Reading Wax Poetics, Brooklyn’s glossy, reverent, visually immaculate zine dedicated to funk, soul, hip-hop, and the other obsessions of crate-diggers worldwide, is enough to make you wish neither compact discs nor the Internet had ever been invented. That vinyl sounds better is debatable; that vinyl looks better is undeniable. Compared to the woeful postcard dimensions of CD insert art and the laughable thumbnails we now lug around on our iPods, beholding an album cover nowadays, huge and warm and bright and colorful and evocative, is like staring into the face of God.
Initially, the magazine’s gorgeous vintage photography—for issue no. 25, out now, Miles Davis glowers from the front cover, while Slick Rick, weighed down by 80 pounds of gaudy gold jewelry, grins goofily from the back—hits you hardest. And sure, you could read it for the articles: lovingly detailed long-form exaltations on Rick James, Mandrill, Too Short, or Brazilian B-boys, joined by jovial interviews with bandleaders, producers, and crucial but unsung bit players. (They are justifiably obsessed with James Brown sidemen.) But it’s the album covers and other vinyl-era oddities that’ll kill you. Issue no. 25’s trove of golden-era hip-hop snapshots may hold you in thrall, but the image that will resonate months later is 1978’s rare picture disc for Parliament’s Motor-Booty Affair: George Clinton, wearing fur chaps and a cowboy hat, a boombox held to his ear, grinning wildly as he glides across the ocean, holding the reins of the dolphins strapped to his feet.
I am gushing in this manner to co-founder and editor-in-chief Andre Torres, who just nods sagely. He recognizes the type. “Record porn,” he says. “Things have this aura. You don’t get that from an MP3.”
Andre, 38, says he owns about 5,000 records—and that’s after paring down a bit, as his wife and children now will permit him to display them in the living room of their Bed Stuy dwelling, perhaps due to the fact that with every passing year, they more closely resemble fine art, but also maybe because such vinyl deification has made Andre and Wax Poetics very successful. First published in late 2001—Andre was fired from his job selling software at the World Trade Center a month before 9/11, partly due to the distractions of eBaying records, enticing freelance writers, lassoing ad sales, etc.—the magazine has gone from a half-year lull between issues to quarterly to, at its current pace, bimonthly. But from the onset, its lush, full-page, full-color photography was suitable for framing, for your bedroom wall or MOMA. Andre figured if he started low-quality, it’d be tough to justify snazzing it up later, even if every issue cost him “tens of tens of thousands of dollars” to reproduce, and pounding out the first one required him to borrow money from his folks and declare nine dependents on his taxes and whatnot.
It comes a little easier now. The magazine’s lawyer had set up the structure of Wax Poetics so that the brand could eventually transition smoothly to putting out records and publishing books, which at the time everyone found hilariously far-fetched. But in addition to the magazine’s success (Andre says it has 10,000 to 15,000 subscribers, with around 60,000 copies circulating total), now comes East of Underground, the first release on the Wax Poetics record label, a reissue of a rare-to-nonexistent 1971 collection of songs played by U.S. Army soldiers who had won a battle of the bands and been awarded a date in a German recording studio. Even better is Andre’s first foray into publishing: the hardbound Wax Poetics Anthology Volume 1, a collection of articles and photos from the mag’s first five issues. (Look for Volume 2, covering the next five issues, soon.) Here again, the appeal is immediately obvious: The long q&a with funk deity Bernard “Pretty” Purdie is pleasant enough—Wax Poetics interviews are cheery, softball- tossing affairs—but it eventually gives way to nearly four and a half pages of nothing but album covers, tracking the highlights of Purdie’s discography with 104 vibrant individual pieces of art, from the vivacious afro dominating Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire to jazz flutist Herbie Mann’s infamously horrifying shirtless pic for Push Push.
The unexpected joy this can bring is enough to send you straight to a flea market. The anthology’s preface touts Wax Poetics as a fount of “music-history journalism,” and aside from the rare sop to a vintage-sounding contemporary artist like Wu-Tang’s RZA or Brooklyn retro-soul queen Sharon Jones, the focus here is inherently nostalgic, whether the fixation is lascivious funk growler Betty Davis or the salsa giants of Fania Records. But what’s being equally deified here is the heyday of the crate-diggers themselves, a golden age for those enraptured by vintage vinyl that arguably continues to this day. You’d think that in the age of eBay, it would be tougher to find $1,000 records lurking quietly in the 10-cent bin at garage sales, but Andre swears it still happens: estate liquidations, flea markets, sidewalk sales. The best writing in Wax Poetics concerns the collector just as much as the collected: Anthology highlight “Make Checks Payable to Charles Mingus,” written by Karl Hagstrom Miller and reprinted from issue no. 1, details the ultimately failed efforts Mingus made to establish his own mail-order record label. As rarely discussed history, it’s fascinating, but it’s bookended by the surprisingly affecting saga of Karl himself discovering three of those releases in a junk shop in Catskill, New York. He’s clear-eyed about his role as a cultural scavenger (“Desperation is the friend of the record collector. Hipness depends on finding a population aggrieved enough to produce good music, suddenly pushed to the point of parting with it”) and honest about when money trumps nostalgia: The piece ends when Karl sells all three exorbitantly priced records and buys a laptop.
It’s unclear who gets more out of this: the neophyte 16-year-old who’s never owned a record player or the grizzled beat-digging veteran being reminded of things long forgotten. Andre says Wax Poetics is geared to both. Initially, “People accused me of being too academic,” he says. “And I was fine with that.” But the mag strikes a good balance, not too pedantic or dry, and not glossing over the tough environments that movements like hip-hop in its early years were born out of: Andre realizes that his family hustled him from his Bronx birthplace to Florida as a kid in part to avoid the often-hostile ground whence Kool Herc and “Rapper’s Delight” would eventually spring. “Give it to ’em raw,” he says now. “I try to be the dude who explains that this didn’t all occur in a vacuum.” Ideally, Wax Poetics pulls in the uninitiated through natural curiosity: “‘How did Kanye make that beat? Where did he sample that from?’ That will eventually lead them to where we are and what we’re doing.”
What they’re doing, of course, is expanding. Andre clearly knows his strengths: When I arrive at the Wax Poetics office, I’m handed a pre-release copy of his imprint’s second book. It’s called Cover Story. It’s a coffee-table-ready collection of album covers, from the lewd to the ludicrous. It’s perfect.