Zaf Chowdhry

  • PHOTOGRAPHS Chris Tang
  • LOCATION Love Vinyl, 5 Pearson Street, London E2 8JD

With the recent resurgence of vinyl, the opening of the independent record store Love Vinyl came at the perfect time for one of it’s owners, the veteran record dealer and collector Zafar Chowdhry.

Spending 18 years working as a soul and dance specialist at Reckless Records, one of Soho’s most respected record stores, Chowdhry was able to hone his skills as a dealer and collector – also meeting DJs from around the world and being sent on buying trips to the States.

In 2006, Chowdhry left Reckless Records and worked for Apple for two years. After that, he started dealing privately from his home, collecting a large amount of records and raising his kids at the same time.

Five years later, Chowdhry was approached by Stuart Patterson to run Love Vinyl, alongside Jake Holloway and James Manero.

As a record dealer and collector, what do you think the differences are to Stuart Patterson, a DJ, in the way you’ve started Love Vinyl?
Well, when Stuart approached me it was quite crazy because I’d been doing record dealing privately from home for the past five years since I’ve left Apple.

What initially happened was, in 2006 after 18 years of being at Reckless Records, it was the almost death of vinyl. What happened was the digital age, the MP3s and everything, had kind of taken over and partly I think one of the reasons Reckless had closed was because people had moved on to something new.

I saw the beginning of clubland, of partying, raving. I went through the whole thing, that was 18 years of seeing how dance music evolved and I was right in the middle of it

At that time, I didn’t want to get back into selling records in a shop environment, so I started working for Apple for a couple of years; working for the people who killed my business in the first place. After two years of being with them, I realised working for a corporate company wasn’t for me, although I still had all my passion for vinyl because I was dealing privately and collecting more than ever, which coincided with me starting up with all my compilations again.

I did some for Sussed Records, Barely Breaking Even (BBE) as well, so I realised that even though I had been in the game for a long time, it was a watershed for me when it finished, but it didn’t take long for me to reawaken again, so I got into doing it from home, and raising my kids.

So I became a househusband, working from home, dealing records and looking after my kids. I did that for five years, my kids grew up and now they’ve started high school. Then Stuart approached me and it was perfect because I was ready to get back into running a shop again.

I mean, people always say I land on my feet but it is incredible to be involved in something like this again. It’s just brilliant because, again, when I left Reckless, the DJing kind of dried up as well. But since I’ve done my compilations like the two ‘Americanas’, my ‘Private Wax’ compilation and ‘Deep Disco’ compilation for Kindred Spirits, people started wanting to get me DJing again and I found my love of DJing coming back as well, so it’s all coincided at a perfect time.

Does it really feel like a return to what you saw before?
I worked for Reckless from 1988 till 2006, that’s 18 years. So I saw the beginning of clubland, of partying, raving. I went through the whole thing, that was 18 years of seeing how dance music evolved and I was right in the middle of it.

Reckless was around the corner from loads of other record shops where all the major DJs would come in. I’d forge loads of different relationships which now are just coming through. When we think of suggestions of who to get in, invariably I know the guys. Stuart asks me, do you know Mike Huckaby? Yeah I know Mike Huckaby, old friend, went out to see him in Detroit, let’s get Mike over.

Between me and Stuart, Jake Holloway and James Manero, and all the other people who work for us like Phil Asher, we know practically everyone, we all have relationships with these people, they’re all considered friends so asking them to do something is nothing, it comes really easily. So it’s perfect for us and you can tell that because we’re six months old and some of the people we’ve had in here already is just incredible. Doing in-stores, doing parties for us, and even just passing through. I hadn’t seen DJ Harvey for 15 years and then when he came in, it was like I’d seen him the day before.

People like that, it just kind of goes to show, they’re mega-DJs, so to speak, and when they come in and spend 300 pounds with you and you’re turning them on to new music again, it’s just refreshing and brilliant. It gives you a buzz.

How did you get started at Reckless?
That’s a crazy story. When I left college, I wanted to get into film, so I started working for a production company as a runner and when I was working, I used to be in record shops in the West End buying records. I was between contracts and then I went into Reckless. I was always in there and said I needed a part-time job for a month and they said, yeah. It was really rare to be able to get a job but because I was always in there, they said, yeah you can come in and do a day or two a week.

So I did a day or two... and then I was there for 18 years. It was something that I initially wanted to do for say a month or two, because I wanted to get back into film, and I ended up spending 18 years there. It was incredible.

And that was full time?
Yeah, so I became one of their buyers within a year or two. I’d also gone over to Chicago and spent a few months there, again, meeting people like Derek Carter, Mark Farina and becoming life-long friends with those people.

Was that for Reckless?
Yeah, it was a buying trip. So I was there for about five months in the States but working for Reckless for about two and a half, three months. And just going all across Chicago, the south side, the north side, everywhere, just hitting every single record shop, hitting warehouses, buying thousands of records and sending them back to Reckless. That was an amazing trip, a life-changing trip.

Why did they send you out there?
They had a shop in Chicago and San Francisco. It was something they were doing even previously to me joining them. One of the first people who went out there, went out there just before I joined and they had a shop in San Francisco. What they would do is go out to San Francisco because they had the knowledge of what sells in the UK. All the rare groove and disco and all that kind of stuff was in demand, so they would just buy all the records for next to nothing and send them back and sell them for like 20, 30, 40 pounds at a time. And they were all sealed copies, it was amazing. An amazing time.

But Reckless weren’t the only ones doing it. I mean, there was loads of dealers doing it at the time, going over to the States and doing it and then the rest is history because it’s been going on for like 25, 30 years. Even before we were doing it at Reckless, it started off with the Northern Soul scene.

Were you travelling like that before Reckless?
No, to be honest. But I did a lot of it after that, you know. Weirdly enough I haven’t been to the States for 14 years now since I’ve had kids. The moral is, don’t have kids if you want to carry on your record buying.

But it’s something that we’re considering now and will probably have to do soon here at Love Vinyl. Me and Jake, who do the vintage side of things, we need to get some collections in from the States or even from here. It’s important to have good records for sale. We’ve got good records, but we’re selling them as well.

How do you think the approach to buying has changed from when you started at Reckless to as it is now?
Everybody knows about it and the advent of the internet has been the biggest game-changer. It’s down to knowledge is power.

I’ve learnt more in the last 15 years since the advent of the internet about records than I did in the previous 15 or 20 because that knowledge of records you just have to go onto a screen to find out about certain stuff, whereas before you actually had to travel and really dig and research and hear about these records from other people.

How do you think that has affected the way people collect records?
Well anybody with a load of money can be a massive collector, just by sitting there on their chair at home in front of a computer screen. If there’s a record that you really want, it comes up on eBay, it’s yours.

Do you see that as an entirely negative thing?
No, it is what it is. I’m not going to harp on about it. I did complain about it initially, about people that are doing that but as long as they have a passion for it, then who am I to criticise anybody who wants to buy something. As long as they love the music, that’s all that matters to me.

The important thing for me is to have it, own it, not just have a file of it. That’s a purely record collector’s view, though. I’m not criticising people who want to DJ with files, that’s their decision. It is what it is.

And you’ve been making use of the online side of things as well with your Zaf Music website?
Weirdly enough I sold a record off there yesterday but I haven’t done anything on it since we’ve opened the shop. This is where my energy’s at now.

That was the kind of thing that saw you through that period?
Yeah definitely, it was. But things change, you move on. It fed my children and my addiction to vinyl. A lot of the time what I was doing was the money I was making, I was spending on other records for myself. I never stopped collecting. I still do it. I bought a record yesterday for 40 pounds and I was after it for years and I’ve always seen it for 90-100, saw it for 40, bang, I was in.

Stuart said that you specialise in the old stuff here, how have you approached buying stuff with that?
From experience, you know. I’m not going to buy something that I don’t think I can sell. We only want to sell music that people will either want to listen to or want to dance to. Take anything along the wall here, it’s there for a reason, everything’s collectible and we try and cater for everybody, that’s the thing.

What are your top five new records in-store at the moment?

  1. Mystic Pleasure – Back Down (Getting Down) 12”
  2. Eddie Russ – Zaius EP 12”
  3. Marc Leroi Cummings - Lot of Love 7”
  4. Nanalove – Disco Documentary Full Of Funk
  5. Strange Breaks and Mr Thing Volume III

What was your introduction to vinyl?
It just came from my dad and my brothers I think. Music was on in the house all the time. You hear it when you ask loads of people, the same old story, you know. A 100 million DJs will tell you the same thing, it’s just what it is, what you’re used to. But my dad was really crazy about Indian classical music and then my brothers were – this was the early 1970s – into the kind of music that was going around then.

In those days we used to buy a lot of slow records because basically, that’s when you used to get to dance with the girls

My dad had speakers in the front room, he had them in the dining room, he had speakers everywhere. He even had speakers in his own bedroom. And when I think about that now, I haven't even got a turntable in my own house. I’ve got a shack outside where I play them. And obviously we have an iPod but, you know, it’s amazing when I think about that because I’d like to know what households now have speakers in every single room. There’s probably hardly any. But music was always on.

And where did you start to see yourself as a collector?
From a very early age. I’ve explained this a couple of times in previous interviews; when we used to have parties when we were kids, I was the selector. It wasn’t a DJ kind-of-thing, it was like, oh, Zaf’s got some records because he goes and buys them.

So I was putting on pop music or, in those days, we used to buy a lot of slow records because basically that’s when you used to get to dance with the girls. It was literally at that stage of buying where you used to think, I’m going to buy that record because I want the party up, and I want to put that record in because I want to dance with that girl.

It was like the way you DJ was being formed then because it’s up and down, up and down. That’s how it should be in a dance, you take people up and then bring them down. Unfortunately they don’t do slow dances anymore. It’s a pity.

Are you from London originally?
I grew up in West London. And you know London, when you’re in that kind of community, you get to know everyone. And when you were going out in the 1980s it was an amazing time.

And what sort of changes have you seen with the record stores over the years?
Well, initially when Reckless was set up – in 1984/85, I think it was four years before I joined – record stores were the norm. And then obviously what happened was club culture kicked in, house music, hip hop... You had groove records and then all the early stores that sold the imports, then house music really kicked in in the 1990s. So there was like all the stores that had to cater.

Flying Records is a typical example of how one genre of music has it’s own shop. Fat Cat was another one – that was techno. So you used to go, all right we’re going to go to Fat Cat to get our techno. And there was Sound Source which two of the guys who work here, Chris and Ben, they worked at I think.

They were below Fat Cat and they specialised in hip hop and the soulful side. Flying had Italo, Italian house and the kind of UK house side of things. Black Market was always kind of known for rare groove, they used to have loads of killer rare groove and then hip hop and house, and US house. And then Wild Pitch opened, they were specialising in more hip hop and R&B. So yeah, all different shops had their own specific specialities and genres that they sold. With Reckless, we were always encompassing everything. We’d done rock, reggae, soul, funk, everything.

What would happen in those days is the record industry, to promote their stuff, used to give out loads of free promos. Funnily enough that’s how my relationship with Stuart formed because he used to get loads of promos sent to him and he used to come in and sell the ones he didn’t really want, or got doubles of. He would come in and was just one of almost hundreds of reviewers and DJs that would come in and sell to us, and that’s how those relationships were formed. So many people did that, and what we used to do was, we used to supply the promos, put them out in the shop and all the customers would come in and buy them up because they were records that weren’t yet released.

Such an exciting time in those days because there were so many different people making good music. But you know, the whole ball game’s changed now, as far as vinyl’s concerned because, I was saying this yesterday, as far as record companies are concerned, they’re kind of corporations now and what they did was they got rid of all the experienced people that knew about music and employed young kids that had no real clue about music but maybe were not bad at business.

It was the wrong way to go. You can go into any major record company and go to the top level all the way down and you will find there’s a lot of people that don’t really know music. You might find a few, but you won’t find the heads. There was like a lot of people that had a real passion about music and money ruined it. Money ruined it.

It’s down to maths and music. At the end of the day, music is just notes. A certain amount of notes and they only sound good in a certain way

The way that they got rid of a load of the staff, got people in on half the wages but have got no clue about music. The result now is listening to all the shit that you have on the charts and the way that’s gone.

** What about the independent side of things now?**
Well the independent side of things yeah, but it all filters down because there’s not enough money coming through.

There’s a lot of talented producers out there and they’re finding it hard to survive. If they can’t survive with the music they’re making, they’re going to stop making it and move on to something else. You can see it. For example, look at Masters at Work. They were so prolific up until probably eight, nine years ago. They were massive. There were records coming out all the time. Now, if it’s not worth their while, they’re not going to make music and even release stuff through their labels – they released records on their labels every month. If they’re not going to make money out of it, they’re not going to do it. You have to feed your kids etc. And that’s why a lot of these guys now, you’ll find a lot of American DJs that are practically camped up in Europe because that’s where they’re getting the love, they’re not getting the love in America.

What they’re doing is, they’re DJing to supplement it because they’re not making money out of music. So it’s kind of a top-heavy sort of thing. It’s just sad the way the music industry has gone. But the good thing about it is that people are returning to vinyl, that’s most important. If they didn’t then we wouldn’t be here. We would never have tried to take this initiative to set up a shop and have a go. And the test is that we’re not the only ones, there are other shops popping up. And we welcome that. I would love to have another 10 shops around here. Well not 10, but in the vicinity...

Do you think that whilst people are returning to vinyl, young people are getting into older music now as well, they’re looking back because there’s not enough for them at present?
You’ve got it there in one. The objective I had when Stuart first approached me about this was to sell records to young people. It’s all well and good to sell to people who have been collecting for years because they’re always going to do it but you know I would like younger people to come in and start buying decks and buying records because that’s the future, and we have to teach our kids all that as well.

As far as the older music’s concerned, there’s nothing better than that and anything that comes out now is basically a rehash. That’s just the way it is. It’s a pity because we’re not seeing any new genres coming out. When I was a kid at Reckless, there was a fusion of all different offshoots of music, and drum’n’bass came out of nowhere. There’s nothing new and there hasn’t been for a long time.

Do you think there’s a reason for that?
Yeah I think it’s down to maths and music. At the end of the day, music is just notes. A certain amount of notes and they only sound good in a certain way, you know. And it’s all been done, as far as I’m concerned. I think the best music has already been made...

Everything’s a rehash of what we’ve already got. The great thing about it is that you can always go back to the original and the classics and they still sound good and I’ve seen it, I’ve DJ’d a 100 times and you know what’s going to sound good and what’s going to make people dance.