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Spin It All 

Wax Buildup’s vinyl-inclined DJs bring inclusion to Richmond’s dance floors.

click to enlarge DJ Mentos and Hip Hop Henry spin an eclectic mix of records as part of the Wax Buildup events.

Scott Elmquist

DJ Mentos and Hip Hop Henry spin an eclectic mix of records as part of the Wax Buildup events.

First came a vision. Then a journey.

In 2018, Zak Young and Eugene Henry, known in Richmond’s music community as DJ Mentos and Hip Hop Henry respectively, were kicking around the idea of teaming up for some sort of event. Vinyl records. Like-minded listeners. Most importantly, good music.

“Wouldn’t it be dope to get together and play the music that we love [for] people who feel the exact same way toward what’s being played,” Henry remembers thinking. “They’re not worried about the type of music it is, or who the artist is. If they feel the beat, they move with the beat.”

That June, Henry saw that vision come to life, just not in Richmond. On a trip to New York City, he and fellow “Booze & Grooves” podcast host Richard “Big Rich” Hernandez stopped by a Summerstage event held in Central Park that featured renowned DJs Bobbito Garcia, Rich Medina and Stretch Armstrong. A sense of urgency set in. “We should bring something like this to Richmond,” Hernandez resolved. “I’m ready to move on this when I get home.”

After some location scouting in collaboration with Alex Black, also of the “Booze & Grooves” pod, Wax Buildup was up and running. The all-vinyl dance party debuted at Black Iris Gallery that September, and it’s grown to become a collective, a community and a haven for omnivorous music fans from all walks of life.

“Although we’re not the only ones spinning vinyl in the city,” Hernandez says, “I think that we’re the best ones in the city spinning vinyl.”

Hernandez and Black are often credited as hosts, but their contributions run the gamut of behind-the-scenes and front-of-house roles, everything from marketing write-ups to working the door and hyping up attendees. The first few events featured a rotating lineup, but Wax Buildup truly began to hit its stride in January of 2019, when the core four DJs first performed together: Young, Henry, Erik Holmgren (Billy CrystalFingers) and Norris Baker (DJ Nobe). After dozens of subsequent parties and countless song selections, they’re still surprising one another.

“I’ll have to run over and look over their shoulder to see what record they have on,” Young says. “I’m always peeking to see what they have, because they’re always blowing my mind with something.”

That’s partly due to the sense of variety Wax Buildup prides itself upon. You won’t just hear recent hits or a featured genre. Funk deep cuts fade into classic rock mainstays. Reggae rides alongside soul gems. Eclecticism is the rule, and as a result, there’s something for everyone.

click to enlarge Live event at Veil Brewing with Hip Hop Henry rockin the wheels of steel. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Live event at Veil Brewing with Hip Hop Henry rockin the wheels of steel.

“That, to me, has been one of the guiding principles of this whole thing,” Young says. “We’re going to play the music that we want to play to get [people] going and to communicate a certain energy, and it’s open to anyone that feels that energy.”

“It happened naturally, the inclusivity, because we love music.” Holmgren notes. “We play all genres, all types of music.”

“Part of the inspiration is the early park jams in New York,” Young adds. “They would drag their records out and they would play anything that was funky, whether it was James Brown or the Meters, or if it was something weird off the radio. Even country. It didn’t really matter. If it was funky, [and] it had a break, the DJs would play it.”

The throwback vibe extends to the all-vinyl modus operandi. Time has proven to be as circular as a record when it comes the physical medium’s resurgence. Norris Baker cites the “nostalgia factor,” as well as a unique energy that flows from the DJ’s hands, through the chosen discs and out into the crowd. “Everything goes in cycles,” Baker says, “and I think we’re catching that cycle.”

Holmgren agrees. He’s not knocking digital spinning — “Whatever you have at your fingertips is what you should be using” — but he says he can feel the crowd’s appreciation for the format. “You often hear that people don’t really care where the music is coming from. That’s true to a certain degree, but I think more and more these days, there are people that really love music [and] really love vinyl that do care that DJs are spinning vinyl.”

It’s not all upside. A crate of records is heavy, for one thing. “It’s not a game,” Hernandez notes. “It’s very hard work.” And there are a limited number of songs in each crate. Alex Black stated it plainly while introducing Henry’s set at a Wax Buildup event at the Veil Brewing location in Scott’s Addition last month: “We do not do requests. Why? Because it’s all vinyl. We probably don’t have it.”

But limitations often fuel creativity. Faced with a strict no hip-hop policy at one venue, the Wax Buildup DJs were forced to dig deeper into their collections. “That was hard for me, because that’s my go-to — 1990s hip-hop,” Young says. “That left me trying to find funk and soul, and it probably made me a better DJ, because I couldn’t play what came naturally.”

“When you take your crutch away,” Baker affirms, “it makes you a better DJ, because you have to figure out, ‘How do I incorporate my hip-hop flavor into the records that I can play?’”

Other limitations have less of a silver lining. COVID-19 slowed the momentum Wax Buildup had built by the start of 2020. Various virtual versions helped keep the collective connected when spinning in-person wasn’t an option, including a “Check Out My Records” interactive session Young conducted and a livestream hosted by Baker. Despite some strong engagement, those alternatives proved more temporary than transformative.

“It was more to fill in the gap,” Holmgren says. “We had a good crowd that showed up to see the stream, and got some good feedback for it, so in those ways I think it was successful… But nothing compares to the live reaction, the immediate feedback that you get from the crowd.”

click to enlarge Hip Hop Henry on the ones and twos. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Hip Hop Henry on the ones and twos.

An ability to read a room — to open up to one’s environment and respond musically — is what makes DJing the art form that it is. For Holmgren, that two-way communication takes the form of internal questioning: “Who’s reacting to what? What are people dancing to? What are people not dancing to?”

When that communication is flowing freely, magic happens.

“I like when the crowd hears something mean,” Hernandez says, “and they give that mean face like, ‘What is that?’”

Baker describes harmonious moments like those, when the dance floor collectively voices its approval at the start of a song, as the pinnacle of choosing music for a room full of people. “That’s the biggest high in the world. No drug can beat that.”

After regular stints at Black Iris and the more spacious Jungle Room, which lent a wide-open and verdant environment to match Wax Buildup’s growth and expansive approach to spinning, the crew hit the road for the first time in early 2022, playing to a packed Thank You Thank You Bar in Norfolk. “You couldn’t move in there,” Hernandez remembers.

The reception they enjoyed at Thank You Thank You stuck with Holmgren — not just the crowd’s but the venue’s as well. Having an in-house sound system with turntables and a mixer makes out-of-town gigging more manageable. “It is always nice spinning at that venue, because they do cater to DJs,” he says. “That’s a huge, huge thing not having to bring that equipment out. Not only that, the crowd there knows that [it’s] not going to be straight run-of-the-mill radio hits – pop Top 40 type of stuff.”

He and Baker hosted a Wax Buildup event there just last month, on the same April Saturday night Henry and Young were at the Veil — a divide-and-conquer accomplishment that shows how the Wax Buildup collective is staying coordinated during a period of expansion. “It’s like [the] Wu-Tang [Clan],” Baker says. “You may have Rae, Ghost and Method Man doing something, but it’s still under the Wu umbrella.”

Their reach has expanded northward as well, with an event earlier in April at the BierWax craft beer bar in Brooklyn. It wasn’t just an opportunity to branch out; the road trip brought the group closer together amid all of the forces that have pulled at the partnership — a pandemic, busy schedules and currently being between regular venues.

“It’s become half-company, half-family,” Holmgren says. “We’re pushing to do parties, have dope events, and make a little bit of money, [but] getting together – it’s always a good time.”

“Nothing beats playing to a full room,” Young says, “but we’ve DJed when it’s just the six of us and had the best time, so it’s really just being with this group.”

“The most fun thing for me,” Baker says, “is us trying to figure this thing out and build this brand. Building this together… We’ve had some high moments, we’ve had some low times where we didn’t get what we expected, but this is a part of the story. We’re going to be talking about this forever, these moments.

“That’s the fun part,” he concludes. “The journey of it all.”

For information about upcoming Wax Buildup events, visit instagram.com/waxbuilduprva.

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