Crate Capers: Birmingham

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Crate Capers sees dynamic crate digging duo Luke and Gemma scouring the country for the best record spots.

As part of a new series for Sampleface, your intrepid editor Luke Davis and his cohort Gemma Day are making their way across the UK, dissecting a comprehensive map of crate digging hotspots and rooting out the places that YOU should visit for your record store fix. Our first instalment of Crate Capers is brought to you from the streets of Birmingham, where our digging duo touched down last weekend with samples on their mind and cash in their hands…

The second largest city in the UK is our backdrop today and this compact colossus of a city centre is bursting at the seams with vibrant culture and sights to see (not to mention a fantastic branch of Krispy Kreme and no less than TWO Ed’s Diners). Yet, when you consider national music centres, Birmingham falls short of most peoples’ immediate attention, despite having produced numerous musical figureheads including Robert Plant, UB40, Steve Winwood, Pato Banton and more recently, the impeccable Laura Mvula.

The scene is strong here… but are the record stores? The count is surprisingly low in the centre, with only three stores grabbing our attention and enticing us in for a concerted rummage. So, here is our summary of where to revel and where to reject, in central Brum.

Music and Video Exchange

8 Smallbrook Queensway, Birmingham

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The biggest surprise of the day was that this well known bastion of crate digging glory was NOT our number one choice  – sadly emerging as quite the opposite.

Birmingham’s meagre Music & Video Exchange branch pales in comparison to its London siblings. A ground floor consisting of emaciated hip hop, stunted soul and disenfranchised jazz sections, thrives only in the area of dance/house music (which admittedly we shimmied past in a hurry due to a disconcerting amount of neon sleeves). Oddly chosen price schemes and little within them to inspire purchase, disappoints horribly even in the ‘cheapo’ sections which are often so fruitful in the context of locating obscure sampling treasure.

A semblence of a second hand CD collection was salvaged by the acquisition of A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Midnight Marauders’ and a hip hop compilation of some note called Hip Hop Allstars. Slim pickings and in this case, diamonds in very thick roughage. A basement section looked more promising, with stacks upon stacks of records littering every corner, though these showed themselves to be largely obscure 12 inch singles which would be of little use to the discerning producer. Alongside this deadwood was a library of ancient books that included the autobiographies of various retired cricketers and a 1998 biology textbook. A potent mix if you like that sort of thing; though we suspect if you are reading this, you probably don’t.

To put it as bluntly as this article befits, Birmingham’s ‘Exchange is the housed equivalent of a boot sale – if you turn up on the right day you may come across a rare gem, but in general you can only bank on locating dusty, cheaply priced junk that is more likely to inspire a feature on the next season of ‘Hoarders’ than the front page of The Source.

What We Bought: A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (CD), Various Artists – Hip Hop All Stars (CD), Blink 182 – Enema of the State (CD – and all me), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Annual 1990, Michael Jackson – She’s Out Of My Life (vinyl), Battles – EP C/B EP (CD), 1997 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine.

COST – £7.40

Urban Village (Now closed)

4 Gibb Street, Birmingham

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Lodged at the heart of Birmingham’s trend setting ‘Custard Factory’, Urban Village is the quintessential ‘modern vintage’ paradise, extremely popular with local students harbouring a burgeoning interest in the newly revitalised medium of vinyl. Housed beneath an impeccably presented retro clothes shop, Urban Village’s record store is laid out beautifully and boasts a listening station in its hefty arsenal of enticements. The record collection itself is extremely expansive, with a comparatively HUGE hip hop section, plenty of jazz/soul (ranging from popular to obscure to modern) and as much pop from all eras as you can stomach in one sitting. Conjure up a name and the knowledgable staff will point you in the right direction – even searching them out if you require (though doing it yourself is part of the fun, don’t you think?)

The problem here, crate digging wise, is the prohibitive prices. Ferret hard enough and you may find a bargain or two – I managed to purchase De La Soul’s ‘AOI: Bionix’ for £6.00 – but the owner of this shop clearly knows what their stock is worth and, much to our chagrin, has priced accordingly. If you take upwards of £50.00 down to the basement, you may emerge with a very decent haul but if you are stepping in with small change you may be disappointed here. We wholeheartedly recommend a visit if you’ve saved up but regardless, you’re likely to find records here that are scarce outside such a well researched and complete arrangement, so go and have a listen.

What We Bought: De La Soul – AOI: Bionix (vinyl), Gato Barbieri – Caliente! (vinyl), UB40 – Signing Off (vinyl), Vangelis – China (vinyl), Earl Klugh – Finger Paintings (vinyl).

COST –  £19.00

The Diskery

99 Bromgrove Street, Birmingham

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As soon as we approached this glorious landmark, tucked away in the backstreets of central Birmingham, and spied a Joan Armatrading album for 25p in a cardboard box outside, we knew we were approaching the destination that we had been looking for. The Diskery lacks the big name of Music and Video Exchange or the shiny affluent set up of Urban Village but what it lacks in style it makes up for tenfold in substance, though having said that, we prefer our record stores this way. A plethora of jazz, soul, classical, pop, disco and most things in between are covered comprehensively and reasonably, with prices ranging from 10p to £25.00. Bargains abound and the fruits of every genre are ripe for the picking. Whilst your editor lingered around the blues section, I browsed the bargains – purchasing plenty of Armatrading, ABBA and, for a real sampling wildcard, some classic Chas n Dave.

The owners of the shop are laid back and extremely friendly (I managed to smash a porcelain rabbit whilst manhandling a stack of records, which was met with laughter rather than the expected comeuppance) not to mention knowledgable when it comes to all areas of their domain. They may even throw in a freebie or two if you are coming away with a large haul – that’s just the sort of guys they are.

The only thing that the Diskery LACKS is a hip hop section, but this place really is OLD SCHOOL; more Beethoven than Busta, more Liszt than Lil’ Wayne, more Cliff than Kendrick. However, this is Sampleface and for those looking for very low priced, effective sampling sources (and a lot of classics to throw on your turntable for the long summer nights), The Diskery is the ultimate Aladdin’s Cave and an absolute treat to visit.

What We Bought: Manitas De Plata – Hommages (vinyl), Billy Ocean – Love Zone (vinyl), Abba – Arrival (vinyl), Progress – Busy Making Progress (vinyl), 10cc – Bloody Tourists (vinyl), Tavares – In The City (vinyl), Joan Armatrading – Walk Under Ladders, Track Record, Me Myself I, The Key (vinyl x 4), Chas n Dave – Christmas Jamboree Bag (vinyl – not sorry).

COST – £15.00

So, there you have it. If you are planning a trip to the Midlands (and we are well informed that this does happen on the odd occasion!) it would be frivolous not to head towards this city centre and peruse the saturated shelves of Birmingham’s digging destinations. Whilst you may have to root a little harder to find your loot at the ‘Exchange and be regrettably limited to window shopping at Urban Village, you will certainly not come away empty handed if you head towards Bromgrove Street and jump, feet first, into our number one selection. Go ahead guys, grab some record store gold and get your Sampleface on!