Vinyl is back. The analog music format, supplanted by the digital technology of compact discs, and then MP3s, has been making an improbable comeback. In 2013, vinyl sales rose 32% as both CD and MP3 sales dropped significantly. Vinyl sales have been trending upward since 2008, yet last year’s sales numbers showed a significant spike – from 4.5 million units to 6 million, according to Nielsen Soundscan. The recorded numbers were the highest sales for the vinyl format in 15 years, since the beginning of the CD era. Moreover, actual numbers may be far higher, since Soundscan only takes new records sold into account, and doesn’t include the flourishing used-record market frequented by vinyl collectors and crate-diggers.

It's your chance to do the hump

It’s your chance to do the hump

Vinyl’s return, however, comes as no surprise to the Bay Area, a place where DJs and diggers alike have always been numerous and plentiful, and the home of vinyl-only parties like the 45 Sessions, a monthly seven-inch lovefest. Today’s DJs were raised on the record bins of Amoeba, Rasputin and the long since departed Leopolds, music retail stores which helped lay the foundation for the multifaceted Bay Area vinyl culture at the heart of the Oakland Museum of California’s new exhibit, “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records,” which opened on April 19.

Don't hurt 'em, Rene!

Don’t hurt ’em, Rene!

During a press preview, curator Rene de Guzman strolled around the exhibit like a proud papa, past vinyl listening stations equipped with record stacks thematically linked to essays by music journos and aficionados—including a turntablist set-up, complete with pro mixer and direct-drive decks with high-torque motors. Milkcrates—a visible symbol of the vinyl aficionado aesthetic—have been incorporated into the design ethos, and the room also sported comfortable beanbag couches designed to allow listeners to chill and relax as the needle hits the groove.

Put the needle on the record

Put the needle on the record

De Guzman pointed to a wall behind him, which listed events in the “Talk and Play” series of music talks which incorporate vinyl, which range from DJ/author Rickey Vincent discoursing on P-Funk to Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington discussing records which inspired the Kronos sound, to author Denise Sullivan and recording artist Cambio analyzing records as a force for political and social change. The “Talk and Play” events also segue into the popular Friday Nights @ OMCA series, where DJs/musicologists like Davey-D, Billy Jam, Ren the Vinyl Archaeologist, and Greg Bridges will spin records and tell stories as patrons sip cocktails at a special bar located inside the exhibition gallery.

Rene de Guzman checks out a Souls of Mischief record at OMCA's "Vinyl"

Rene de Guzman checks out a Souls of Mischief record at OMCA’s “Vinyl”

There’s also a “Sleeveface” wall, at which patrons are encouraged to take snapshots of themselves holding up records which prominently feature faces. De Guzman demonstrated with three records from the exhibit: Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” 12-inch, which features erstwhile character Humpty Hump’s large proboscis; MC Hammer’s “Let’s Get it Started” LP, which features a portrait of the “U Can’t Touch Dis” hitmaker and Oakland legend; and an obscure record by Bent Fabric, “The Happy Puppy,” which features a cute dachshund.

Vinyl record sales role 32% in 2013

Vinyl record sales rose 32% in 2013

De Guzman said “Vinyl” was “one of the most satisfying exhibits that I’ve done,” noting that it’s opened up doors to “this amazing music and record community.”

Vinyl’s impact on culture, he added, “is to remind ourselves that we’re human, that we’re not machines. It’s definitely relevant in the digital age.  I think we’re tired of being alone on front of computers. Or locked in our own minds, trapped by the earbuds on an iPhone. We wanna experience culture within a social context and I think records provide that outlet for people.”

An installation from "Superawesome"

An installation from “Superawesome”

De Guzman also spoke about “Superawesome,” the other exhibit running concurrently with “Vinyl,” which traces the growth and pop cultural impact of Giant Robot, a stapled zine started by Eric Nakamura which became a cultural phenomenon, leading to a glossy magazine, retail stores, a website, and a gallery.

“What’s amazing about Giant Robot is… it was the first kind of cultural forum defining this pan-Asian identity,” de Guzman said.  But “it wasn’t just about being Asian, it was about all the people who grooved off of Asian culture.”

Hand-painted figurine from the "Superawesome exhibit"

Hand-painted figurine from the “Superawesome” exhibit

Starting in the ‘80s, Giant Robot canonized the geek/tech aesthetic of manga, anime, video games, martial arts, and monster movies, as well as the various toys and schwag prized by collectors. One display case in “Superawesome” is devoted to Voltron characters; another features custom hand-painted figurines.  The exhibit also features unique art and installations designed specifically for the exhibit, including a car hooked up to a Nintendo system which features a primitive “Star Wars” video game.

Both exhibits, de Guzman said, highlight what he calls “lowbrow” culture – an aesthetic that’s more open and less elitist than the fine art world, which allows artists “other possibilities beyond them going into the traditional gallery circuit.”

A custom lunchbox from the "Superawesome" collection

A custom lunchbox from the “Superawesome” collection

“Vinyl” and “Superawesome” –which run until July 27—both have a high degree of interactivity which, de Guzman explains, is by design. One of the things that sets OMCA apart from other museums, he said, is that “the public has the ability to interact with the stuff in our museum.”

At that moment, de Guzman espied one of the records in the exhibit, the 12-inch of Souls’ of Mischief’s classic “93 Til infinity.” The record instantly brought back warm memories for the curator, who headed to a listening station and slipped on a pair of headphones. “I’m gonna listen to this right now,” he said.

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Picks:
Jean Grae, BPos, Melina Jones, DJ Davey-D, April 24, 9pm, $12-$15, the New Parish, 579 18th St.

Off the Grid Friday Nights @OMCA: SambaFunk edition, April 25, 6-9pm, 1/2 price gallery admission, Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St.

Jessica Care Moore’s “You Want Poems” + “Sunlight through Bullet Holes” Book Launch Party + signing, April 25, 8pm, $10, Betti Ono, 1427 Broadway

Blunt Club Oakland Presents “Queens of Culture” Female Hip-Hop Showcase featuring Rocky Rivera & DJ Roza, Are Too, Madlines,DJ Lady Fingaz, April 25, 9pm, $7, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave.

The Singers Lounge Bay Area: Oakland Edition featuring Jules Jones, Lena Ro, De’Juan, Darling Nikki, Amanda Dossa Doss, iStevie, April 26, 8pm, no cover, Shadow Ultra Lounge, 341 12th St.

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