Treasures in the Net
There are now hundreds of sites hawking all sorts of music on the World Wide Web, but regardless of how expansive one may be or how fanatically another may cover its niche, most seem to operate under the assumption that all any retailer need do is dump his catalog on-line and some electronic genie will do the rest. The problem is that no matter how dazzling and colorful a Web page, it's no match for a knowledgeable, helpful human being.
"The Web is pretty boring," says J.P. Chill, who with partner Rick Wojcik started Dusty Groove America, an on-line music mail-order source that specializes in hard-to-find funky jazz, soul, hip-hop, and Latin music, particularly on used vinyl. "There are people that are really excited about its potential, but that's sort of like being excited about UPS: 'Wow, UPS is so cool, we've got to sell records so we can use it.'" Dusty Groove stands out amid similar on-line outlets because it reflects Chill and Wojcik's lovingly obsessive record-collecting style.
Chill, 32, and Wojcik, 30, met in the mid-80s as DJs at WHPK, the University of Chicago radio station. For the last decade Chill has been one of the city's most popular and influential hip-hop proponents, playing tapes by local acts like Common Sense and Crucial Conflict long before they went national. Wojcik, who's been with the station for a dozen years, is one of WHPK's more eclectic jocks, hosting programs specializing in old soul and funk; he was also an early champion of acid jazz. As their friendship developed, the two began spending vacations hunting for records in other cities, and Wojcik, who also works as a clerk at Reckless Records, began buying up affordable duplicates to resell to the retail outlet.
"I used to go to thrift stores and I'd see a great record for a dollar and I had this weird moral thing about it," explains Wojcik, sitting in the cramped but tidy Hyde Park basement that serves as the Dusty Groove warehouse. "I'd think, 'This is great, somebody's going to get a deal.' It's not only that I realized that I could make a few bucks by reselling it, but that I was excited to participate in connecting someone with this record."
Last year, as Wojcik continued to stockpile records--his personal collection numbers almost 14,000--Chill suggested doing something bigger with both those he was selling to Reckless and those Reckless didn't want. Dusty Groove was initially conceived as a traditional mail-order company, but after two months of brainstorming Chill made a business plan using only the Web site. "We did it out of our bedrooms and we didn't sink any capital into it because we really didn't think it would work," says Wojcik.
Dusty Groove went on-line in April, and by fall had to start accepting credit cards, find a warehouse space, and hire help. A blurb in a Village Voice Web column has been the company's only publicity, but through Internet links and Web searches the business keeps growing. Wojcik and Chill are now considering hiring more employees and buying a $10,000 software program to keep the catalog in sync with inventory.
Unlike most on-line music sources, which update monthly or less frequently, Dusty Groove adds new listings several times a week. Most of the 2,000 or so items include quirky, informative descriptions in addition to the usual label info and condition. Wojcik and Chill have begun to distribute reissues of strange Brazilian pop gems and 70s Latin soul classics and oddities such as obscure Italian film sound tracks, and their desire to demystify the arcane stuff almost seems like a mission. (One recent entry, for The Best of Banda Black Rio, reads: "Great compilation by Soul Jazz, featuring some of the best-ever tracks by this legendary Brazilian funk group. And if you're the type to be a little wary of the phrase 'Brazilian funk,' don't be, because this is great strident jazzy stuff, and is as good as any of the tracks on either of the Kool and the Gang live albums--and this is in fact maybe an even better album than either of those, since it has no Jimmy Webb covers.")
"How do you even begin to tell someone about a crazy synthesizer record from 1971 by a band whose name they can't even pronounce?" asks Wojcik. "We can't do it entirely on the Web, but we've discovered a lot of people who know this stuff or care about it. People are starting to trust us and that's opening things up."
The Dusty Groove home page is at www.dustygroove.com. For those not on-line or still skeptical about on-line mail order, Dusty Groove will host its first open house--there are no plans to open a retail shop--from noon to 5 PM Saturday at 1312 E. 53rd St. Call 773-667-1200 for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.