Wax on, wax off

TOM HORGEN | Updated 9/27/2012

Dance night Hipshaker has built a 10-year tradition of vinyl-only soul.

Hipshaker DJs Brian Engel and Greg Walestski.
Photo by Richard Tsong-Taatarii

There are people who like vinyl records -- and then there are the guys behind Hipshaker.

Brian Engel and Greg Waletski have been DJ'ing a monthly all-vinyl soul and funk night for the past decade. While most DJs in the Twin Cities bar scene have gone digital -- hooking up a laptop to their turntables -- Engel and Waletski have not only stuck with vinyl, but they'll spin 45s only.

The 45, if you'll remember, is the small 7-inch cousin to the traditional vinyl record, typically reserved for singles or short EPs. The name refers to the revolutions per minute.

Engel and Waletski, along with a handful of other DJs, are a rare species. Like finding a unicorn on the dance floor.

Why 45s? For one, they sound good. And they're rare. The records that Engel and Waletski play each month at the Kitty Cat Klub are especially rare. It's a lot of northern soul and Twin Cities funk from the 1960s and 1970s.

Waletski estimates that 90 percent of the records are unfamiliar to Hipshaker's crowd, which is predominantly women. Still, the dance floor stays packed at the Dinkytown bar.

While they share an obsession with dusty old grooves, the duo couldn't be more different. Engel, 34, is a sleepy-eyed free spirit who looks like he should be fronting a grunge band circa 1991. Waletski, 47, is a clean-cut modern dancer who has performed for years with Zenon.

On the turntables, Engel and Waletski handle their records with extreme care. For good reason.

The second record Waletski played at last month's party was worth about $125. He got the 45 -- the Volumes' "Maintain Your Cool" from 1965 -- through an Internet trade from a guy in England. (See, technology is good for something.)

I was stunned that they would want to play such an expensive piece of vinyl. Waletski told me they routinely play an ultra-rare Wanda Davis record called "Save Me." The 45, released on a Minnesota label in 1970, has sold on eBay for more than $1,400.

"If you're not going to play the records, why buy them?" Waletski said.

"I can download any song I want," Engel said. "But just the thought of that doesn't sound like fun to me. It's all about the hunt."

This means weekly stops at thrift stores and garage sales, as well as shops such as Hymie's Vintage Records. Hymie's has a special box behind the counter for collectors like Engel and Waletski.

They have a big fan in Marcos Prado, a well-known soul DJ out of Dallas. He's a whale of a collector, with a stash of 45s that once ballooned to 25,000. He was a guest DJ at last month's Hipshaker, where he told me he's never seen anything like the Twin Cities' small community of collectors.

"They really support each other here," he said. "I don't know if it's a Midwestern thing, but everybody is really nice."

Indeed, there are several all-45 nights now orbiting Hipshaker. DJs such as King Otto, Mike 2600 and Steely have done their own nights in the past. Ben Mena started out as a fan of Hipshaker before co-founding a rival night called Hotpants. "I was pissed at first," Engel remembered. But soon Engel became a Hotpants DJ, too. That night, held at the Nomad World Pub, will celebrate its fifth anniversary Saturday.

Engel talks of 45s almost as a lifestyle. He told me he still remembers the day he spent his rent money on a 45 by Ernie and the Top Notes. His wife at the time wasn't pleased.

"I got rid of my wife, but I'll never get rid of that record," he joked.

That, record-buying friends, is dedication.