Russell Ramirez on the History of Swell Records, Old School Phoenix DJs, and Eclec'tech
Courtesy of Russel Ramirez Russel Ramirez (center) and a mix of images from Swell Records' lengthy history.
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?
Courtesy of Russel Ramirez
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.