Some DJs have setups that can rival a control panel in a space station. But when Brian Shimkovitz -- aka Awesome Tapes from Africa -- performs live, the only tools he needs are two cassette decks, a DJ mixer, and a collection of rare African cassette tapes. Starting his blog Awesome Tapes from Africa in 2006 after several research trips to to study West African hip-hop, he has since expanded the project to include music from all regions of Africa, from '70s Congelese jazz to modern Sahelian keyboard tracks. He recently expanded the Awesome Tapes from Africa name to include a record label and is hard at work preparing additional full-length LPs and EPs to be released later this year. We spoke with Shimkovitz about his favorite spots in Africa, how he sorts his tapes, and the label's upcoming releases. He performs live at Sunset Island this Saturday, June 14, on Treasure Island.
How many tapes have you collected since you started? Do you organize them in a particular way?
I think I have more than 4,000 tapes by now. I haven't gotten around to organizing them. They are scattered between my apartment in Los Angeles and a storage space in Brooklyn and a closet in Chicago. Even then, I don't even know how I would put them in some logical order.
What's your favorite place to buy music in Africa?
I really love hunting for tapes in the markets of Bamako, Mali. There's so much incredible music and everyone is friendly. The sellers often let you listen before you buy, which helps a lot.
If someone wanted a good introduction to African music, where should they start?
I like to think Awesome Tapes From Africa invites all types of listeners to an unpretentious experience. If you look around the music of West Africa and check some different kinds of sounds, like acoustic recordings or things that are tagged guitar or griot, you can get a good sense of some things that are fun to check out for the first time.
How big is Western music in Africa?
It's hard to generalize, of course, but I have noticed that major U.S. rap and R&B gets a ton of airplay and dancefloor attention -- everything from things like Michael Jackson and Shaggy to Beyoncé and Usher. Newer or more underground genres take a bit longer to get ubiquitous, and different regions have different things they grab onto, but the Internet and the return of expatriate families to the more stable countries has accelerated the process of sharing and adapting.
Since you DJ with cassettes, can you give us a little insight into what your setup is like?
I DJ using two cassette decks -- as robust models as possible because I bang them around a bit -- with a DJ mixer to move between channels. I cue them up as I go, I don't get them ready before I play. I use pitch control on the decks to match beats and blend sounds. Although I am very into moving around BPMs during the set, nothing is strict but most is dance-oriented in some way, overt or more oblique. I like to play surprising music.
When did the label aspect of Awesome Tapes from Africa begin?
People kept asking me about vinyl releases and I realized over time I knew how to help make reissues happen. It unfolded organically and a distributor approached me, which helped a lot. I really wanted to find a way to help the artists build their fan base wider and get paid for their classic recordings. It's moving ahead steadily, albeit slowly, because I am one guy and I put most of my money into this project.
Who is an artist you would like to to find and meet?
I am searching for a few different people, including Prince Khonjo from Kenya, Kina Mysterious and out-there music.
What are you hoping to do with the label this year?
I want to release more LPs and limited edition tapes. In finding more artists to collaborate with, I am getting more busy. But there are a few interesting records coming out on ATFA on the horizon, including a Penny Penny remixes EP and some super rare full-length LPs of crazy music.
What have you learned the most with your Awesome Tapes from Africa experience so far?
I have learned that people are into all kinds of music and they respond to things they don't even understand. Which can be lovely.