A Sonic Journey with Tom Noble, founder of Superior Elevation

Photos by Joel Barhamand

From rap battles in the park to the rise of punk, the history of New York is arguably best told through music — which makes Tom Noble Bushwick’s resident historian.

A veteran record collector, DJ, producer and owner of Superior Elevation record store, Tom also curated the vinyl library at Lyric at 70 Pine, filling it with an eclectic mix of songs that reflect the city’s musical legacy. We talked with him about why NYC has the best music scene, where he goes to get inspired, and much more.

When did you move to New York? What drew you in?
We moved here in 2013 from LA.  We had been selling records online and needed a change of pace. LA is a destination based car town. Record stores are made for foot traffic. These two constants, plus the fact that Brooklyn was just exploding with great new developments, influenced our decision to move.

Where did your love for vinyl begin?
Around 1992. I was 15 and lived across the street from a record store. Most LP's were $2-$8 and affordable for me, being an unemployed high school kid. It was easy to do a deep dive into exploring my interests in Jamaican music and Soul. CD's were still king, but vinyl was a good way to get more stuff for cheaper. Then I started DJing, and in those days, digital DJing wasn't a thing yet so collecting records became essential.

What do you like about the format of vinyl over digital or other media?
It's still the best way to explore music. Reading liner notes and production credits, analyzing the years it was made, the countries it was made in, the details that are usually found on large formats which can literally hold more information make it very unique. I find that the younger music fans who have learned about music through streaming sites are usually in the dark about the origins of the music they love. Most don't know what full length LP a song was from, what year it was made, who produced it, who sang background vocals, who got a shout out in the credits...or even what the artwork looked like on the cover. It's the baby that was thrown out with the bath water so to speak, and that is sad.

What inspired you to start making music?
My brother was in bands. We both had been taking music lessons — guitar and bass. I was lucky enough to be introduced to some very talented young songwriters, and seeing them write compelling material inspired me to do the same. The label was, at first, a re-issue label. The mission was to reissue late 70's and 80's American soul music that most of the world was sleeping on by and large (circa 2002). Eventually losing interest in re-issuing, and at the same time developing my song writing skills and remixing, made it more interesting for me to release new music. The formula for our record label is basically getting a song I like from a friend and then remixing the song for the other side of the record.

And to open a record store?
Opening a record store was a decision that was made for us. Our landlord had kicked out some tenants for operating an illegal motorcycle repair shop, and offered us the chance to have a record store there for $250/month. This was 2000 in Milwaukee, WI. We started out selling new records and the used stuff from our collection, but eventually we started buying collections and selling mainly used records.

You’ve probably heard some incredible stories from people over the years while sifting through vinyl - any you can share?
Yeah, people love the fishing stories. I prefer my own the most ;) Most of these stories involve passing through a small town with a thrift store that had a $800 funk LP sitting on top of a beer fridge, or finding a $2000 soul 45 in a box on the side of the road.  It does happen. As someone said to me once, if you don't look for it, you won't find it.

What city do you think has the best music scene? Any places that surprised you?
NYC by a few thousand miles. This is mainly because of how many people move here every day, from every corner of the world. Plus the history of NYC keeps it a self fulfilling prophecy — it's an infinity pool of talent. Outside of here? Montreal has always surprised me by how many great bands come of a somewhat small sized town. The vinyl scene is great there. Disco was huge. Many French records got distributed in Canada because of the Quebecoise population. Also, many avant-gardists and future-thinking producers have developed there, maybe due to the cold dark winters that never end. Perhaps that adds to the musicians being able to develop their talents?

How would you describe NYC’s music scene today?
It's pretty diverse. Hard to really say what is unique to here, as opposed to anywhere else — I blame this on the globalization from the internet. I will say there are plenty of younger producers who are very much into making House, Techno & Ambient music. We also seem to be a great town for those who are making Funk, Soul, African & Latin music. This is definitely because of the history of the town. It also has a lot to do with the fact that Daptone Records is based here and they have turned the whole world's head with their many successes. But honestly there’s a scene for any interest in NYC.

What does NYC do better than anywhere else?
It socializes all of the different scenes better than anywhere else. If you have any interests at all, you will meet many others who share them. You'll also be exposed to many adjacent scenes and have a true perspective of what is happening in the "real" world at all times. It's hard not be caught up on the latest trends in whatever it is you’re interested in. Networking here is a real thing.

Who are you listening to right now - at home? Walking around the city? When friends are over?
I personally have been enjoying ambient records at the house. Fake jazz. 40's vocal groups. Walking around the city, I'm usually more into 90's R&B at the moment. When friends come over, I bust out the Brazilian vinyl — mainly samba and regional sounds from Brazil as opposed to the funk and psych that seems to get the most attention.

What’s one place you always take friends when they visit?
I always take people to Brouwerij Lane in Greenpoint to drink small beers. The staff is great. The drinks are small. There is a great park, Transmitter, next door. It's easy to walk over and have your mind destroyed by the amazing view of Manhattan you get from this park. Also crossing the Williamsburg Bridge on foot is essential to any New York visit.

Your favorite place to…

Spend a quiet morning: drawing at KCBC before the hordes of people show up to drink beer. It's a great place to chill out and lose myself in drawings.
Hear new music: Nowadays is the best venue in NYC, period. They book the most compelling new DJs, the crowd is the most liberated and the vibe is all over the place.  High octane rave sounds, loose disco and even ambient music being played while you lounge on pillows.
Dig through records: A-1 is one of the more enjoyable places to visit. I'll always miss the days of the East Village in NYC being the center of the vinyl universe. A-1 is one of the only places left that survived gentrification. You get the whole NYC disco, house and hip hop experience in there on any given visit.
Get inspired: I like The Lot Radio in Williamsburg. It's a good place to check many touring DJs in a very candid environment. Meeting new people with fresh perspectives always inspires me.
Relax and recharge: Ft. Tilden on a Monday cannot be beat. Any place where it's not a surprise to see naked people doing yoga, or just reading while listening to waves, is a place I'll want to do my system resetting.

Check it out
Superior Elevation
100 White St, Brooklyn, NY 11206