Play De Record Doc 'Drop the Needle' Amplifies a Toronto Institution

Directed by Rob Freeman

Starring Kardinal Offishall, Russell Peters, Maestro Fresh Wes, Saukrates, Mastermind, DJX, Tough Dumplin

Photo courtesy of levelFILM

BY Nicholas SokicPublished Dec 18, 2023

On Spadina Avenue just off of College Street, countless locals and tourists roaming around downtown Toronto have passed by Play De Record, a vinyl and DJ equipment store packed with decades of music history, housing both rare pressings and the latest releases. 

What the average visitor might not know is the store's near-25-year history and the hugely influential role it has played in Toronto's own music scene over the years. Enter Drop the Needle, Rob Freeman's documentary examining how the store has become an institution for an entire generation.

The film chronicles the shop's origins on Yonge Street in 1990, when it was attached to founder Eugene Tam's parents' convenience store. From there, it grew into the place to be for all DJs and musicians in the city, aspiring or otherwise. Anyone wanting to scratch the latest and greatest, niche 45s, or just pick up the freshest mixtape, would come by Tam's store. 

A parade of interviewees that make up a who's-who of Toronto hip-hop — including Maestro Fresh Wes, Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall, Mastermind, DJX and many more — talk of the community that Tam fostered through his store. 

What Freeman really highlights through the doc is the level of dedication everyone involved had in music — to create it, to critique it, to promote it or to sell it. Thursdays at Play De Record, when new pressings came in, are described as chaotic, with customers snatching records out of employees' hands before they can even hit the shelves.

It's through this that the movie grows into something more than a straightforward accounting of a popular shop. It becomes a time capsule of a very different city and culture, as well as a story about the specifics of running a business amid that relentless change.

It's admirable that Drop the Needle balloons its focus to the vinyl ecosystem of the '90s, like with Tam's friendly rivals at Traxx, as well as the short-lived label Tam co-founded, Steppin Bigga Records. On a macro level, those changes encompass the music business itself. Tam's store has withstood the diminishing of vinyl as a medium as well as the advent and domination of streaming.

But it's still here. At one point, Tam's daughter Sasha calls the store "his other child." Drop the Needle makes the case that he weathered every change not for money, but rather for his love of music — and the city is far richer for it.

By the end, the movie transforms into more than a blanket of warm nostalgia for a bygone era — it becomes a testament to following your passion in life, even when the winds of the world are telling you to pack it in.

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