Ben Epstein

Ben Epstein is the owner of NOLA Mix Records at 1522 Magazine Street. He curates a quirky in-store exhibit lovingly called the “Museum of Mediocre Art (MoMA).” As of a few months ago, he took over The White Roach and created a new outpost of NOLA Mix at 5704 Magazine Street. He is the owner and founder of local record label Superjock Records. He DJs under the moniker Professor Shorthair, and also, he’s a dad. In a free hour that he was able to carve out, I went to the OG shop and we spoke about performing, owning, teaching, and playing at bar mitzvahs, while he absentmindedly scratched over an Afro classical jazz flute album and some breakbeats.

Are any records too sacred to scratch?

Records, themselves, are a tool for me, whether I’m adding scratches or just mixing two different records for a party. I guess if there’s a crazy expensive record that I wouldn’t want to possibly destroy, then I wouldn’t touch that. But in general, I think they’re there to be used and manipulated, though there’s a time and a place. I don’t want to inject myself too much to mess up people’s experiences. If I’m at a party and people are dancing, I’m not going to mess with the tempo. I might just add a little “t-ka-t-ka-t-ka” and throw it in, add a little flavor.

What kinds of records are ideal?

Recordings that don’t have drum and are kind of ambient like flute, piano, keys—those are awesome to scratch and manipulate, especially on top of another record, like if I had a drum break or a hip-hop instrumental, scratching over that with a flute just lends itself perfectly to being a controller… Ultimately I just need to be in control. This is all very therapeutic.

How well do you have to know an album to play with it?

The more you know it the better, but I like the spontaneity of just picking something up and freestyling with it too. The album we’re playing currently, I’ve actually never listened to before. I put it on now because I’ve been wanting to try it but it’s in the wrong jacket, so I can’t sell it. I wouldn’t put it on while the store is open because the music I play in the shop is for enjoyment but also advertising.

What made you fall in love with all of this?

The reason I got into this to begin with was because of how it felt to experiment and have fun and get lost in it. I remember I bought turntables in ‘92 and I would just sit there and be in the zone, scratching or mixing or listening to two songs at once and trying to blend them, and three hours later I’d be like, “What the fuck just happened?” I don’t think I’d still be doing this if I wasn’t enjoying it that much.

But you have to make sacrifices sometimes.

As musicians or small business owners, sometimes you gotta take those corporate gigs, ‘cause they pay well and it allows you to keep doing the other stuff. But I’m also at a certain age and I’ve been doing it a certain amount of time where I’m pretty much done doing those gigs. I did a bar mitzvah a year ago; I literally almost cried. Having 13-year-old girls bitching at you, saying, “You didn’t play the right song!” all night… I just thought, “OK. I’m done.”

Are there ever corporate party gigs that aren’t too awful?

Oh yeah, that last example was extreme. There’s been plenty of gigs where I’m playing standard stuff but I’m also in the mix and freestyling and picking what I want to play next and matching it and seeing people’s reactions and it’s still fun. I don’t know them, they just hired me, it’s a job; but it’s a job that involves music, so even the ones I’m not thrilled about are still better than other stuff.

And you have all the control in your shop! You can curate it as your heart desires.

I love being able to carry local artists’ stuff, turning people onto stuff that they’re not going to find almost anywhere else, super underground of any genre. And me, myself, being a DJ, and coming from a beatmaker standpoint, I love providing this space where people can share their creativity. It’s the opposite of these bar mitzvahs. You literally just come in and play whatever you want, you don’t even have to beat match, you can just play music. People are walking in and out, they’re vibing to it, enjoying it, and then they go, “Oh, I went to this little spot in New Orleans and not only was there free beer but there was also a DJ playing music” and they remember that stuff, and I love being that space.

You’re talking about when you have guest DJs in the shop but also when you teach in-house lessons?

Back up a little bit: Before this was a record store, NOLA Mix was initially a youth DJ/producer/recording organization. We’d go to community centers, we’d go to afterschool programs, we’d go to different areas and teach classes. So when the opportunity came to open up an actual retail store nine years ago, that was very much part of the mission. I thought, “I can actually have my own space where I can have those classes and workshops out of.” So I still do the DJ lessons, production, beat-making classes, some free, some paid one-on-one stuff—it’s very much part of cultivating young people’s interest in music that isn’t necessarily horn or piano-based.

You’re also helping them get over their stage fright by teaching them in front of a built-in crowd.

That’s part of the process too, that they literally have an audience while they’re learning. They’re starting out in sort of a vulnerable place but people can tell you’re doing a lesson, walking off of the street—I’m explaining things, and customers see and support that, and so, in turn, [the DJ students] internalize the encouragement.

You just opened up a new shop!

I just opened up a new shop, for better or for worse! Oh my goodness, what was I thinking?

What were you thinking?

Well, the opportunity presented itself. Danielle [Dietze], from White Roach [and ANTIGRAVITY contributor], wanted to move on with her career and her life. I went over there to ask her about buying her records and the first thing out of her mouth was, “Do you want to open up a second shop?” It had come across my mind before. This [location at 1522 Magazine] has established itself. We’ll have been here for nine years in September. Expanding is kind of a cool idea. There was a space. The landlord is cool. There’s a lot of different reasons why I gave it a shot. It’s exciting but it’s a different vibe up there, so I’m still trying to feel out the vibe, the demographic.

What are the differences between this shop and that one?

The space here is bigger, so I can do a lot more with it. Over there, it’s smaller, so I’m still trying to find my footing. Here, I can cater some to tourists, carry a lot of local music, and I come from a hip-hop background, so I love funk and jazz and soul and world music and a lot of stuff that made up hip-hop… There is focus on hip-hop, indie alternative stuff, some rock, pop, and a decent Latin section. Our 45s section is growing and we have some bread and butter tote bags, shirts, and pins.

While the music you fill the shop with is stuff that people want, the art on the walls is purposefully what people don’t want.

There’s a balance there—you like the music but with the art… “What the hell is going on?” The Museum of Mediocre Art is stuff that I find in thrift stores or what people have donated. Either the art is good but there’s a story to be told that is just wild, or the art is “bad” in terms of the person is trying… but was it made for a high school art project? I’ve had people donate paintings that in their eyes aren’t good but in my eyes, they’re too good.

Let’s talk about your music label, Superjock Records.

I put out the first release on the label in 2014. I’ve been putting out a lot of 45s of my own remixes. I work closely with this guy Dan Ubick [a.k.a.] Connie Price. He’s the main guy and he hires a lot of musicians… We’ve put out four 45s. Generally, I will do a remix for the B-side and we’ll get a vocalist, so we’ve had Bootie Brown from The Pharcyde, Rakaa Iriscience from Dilated Peoples, Guilty Simpson (who did tons of stuff with J Dilla), and the most recent one is Apani B. Fly MC, who’s a Queens, New York rapper, who is just an amazing lyricist and on the 45 is Bo Dollis Jr., from the Wild Magnolias. Everything that I put out, physically, is picked up by Fat Beats, which is an international distribution company, so everything gets out to London, Japan, Germany; and a lot of those places really love New Orleans and DJ culture and we’re kind of a combination of those.

When you DJ, what do you bring with you?

Record-wise, I bring a bag of 45s. I just went to L.A., did a bunch of gigs, and had my bag of 45s. You need your good, sturdy needles that aren’t going to skip around. And then, Technics [SL-]1200s really are the bread and butter of DJing, in my opinion. There’s other ones but it has to be direct drive, it can’t be belt-driven, or you’ll get lag.

This mixer is very specific to what I do as well. It’s a Pioneer [DJ] DJM-S7 [Scratch-style 2-channel performance DJ mixer]. The reason I love this mixer in particular is because it’s got the effects you can do with just playing vinyl. Often with mixers, the effects are only applicable if you’re doing digital DJing. I can hook this up via USB to my laptop, have control vinyl, and I can control all the music like a record but the source is coming from my laptop. That’s the best of both worlds, in a sense, where all my music is on the laptop but I can still control it like a record. I prefer just to do vinyl vinyl, to be interacting with the record versus interacting with my laptop. It’s more labor intensive but it’s more rewarding ‘cause I’m more involved and getting more out of it.

When I’m teaching a lesson, I’ll show them turntables with vinyl, I’ll show them turntables with control vinyl, and then I’ll show them a controller, which is just straight-up digital. I want them to know all the ways to DJ but, at the end of the day, a controller will be the cheapest and easiest and there are a lot of bells and whistles on a controller that are a lot of fun. With a traditional turntable, you have to really train your ear when you’re beat matching from one record to another, making the tempo the same from one record to another, as opposed to looking at a laptop that gives you the bpms and has a sync button. This is like driving stick shift. If you only know how to drive automatic, you’ll have no idea what to do with stick, but if you learn how to drive stick, you can do anything. It gives you that much more knowledge plus this is where DJing came from, so you’re going back to the source of how hip-hop started. You’re learning the history and the origins.

As a DJ and record shop owner, what would you recommend for an ideal at-home listening experience?

The rule is, if you can afford not to get a turntable that’s got a built in speaker, you’re good. A lot of the all-in-one components are not gonna sound very good. A lot of work goes into making a good sounding record and when you play them through tinny-ass speakers… I get that a lot of them look pretty and they’re cheap, but if you have external speakers, you’re always going to have better sound and better enjoyment and it’s going to last you longer.

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Top photo by Sabrina Stone

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