Digging into Chicago’s Gramaphone Records Legacy


Music plays a huge role in Chicago’s cultural life. It’s a city that has served as the birthplace of electrified delta blues, modern gospel music, creative jazz music, alternative country music, and house music (among countless other subgenres.) And two Chicago’s long-standing cathedrals of music culture are record-breaking stores and clubs, places where sound enthusiasts can connect and build. Vocalo Radio in Chicago tells us how one of those cathedrals, Gramaphone Records, has evolved in a rapidly changing retail climate.

As has happened in many cities, the pandemic has put an end to in-person shopping and clubbing in Chicago for months, threatening the livelihoods of musicians, DJs and homeowners. A collective of small Chicago theaters organized themselves for government help, as record stores experimented with new models, such as revamped websites and promotional live broadcasts, to stay afloat.

Jesse De La Pena of Vocalo Radio in Chicago dug the cultural significance of Gramaphone Records for the store’s 50th anniversary, which took place just before the pandemic.

Jesse De La Pena was at the forefront of Gramaphone’s cultural impact as an employee in the 1990s, making his way through the Chicago club scene. “The [have] summer of many artists [and] The DJs who worked there: everyone from Derrick Carter to Ralphi Rosario, DJ Sneak, Psycho-B, ”he says. “It was a fun little job that a lot of us worked part-time, before a lot of these DJs went on tour. and live on it. ”

“If you came over there in the 80s and 90s you would see some of the hottest DJs on the scene working there and helping you find the music you need, whether you are into rock or alternative. , new wave, techno, house or the mix show format, ”he explains, handing props specifically to former manager Andy Moy, who De La Pena says helped introduce the house music section and dance in the 1980s. “We were getting [the music] in front of many people. This was back when the radio didn’t dictate the music. It was in the clubs first, then the radio took over. ”

“I think of Saturday afternoons, everyone was there to listen to their music for the parties that were going on on the weekends,” said De La Pena. “You would patiently wait your turn to pick up a turntable so you could listen to new tracks. If you heard anything, you signaled you would take it. But I saw altercations on that last record at Gramaphone.”

“If you are not from Chicago and are interested in electronic music or house music, to this day Gramaphone does a great job putting together a lot of cutting edge music in various genres,” says De La Pena . “[The] majority of the big DJ producers who come from Europe or Japan, they all managed to do it through Gramaphone. It is a must stop if you are arriving in Chicago. ”

In September Marlet noted that “vinyl records sell for twice as much as the music video from a year ago,” while the The New York Times reported in October that 17 million vinyl records had been sold in the United States in the first six months of 2021, overtaking CDs and ironically fueling vinyl record shortages and “unprecedented delays” in shipments.

Jesse De La Pena sat down with Gramaphone owner Michael Serafini to talk about the cultural significance of record stores, how the store weathered the pandemic, and whether the loyal record store has reaped the benefits of the current vinyl resurgence.


Jesse De La Pena: What do you think of the role that record stores play in culture, mainly in Chicago?

Michel Serafini: The role of record stores is an experience that [involves] a person’s five senses – your visual, your oral, your scent, your smell. You walk into a record store and there is a smell that you smell from records. There’s the visual, meaning the recordings themselves physically, or the design or artwork displayed in the store, and the social interaction between the people who shop.

There is always the customer who never wants to talk to anyone, the person who starts chatting with another person or has questions for you. Even if there [are] online algorithms that can help a person to make purchases, it [are] always people saying, “Oh, thanks for the recommendations. I wouldn’t have even thought about it or found this if I had been shopping online. ”

It’s definitely an experience for some people who aren’t just in the digital realm if they are looking for something physical for themselves that relates to music and art.

Change over time

How’s the store? It has been a while since I entered.

Overall the store is doing better. It’s actually decent. Much of it is fueled by tourists who have not traveled since the pandemic and who are arriving, [saying] “I’ve been here for two years, it’s been a year and a half.”

[With] Local DJs, there hasn’t necessarily been a slight increase in their coming to the store. During the pandemic, locals helped us by shopping online and collecting, even though it was a few disks. Clubs are opening now, but clubs are digital. It’s not really a vinyl scene.

The restaurants [and] bars, a bunch of them closed during the pandemic. Some of them have reopened so there are locals having live music at the local restaurant bar. There is a new hotspot that everyone will visit, the Podlasie. It’s that Polish bar on Central Park and Milwaukee. It used to be a Polka bar, about four old Polish guys sitting at the bar. Alexander [Zera], who used to work at Gramaphone and now works at Smartbar, he’s 80 in a 29-year-old body, he found the place.

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The whole game changed after [the] pandemic and mode of purchase [vinyl] …

Well, that was changing before that. Things are certainly better, but I [also have a] rudimentary staff. Not having someone else to pay helped, but I do it all, man. I order, I do everything. And it’s crazy because, especially with the disruption of distributors in the record business, I buy from Bandcamp pages, from artists, from labels, from overseas distributors, from distributors in the United States. It’s crazy. I don’t even know how I keep track of it all. The pandemic has definitely had an impact.

Is there anything else you would like to add about how it has changed or how you have adjusted it?

Michel Serafini: We focus more on promoting the website. This must have happened during the pandemic during the lockdown due to the riots and the store closure. So we are still trying to apply pressure during the pandemic.

I think people are still in this pandemic mentality. Outside of my business, on weekdays, it’s dead at night. People are nowhere. Before the pandemic, you could go to a bunch of local bars and things would happen. Now you’re just like, “Okay, there’s Debonair on Tuesday. There’s this place on Thursday.” [Everything] It’s a weekend thing now, so we’ve changed the store so we’re closed Monday through Wednesday.

I’ll wait until spring and see if things get back to normal a bit, but everything has gone well. Why should I just sit in a place where I’m not making any money when I can at least have a few days to have fun?

Major adjustments

How does it feel to own a vinyl record store in 2021? There is a lot of talk about the resurgence and there is the trendy side, but in Chicago, what is it like?

There has certainly been a resurgence and we see a lot of these young people going through the store, but this resurgence is more about rock and jazz. One thing that crowds come to the store for what a lot of other record stores in town don’t is hip-hop. We definitely have people buying these hip-hop albums.

We see with electronic music that people are squeezing vinyl compilations more now than before, because people are listening, not just DJing with them. I became a Serafini teacher, I guess, because people come and they have questions: “What do I need to play records?” What is a good turntable? What are the best needles? What kind of needles do you have for playing music? “Well there [are] still people buying 12 inch singles and guys DJing with vinyl, but it’s definitely not like it was back then.

Looking forward

Any plans for the new year for the store or you in general?

It’s hard to have anything planned right now with the way things are still going in society with a pandemic. There are no big plans for the store, for specific events or changes. We have something coming up that we are working on, a project with [Chicago-area native and men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton] Virgil Abloh. He designed Gramaphone shirts.

Oh nice.

So to us, man, they’re not at all what I thought they would be. They look like the softball shirts your company team owns.

He kind of took the Gramaphone font and played with it and it almost looks like a college shirt, but I don’t know [Abloh’s] Off-White brand. And my boyfriend and a few other people were like, “You obviously don’t know the Off-White brand because it’s kinda aesthetic, [there] It’s not a big deal.”

The fact that his name is attached to it and Gramaphone, that should be interesting to see.

We will donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the shirt to the Frankie Knuckles Foundation. He was very generous. His team is actually fueling all of this and they have been open to any ideas and suggestions that I have had. I slowed down a bit to get it through, but we’re almost there now. [The shirts] looks really good.

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