Record Collector Helps Keep Lowrider Soul Alive in the Bay Area 

Rene Lopez celebrates the culture with 3,000 discs and regular DJ sets across the Bay Area. His Suavecito Souldies brings a soul night to The Uptown every First Friday.

click to enlarge Rene Lopez has 3,000 albums, and he’s not done yet.

Chiara Bercu

Rene Lopez has 3,000 albums, and he’s not done yet.

Rene Lopez has a collection of 3,000 soul records. He keeps them in vinyl boxes in a designated room in his apartment, where he spends most of his free time between DJ sets and workdays at the SF Art Institute. A wall of the room proudly displays the entirety of the East Side Story collection, an exclusive pirated lowrider soul compilation from the 80s, valued now at an estimate of $1,200. The 45s hang framed alongside a Mexican flag and an array of Rene's paintings — completed and in-progress signs hand-painted with the one-shot enamel lettering of the oldies era. Lopez keeps his turntables in the corner of the room by the window, along with the quintessential "Suavecito Souldies" flag he brings along to his sets.

Lopez, also known as DJ Tuff, started Suavecito Souldies in 2014, an all-vinyl soul night dedicated to lowrider oldies, now playing First Fridays at The Uptown. Before he ever got interested in DJing, Lopez collected 7" soul vinyl. His love for the genre began with his home in Napa, where his parents always had soul classics playing on 8-track tapes and records. Brenton Woods' 18 Best album was one of his mom's favorites, and Lopez said it still brings him right back to "being a little kid" — to a time when there was "less to worry about." It was in compiling the full set of East Side Story vinyls that Lopez first got into record collecting, a project he started as a tribute to his parents' music and the soul classics that charted his childhood. As he began to get his DJ night off the ground, Lopez jumped on the opportunity to use old photos of his mom in promotion, images he'd always loved and hoped to make public somehow. Pictures of his mom still feature prominently on Suavecito posters and flyers, and Lopez says it makes her happy to see them shared.

While his interest in soul grew out of his nostalgia for his upbringing in Napa, it has since become much more than that. Lopez is drawn to the whole charm of lowrider oldies, which has an allure for him that goes far beyond his personal experience with it. And it's not just the old records that evoke this sort of nostalgia for Lopez — it's the newer soul, too. Labels like Colemine Records are attempting to recreate the oldies sound, and have played a big part in repopularizing the use of records in the industry. Though he mostly plays older albums, Lopez spins contemporary soul artists in his sets, as well — including Ben Pirani, who will be coming to the Bay Area to play next month's Suavecito Souldies on February 7.

With thousands of records to choose from, Lopez tends to go with his gut when it comes to preparing for a set. Before he leaves for Suavecito, he fills a record box with whatever it is he feels like hearing that night. In a given show, he'll have three or four other friends DJing with him, with plenty of records in rotation. Since he started Suavecito, Lopez has connected to a whole network of all-vinyl DJs in the Bay, and has forged a close crew with a few of them — a group that playfully calls itself "Los Hitters." Lopez and his friends DJ on each other's shows all the time, which keeps his schedule booked with sets between Suavecito nights. When they're on stage together, they play off of each other's ideas and take turns spinning records from their own collections. A few beers into the show, Lopez and his friends usually end up shirtless, singing along to the music with the rest of the room.

From the past six years running Suavecito, there's one moment that sticks out to Lopez above the rest. A few years back, he helped to kickstart the Bay Area Soul Weekender, a four-day and five-party event that brings out hundreds of oldies lovers and DJs from around the world —  including devoted attendees like Dave Thorley, a 62-year-old soul DJ who has flown in from Germany for the Weekender the past two years. Between collectors and DJs, the soul vinyl scene in the Bay is "dense," Lopez said, and given a much-deserved spotlight at the Weekender. During last year's events, Lopez celebrated the five-year anniversary of Suavecito Souldies in a packed show at The Uptown, where he DJed for a crowd of more than 200 people. As Lopez played "Young, Gifted, and Brown" by Joe Bataan and watched hundreds of people jump up and down, screaming along to the lyrics, he felt exhilarated by the positivity in the room. "There were white people and brown people singing," he said, "everyone was feeling that positivity at that moment." Lopez said he will never forget "the energy that that record was transmitting throughout the room," an experience that made him glad to be a DJ. 

Lopez has a full schedule of shows booked for the coming months, including a Valentine's Day soul night at the Elbo Room with San Diego-based DJ MoniLoca. In his downtime between shows, he's most likely hanging out at home with his ever-expanding record collection and his girlfriend, Kerry, and their two cats, Chico and Olive. "I'm a simple guy," he said. At home, he likes to work on his paintings and listen to music he can "turn off his brain to" — doom metal.

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