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Russell Ramirez on the History of Swell Records, Old School Phoenix DJs, and Eclec'tech

Russel Ramirez (center) and a mix of images from Swell Records' lengthy history.
Russel Ramirez (center) and a mix of images from Swell Records' lengthy history.
Courtesy of Russel Ramirez

If you happened to be a member of the Valley's old school DJ/rave scene back in the mid-1990s, there was one place where you almost always hit up for both your music and gear: Swell Records. Without getting too overly hyperbolic, the music and clothing emporium owned by Russel Ramirez (which bounced between Tempe and Scottsdale) was one of the major epicenters for turntablists, selectors, and mixmasters for more than a decade.

First opening in 1993, it's where a stomping ground and gathering spot for a "who's who" of the biggest names in the Phoenix scene. Former Scottsdale club favorite Markus Schulz was a regular there, as were the infamous Bombshelter DJs, Pete "SuperMix" Salaz, Robbie Rob, Pablo Gomez, and dozens of others.

Swell not only sold vinyl, rave wear, and a variety of turntable gear, it also functioned as label (producing mixtapes and CDs by local artists) and put on some blockbuster dance events (including its annual Musik parties). Heck, Ramirez was even known to work the turntables himself, both at those parties or at the store.

Ramirez may have pulled the plug on Swell around seven years ago, but he's hoping to revive the spirit of his joint tomorrow night at Eclec'tech. The one-night affair at both Bar Smith and the Monarch Theatre will be like one of those epic Musik affairs and will feature more than 20 of the same old school DJs who used to hang out at the store.

We recently spoke with Ramirez about his memories of Swell, Phoenix's old school DJ scene, what will be taking place at Eclec'tech tomorrow night.

So back in the day, Swell was the epicenter of DJ culture in the Valley, correct? Yeah. I mean there was us and then later other stores opened up, but we were there first. And, for the most part, the longest.

Based on the number of high-profile DJs that were associated with Swell, its easy to see how the store earned its reputation. Yeah. We tried. We lived it, you know. We had fun.

How did Swell Records start? We were actually going to open a store in San Diego in the Gaslamp District and we wound up having too many partners. So we came out here, because its where I was from, and we were on point to open a store both here and in San Diego. But the store in San Diego burnt down before the opened it. We started here by living in the back and selling stuff in the front and just grew from there.

What was your involvement with DJs prior to that? I've always been into music from high school onwards. Into Front 242, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, all the electronic stuff. And then when I moved to California in '90, I really started hearing underground techno and that's when I was like, "Wow, this is the shit." There were no boundaries, you can make any noise, you can make music out of it. And fell in love, decided to quit school, and open my own record store and support that scene, the underground [DJ] scene.

Why did Swell Records move around so much? We just kept growing. We grew out of the space. When we moved to the second location, we moved up to the Congo, which was that old coffeehouse on Scottsdale Road. And we had the same thing there and it grew even more. And that's when the Bombshelters did their first night in the Congo next door. We always wanted to be on Mill Avenue but it was expensive, but we finally moved there in 2003.

What was Swell like in those early days? It was on Scottsdale Road and Curry, next to that county island. We sold records and had turntables in there and Z-Trip and Radar and Emile would come in and play. And it would turn into parties and we'd be there until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning playing records and people freestyling. It was cool.

When I first opened the store, we lived in the back and sold records and clothes out of the front. People used to knock on our door or call us at one o'clock in the morning and wanted to pick up that last record or the one they put on hold so they could play it that night. And Santos was the worst, literally, he'd knock on the door on his way down to Chupa and wanted to pick up another record.

What was it like getting to hang out and sell records to people like Markus Schulz, Eddie Amador, or other local cats who'd go on to be some of the biggest DJs to come out of Phoenix? It was cool. We saw everyone in those days. They were just people. There's some amazing DJs in Arizona. There was then and probably still is. Kevin Brown, Gary Menichello, Inertia...you could put them up against any national DJ. They were fantastic talents and they knew how to program. Its awesome that Markus and Eddie are huge. I think a lot of local people have that level of talent, they've just got to be put out there.

Pete [Salaz] was one of our old house buyers. Anton was our very first house buyers, he was the first person who came in and started working for me as a buyer. Fact and Tricky T were all buyers.

I met a lot of DJs over the years. And these days I'll run into them at Fry's or something or see them at the liquor store and say, "Hey man. What's up?" And they're still out there, having fun and performing.

 

The old Swell Records near Scottsdale and Curry roads.
The old Swell Records near Scottsdale and Curry roads.
Courtesy of Russel Ramirez

What were the Bombshelter crew like in those early days? Radar was this young kid when the three of them -- Z-Trip, Radar, and Emile -- started hanging out. They were playing any kind of music. And I think that was another thing that we did, we didn't just do electronic music or just hip-hop, we did everything. And Emile and Z-Trip and Radar were perfect for that because they incorporated all that. I remember giving Z-Trip a Richie Hawtin remix of The Funk Mob and then he played it at every single show. I'd hand them anything, they all had open minds. It didn't matter what it was.

Earlier this year, Schulz was listed as one of the 30 richest DJs in the world. That's awesome. I mean, who wouldn't love to do that? Fly around the world playing music you love and getting paid well to do it.

Did he get his music for club gigs or his radio show The Edge Factor at Swell? Sometimes. He got a lot of stuff from a record pool. Back in the day, labels would send DJs things and they would pay to be a part of a pool and get a stack of records to play. Markus always knew what he wanted and would come in looking for specific things.

You guys were an epicenter for not just music but DJ/EDM culture as well, correct? Yeah. We sold clothing and records mainly, but we also had pro audio stuff and turntables. We sold thousands of turntables, fixed thousands of turntables, you name it. Anything that had to do with DJing.

Swell largely dealt with vinyl, correct? We had CDs, for the people who didn't play records or people who made mix CDs or mix tapes. But it was predominantly vinyl. At our top, we were doing $65,000 a month in vinyl. When we closed the store, we were still doing like $11,000 a month in vinyl. We had everything: Hip-hop, techno, house, electro, breakbeat, hardcore, drum 'n' bass...everything.

Record-spinning DJs seems almost quaint in the era of Seratto, CD-Js, and Ableton. What's your opinion on how the DJ scene has changed? What happened was is that it all went digital. And when we were selling vinyl, you'd have to wait a week to get it here from Europe, then you'd spend $10 or $11 for one song. And now, what happens is you can download anything in an instant and you don't have to buy the whole 12-inch. And that's what happened to vinyl. As a DJ, I would love to be able to have it the way it is today. Rather than carrying crates around and digging through 'em, you can easily find a track. And I think its pretty darn cool.

Really? Although, I've never played around with the sync button and I don't know how any of that works, but to be able to actually DJ, I would assume its still takes real talent to use turntables rather than just picking two songs and making them mix together.

Swell was also a place to find out about all the underground parties and raves. I mean, your flyer rack was legendary. Yeah. Not to be arrogant, but we were the center of our scene that we created. We wanted everybody to come there and get their flyers, get their music, and get their clothes. Hang out, talk to each other, meet new friends, find other DJs to collaborate with...everything. That was the business model.

Y'all threw some major parties back in the day. Our biggest parties were called Musik where there were four rooms of DJs. There was the main room, with the biggest underground talent, and then we had a hip-hop room and maybe a drum 'n' bass or a trance room. We always had four subcultures of the electronic music scene. It was at the Icehouse usually or at the Heister Building or wherever.

 

A glimpse inside Swell Records back in the day.
A glimpse inside Swell Records back in the day.
Courtesy of Russel Ramirez

When did things reach their peak? Right around 1999-2001, which was when we were making the most. At our peak, we were grossing around a million dollars a year. We were as big as some of the [DJ] record stores in L.A. I know because our distributors would tell us.

With the heyday of Napster around 2001, did you realize the end was near? It was way before 2001. You could say that Napster or the iPod killed the record industry, but I think more than that it was the CD-J. They were CD turntables that acted like real turntables, because then you could burn your MP3 to your CD and you didn't need to buy vinyl. It wasn't the fact there was digital, because even when digital music was around, you still needed a turntable to act like a turntable, to scratch, to actually beat mix. One they could do that with a CD-J, there was no need for vinyl anymore.

Did you see the writing on the wall? Oh yeah. That's why we moved to Mill Avenue. When you can see the vinyl sales going down, down, down, we moved to Mill Avenue where we could get more traffic. We didn't used to need traffic because the DJs would come, their girlfriend would come with them and buy clothing while the guys bought records. Then both stopped coming in.

Was there a moment when you decided you'd had enough of the business? Nah, I loved it. Still do. I would love to still be doing it if it paid the bills. I'm sure that's the case with any DJ. They'd love to do it if they were making Markus Schulz money or Z-Trip money.

Why did you sell Swell in 2005? We just weren't making any money anymore. We were about to not be selling vinyl anymore and thing had just run their course. We were looking to move over the the Scottsdale Waterfront but we just decided...Eh.

Why were you inspired to put on Eclec'tech? We've been talking about it for years. And again, were going to have a proper one where we plan out further in advance. But within two days we put together the lineup and talked to Pete [Salaz] and Senbad about using their place [Bar Smith and Monarch Theatre].

It's basically going to be a reunion of lot of the old-school Swell crew. Everybody that we could get together in two days and put together a party. We're doing it like an old Swell Musik party where we'll have four different rooms and four different styles of music. We're going to do it again sometime in spring and we'll plan it well in advance and invite all the bigger DJs out.

Are we going to see some real old school DJing at Eclec'tech? There's going to be a lot of these same guys who came into Swell playing exclusively vinyl at the party, which should be cool. Downstairs we're going to have two or three people playing on four turntables at a time.

What's your opinion about the cyclical nature of DJing and electronic music? It was big in the mid-90s and is even bigger today. I don't follow the commercialism of it. Really, I don't. The only thing I see is like, "Hey, there's another commercial for Electric Daisy Carnival" or something. It seems to be that its just been growing and growing. The music is still good, though, the old stuff and the new stuff.

What are you doing nowadays? I'm design and install sound systems and control systems in houses. I work for a company called iWired. It's kind of something I've always done. I started when as a 16-year-old putting stereos in my car and have been working with music in some form or another ever since. Went from selling car audio to selling DJ equipment to selling pro audio. When I sold Swell in 2005, I started this up, putting audio systems in houses. It's cool. I love it.

Any thoughts of bringing Swell back? Yeah, that's what we're doing this weekend (laughs). Other than that? Maybe. If so, it would be down the line a little bit. My wife is going to be finished with he masters degree in a year. After that, we'll see.

Eclec'tech takes place at 9 p.m. on Saturday at Bar Smith and the Monarch Theatre. Admission is $10.


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