For over a decade, Jwan Allen has been one of Pittsburgh's best-known house and techno DJs. But despite a CV that would make most crate-digging dance-music fiends blush, there's still one vinyl hurdle he's yet to leap. "I'm still not allowed to touch my dad's records," says Allen. "He remarried a few years ago, and their first dance was 'A Love Supreme,' by John Coltrane: He started the record, went out and danced with his wife, and at the end, stopped the dance to put the record back in its sleeve!"
It's obviously a sore spot. After all, it was partially that tantalizing collection of jazz, soul and reggae vinyl in Jwan's childhood home that sparked his life-long affection for dance music. But coming of age in late-'80s northern New Jersey, respite wasn't far away. To get to the dance-music capital of the world, New York City, took only a 45-minute train ride -- or a twist of the radio dial.
It wasn't just house music Allen heard on New York stations like WBLS and 98.7 KISS, though -- it was the founding DJs of 1990s dance-music culture. Producer and Sound Factory club resident Junior Vasquez ("before he got cheesy"); Danny Tenaglia ("when he didn't suck"); even Frankie Knuckles, the DJ whose gigs formed the basis of "house" in the late '70s -- these were the tastemakers Allen heard on the airwaves as a kid.
In the heady days of early 1990s dance culture, rave was just beginning to penetrate American consciousness, and the results were up for grabs in New York. At Sound Factory Bar and the seminal NASA raves, Allen (who was "always a bit older-looking") and his friends got to taste the non-stop nightlife. Leaving the house in Plainfield, N.J., on Friday meant New York City, Boston or anyplace the music -- and Amtrak -- would take them. "As long as I came back at some point, it was all good!"
And right then, in 1994, Jwan Allen moved upstate -- a life-altering event.
Removed from his beloved radio and clubbing life while a student at Rochester Institute of Technology, Allen figured he'd better take matters into his own hands. "I never had aspirations to DJing," says Allen. "But in Rochester, I'd go out to college parties, and I noticed I never heard the music I wanted to hear, so I started buying records just for myself." It was just one turntable and a handful of 12-inch singles, but in the land of the blind, the one-turntable'd man is king, and before long Allen was playing parties.
After a year in Rochester, Allen moved to Pittsburgh. Soon, he was a fixture at the local dance-music specialty shop -- Oakland's long-defunct Hyper Vinyl -- where he'd pick his purchases straight from the manager's order sheet. It was at Hyper Vinyl that Allen, already playing the city's circuit of after-hours clubs and event back rooms, fell in with like-minded DJ/producers including Shawn Rudimen and Adam Ratana.
The group established itself as Technoir Audio, a collective of DJs surrounding a core group releasing techno records, mostly by Rudimen. Technoir has since released six 12-inch singles and a full-length CD, garnering heaps of critical praise and, as you might imagine, somewhat limited sales. But even such modest commercial ambition has become tenuous lately: In the past 18 months, Technoir Audio has seen three of its major distributors shuttered. So while 2008 will see three new Technoir releases, they won't be available only on Allen's beloved vinyl. The new releases -- and, soon, Technoir's back catalog -- will be available through its Web site.
"As a record label, we kind of have a vested interest in the preservation of vinyl," says Allen. "People say, 'Well, you can sell that many more releases by putting it online.' But you know, people who have [only] an iPod, they have thousands and thousands of songs. And they know nothing about music. They don't know where it came from, how it got there; they just have it and now they're playing it. I can tell you where I got just about every one of my records -- what store, what time period. You're missing the whole point, which is to go out and search for music!"
To Allen, Technoir's dream is a modest one, but one that might appeal to other vinyl-philes -- one that might appeal, in fact, to the elder Mr. Allen.
"One day, I want to walk into Jerry's [Used Records], and find one of Technoir's records for three dollars," says Allen. "That means somebody bought it, somebody used it, needed a couple bucks, sold it. And then somebody else will buy it. It'll go through the whole cycle, and start again."
DJs Jwan Allen and Tom Cox. 10 p.m. Fri., Feb 15. Remedy, 5121 Butler St., Lawrenceville. Free. 412-781-6771