The emergence of audio compact discs in the 1980s had music-industry watchers predicting the immediate demise of the traditional gramophone record. Three decades later, however, Nicole McKenzie – manager of record shop Sounds of the Universe in London’s bohemian Soho district – insists that a long-reported resurgence in vinyl is growing stronger, and not just amongst deejays and niche-market audiophiles.
“Vinyl sales are the healthiest they’ve ever been,” McKenzie enthuses. “This is not my instinct telling me this. I’ve read the statistics! The amount of new music available exclusively on vinyl is huge. Interest only seems to be snowballing, so this can only mean the format is going from strength to strength.”
Starting out as a small stall located above a London nightclub in the early 1990s, today Sounds of the Universe (SotU) offers what is arguably the largest selection of soul, jazz, reggae, dub-step, house, disco, Brazilian, Latin, African and world music in the UK. It is also spiritual home to Soul Jazz Records and sister labels Universal Sound and World Audio Foundation, as well as to McKenzie herself.
Growing up in suburban Croydon, McKenzie’s love of music began as a teenager. “At about 13 I got into dance music,” she recalls. “I was listening to and taping a lot of pirate radio, but when it came to tracking down the tunes, I realised they were all on vinyl. Croydon had loads of record shops. It was all bit daunting, especially as a female, but I started to venture in, eventually winning over the guys with my love for the music.
“A friend of mine told me about Soul Jazz Records in Soho [at that time the shop had the same name as the record label]. It was completely different to the more dance-orientated shops I’d been going to at home. There was a vast array of music – all different styles of music sitting back-to-back. The staff were really friendly, too. I got talking to everyone, and after a few months I was asked if I wanted to work there on Saturdays. Ten years later, I’m the manager and still inspired every day.”
Asked what makes vinyl special to her, McKenzie cites its “tactile” quality, that it “comes with artwork that can often inspire”, and that a vinyl record is “hypnotic when it spins on the turntable”. And KEF speakers, which take pride of place in the Soho outlet, boost the listening experience still further. “They’re great speakers,” McKenzie says. “They enrich the sound in the shop and we’ve put them through the mill – testing them with heavy, heavy dub and lo-fi techno.”
McKenzie adds that variety has been an essential component in the success of SotU, which also stocks post-punk, electronic, hip-hop and other musical genres, as well as books and DVDs.
“We’re not purists at all,” McKenzie says. “We’ve all got our unique, personal tastes, but with so much amazing music around it’s sometimes quite hard to leave without a couple of new hip-hop 12”s to accompany a new techno record that you just bought. Working in the shop for the past 10 years has opened my ears to great soul, electronic, house, reggae and more.”
Though rare vinyl can change hands for high prices today, McKenzie says exclusivity and elitism are frowned upon. “The music always comes first,” she vows. “Obviously we come across rare records that are a little expensive, but we would happily champion a £5 Stevie Wonder seven-inch, or a £3 reggae re-issue just as much as a rare single that could be worth £500.”
And while the shop does attract hardcore collectors, there is no typical customer, though a common trait is enthusiasm, and SotU fosters a sense of community amongst its like-minded clientele.
“We have a lot of London-based customers that arrive on the dot for the latest releases,” McKenzie says, “but we also have customers that are not so regular because they come from out of town, and we have tourists that visit because they have heard of the store. We also sell via mail-order, so we’re global now.”
SotU also attracts top-flight deejays, musicians and A-list celebrities. “[Deejay] Gilles Peterson is a regular and a friend to us,” McKenzie says. “He’s been shopping at Sounds Of The Universe for years. The actor Martin Freeman [who plays Watson in the BBC television series Sherlock] has great taste in jazz music and is a regular in our basement. We have lots of TV presenters and radio hosts, too. Our most famous customer has to be Prince. That was definitely a highlight for me.”
Nicole McKenzie’s top five records currently on Sounds Of The Universe shelves:
Caramel by Tenderlonious
"Recent release from a promising artist."
Human by Brief Encounter
"An incredibly brilliant soul track from the late 1970s."
Moving Along by Batsumi
"A beautiful South African afro-jazz LP."
A Tribute To Sun Ra by Salah Ragab
"Previously un-released tracks from the Egyptian jazz maestro."
King Bromeliad / Montparnasse by Floating Points
"We’re huge fans of his records."