, various types of House music, plus a bit of Swingbeat and Hip Hop), you feel them, and their depth and rhythm can only be properly appreciated at full volume. Simulating the conditions of a club is Zoom's strength; but it's not all down to noise.
'The staff like to keep an eye on what's going down with the punters, so that we know what will sell,' says Wesson. And while no one actually breaks into a fully- fledged dance around the record racks, you can see that an outbreak of cautious head-nodding amongst the lads lined up at the counter indicates a sure-fire stomper, while conspicuous expressions of boredom would have the needle off the record before you can say 'hardcore uproar'.
'Yeah, you can often tell what people are going to buy just by looking at them,' confides Jon, 25, a hobby-DJ and customer, who usually hangs out in the little ghetto of specialist dance shops in Berwick Street, Soho. 'Anyone under five foot six with a pony tail is after Techno. People with short hair tend to go for Housey Italian piano tunes. Goatee beards and a baseball cap with the brim in an exaggerated curve means 'Look out, I'm a Hip Hop specialist]' I like it up here (in Camden), there's none of that 'Moody DJ' attitude from the staff, you don't get scowled at, and more girls come here.'
As if on cue, two young women walk in and shout a request into the ear of a salesman. Still bright orange and smelling of coconut oil, Clare, 21 and Angela, 22 have flown home from holiday in Tenerife this morning, and Clare has brought with her a tune in her head that turns out, after much humming and hunting, to be 'It's My Pleasure' by My Friend Sam, featuring Viola Wills, on The Network Summer Sampler album. 'I'm unemployed but I DJ in a pub at the moment,' Clare says. 'And Tenerife has gone all Garage-y this summer.'
It is acting on a little nugget of information like this that keeps specialists like Zoom in business. Star performers and major record labels hold little sway in dance music, so micro-variations in style and taste can occur every few months. Garage (definition, acording to Dave Wesson: 'a mellow sort of US House music, between 110 and 122 beats per minute, usually with lush strings and passionate vocals,') has been around for years, but since rapid- fire, 'mental' Techno or Rave music has gone into the charts this year, Garage has become more important in the underground.
For Zoom, however, Progressive House is what's really important at the moment. Billy, the shop manager, explains:
'Where once you'd get kids coming up to the counter and shouting 'Got any Hardcore?', now people come in and ask for Progressive. It's just a label, no one really knows what it is, but if you've got their respect you can pretty much sell them anything. I would say Progressive is dub (instrumental) House, quite chunky and trancey, with a thumping incessant beat, around 120 to 124 BPM. Lotsa bongos.'
From that description, you might expect the term Progressive to do for House what it did for Rock in the Seventies. So it's a surprise that when 'The Hunter' by Herbal Infusion (aka Wesson and the hip remixers Leftfield) plays over the Zoom speakers there isn't a rapid progression of people towards the exit. In fact 'The Hunter' turns out to be a good example of medium-paced House music, not so different from the first Acid records - though with fewer silly sounds and a tribal edge to the percussion that encourages dancing rather than manic twitching.
But here's where it gets complicated. It's tribal, but it's not Jungle, another category of dance music that has become popular with the kids over the summer, which is fast, hardcore House full of African-themed samples.
Given the number of dance music categories, and sub-divisions that each contains, most punters tend to follow fashionable labels like Cowboy, Strictly Rhythm and Wonka Beats, whatever they put out. And since specialist shops get lots of people bringing in their bedroom demo tapes, it makes sense to set up shop labels.
'We've put out 13 tracks on the Zoom label so far,' says Wesson. 'Not just House though. We had 'Those Flags Offend Me' by 3:6 Philly, a hip-hop record; '109' by Ubik was Techno, Deep Collective do Garage . . . the Zoom label is for any talent. If you try and put out a track with a major label, it takes months and the buzz is gone. Here you can get a tune in your head on a Monday and have it out in a month.'
Claire Davies, 26, from Schoolhouse Studios, elbows her way to the front of the crowd to persuade the shop to take a box of 'Feel My Love' by Zeitia. The shop go for half a box (10 copies) on a sale or return basis, and she leaves satisfied. 'I'll come back next week and see how it's doing. I work for a proper label and studio, but, you know, anyone can make a record these days. A lot of kids take their Digital Audio Tape and do a run of 500 white labels, which is a single where you save money by having a plain label and a paper sleeve, costing about pounds 500, then lug them round the shops themselves.'
'The majors can't compete when it comes to dance music,' says Wesson, chilling after another hectic Saturday. 'It's the fastest growing sector, and indie labels are cleaning up with vinyl. And as someone who worked in Our Price for years, I should know.'
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