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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Lefto

Try to imagine: if I’d open this sealed record, air from the ‘70s would come out. That air would be cleaner than the air we breathe today!

Interview Koen Galle
Photographs Thomas Sweertvaegher

From the kitchen of his apartment in Schaerbeek, Lefto looks out at his favorite city: Brussels. The man’s many followers on social media would be quick to recognize the panorama – he regularly shares a picture of it online for good measure. Those same followers are often also treated to anecdotes and images from his many trips: from Canada and Japan to a beautiful beach in the south of France. Unsurprisingly, Lefto’s favorite record store is nowhere to be found near his home or even near his country of residence. The description that fits him best is that of a global digger: a globetrotter who earns his living hopping around the world playing – and finding – records on a professional basis.

While talking, Lefto frequently interrupts his storytelling to sneak a peek at the screen of his phone when it buzzes for the umpteenth time. “Singapore has been confirmed”, he says. “I’ll be playing there soon.” Looking inside his head would truly be like browsing through a travel guide of about twenty countries combined – not easy to take in but endlessly exciting.

One of his stories takes place in Paris. Together with BBC legend Gilles Peterson, Lefto was visiting a local record store owner who offered them a copy of Bamboo by Minoru Muraoka. Peterson instantly bought the record, leaving Lefto with the desire to do so as well someday. “Everywhere I went, I asked for that record – until it got to the point where I thought I would never get my hands on it. And then one day, I walked into Cosmos, a record store in Toronto. Behind the counter was Aki, my favorite record peddler. He just sort of looked at me with a grin and casually pulled out a copy. Somehow that guy is always able to find my most wanted records. Like he has some kind of sixth or even seventh sense for it. Immediately after, I played the record on the beach in the south of France during the Worldwide Festival in front of about 5,000 people – and everybody went nuts. At that point, you know it was worth the effort and the money.”

Standing here, surrounded by my collection, sort of gives me the same feeling as standing in a museum full of Magritte paintings: every record is a work of art.

When he plays in front of a crowd, Lefto uses Serato (i.e. two control records that don’t leave the DJ’s turntables all night, with the mixer being connected to a computer by an audio interface). Doesn’t he regret leaving all that vinyl at home? “I used to have to drag around seven crates, simply because I like to mix a lot of different styles. So in the end, I had no other choice than to digitize everything.” Lefto shows us a few vinyl records that he used to take with him when DJing. They have quite obviously seen their best days, “and it’s a shame to see your favorite records get ruined like this. Frankly, I prefer to keep them safely at home in my collection, apart from the fact that the medium or DJ equipment isn’t all that important. Whether it’s vinyl, CD, MP3 or something else, what counts is that a DJ entertains the crowd, and that he also has a good time himself.”

The Worldwide Festival and the man behind it, Gilles Peterson, catalyzed a number of crucial moments in Lefto’s career. “Gilles is like a spiritual father to me. We have a very good connection, and I’ve learned a lot from him. I was booked a few times to support him and he must have somehow taken notice because after one of those gigs, I got an invitation to come play at his festival.” Equally important in Lefto’s career were his first gigs abroad at Hip Hop Resistance in Paris; getting his own stage at Dour, one of Belgium’s trendsetting music festivals; the nights he organizes with Ghent music promoter Democrazy; and his days as a tour DJ for Stones Throw acts like Lootpack.

We travel a little further back in time to the days of being an A&R for Ghent’s hip hop label B9000. “We put out around twenty releases – mainly Belgian artists at first but later also a couple of foreign acts. I got to meet quite a few US artists, and I was pretty much constantly traveling to and from the States. It definitely was an inspiring period and it also proved formative to establishing my network.” It takes Lefto some time to locate the B9000 releases in his gigantic wall of sound – the name he bestowed upon his collection – but in the meantime, he keeps on showing us more records while furiously gesticulating, and revealing a unique storyline for every single piece of vinyl.

“Standing here, surrounded by my collection, sort of gives me the same feeling as standing in a museum full of Magritte paintings: every record is a work of art. The thing I love most is to sit here on this mattress between the speakers and just listen. That really lets me get away from everything for a while. It’s mainly my jazz collection that comes in handy at those times, because that, to me, is the music that comes closest to human emotions. Jazz can really resonate with me deep inside, in a spiritual way. I mean, just listen to this Space Is The Place by Sun Ra. Isn’t that just amazing?!”

When I started working at the Music Mania store in Brussels, they had exactly one crate with hip hop records. I quickly upped that number to sixteen.

Lefto bought the majority of his records while working in the now closed Music Mania record store in Brussels. “When I started working at the Music Mania store in Brussels, they had exactly one crate with hip hop records. I quickly upped that number to sixteen. Thanks to my colleagues, I also got to know a lot of new stuff – they all had their own specialty. So I went home every week with nothing but the absolute best music. Needless to say, that whole period was very inspiring to me as a DJ.”

Then one day, radio producer Jan Van Biesen walked into the shop. “He wanted to know if I’d be interested in starting a show on national radio station Studio Brussel.” Today, Lefto’s show has run for fifteen seasons with no signs of abating. It has become hard to imagine a Sunday night without his beats and infectious Brussels accent.

Lefto looks back on his past as a record peddler with a feeling of affection. He still regrets the fading into oblivion of the Brussels branch of Music Mania. “The internet has changed so much. Before, every Saturday used to bring in a turnover that ranged somewhere between three and five thousand euro. In the end, that number had spiraled down to less than a thousand. The rise of web shops – where people get to buy more records for less money – really did us in, not to mention the whole economic crisis thing that hit at the same time. I am very happy with today’s revival of vinyl though, and with the success that the Music Mania store in Ghent is enjoying at the moment.” But yes, nowadays even Lefto occasionally buys a record online, mostly through Discogs and hiphopvinyl.de – a website that has outgrown its own name and now offers a wide spectrum of music. Or he checks blogs like Flabbergasted Vibes. And he will be the last person to negate the power of social media – going by the number of likes a simple picture from his kitchen window can gather. Then again, Lefto was never the kind of digger who plows through five-dollar bins for hours on end. He is more likely to be guided by either the advice of a record peddler, by opinion leaders like Gilles Peterson and Madlib, or sometimes even by an album cover. “Personally, I think a cover can reveal a lot. But of course it’s not the most important thing. I am mainly looking for records with some kind of added value, like lost classics or simply amazing records that people either forgot about or never even heard of in the first place.” Lefto shows us a stack of vinyl he has selected for his Solid Steel mix on the infamous Ninja Tune label. One of them catches the eye. “This René Costy record is just incredible to me. Costy used to work for RTBF – a national radio and TV broadcasting company – and he made library music for all kinds of productions. I paid quite handsomely for that record.”

No, he doesn’t mind reaching into his wallet when it comes to a good album. A record by James Mason with a € 250 price tag or a Ryo Fukui valued at € 350, Lefto shows them with pride. “I paid a pretty penny for this Never Coming Back by Shirley Nanette as well, and it’s still sealed. I also have it digitally, so there’s no need to open it for the time being. Can you imagine: if I’d open this sealed record, air from the ‘70s would come out. That air would be cleaner than the air we breathe today!”