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To paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes, to every thing there is an obsession--and a book documenting that obsession. For synonyms, there was Peter Mark Roget, who compiled a lifetime's worth of notes into his seminal 1852 thesaurus. For world records, there was Sir Hugh Beaver of the Guinness Brewery, who commissioned his Guinness books in 1955 to settle an argument over the relative flight speeds of the golden plover and grouse. Now, for hip-hop records released between 1979 and 1988, there is St. Paul-based DJ and producer Freddy Fresh, whose new book, Freddy Fresh Presents, The Rap Records, is nothing less than a list of every "old-school" rap record ever made.
"It's a specialized subject," admits Fresh, speaking over his cell phone while driving around St. Paul. "But the people who do care about it are going to go to great lengths to get it."
Available through his website, www.freddyfresh.com, the inch-thick spiral paperback is pure collector's porn. Where else would you find the complete discography of Harlem's storied Delmar International Records, whose classic but undistributed 1980 singles now sell for as much as $400 each? Fresh offers some label history, but mostly sticks to reproducing the cool graphics and transcribing essential data such as catalogue number, artist, title, and year, with a zero-to-five rating system for rareness (five being what an Ego Trip editor would presumably sell his grandma's kidneys for). Even if you don't know Spicey Ham from Sweet Cookie, The Rap Records provides its own visceral sort of entertainment: I'll probably never hear, nor buy, "The Brake Is Death" by the Rappermatical 5 (on Connecticut's Dynamite Records), but the title and visuals are their own reward.
Probably nobody but Freddy Fresh could have, or would have, put such a book together. A breakbeat techno headliner abroad who keeps a low profile here, Fresh has performed in more than 30 countries since he began spinning at local roller rinks in 1981 (see "Freshen Up" 9/30/98 in the www.citypages.com article archive). Having collaborated with everyone from Boogie Down Productions to Fatboy Slim, he's become the sort of resourceful indie who sells music to beer companies while putting out colored-vinyl 45s--including a new Kool Moe Dee remix and the many singles that make up a new collection of originals, Have Records Will Travel--on his own Howlin' Records imprint. Freddy Fresh Presents, which he released himself, grew out of his craving for the vinyl he first heard on mixtapes in the Bronx, where he began spending summers in 1984.
"I've worked at record stores forever, and I've always been writing down titles of records, because a lot of times in Minnesota, back in the independent days, you couldn't get these records," he says. "So I just happened to have all these notes lying around, and over the years I've added to them because I always wanted to know what records I was missing from individual labels."
Joining the computer age five years ago speeded up the process, he says. For the past three years, he's labored more resolutely to turn the old lists into a book, hitting up old-school hip-hoppers and collectors across the globe for information on the rarest labels. His unique circle of contacts came into play when he learned that the priceless collection of Lenny Roberts, late compiler of Ultimate Breaks & Beats, was still up for sale.
"I used to hang out with Lenny in the Bronx," Fresh says. "He taught Ultramagnetic MCs and Biz Markie and all these guys about breakbeats--and me, too. He did a limo service on the side, and I rode around with him and got a lot of his knowledge."
Fresh had been offered the collection for an amount he couldn't afford, he says, but when he heard Roberts's family was paying monthly fees to store the records in a North Carolina warehouse, he found a buyer in England. For negotiating the deal, Fresh received 25 of the rarest platters as compensation. Now he's working on a compilation CD of rare and out-of-print hip-hop tracks that promises to be an American counterpart to his spectacular UK-only 2002 mix CD, B-Boy Stance: Original Old Skool Party Rockers (Strut), featuring the Super 3, Scott La Rock, and 24 others.
Fresh rarely appears in town, preferring to spend time with his family, but he still keeps an ear to the local scene. "I'm producing a rap album for my daughter's boyfriend right now, Mr. Mannish," he says. "It's not old-school, it's more like borderline gangster stuff, actually."
By coincidence, the genre's harshest realities suddenly impinge on our interview.
"I'm driving through the Midway and there's a SWAT team with a guy on the ground holding a gun to him," Fresh says, interrupting my questions. "Can you believe this shit? They're roughing the guy up. It's like New York all over again."