Just a hop, skip and a jump from San Diego’s historic Chicano Park, who’s seventy-two murals make up the largest collection of outdoor murals in the United States, lies a collective of galleries and small businesses located in what many refer to as “The Barrio Arts District”. The neighborhood of Barrio Logan which is predominantly a Mexican-American and Mexican-immigrant community is an eclectic blend of working-class families, small businesses, factories as well as a myriad of local galleries that have grown in recent years. Hidden amongst this composite of residential homes, small businesses, industrial yards, and art galleries is Beat Box Records, one San Diego’s few remaining record shops. Though small in its outward appearance, the shop is a literal treasure trove and gold mind of rare and classic music full of obscure albums and an assortment of rarities one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the city; making the shop a hot location regularly frequented by DJs, producers, and rare music aficionados. Bernie Fishman aka DJ Inform, owner and founder of Beat Box Records sat down with Step Off! Magazine to discuss the origins of his career as a DJ detail the shop’s humble beginnings, as well as the business’s influence on the surrounding community and greater Hip-Hop scene.
Step Off! Magazine: Thank you for taking to the time to sit down and talk with us. For our readers out there who may not be familiar with your work please introduce yourself to our readers and let ’em know what you do.
DJ Inform: My name’s Bernie, I DJ under the name DJ Inform. I play a lot of funk records mostly and I own Beat Box Records here in Barrio Logan San Diego, California.
Step Off! Magazine: You guys first opened yours several years ago in 2105. You don’t hear about too many new record stores opening these days, in fact, if anything you’re more likely to hear about them closing down. What was the catalyst that inspired you set up shop here Barrio Logan?
DJ Inform: Well I had an opportunity here, some friends of mine had a space that had some extra room that they weren’t really using and they offered the room to me. They pretty much said ‘hey if you want to open up a record store here, you’re more than welcome’ and just kind of threw it out there. They ended up giving me the room rent-free for six months which is crazy and practically unheard of in general. I was selling records before online through eBay and had a lot of stuff, so it all started from there initially and that lasted about eight months and then we separated ways and I moved across the street to the location where we’re set up now.
Step Off! Magazine: You were originally set up in The Chrch correct?
DJ Inform: Yea it was over there at The Chrch, and The Chrch is still here on the block they’re just a couple doors down now. Without their help and what they did for me I probably wouldn’t have the store and would probably still be selling online and at record shows.
Step Off! Magazine: With Access Hip-Hop gone now you’re really the only record store left in San Diego that really specifically caters to the Hip-Hop, Soul, Funk and Jazz crowd. How does it feel to know that in a sense that your business is a significant staple in the San Diego Hip-Hop scene?
DJ Inform: That was a big reason why I started this store, I had DJ’d Hip-Hop and Funk shows for years starting in 98′. Not seeing that representation was sort of a catalyst, most of the other stores in town focus on Punk, Indie Rock or Classic Rock and that’s cool but that’s not really what I’m into so I wanted a store that could really highlight soulful stuff and make it available, play it for people that might not know and introduce them to some amazing music.
Step Off! Magazine: It seems like the experience of going to the local record store, getting to know the clientele and staff to talk and share new music is sort of becoming a lost experience. How does it feel that 2017 to know that not only do you guys have a pretty active and loyal following that frequent the shop but that there is still a demand from people to have a more personal and communal experience when purchasing music as opposed to just getting music online?
DJ Inform: Well I think it’s a natural thing, music and community go hand in hand you know? Sure you can just sit at home and order records on the internet, but it’s a different experience to go somewhere, physically look through stuff and discover new music and talk to someone who might have some tips or even steer you in another direction. It’s just a totally different experience, even though we have a lot of stuff online and information on the Internet people still need those human interactions and experiences; and looking through music is still a way for people to do that. I guarantee you’ll find stuff in my store that’s not anywhere on the Internet or anywhere else. The thing with records is that you’re looking at pretty much our entire history of recorded music in this country since the early 1900s. There’s tons of stuff out there whether it’s rare soul and break records or obscure stuff that people put out themselves. I find something new every day, I’ve been digging for twenty years and every time I go looking for records I end up seeing something I’ve never seen before. Sometimes it’s amazing, sometimes it’s not but there’s a lot of stuff out there and there’s a lot of stuff that’s still undiscovered. The point of the shop is to encourage people to search, hunt for music and take ownership of what you like, what your taste are and find it. Don’t just accept what the radio is playing, nothing against that but there’s a ton of music out there and searching for that music, finding it and interacting with other people who care about it is really cool.
Step Off! Magazine: Going along those lines, you have quite an inventory of rare albums and original pressings in your store. How and where do you manage to find so many new records to keep the store stocked?
DJ Inform: I’m always diggin’! Probably about four or five days a week I go out and travel looking for records. I went out to Arizona two weeks ago just to look at records. I buy collections, guys that buy storage units or estate sales they always find records. I got about five or six guys that’ll call me if they find records, so I got other people looking for me and I’m always dealing with people. I know a lot of other dealers, we have a big network of record dealers in Southern California so for the most part, we all know each other. we’re kind of in competition but at the same time we’re all into the same thing and mostly friends so we all help each other out.
Step Off! Magazine: You’re originally from Columbus, Ohio. Describe to us your first entry in DJing while in Columbus and the origins of your early DJ career.
DJ Inform: My first introduction was going to raves when I was maybe like thirteen or fourteen and they were these underground parties where they weren’t carding or anything like that, they were these illegal gatherings where they’d be in warehouses or other places and get shut down all the time. But what really got me into it was seeing Jungle DJs and Drum & Bass DJs scratching. I had been familiar with scratching a little bit from DJ QBert and other Hip-Hop stuff and I was really interested in it but; it wasn’t until some of my friends who were getting into it as well around that time got some tables and I was able to mess around on them and realize that this was something cool that I like to do and just built from there. I was into dance music for a couple years and then really got into Hip-Hop, and from Hip-Hop as what’s similar to what a lot of other Hip-Hop DJ’s experience because of sampling and because the genre borrows from so many other styles of music it led me and a lot of other people into soul, funk, jazz and all these other things that people were sampling and gave us appreciation for that foundation and all of this incredible music.
Step Off! Magazine: What brought you out here to the West Coast?
DJ Inform: Music, I was putting out some music with of friend of mine in 2010 and I came out here to put it out and play shows. About four months after I moved out here we ended up having a big falling out and I quit that group that I was in; but then at the same time I met DJ Marsellus Wallace who was also about to move but needed a roommate for a couple months and I needed somewhere to go so I ended up renting a room at his place. He’s a big collector here in San Diego of rare Funk and soul stuff, so I ended up living with him for a couple years and we became really good friends. Conversely, I was networking with the record dealers, DJs, and other people into similar stuff and the city just really grew on me. Initially, I was supposed to move here to San Diego then move up to L.A. after a couple months but I stayed here instead. I like it here, I’m not mad about that. (laughs)
Step Off! Magazine: What’s the contrast between the Hip-Hop scene here in San Diego and Columbus Ohio?
DJ Inform: Well, for Columbus Ohio a lot of people wouldn’t really know or think this but Ohio traditionally has had a really good Hip-Hop scene. A lot of really dope people have come out of there, RJD2, Camu Tao, BluePrint, Illogic, Copywrite, J. Rawls who had some production on the Blackstar album with Mos Def and Talib Kweli. There’s a lot of guys in Columbus that made a lot of noise, that are always touring and then they always come back to Columbus. It’s a chill city, it comparable in size to San Diego probably a little bit smaller but it’s an urban city. It has Ohio State which is one of the biggest college campuses in the country and it’s right in the middle of the city so there’s a lot of culture going on there and a lot of good musicians that are there. I heard it’s changed a little since I moved away but the way it use to be was the Hip-Hop scene, the Punk Scene, the Indie Rock scene, the Reggae scene there were all kind of separate but they all kind of overlapped too. Like, we all went to each other’s shows because everybody was friends for the most part. It was a really cool place to grow up a lot of dope Hip-Hop stuff was going on at the time, I saw Slum Village perform there in like 98′ as just a little show there at Ohio State. There was just a lot of little things that would be going on all the time that would be really cool so the Columbus scene is really good. The San Diego scene, there’s a lot of really talented people here too, it’s different because how in Columbus Ohio where all the scenes would overlap here it seems to be the opposite. Everybody really does like their own thing, even in the local Hip-Hop community there’s not just one Hip-Hop scene, there’s like several different DJ scenes and several different rapper scenes it’s really kind of splintered and factional. A lot of people are still cool with each other and work together on stuff but it’s tough sometimes. Now that’s not with everything, even though there’s multiple Hip-Hop scenes there’s talent in all of those respective scenes, it’s not like one’s good and one isn’t good there’s talent all over the place but there’s just different vibe not better or worse but certainly different. There’s a ton of talent here in San Diego, sometimes people say you have to move out of San Diego to get recognition which I think is kind of the same in Ohio to but it seems like that’s the perception in a lot of cities. Like, people don’t really mess with because they see your name all the time or whatever but then if they find out that you’re popular in other places then people start to take more notice of your work. But, yea there’s good music in both scenes.
Step Off! Magazine: Every month the shop holds a monthly producer meet-up here in the store for people to come to share ideas, beats, perform sets, network with others and share gear tips, For our our readers that may not be familiar tell us about your producer showcases and some of the guest you’ve had perform here in the shop.
DJ Inform: It started off as an idea that me and Ill Poetic, a phenomenal emcee and producer who also works here came up with. We pretty much had the idea to let producers, people who write and record music to give them a place to bring their stuff and just play it for other people who are into the same thing. It’s super informal, chill, it’s not a battle or like people are going to hate on you if they don’t like your shit it’s more like an open mic for people to learn and try new things. For the first couple of months, we kept it like an open format so whoever brought beats could just perform a couple minutes and then we started incorporating headliners. We now usually have two headliners a month, the past even we held we had DJ Greyboy headlining who’s been putting out records in San Diego since like 1990. Legendary producer makes a lot of Hip-Hop style beats but was instrumental in bringing a lot of Jazz musicians and live instrumentation over the beats and has had a long career in music super talented and just a really nice guy. The one before that we had Analog Burners here in the store, really we try to focus on bringing people in who are either friends or just talented people that are in the community. It’s necessarily how well known someone is some much as how talented somebody is and if people are going to be blown away. We’ve brought out from Ohio before that nobody from here knows, they don’t have a name in the underground they’re just tight musicians who put on great music. We just want to showcase good music, it doesn’t really matter how well know it is just how dope it is.
Step Off! Magazine: You guys are of the few venues where amateur producers, DJ’s and artists can have a platform to showcase their talents live to the public. How does it feel to be one of the institutions that are giving a platform here in San Diego that provides a comfortable space and platform for local talent to shine?
DJ Inform: Well there’s platforms for people to perform but more certainly doesn’t hurt, these platforms are needed. My job is push good music whether it’s selling records, DJing or people performing live so if I believe something’s good there’s no half steppin’ I gotta get people to hear it and if they hear it they’ll support it and also hopefully the shop as well.
Step Off! Magazine: What rarest record you’ve come across collecting inventory for the store?
DJ Inform: The rarest would probably be a record called Brain Police from Escondido it came out in 1968. They pressed a hundred LPs, it was never for sale they just pressed it up to give to venues in order to get gigs and that was it pretty much just laid in obscurity for a long time and then started getting re-discovered again. So I found one of those, it’s super rare and an original copy sells around a thousand dollars! You don’t find that every day but when you do you breathe a little easier on the rent. (laughs) There’s been stuff like that I’ve come across like I said it doesn’t happen every day but there’s a ton of records out there and you never know what you’re going to find.
Step Off! Magazine: Seeing that you’re based here in Barrio Logan I bet certain oldie records fly off the shelves down here don’t they?
DJ Inform: Oh yeah! Stuff like Sunny & the Sunliners, Brenton Wood, Mary Wells stuff like that it’s undeniably great music, you can’t not like it. It’s definitely music that being in this community especially with the car clubs and lowrider culture that absolutely puts value on older music, there’s a lot of respect there which I really like. I kind of feel like there are other neighborhoods in San Diego that wouldn’t be as enthusiastic because they’re just not into it, they’re into the new thing. There’s not the same value that’s attached to stuff, there’s not the same respect. The thing with music is that if people don’t play it then people don’t hear it, so if you’re just listening to the radio or if you’re not actively seeking it out you’re not going to hear it. But I’m blessed to be in this neighborhood where people do value it, they seek it out and they respect it because it’s great stuff.
Step Off! Magazine: Even though vinyl is still more or less regulated to a niche market, the format has really seemed to have a made a come back in recent years and it seems that every year vinyl sales continue to increase more and more. Why do you think that is and do you think that this will be a long term trend?
DJ Inform: Well look at your options if you want to buy physical music. You can buy a CD that’s going to crap out on you and start skipping after how long? After a couple weeks sometimes? My personal experience with CDs is that they always start skipping soon, I have a hard time keeping them in good shape. You could get cassettes but it’s tough to find what you really want on cassette and even then you’re only going to get a certain amount of quality with stuff on tape. And then you have records, records are durable a lot of the stuff in my shop is forty or fifty years old and it sounds as good as it did when it came out, and it’ll sound that good in another fifty years as long somebody doesn’t skate it across the parking lot you know? They don’t deteriorate, CDs feel disposable to me and that’s my personal bias I don’t really like CDs. And then you have downloads, sure you can download a bunch of stuff but what happens if you want a physical album in your hand? If your only choices are CD, tape or vinyl the choice seems kind of obvious. I’ve been buying records most of my life so to me it’s obviously records. But especially these days to they’re cooler, nobody’s posting on Instagram all the new CDs they bought, or if they are not a lot of people care it’s not that cool (laughs). But with records it’s a different thing, it’s more of a tangible experience I think when you listen to a record. If all you’re buying is Led Zeppelin records and Door’s records, stuff that you already know then yea it’s probably not going to stick around as long. But if with records you’re discovering new music, you’re searching for stuff, discovering new things and you’re learning then why would that go away? Unless your natural curiosity for life just goes away and that would just suck. Finding records is the only way you’re going to hear a lot of this music that was just never on any other format. But, beyond just the music you’re also learning about that culture of the time. Where they were living, what they were doing, you read the liner notes on the back and get more insight into the time that the music was released. People put stuff out on their own too, we were just looking at a country record from National City where the person had printed they lyric sheet and just slid it in the sleeve with the record. The thing came out in like 1969 or 1970, that’s close to fifty years ago I guarantee there are people in the city right now that know that’s somebody’s grandma. That’s the other thing, there’s personal connections with stuff and that’s fascinating. Like that Brain Police record, that’s an early document of the Psychedelic era of how music was sounding then. That wasn’t a major label it was real, it was just these guys doing it themselves trying to make a break and get gigs. There’s no marketing ploy behind that, it’s just real life shit.
Step Off! Magazine: With the closing of big record stores such as FatBeats, Amoeba Music in LA and even local shops such as Access Hip-Hop are you worried about the future of physical record sales?
DJ Inform: No, I’m not worried about it at all. I feel like what I do here is a little different, I definitely do focus on rare collector things but then I also make sure to have all of the regular bases covered too. So if somebody comes in and wants a Mary Wells record I have one but then it’ll also be at a reasonable price like five, six, eight bucks something like that where it’s not like inaccessible. Because a lot of records too are expensive and that’s what turns a lot of people off but making sure the price point is right, making sure people are welcomed in the shop and helping them find stuff goes a long way. The thing is to, say somebody comes in looking for something like Donald Byrd, Jazz or Jazz-Funk type stuff. It’s like ok ‘yea I got some Donald Byrd, but here check out these other ten records because if you like that then you’re really going to like these’. Listening to other stuff expands your palette, because now you’re like, ‘wow now I’m into Bobby Mitchell and Bobbi Humphrey ok now I’m going to look for those records’. One thing leads to another, to another, to another and it never ever ends, it’s a rabbit hole. Plus if people get what they want then they’ll come back, and I know that from personal experience diggin’ in stores forever. If I go to a store and find a bunch of stuff that I like and the price is good I’m definitely messing with that store again. I gotta go back, they might have this record or they might have that record you know it never ends and you get hooked; I’m totally addicted but I’m not the only one there’s plenty of people that are addicted to this. You just have to make sure you give people what they want.
Step Off! Magazine: Last November you guys celebrated your two year anniversary in business at this location, what plans in any do have lined up for the future of the shop?
DJ Inform: Keep doing what we’re doing, keep pushing soul music and just, in general, making things available. Get more collections, more records and build on what we got. I think the shop is in a good place now and just continue to be in a good place and keep making sure we got good stuff for people. We’re going to put on more shows, we got a couple of things coming up over the next couple of months where we’re starting to do some Beat Box events at bigger venues. We’ll see how that goes, I like to keep things in store and intimate but there’s an opportunity to book some bigger things so that’ll be good to expand the profile of the shop. But yea, just stay true to what we’re doing already, just getting good records and pricing them reasonably while helping people discover new stuff and making sure that if somebody comes in they leave with something they like. Every time you discover something new about music you never know where that’s going to go, so it’s just planting the seeds I guess. Having the stuff here so people can hear, because like I said the radio ain’t playing this so where else are you going to hear it? You got your DJs at some places but if you got kids you’re not going out and hanging out at the club, you can use Spotify but then all you’re really getting is the greatest hits. But, if you make it available for people and easier and more accessible then it’s a win-win getting good music into people’s hands.
Step Off! Magazine: Who are your top five producers & DJs of all-time.
DJ Inform: Producers? I don’t know I’d say J Dilla, Black Milk, Pete Rock, Large Professor, and DJ Premier. I’d say Premier is like the default, well actually half of these guys are like the default (laughs) but there’s a reason why they’re up there. DJ wise, Roc Raida of the X-Ecutioners he was one of my biggest early influences, DJ Craze absolutely, DJ Manwell a friend of mine a newer DJ he’s up in LA he’s originally from Columbus as well, DJ Numark and DJ Shadow his DJ sets are always insane. RJD2 is a phenomenal DJ, I’ve seen him rock like four turntable sets of 45’s just crushing it he’s dope. There’s a lot more but those are some of the guys who have inspired me, I tend to go more for DJs that go outside of the box and do more creative stuff like DJ Craze who’s one of the most technically skilled battle DJs ever if not the most. He always takes things a couple levels past what the other guy would do, there are a couple other little things that he does that you can just tell he mastered one patter and then he just sat there and practiced it for so long then he figured out all these other little tricks in it too.
Step Off! Magazine: As a DJ and just a music head, in general, what would you say are your top five albums or just favorite albums in general?
DJ Inform: These questions are always hard for me because it always changes, top five albums Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, Common’s Resurrection, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, probably the self-titled Cymande album. There’s so many albums especially in the sixties and seventies, a lot of albums they would hit several different styles on the same record. So there might be a couple of songs that are like the sound I’m looking for like the illest shit in the world, but then the next song will be like some boogie-woogie shit or some kind of shuffle (laughs). I was a big Pink Floyd fan in high school and into a lot of Psychedelic stuff, The United States of America is a great Psychedelic group. There’s a great Funk group called Oneness of JuJu they got an album called African Rhythms that’s a personal favorite of mine, it’s a crazy good record. All the stuff from The Meters is always classic. Superfly from Curtis Mayfield, it’s not the rarest record but it’s one of the best Funk records ever. That was the first Funk record that I ever got, and it was in the eighth grade. I was also listening to Doggystyle a lot from Snoop Dogg which is still one of my favorite albums, there’s a nostalgia thing too because it was one of my first rap albums and I was like “Man this is the shit! This is the illest album I’ve ever heard”. These days it’s mostly weird stuff I find, one record I’ve been diggin’ a lot lately is a group called Ayers Rock from Australia. If you looked at the names of the songs on the back it doesn’t look like it be any good, there’s one called ‘The Hamburger Song’ and you think ‘oh man this is going to suck’, but you put it on and ‘The Hamburger song’ is this crazy, tripped out psych jam that fifteen minutes ling with all of these crazy effects on the vocals and the drums are super heavy. I like being surprised by stuff, I like finding stuff where I’m like ‘I dunno know about that’ but then you put it on and it’s incredible. Tastes change but there’s a lot of incredible music out there.
Step Off! Magazine: Where can people find you guys and follow online to get your information as well as all the updates for promotions and events at the store?
DJ Inform: Instagram at @beatbox_records and Facebook at Beat Box Records, those two are pretty much the main things. We don’t really mess too much with the website, not that it’s a bad thing I’m not trying to forcibly stay in the twentieth century but anyone can call, the number is listed on the contact and its pretty straight forward we’re a record shop. What do I need a website for? We got records, that’s it. If I need to sell stuff online I’ll sell it on eBay, I don’t need to build my own store online.
Step Off! Magazine: In a write-up, last year from the San Diego Union-Tribune you guys said, “We want to be not just in the community, but of the community”. Being a local small business in Barrio Logan do you think you’ve helped bring San Diego’s Hip-Hop community closer in a sense?
DJ Inform: Yea, music is really one of those things that really tie people together no matter where you come from. I have all sorts of customers that come in here and I’ve always made a strong effort to make sure that the shop is welcoming to everybody. I’ve been very mindful of that, making sure that no matter who walks through the door that they feel comfortable to look, browse, listen to stuff and not just see records in a store but to interact, look at them and reminisce. For example, we have one guy that comes in a lot, he’s in his seventies and has been living in the Logan community since the fifties. He comes in a couple times a week and his memory of when certain records came out is incredible, he remembers dance that he would do to a specific song, he’s really on point with the music. He always comes in looking for specific things and I’ll always make an effort to find something for him and if I find something I know he likes I’ll stash it for him and form a relationship. It’s funny too because he really lights up if any girls come in while he’s here, he’s a nice guy he’ll any song he’ll be like “check this out, this is how we use to dance to this” and he’ll start doing the dance in the shop. He’s got all of these stories all the time and hearing a record will bring back the experience for him. I found a Jimmy Holiday record for him, ‘Baby I Love You’ he came in and listened to it and I’ll see him looking at the turntable and like five times he’ll go like “oh the memories, oh the memories to this song” just remembering being a kid and it’s a really a beautiful thing to see something like that, to see the song bring back all of those memories and see him leave the store really excited. To me, that’s an important community thing, that in and of itself that’s my role with the shop that’s what I’m supposed to do and help people find stuff that they like and help make that connection or re-attach it to the music. That’s the goal and that’s my service to the community.
Step Off! Magazine: Any closing comments or anything else you want to let our readers know about the shop?
DJ Inform: Come through, buy some records check out some stuff, follow us online through Facebook and Instagram and come to our events. They’re fun, they’re always free and you get to hear great music and be around great people so if you ever have the chance to stop by.
Step Off! Magazine: DJ Inform, thank you again so much for taking the time to sit down and talk with us man.
DJ Inform: No problem man, I appreciate it too thank you for having me!