Words: Josh Thomas
Photography: James Clothier
Meet Man Hon Luk, more commonly known as the Vinyl Pimp. Hon moved to London in the early noughties to find work after he finished university in his native Hong Kong. Following a stint of trying to find his feet with various jobs in the capital, he accidentally found himself in the business of flogging second hand vinyl records on Discogs – the international online marketplace for those with a penchant for collecting wax. By 2008 he was operating out of a warehouse space in East London and considered to be the go-to-guy if you needed to shift some records. In the time since, he’s helped world-renowned DJs such as Phil Asher, d-Bridge, Doc Scott and Ben Sims lighten their collections and counts the main reasons for them making the move as “the wife nagging about room” or “having babies”. He finds it highly amusing that some people have offloaded £20,000 worth of music to him free-of-charge because they have simply “lost the passion” … and they say pimpin’ ain’t easy?
If you’re the number one seller on the online market place then why open a physical store? The answer is simple: his housemates were pissed off with the clutter. Last September Hon shifted his 50,000+ strong collection into a warehouse unit in Hackney Wick. Here, you find a large and minimal space with white walls, a shop floor presenting a small batch of vinyl treasures, various pieces of custom artwork and a wall mounted iPad to help you navigate through his collection – which happens to be the striking image you see towering over you from behind the counter when first entering the shop.
The funny thing I found when meeting Hon was this sort of split personality he had when it came to his feelings towards vinyl. He came across as this Jekyll and Hyde type character: one part a business-driven hustler who just saw records as “pieces of wax”, and the other part someone with a deep affinity for the beauty of the format, seemingly switching from one to another in an instant.
Ahead of their first Record Store Day event, we went to down to see the Vinyl Pimp in action and chatted over his background in records, the future of the format and whether he is the Bobby Zamora of the vinyl game.
Let’s kick off with a bit of background on the pimp. When did you first start enjoying and buying records?
I started buying records after my first clubbing experience, I think in 2000. I wanted to be a DJ and I was buying horrible Hard House at the time, and that’s when I – actually [suddenly recalling an earlier memory] hold on, the first records were Psy-Tech Trance in Hong Kong, and then I carried on buying horrible Hard House [produces a rye smile]. But, you know, your music tastes change over time and progress, I guess – evolves. I always collected records.
When I finished University I came to London looking for jobs, but I was doing all kinds of shitty jobs. My first job in London was lugging a suitcase around going door-to-door trying to sell people stuff that nobody ever wants. You have to put on a brave face to do that sort of job. I’ve done debt collecting, Xbox game testing, I’ve done all kinds of stuff in London and never really found my feet. So I thought “Okay, I like selling records, I’m going to keep selling records. But I don’t have any money to buy records to sell. Hmmm, let’s get some records for free, let’s look around and see if I can get some records for free.” It just happened by accident, I saw an ad in a newspaper, I called and said “You’ve got 4000 records? What’s up, can I help you? Maybe we can work out a deal; you take 50%, I take 50% and I do all the work.” and he agreed. His name was Mark Finch, another Hard House DJ from Brixton. So I was going back and fourth to his house, from Angel to his place in Brixton everyday, lugging records around.
You were doing this on public transport?
Oh no, just cycling… So yeah, I did that for a few months and in the end I think he just got fed up of me going round everyday [laughs], so he just drove the whole lot and put them in my flat and I started looking after his collection. That was the first and then it just became one collection after another.
So at what point did it become a viable business idea?
I think it was when Phil Asher dropped his collection in 2008; it was like 4500-5000 records. That’s like 20k’s worth of tunes. He’s like “Here you go, want to do something with this…” This was when I first got the unit around the corner.
How have things progressed since back then?
There was no one doing this back then, so I had no one to copy. Even the vinyl exchange places don’t operate this way; they just pay you peanuts and then sod off. No one operates a second hand record shop in this way. I started off completely from scratch, thinking of all the logistics, thinking of… just a flow chart of how it should be. I came up with everything myself. So in the beginning, for example, with labeling we were doing it alphabetically but quickly realized that it is impossible to add stuff on in this way, because you’d then have to look for that gap, “This is A set… oh shit”. So we quickly realized the best solution would be labeling them, we haven’t got anything barcoded, it’s just on labels.
Sounds like it has very much been a learn on your feet experience?
Absolutely. I mean, that’s just one example. We’re talking about everything from how we deal with emails, to how we deal with invoicing, to how we deal with sending stuff out, who to use – just one thing after another really.
It’s not uncommon for certain users or dealers on Discogs to put records on the market for extremely inflated prices. What are your thoughts on this?
Well, you’d be lucky if you could get something out of your records that was more than what you paid for them in the first place. We have 45,000 records here on sale, 39,000 of them are under £5. What this means is, once a record has gone past its sell-by-date – lets say 3-4 months – the value is most likely going to go down. The ones that stay at their retail price, or above, they’re really good quality records, they have to be really great quality. Everything else will just become £2/£2.50.
I was referring to people purposely withholding records in order to turn a profit on Discogs…
Those are the guys that buy in stuff and then hold onto them for a year and then sell them, we’re not interested in that. We just pimp them straight. When we see a good record we put it online. If the market tells me I can sell it for £100, I’ll put it up for £100. That’s what pimps do [laughs]. There are a lot people out there with records who are either running out of space, running out of passion, they have no more fire in their belly…
[At this point Hon turns his interest to a haul of vinyl that have just been delivered to the shop door. They have arrived from an old time DJ who claims to have run out of room and is starting DJing with USB. The guy delivering the collection informs us that the DJ used to hang around with Carl Cox and that there was a record worth £300 buried in the crates somewhere. In a “ heard it all before” kind of tone, Hon endearingly insists that he’ll sniff it out pretty quickly if it’s in there.]
So, I was saying, people run out of room, out of passion, wife starts to nag, babies, these are the main factors why they go “Oh my goodness, I’ve spent £20,000 on this collection, I’m going to give it away in one go, here you go Vinyl Pimp, have it.” [laughs]
And who are the big names that have approached you with their records over the years?
Wow, okay big names. I mean Phil Asher was a massive name, he’s a legend. We’ve had Ben Sims, d-Bridge, El Horno from Pendulum, Doc Scott…
Have the switches in DJ technology had an impact on people parting with their records?
Well I think these guys still play vinyl, but have ran out of room. Property prices go up, that sort of thing. You’re right with the USB thing though; some of them might have gone digital and that is part of the reason. But some of the best collections I’ve had are not from DJs, because DJ collections are pretty bad anyway [laughs].
Do you have any examples of what you consider to be a top quality record collection?
Wow. We had this lady from Reading, I think she contacted us on Gumtree. She has some of the best, best, best ’80s Post-Punk and Indie Rock. The reason they were so great was because she never played them. 20 years they had just been sitting there… waiting… for their moment to come to the Pimp [smirks].
Is there anyone you know personally and hold the standard of their record collection in high regard?
Not really. I don’t really hold any record collection in high regard, it’s just plastic really. [laughs]
What about yourself?
I’ve got my own stuff. I still buy records. I got no need to sell them; I’ve still got plenty of room in my warehouse. If someone was to take them away from me tomorrow, I’m not going to drop a tear. [laughs]
There is a very fond, emotional tie that people have with vinyl though…
Yeah they do (slightly back tracking from his previous statement), me too. I guess I do too, I suppose I don’t know it any other way.
Do you see it in a different light because you deal with records on such a large scale that you forget about that personal affinity?
Do you watch football?
Do you know who Bobby Zamora is?
He’s a professional footballer earning like £90,000 per week and he came out and said he doesn’t even like football. I’m not saying I’m like that, I love records, I love music, but hey…
So why was last year the right time to for you to open a physical store?
The people I live with had enough [laughs]. People coming in and out, all these records everywhere. Even though it was my name on the lease I realized they were unhappy and got the fuck out.
How has the first year gone so far?
It’s good, it’s paying for itself at the moment. I think things will pick up in the Summer when the Olympic park opens, there will just be a lot more footfall. At the moment people are embarking on a pilgrimage to get here, rather than walking by and going “Hey, lets check this place out.”
I suppose Hackney Wick isn’t known for its shopping or record stores like Soho, but it seems like an area where things are only going to grow in regards to a creative community…
There’s going to be a lot of stuff going on in the park come July. I have high hopes for all those events. We get plenty of visitors, but generaly people who travel. I’d say more people travel from outside of E9 then within. People come all the way from Reading, Basingstoke, people from up North, Manchester, all over. There was one day where I had three Discogs buyers, one was from Australia, and another flew in from the Caribbean.
What, just to come here?
Yeah. Well not just here, but they’ll make the order and then plan a trip to London to include a visit to the Vinyl Pimp. But you know, you can’t find this on a high street, you have to come out of your way.
Do you think there will always be people digging to keep this format of music alive forever?
I hope so. I genuinely hope so.
There are fluctuations in sales figures, but are there always renewed interests as new generations come through?
Yeah, it’s basically a statement to say that if something is of genuine quality, it will be remain here. The format is great, the sound quality is great, and some of the music that has been pressed onto it can’t be touched.
Thanks to Hon for his time and insight. Be sure to swing by the shop when you’re in the Hackney Wick neighbourhood and check out their Record Store Day event with Planet Mu and Erased Tapes tomorrow (info here). You can also browse the entire Vinyl Pimp catalogue over at the Vinyl Pimp website.