Toronto Pillars is NOW’s series highlighting longstanding legacy businesses that make the city what it is. This week, coinciding with Record Store Day on July 17, Play De Record on Spadina. Have a suggestion? Email me (select Life from the drop-down).
Play De Record has survived decades, moves, technological shifts and pandemics. And there’s a reason for that. It’s not the decor or the location or even the prices – it’s the records.
The Chinatown shop is overflowing with records from pretty much any genre you could think of: reggae, classic R&B, jazz, hip-hop and any dance subgenre you can name. Records pile throughout the shop, refusing to stay confined to their milk crates and wall displays because people are constantly sifting through them and digging them out. Just the way it should be.
Since 1990, Play De Record has been your favourite DJ’s favourite record shop, and it’s played a pivotal if unflashy role in the development of the city’s dance and hip-hop scenes. Even Drake bought his first turntables there – or so he said in an interview.
Owner Eugene Tam says he never set out to be an institution, he’s just always looking for the next good record. And that’s brought the people to his store.
“I’m not a DJ, I’m just a guy who wants the new stuff,” says Tam, hanging out in front of the Spadina storefront. “So people come to us because they want the new stuff too. That’s it.”
How Play De Record was born on Yonge Street
Tam moved to Toronto from Trinidad in 1981. He had some odd jobs working for a computer company, stocking vending machines, working for his father’s grocery store in Chinatown – and most of the money fed his record habit.
“I was spending money like crazy,” he says. “It’s an addiction.”
When he spotted a convenience store on Yonge Street with an empty back space, a light bulb went off.
“I said ‘I’ll open a record store there. It’ll be cheaper.’”
So in 1990, Play De Record was born. At first, he mostly stocked it with the stuff he was into then: soca, Latin, jazz fusion, R&B. But the people he hired had different tastes.
“The guys I hired, they were DJs or starting to be DJs or unknown DJs,” he says. “When you find people like that, they’re hungry.”
Late DJ Jason “Deko” Steele was a mainstay at the Diamond Club (now the Phoenix Concert Theatre) in the 80s and later a local rave regular. One day, he came into PDR and said he liked the store, but wondered where was all the stuff he played: house, techno, drum & bass. So he hooked Tam up with Robert Ouimet, then a wholesaler at a record store in Montreal and now still a DJ regarded as a godfather of Montreal disco.
“I said ‘give me all the hot stuff,’ so he’d bring me the hot stuff and people were buying it up,” he remembers. “So I said ‘bring me everything, now.’”
For awhile there, PDR was the only store in town where you could buy drum & bass records or other dance subgenres that were starting to burn up clubs and raves. There were people coming in and saying they had been travelling as far as New York City to find stuff they could now get on Yonge. Eventually, PDR took over the whole store.
Toronto’s record store boom
Almost all of them are gone now, but at the time the area around Yonge and Dundas was full of record stores. With its instantly recognizable red and white sign (reproduced smaller in its new home), PDR swam in a sea of neon: Sam the Record Man, A&A, Cheapies, Sunrise. But Tam says what he was doing and what they were doing was different.
“I was selling reggae before they were selling reggae,” he says. “They might be selling Bob Marley. They weren’t selling Shabba Ranks, Ninjaman, Tiger. We were selling dancehall and soca, bhangra, all that stuff.”
If he didn’t know a genre, Tam would bring in someone who did – like Kenny Glasgow or Trinidadian Deep, both pivotal Toronto figures. DJs like Chris Sheppard and Deadly Hedley were coming by the store every Thursday for the latest drops, and PDR needed the best new stuff to feed to them.
In the mid-to-late 90s, hip-hop started getting big, so Tam brought in people who knew the underground. Other stores looked to what the major labels were doing and stocked up on Fugees, Wu-Tang, Nas. PDR had that stuff, but Tam says their eyes were on artists like Aesop Rock, J Dilla and MF DOOM.
The store stocked many rising local artists dropping off their albums for sale, including some of the grey market mixtapes that were pushing the culture forward. In 1999, 8 years before the infamous raid that got DJ Drama arrested in Atlanta, Toronto police raided PDR and some of their employees had to pay fines.
Soon, it was as much a hub for rising producers and MCs as it was for DJs.
Play De Record moves to Spadina
By the mid-2010s, Yonge was becoming unrecognizable. Most of the record shops were closing (even HMV is now a Tokyo Smoke cannabis shop) and commercial rents and property taxes were rising.
“One year it went up seven grand and I said, no, I can’t do this anymore. I have to move,” says Tam. “It was either close or move.”
So in 2016, Play De Record packed up all its records (not an easy job) and moved to an inconspicuous storefront on Spadina – not far from Tam’s father’s Chinatown grocery store all those decades ago.
That’s where it still stands, sandwiched between Chinese restaurants.
Walking inside on a recent Friday, the vibe was instantly familiar. Standing next to a focused man sifting through discount used records; passing various turntables and speakers (including a set of Ninja Tune headphones made from recycled vinyl records); squeezing by a local section prominently displaying the debut album from Mustafa and a hip-hop area with an impressive collection of the late MF DOOM’s various aliases and side projects; heading into the back room filled with electronic records (basically still the DJ section) – nothing could feel more natural.
After a long lockdown, it’s comforting to know PDR is still there doing its thing.
How Play De Record survived the pandemic – and Napster
It was touch and go for the first few months, Tam says, but eventually they made an effort to put as much of their stock as they could on their website and Instagram and, to his surprise, people bought it up. Sitting at home and saving money on restaurants and entertainments, people were ordering a lot of records online – so much that it was hard to keep the popular ones in stock.
It was a pleasant surprise considering the internet hasn’t always been PDR’s friend. The store had a record label in the 90s that put out artists like Glenn Lewis, 2Rude and the first record by Deadmau5. But then in the late 90s, file sharing site Napster came along and upended the record business.
“It was a disaster, man,” Tam says. “You spend all this money and then people have the music before even you do.”
Now, PDR can’t just be the first place you find new music like it once was. The store has shifted with the times, including introducing DJ classes and education at the Spadina store. But Tam says it’s hard to compete with YouTube where information is free.
But there are still a ton of regulars, which make up around 60-70 per cent of the clientele. And after a few lean years when they first moved, PDR has benefited from the vinyl resurgence and the rise of Record Store Day – which is doing its next “drop” of exclusive records on Saturday, July 17. PDR will carry a lot of those collectables.
And now, the store is being recognized for its place in the city and country’s hip-hop and electronic music cultures. There’s an upcoming documentary – Drop The Needle – from Canterbury Productions and director Rob Freeman. In it, people like Skratch Bastid, Mel Boogie, Deadmau5, Kardinal Offishall, Russell Peters, Mastermind and more sing the shop’s praises.
“We have people looking out for us,” Tam says.