IP: What artists have you collected from?
JG: I founded the Houston Hip Hop collection in 2010. My initial focus was DJ Screw, because I kept hearing about him as this very innovative musician who had created this new genre and I knew there was this interesting culture around him… Then I learned a lot more, and the culture is even more interesting than I had imagined. So initially, I was focusing on DJ Screw and other people who were members of his collective of rappers called the Screwed Up Click. I collected material related to DJ Screw and H.A.W.K. and K-Rino, who founded the South Park Coalition group of rappers and is a fantastic rapper who’s been going for 30 years. I guess as the project kept rolling, I ended up collecting some things that were not quite as closely related to Screw and his particular period. I got some materials from DJ Steve Fournier, who was an early hip hop DJ at clubs like the Rhinestone Wrangler [and] really kind of broke a lot of hip hop records in Houston, and material from Carlos Garza, who went by the name DJ Styles and was not only a DJ but the purchaser for the hip hop collection at the record store Soundwaves, which was one of the only places in town to get rap music at that time in the ‘80s. I [also] acquired material from a recording studio called Samplified Digital Recording Studios... The audio engineer who had run the studio passed away fairly young in his 50s. I ended up meeting his son and we brought that material into the collection. We have just preserved some of the original master files from some of his recordings.
JG: Usually families, or sometimes the artist themselves. Sometimes other people in the community, or, you know, friends of the artist...people like that.
IP: What’s the process like? Do you go to people, or do people come to you with stuff to give?
JG: I’ve mainly gone out to people -- contacted people, or been put in touch with people. But everyone in the hip hop community in Houston has been great. A lot of people have connected me to other people or said, “Oh, you’ve got to talk to so-and-so.” So you know, phone calls, dropping by, that kind of stuff.
IP: How much work would you say you have to do to put them into the archives? Do you ever wish that there was a little bit more effort put into the maintenance of some of these files or objects?
JG: You know, there has been stuff that hasn’t been kept as in conditions that were as good as I would have liked, as an archivist. Things should really be kept in dark storage, not allowed to get wet...you know, don’t put it in your attic! We don’t have basements in Houston, so that’s not a problem. But there have been things that we have had to physically clean and rehouse because of the physical condition they were in when we got them. Labeling is a big thing -- that’s huge, in fact. If you’ve got some kind of physical tape, whether it’s digital or analog -- it’s something that you recorded -- and if you could put the name of the group, what the recording was, and the date, that would be huge. The material we got from Samplified was actually labelled pretty well, considering the volume of material that [Engineer Keenan "Maestro" Mosley] had. You know, if you’ve recorded something and you think it’s a keeper and you [were] recording on a cassette...if people would have just punched out [the erase protection tab], that’s actually the best preservation trick you can possibly do for audio.
You know, Houston is a damp climate... We have a framed platinum record that was received by Lil Troy. It was very nicely framed, and it got a little mold in it. We had to do some cleaning of DJ Screw’s vinyl collection, and that was kind of an unusual situation, because he passed away and his records were kept in storage for a long time. We ended up cleaning the vinyl itself with a Spin-Clean brand record cleaner and a solution of tergitol and water, which is what the Library of Congress uses. We put the records themselves in mylar sleeves and then put the jacket in something too. If you’ve pressed a vinyl recording of something, or if you’re a record collector -- that’s another great way for institutional archives to get material -- even if it’s just for your personal archives, keep the bits and pieces, take out the [original inner] sleeve, and put it in an archival sleeve. Keep the inner sleeve with it -- archivists like things to be complete!
IP: Could you tell us a little bit about the digital recordings that you’ve preserved from Samplified?
JG: Samplified was a studio that was active in the ‘90s and the main technology that independent studios were using at that time was ADAT, or alesis digital audio tape. People are probably more familiar with DAT… I remember friends in the ‘90s recording their bands using DAT. But ADAT was a proprietary format. It’s [now] obsolete. The technology was also kind of complicated -- to record, you took four of these ADAT players and you hooked them up, and that gave you a little multi-track studio without shelling out the amount of money that people used to pay for a multi-track studio. What’s so painful about ADAT is to play back a twenty-year-old ADAT, you need to have four working ADAT players that you can hook up -- and you need to have a clue of what you’re doing. We didn’t have the ADAT players and I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing, so we ended up outsourcing them and [transforming them] into digital files that we could preserve and people could come listen to in the library. We had to find the one audio preservation service that had some real experience with ADATs and had four working players… The whole process took a really long time [because] ADAT is a particularly fragile format [...] Now that we have these digital files, they can go through our preservation process at the library and be preserved for the future.
I guess another thing I would say is to make a big plug for institutional archives, because it’s really hard for individuals to be able to manage preservation, particularly of materials created in the digital age at the kind of scale that makes it economically viable... You know, just making a copy of something on your laptop and sticking it on a hard drive in a closet is not really preserving it. We preserve things at a different level than an individual can. I think it has always been good to have material preserved in an archive where it can be organized and made accessible, but in the digital age, it’s critical. It needs to be preserved in some way where [non-archivists] could do it for a while and then turn it over [when it’s] ready for somebody [in an institutional archive].
IP: Have you collected born-digital materials? What has that been like?
JG: We’ve just acquired the Peter Beste and Lance Scott Walker Houston rap archive -- the archive of a photographer and a writer who published a book called Houston Rap and the companion book The Houston Rap Tapes. This was a project that took close to a decade of documenting the Houston hip hop community... Their materials included thousands of photographs shot by Peter Beste, who’s a wonderful photographer, plus the interviews that Lance Scott Walker did, which mostly are digital audio. We just sort of put it on our initial preservation drive and even that’s been tricky. Getting things safely from one drive to another is tricky and there’s also an archival way to do that... So, if you are planning on donating some material in a digital form, don’t do anything until you talk to your archivist, because your archivist is going to tell you how to handle your digital files. You don’t want to reorganize things and change the date stamps on everything before it goes to the archives -- that’s what we’re trying to preserve.
IP: Beyond labeling, is there anything else that you wish artists and labels would do when they’re saving their stuff?
JG: Obviously as an archivist, I want people to take good care of their audio recordings, fliers, websites… anything that is a promotional thing that could be saved, or a record of an actual work, like an audio recording. But I think that [artists and labels] can do some documenting too, like try to get pictures of the recording process in the studio, or of the people who were there. You know, if you’re going to go to the trouble of recording an album, take ten minutes and jot down what you were trying to do, what instruments were you playing, who was there, who did different things. As librarians and archivists, we’d probably call that metadata, but a lot of the time when you’re looking as an archivist or a researcher at some some cultural production -- like music being created -- you kind of want to know what was that spark, how was it done, how was it put together, why was it put together, why did people respond to it… I think as an artist, you have some of that inside you that you can articulate, or even as just a thing that would be interesting to look back at when you’re sober and done recording… Just kidding.
I would say to the musicians reading this, don’t edit yourself, don’t throw away things that might be important, and don’t undervalue yourself. I think even people that we would recognize as major artists, or underground artists who are really important to the history of music culture like Houston hip hop, don’t realize that people are interested in their archives and their demos.
Julie Grob's Twitter handle is @juliegrob.