Arts & Culture, Interview, Local Flavor, Music, Our City

An Interview with DJ Dinos of WHRB’s The Record Hospital

DJ Dinos has been the voice behind "Our Little Rendez-vous" for two decades

by

© Lesley Unruh

BOSTON HASSLE: How are your records organized?

DJ DINOS: They are not organized in any easily identifiable way, so the problem is with 45s because I probably have over 50,000 of them at this point. As a result, I often don’t remember where a record that I am looking for may be, and it could take me days to find it. I usually have an intuitive sense of where I might have put it; plus, there are a few boxes that are labeled by genre, so I know certain records are more likely to be in certain areas of my apartment. But as I realized, while I was going through older boxes of 45s which I had not played in years, there are some records in my collection that are not registered in my memory. In any case, trying to organize them in a conventional way seems to be an almost futile task at this point. It’s not impossible, but I would probably have to spend months doing this in a very focused way, if I were to get anywhere close to completing such a monumental task.

 

BH: Tell us about your show…

DJD: The show has been on hiatus since March, when the station started broadcasting primarily prerecorded programing. I think this is the longest period during which I’ve been off air since I started doing the radio show…

This is the 20th year of the show. It started in the summer of 2000. I moved from New York the year before to go to graduate school at Boston University, and I had started thinking seriously about doing a radio show because I was getting to the point where I was discovering more and more great records that were not getting any airplay. I was getting into obscure rock and roll from around the world, and I wanted to introduce listeners to music that would likely be unknown to many of them.

My English was not very good–even worse than it is now–so I did not think doing a show was a realistic goal until I ran into Eva–a friend of a friend from my days in NY–at Twisted Village, a sadly defunct record store at Harvard Square. She had heard from our common friend about my passion for records and I confirmed that this was true; in fact, they were progressively taking up my apartment. After mentioning that she was doing a radio show at Harvard, she suggested that I join WHRB, too. Students had left for summer break and the station needed DJs who would cover the air. At the time, the station relied on a loop that would play the same prerecorded program over and over throughout the summer, so there was a real need for people who would do live shows. I reluctantly agreed to give it a try, even though I didn’t have any training and despite my concerns about language…

Eva gave me a booklet that summarized what the Record Hospital was about. Two days later I was doing a show. As promised, Eva joined me in the studio to introduce me to the basic aspects of doing live air, as well as to show me how to operate the equipment. I made every mistake possible other than playing a record at the wrong speed on that first radio show! I had dead air for a minute and a half. I just miscued things. I thought it was basically a disaster for about two nerve-wracking hours, but people started calling and asking, “What was that you played?” I thought, oh, some people are listening to the records and they even appear not to care about the general disarray…

I was playing a lot of older stuff–mostly from the 50s, 60s, and 70s–along with newer releases; not what most other DJs would typically play on Record Hospital. The library didn’t have a lot of the older stuff either. The department’s head decided to allow me to play essentially whatever I wanted, which was very important for my show to become what I intended it to be. After a couple of months on air, I no longer had to strictly comply with playing a certain percentage of songs from the station’s new arrivals playlist, so I could maintain the character of the show as I had envisioned it. The rules that the Record Hospital had (and still has!) in place were meant to ensure that DJs play new releases by lesser known artists rather than popular music that can be heard regularly on commercial radio. But playing underground music was compatible with my motivation for doing a radio show, too, so I asked to be exempt from some of the most rigid requirements. I wanted to play records by unknown bands, both old and new. My idea for doing a show was not only to play records that had been undeservedly overlooked in the past, but to also play new records that are similar in nature to the older ones.

 

BH: Is there a sound that is still stuck in your tooth?

DJD: Yeah, I think I have a soft spot for recordings that sound amateurish, inept, wild, strange, naïve, or even plain stupid; records that happened in a spontaneous way, almost by accident sometimes. I try to discover records that haven’t been heard but which have something unique or intriguing about them. Sometimes they defy categorization, or maybe they’re so generic that they’re interesting. In rare cases, I might also encounter a record that is a genuine example of pure creative genius. I like the discovery aspect and the Record Hospital allows me to put on air these obscurities so that listeners could discover them, too.

 

That’s what I appreciate the most about the Record Hospital: they encourage DJs to play obscure music. The Record Hospital was created to support music that is unconventional. The mission statement states that this is the station’s punk rock department, but I think the term is meant to include also many kinds of music that do not fit neatly–in terms of the sound–into what punk is supposed to be, if you think of punk rock narrowly; namely, as a category that applies strictly to the sound that characterizes some British bands from 1977. There are many other records that do not fall under this category but are so unconventional that, in spirit, at least, they are also punk.

 

I will stop doing the radio show when I start feeling like I’m just going through the motions or I don’t have anything new to play. If it feels like I am just repeating things that are already very familiar to me, and I’m playing just the old favorites over and over, even if no one else can tell this is what’s happening, I think that would be an indication that the show is becoming stagnant, and that there is no reason for it to keep going. But for as long as I find things that are new and exciting to me, I would like to keep doing the show, provided the Record Hospital allows me to keep doing it, of course. I am not taking anything for granted but everybody at the station has treated me very graciously over the years–much more graciously than some have treated the old couch in WHRB’s main studio!–and I am grateful for this.

 

BH: What about your theme song?

DJD: It’s been the same since the very beginning. I had just heard it around the time that I started doing the show. I was looking for a longer instrumental track that would merely serve as background music: it would be convenient to have it behind my voice when I was back-announcing and it would also serve as some sort of buffer, to avoid dead air whenever I failed to cue the next record on time. I had a CD re-issue of a compilation of bands from India that had participated in a Battle of the Bands event organized in 1970 and 1971 by a local tobacco company. The compilation was titled Simla Beat, since Simla was also the name of said tobacco company. For many years I was convinced that the track I had chosen as my show’s background music was “Simla Beat Theme” by The Fentones, but it turns out that it is in fact an instrumental by another band on the same compilation: “The Mod Trade” by The Black Beats. In other words, I mistakenly thought I was playing “Simla Beat Theme” until just a few years ago, when I learned the real identity of this track. I also found out there was another version of that song that was released in Kenya by a band called The Flames under the title, “Mod Trad.” So, I figured that’s the Black Beats, not the Fentones, I am playing on the show every week! The track listing on the reissue was out of order…

 

BH: You were talking about not replaying songs but that’s–

DJD: Yeah, it’s always there. Listeners frequently ask about it. It has become a characteristic feature of the show: the theme track of the show. Upon hearing it, the listeners can tell they are tuned in to “Our Little Rendez-vous” and they can expect to hear my commentary immediately following this rhythmic sitar instrumental by The Black Beats. It’s all very predictable, including the commentary. With respect to back-announcing, at least, I seem to have committed myself to following some kind of inescapable routine: I say almost the same things about different bands, since I often know very little about some of these records. The only thing I can say is, it’s on this label, it looks to be from that place, from this era. There is very limited information about most of these records, but there are times when I can say a bit more about the band or the artist featured, or a connection can be drawn to other records that I have played on the show in the past. There are other connections that I might notice on the spot–as I back-announce–between the lyrics, the music, the artwork of a record, and something completely unrelated to music, records, or the show. A lot of it is improvising at the time of the show. It’s not really planned beforehand. That said, I have a good idea of certain things I would like to play each week: things I have recently discovered, records or songs that for some reason have come to my attention before the show and therefore become candidates for inclusion in that week’s playlist. I have 10-15 records that I know for sure I would like to play, and many other records that I pick to bring with me to the station, but they might or might not end up on the playlist that week. As a track goes on air and I hear it playing over the speakers, I usually notice something that helps me decide which one should go after it. These decisions are sometimes made in a purely intuitive way; on other occasions, there is a rational basis to them that is obvious to me, and even to the listeners. There is some order that the show ultimately must have if it is to be a good show. If I just played randomly everything I had in my box, it would not be the show I would like it to be.

 

I must admit that I sometimes pay too much attention to such details. When I can’t decide which record to cue next, it feels as if the show is hanging from a thread. This happens routinely, especially at the beginning of the show. I think the first 20 or 30 minutes are always an adrenaline rush because I’m still trying to get a good sense of what the whole show is going to be like, of what I should play when. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Usually, it somehow all works out. When it doesn’t, it’s very disappointing, but I have so far avoided the experience of doing a show that either failed all my expectations, or completely fell apart.

 

BH: Is it fun doing it live like that, improvisational like you say? Stressful, fun, other?

DJD: I think it’s both because you are being personally exposed in many ways. After the show, I’m sometimes thinking, well, I played this, I wonder if people misunderstood my intention for including it in the playlist. Maybe they will mistake it as me wanting to suggest something different from what I wanted this kind of choice to represent. Like, if by mistake I play this track that I really don’t like, you could justifiably conclude that I really consider it to be good or interesting. On the other hand, there have been times when I played something by mistake–the “wrong” side of a 45, for example–and in retrospect, I thought that was better than what I originally intended to play. I had never noticed that this track could really fit with the show because I always paid attention to the other side of that single. The thing with 45s is that they seem to be made for an audience of people with short attention spans. I am not a person with a short attention span. I am very focused on details; if anything, the opposite of somebody who has attention deficit when it comes to music and records. And yet, I am obsessed with 45s. Perhaps the fact that 45s invite one to pay attention to many details could account for this apparent discrepancy between the expectations about the target audience for 45s and those who most frequently like them and collect them.

 

Songs were put on a 45 in order to have a direct impact on the listener. Typically, this medium was used to highlight one side, and the other side was meant to be a throw-away, a filler, or something of that kind. It’s not always the case that flip-sides are uninteresting, though. Sometimes the two sides of a 45 are also highlighting two different sides of an artist. For example, one side might feature a wild, upbeat song, and the other a ballad. There were also times when just one side was meant to be the commercially appealing side. The other side, however, could be showcasing the band doing something that represented their sound more accurately. In other cases, bands recorded something that was destined to be a throw-away, something that was not supposed to be that meaningful. If they wanted to do a record to get commercial attention, they would probably try to record a song on the A side of the 45 that would be more compatible with the aesthetics of the day; having to also record something for the other side could give them the freedom to do something less conventional.

 

Certain bands were small enough to know they would never have any hits. They either recorded for the fun of it or they were consciously committed to doing something that was far from mainstream, and that’s what they did. Their 45s are usually less predictable.

 

I generally favor one side of most of my singles. When, either by mistake or out of curiosity, I play the other side, I am usually reminded of the reasons for my preference. Sometimes, however, I am pleasantly surprised when I hear the side to which I had previously paid little attention. When this happens by mistake during the radio show, and the side played unintentionally turns out to fit well with the rest of the show, I still feel as if disaster was narrowly averted!

 

BH: That’s probably what you mean by putting yourself out there, taking that risk.

DJD: Yes, although I am also wondering how listeners perceive my comments in between songs on the show. There are many times when I get too introspective when I back-announce, or I simply don’t find the right words to express what I’m thinking, and so the connection I want to make doesn’t seem to work.

 

BH: Do you think music does that for you? Says what you want to say?

DJD: I think most people are listening to hear things that they haven’t heard before, or things that they like and they didn’t expect to hear on the radio. The commentary is part of the whole experience, because I play a lot of inept records, and my commentary sometimes is inept, so it ties in pretty well, especially when I play a lot of international stuff–bands singing in English phonetically and not pronouncing things correctly, or saying things that make no sense in English. This is also what inevitably happens when I speak in English on the radio show, even though I’ve been living in the USA since 1991.

 

I think the show has been devolving and becoming more like a comedy freak show. I play more and more records that are goofy, wacky, outright stupid–comedy records in some ways! These records could be described as novelty, or they may be examples of something that really goes wrong and is unintentional, or they may simply be very naïve, or very unproduced. I like these kind of records a lot, so I’ve been playing more of them on the show. In combination with my usual persona on air, I think sometimes people are laughing listening to some of that stuff. I don’t laugh with these records; I actually love them because I find that there is something that is just so unusual about them that is making them precious. So, if the record has these kind of features, it captures my attention. It’s pretty likely I will play it on the show. I’m playing things now I probably would not have played 10 years ago, 5 years ago even.

 

It’s not necessarily that my taste has changed. I have become familiar with a lot of music I had not heard when I started doing radio and I’ve also revisited records with which I was already familiar and which I had not properly appreciated in the past. As a result, I can now see how some of them, which I had previously ignored, could fit within the general context of the show and the aesthetic boundaries that define my personal taste. Conversely, there are some records I would have played on air in the past that have not stood the test of time. I don’t know if this also has to do with me understanding more about the lyrics than I did in the past. When I first started listening to music, I could mostly not tell the lyrics in English. I didn’t really pay too much attention; I couldn’t really decipher most of them. Sometimes now I can understand a little bit more. That could change the way you look at a record as well, although it does not guarantee a more legitimate appreciation of a given record. Maybe that has been having an effect on the character of the show overall. I think I’ve been playing a lot of bad taste stuff lately. I’m fed up with good taste, unless it’s my personal taste we are talking about!

 

The boundaries of the show have become widened for sure. The final criterion about whether a song should be on the show is whether there is something distinctive about it that makes it appealing to me. If I don’t like it, in the sense that I find it to be completely uninteresting, then I won’t play it. But if it has captured my attention and has stayed in my head for a while, maybe I would play it even if I don’t find it aesthetically pleasing.

 

“Our Little Rendez-vous” could have consisted exclusively of long-time personal favorites. And since I do want to share with the audience some songs with which I identify, a few old favorites are regularly appearing on the playlist. But if the show was all about favorites all the time, then it would be too predictable. I think if I listened to that type of program, I wouldn’t be that interested in it. I would prefer putting together a show that, when I listened to it again a year later, I would feel compelled to ask: What’s that? Do I have that record? That’s what I also found out recently going through a lot of these boxes of 45s: that there were a lot of records that I had played once or twice in the past, but I no longer remembered what they sounded like. I rediscovered them and it was like hearing them for the first time. Occasionally, one of them sounded good to me and I could not tell why I had not noticed before, why I ignored it when I first got it. Even more rarely, I would find one that was also on my mental want list–that I thought I did not have and would have liked to add to my collection. That’s when you know you have a big problem–that things are really out of hand with your collection–when you realize that you already have the records that you think you are looking for.

 

There is still a place in the show for artists that were to some extent successful. But the spotlight is always on those unsung heroes who didn’t make it. I think the show would not have been what it is without that. It’s primarily about that. And I don’t want to call these artists “failed,” because that’s falsely devaluing their contributions. I think a lot of their records are really great. But most people would not even give them a second of their attention. If they listened to them, they would just be completely unable to see what makes them worthy of their time.

 

At this point, I must admit that the radio show also allows me to rationalize record collecting. Of course, for a long time I didn’t even think I’m a record collector. I would still like to think I’m not, but I cannot find any way to persuade anyone else of that anymore.

 

I think, okay, I can no longer deny that I collect records, but I’m not just doing it as something that is only satisfying my vanity. I have another reason to do it: I’m getting these records that I can play on the radio show so that I can share them with my listeners. That changes the way I buy things when I go record shopping. Or when I go to a flea market, or some sort of junk or antique store, and I’m looking for something and I think, oh yeah, this spoken word record, I could use something that’s on it as a segue on the show. Therefore, you end up getting many things to just check them out, simply because they look promising for the show.

 

BH: Do you have any thoughts about radio in general, or radio vs. Internet?

DJD: Paradoxically, radio as a medium has persisted and seems to remain relevant even if people are no longer listening through old fashioned radios but are listening through their computers instead. This might have to do with listeners feeling like they’re in the presence of the person to whom they are listening on the radio. The voice that is coming through their device addresses listeners directly, giving them the sense that they, too, participate in the show. It’s almost as if there is another person with you when you are tuned in, so listening to the radio could also serve as a remedy for loneliness. The intimacy of the relationship that develops between radio producers and their listeners is in part why I had decided to name the show “Our Little Rendez-vous.”

 

 

BH: Do you think there might be a link between what you study and teach and what music you play?

DJD: What I like about philosophy is that it encourages wonder, inquiry, and interpretation. With records it’s similar: I see my involvement with them as a continuous search for those enigmatic products of human creativity, motivated by curiosity. With every new record I discover, I am faced with the task of interpretation: what does this record represent, what does it signify, what is its importance, is it good? These questions resemble those I would ask about the meaning of a theory or a philosophical text. Granted, to claim that the process of seeking to find out more about records amounts to addressing a bunch of abstract philosophical questions is a bit of a stretch. There is also an element of fetishism about records as material objects in the former activity that is likely not as prominent in the latter. Perhaps, then, the most I could say is that I am interested in records and philosophy for similar reasons, because I perceive these two interests as satisfying similar needs. When I am on the radio, I sometimes wonder if I am not doing something analogous to what I try to do when I am in the classroom, with the difference being that obscure philosophical concepts are substituted by obscure records. In both cases, my intention is to render accessible to others what appears to be esoteric at first: to introduce them to unusual records, or strange ideas, in such a way that they could properly appreciate them, regardless of whether they end up approving of them or criticizing them. So, there is a tentative connection between teaching philosophy and doing radio, but I hope my show never ends up sounding didactic to the listeners.

 

I would hate to intellectualize the radio show and my passion for records. People have asked me, “why don’t you write a book about the philosophy of records, or music, or something like that?” That’s a perfectly legitimate academic project–it could even be valuable–but I don’t think I could pursue it because I would have to really shift my connection with records in order to do this in an academically rigorous way. I am afraid I would end up looking at them as a disinterested observer. Maybe not necessarily, but I would have to think about records in a completely different way than I do now, and I don’t know if I want to. I prefer not to focus on trying to articulate explicitly what it is that I like about them. It could be self-defeating. I’d rather listen to records.

 

BH: So explaining it could ruin it?

DJD:  It could. It would make it different for sure. There is always the possibility that it would ultimately make one’s engagement with records more rewarding, of course, but I am worried that you would have to take a distance from the subject–to detach yourself from it–in order to analyze it. And after you break down this thing that you think is worth analyzing, after all this effort, you have demystified everything about it. In most cases, this is what I am expected to do as somebody who is trained to approach things philosophically, but I don’t know if I want to do the same for music.

 

The above interview below has been transcribed by the author and appears in its original form.

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