By Nimra Amir, December 15 2022—
What does it take to create a local cultural institution like Toronto vinyl record store Play De Record? Someone who loves the local culture like owner Eugene Tam. Drop the Needle, a new feature-length documentary from director Rob Freeman and co-producer Neil Acharya, premiered for the first time outside of Toronto at the CUFF.docs Documentary Film Festival at the end of November to share their story.
Tam immigrated to Canada from Trinidad with his family in 1981. It was nearly 10 years later in August 1990 when Tam opened Play De Record in the empty space at the back of his parent’s convenience store in the concentrated Toronto downtown nexus point of Yonge and Dundas.
You would think opening another store at the back of a convenience store would not be the smartest business move, but for Tam, it was probably his smartest business move. The store became the hub for college radio hosts and club DJs — especially on Thursdays when Tam would return from his drive across the United States border to Buffalo, New York where he would pick up the latest records before any other record store but most importantly, before competitor record store Traxx.
In his time owning the store, Tam realized just how much local talent in Toronto, and in Canada in general, was going unappreciated from bigger stores that would not carry local Black artists’ records — even if they were selling. In 1993, Tam started Steppin’ Bigga, a label that would help local artists like Saukrates and Kardinal Offishall. They would record in the studio built in the basement of the store managed by Alex Greggs — who went on to work with N*SYNC, Keshia Chanté and Janet Jackson — and then distribute the records in his store.
“I welcomed all of the local talent. I didn’t know if they were good or not, and I didn’t really care. It wasn’t for me to say,” said Tam.
With the release of Napster, one of the earliest music-sharing apps, in the early 2000s, the label had to close but Tam has continued to adapt his store by selling DJ equipment or DJ school along with his records.
While vinyl records have become popular again, the relocated store run by Tam is much more than the records but a hub of local talent from DJs to artists that have culturally impacted Toronto’s and Canada’s music scene for over 30 years. An impact that even Tam did not realize until filming for the documentary.
“People would always tell me ‘Oh, the store is an institution’ and I go ‘Okay, alright. Okay, cool, no problem,’” says Tam at the beginning of the documentary. “But it’s only when we started doing this documentary, [I thought] ‘Oh, maybe we did have something to do with it.’ I mean, I never saw it. You know, when you have to step back then you see the picture, right?’”
CUFF.docs at their 10th annual event once again brought Albertans a unique roster of documentaries but the nostalgic Drop the Needle — the runner-up for the Audience Award and the honourable mention for the Jury Award —- shared a beautiful story of the Canadian music scene by a blend of interview and animation supported by a 90’s Toronto hip-hop soundtrack.