INTERVIEW: Jelly’s Sheriff Norm Winter Talks About Radio Free Hawaii

I met with Norm Winter on an evening in February 2014 several months after I had recorded a previous conversation of ours. I should say that that conversation—which took place at the Aloha Lounge sometime in the Spring of 2013 during one of Jah Gumby’s Rub-A-Dub all-vinyl reggae sessions, and which gave us an overview of how Jelly’s came to be (and why other records stores in Hawaii failed to stay in business)—I recorded without his knowledge. I’ve since apologized to Norm about publishing our pseudo-interview without his prior permission, and he’s since forgiven me.

If you don’t know Norm, you might think he’s an irritable guy. But take a moment to get to know him and you’ll discover he’s extremely knowledgeable about music, is critical of the world around us (that’s a good thing), a no-bullshit no-filter kind of dude who’s passionate about what he’s doing and likes having a good time while cracking a few jokes.

Norm Winter at the Radio Free Hawaii studio
Norm Winter at the Radio Free Hawaii studio

In his defense, there’s a lot wrong with this world—the music industry, the radio industry—to gripe about. Funny thing is (and it’s probably because of that conversation I published last year) I think he likes to heckle me whenever he gets a chance. It’s hilarious.

We sat down at a late-night restaurant in Kaimuki for the following Norm-approved interview. Norm is something of a regular here, bringing his laptop along to work on his writing (he’s currently putting together a few books, both fiction and non-fiction). When I ordered a Sapporo, the waitress didn’t card me. I remarked: “I guess they didn’t need to card me”. Norm swiftly replied with a slight smirk: “Well, you look suspicious.”

It’s taken me months to finish transcribing this interview, and I’ve seen Norm many times since February. Each time he’s asked me, “How’s that thing going?” and I’ll tell him—somewhat reluctantly since it’s taken so long to complete—“It’s coming along, it’s almost there”.  Norm usually says something snappy: “I guess I’ll know when it’s published cause it’ll hit me like the last one did.”

Well, here it is Norm.

Before we get into it, I want readers to know that Norm is the music buyer for Jelly’s. In other words, he is solely responsible for bringing in all those used and new vinyl records that fill the racks at both Jelly’s locations. Norm is also responsible for the affordable price tags and—better yet—the crates and crates of $1 records at Jelly’s monthly sidewalk sale.

Without Jelly’s—without Norm—Oahu wouldn’t have such easy access to an ever-changing selection of affordable vinyl that will surprise you almost every time you walk through the doors. Because of Norm, I’m able to dig up new gems to spin every month at Soul Time In Hawaii (which happens every last Thursday across the street at Bevy Bar). It’s Norm who keeps Honolulu’s digging habit satiated, keeps collectors on our toes, and keeps us wondering throughout the day (every day) what might possibly be passing through his hands at this moment.

Thank you Norm for helping make Jelly’s the institution that it is.

And, as you’ll find out, Norm is also responsible for another local albeit now-defunct institution.

Norm Winter on the 1991 cover of Midweek.
Norm Winter on the 1991 cover of Midweek for a feature about Radio Free Hawaii.

Norm Winter once changed the way we listened to radio. It was called Radio Free Hawaii, and it revolutionized the airwaves by putting listeners in charge with a ballot-counting system that determined what DJs could play on the radio. Without Norm, scores of people in Hawaii wouldn’t had enjoyed the musically rich, community-centered, boundary-pushing station that was Radio Free Hawaii KDEO 102.7FM.

In our interview below, Norm looks back at Radio Free Hawaii and discusses his thoughts on the music industry leading up to today.

*Note: all photos found via the Radio Free Hawaii Facebook group.

Do you wanna just jump into this? 


Give me your full name, what you go by, what your occupation is so we can get that all cleared up and out of the way.

My name is Norm Winter, I do the music department at Jelly’s. I manage it, so to speak, I do the buying. I don’t do much managing, actually. I just do it.

And I created the format of Radio Free Hawaii, from 1991 to 1997.

That’s me.

Some people call you Sheriff Norm. 

That started at the radio station. The day before we started Radio [Free Hawaii] we did a skit with monkeys. In the skit, the monkeys don’t believe the bosses but they finally, after all this hullabaloo and fighting in the skit—which aired on the radio before we started the radio station—they decided they needed a sheriff to monitor the people. And so I got the job as sheriff.

Sheriff Norm, Chief Monitor Of The Airwaves, Here To Eradicate All Airhogs From Ever Scouring The Airwaves Ever Again.

And then I did the sledgehammering on Saturdays where I would crush the record that got voted as the least song that wanted to be heard on the radio.

So, wait, every Saturday you—

We had a Hawaiian Islands news report every Saturday which we—we had a voting system where you voted for the songs you wanted to hear and voted again for the ones you didn’t wanted to hear. A lot of the songs got more negative votes than positive.

The first week the most negative song was Vanilla Ice “Ice, Ice, Baby”. This was in ’91. I think it had over a thousand negative votes. [laughs] So I promptly sledgehammered it to death, physically.

Unfortunately when I sledgehammered it to death, I broke the floor. So the next week, the least-wanted-to-be-heard song was New Kids On The Block “Step By Step”. We would go out onto the steps, we had an old fashioned building with wooden steps outside, so the guy that owned the building decided we better do it outside. So I go outside, and I broke the steps. [laughs]

What happened the next week?

Oh, it went on and on and on. Every week we would sledgehammer another song [that listeners didn’t want to hear on the radio].

So people could positive or negative votes. 

You get 10 positives and three negatives.

Any song they wanted? 

Anything, I didn’t care what it was. First week, the fourth most-wanted-to-be-heard song in Hawaii was “Fuck The Police” by N.W.A.

Oh, shit. 

In those days, we thought we had to edit it, so we lost a minute of the song with just the “fucks”. But we played it. We played it in high rotation that week.

Radio Free Hawaii Ballot

Let’s go back, because you were in radio before Radio Free Hawaii, right?

I was mostly doing radio commercials for Jelly’s.

Ever since then you’ve been the face of Jelly’s. 

Totally, my wife owned it in the beginning and I guess it turned out like that because I did the music department and she did the comics department.

How did you and a group of DJs get together to start Radio Free Hawaii? Was it the monkeys?

No, that was ’91. The format itself, I was out of work in 1977 so I started figuring out a way to, I was kind of obsessed with radio so I was trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Boy did it suck. You think it sucks then, but of course today it’s beyond belief suck.

At that time, it was a great mystery to me. I did this questionnaires where I called people up on the phone. I was a mad man. I was out of work, I wasn’t doing anything, I would just call people up and talk to them about radio and if I had a list of questions I’d just—

—random people?—

—random phone numbers. I just rang the phone numbers. I didn’t even look at the phone number, I just dialed at random. I called a couple thousand people like that. I was trying to get a feel for how the mentality was about radio.

Norm Winter

One of the questions was “What kind of music do you like?” and they fought the question. “Oh, I like all kinds of music.” Of course, a 14-year-old doesn’t like country music. The idea was that they wanted to feel like they liked all kinds of music. So they were basically fighting the way radio was at the time. Radio was doing Adult Contemporary, a Jazz station, Easy Listening, Top 40—people were fighting that. The impression in their head was that they liked all kinds of music. And that’s why I wrote up this format using the ballot system and everything like that.

In 1977 I went to Pat Roberts who at that time was at KHEJ. He like the idea so he invited me to go do it. So I went down there and met the program director and he booted me out in half an hour. That was the end of that.

They didn’t like it?

The program director, of course not. “You’re gonna have other people decide what you’re gonna play? Are you crazy?? God knows what would happen if that happened.”

Anyways, I got into the retail/wholesale industry in 1979. We were selling to all the independent record stores in the islands. There was like 20 or 30 of them, and we were selling them records. I worked out a deal with KIKI  where we would do the Top 36, it was called the Hawaiian Island Music Report and all we would do is every Saturday we would play it, and they had no reason to play the music outside of that. We did it every Saturday and it became very popular, and in the seventh week they fired the program director, Austin Valley (?), because he didn’t like what I was doing but the general manager did.

So then we went on for another 13 weeks until the owner of the station decided that he should own the name. He wanted to take it around the country because the format went from zero to number one—they were a disco station by the way when I was on there, disco only. every solitary sound was disco. There were five months in radio: January to May of 1979 where all across the country there was a disco station.

It came and went?

It was brutal.

So you had one spot a week on air. 

Saturdays I did the countdown, I did the voting system. I used to go down to Woolworth’s where they had the voting system [setup] at Ala Moana, there were lines of people lining up to fill a ballot. They were excited about it!

But in those days people voted for all the common pop stuff, not too much diversion. The DJ that I did it with, his name was Ron Woods, and one Saturday The Clash made it to the countdown. And of course in those days nobody played The Clash. This is 1979, the song is called “London’s Burning”. So it’s on [air] and the program director Austin Valley rushes in and takes it off the [air] as if the world is going to fall apart with another note of “London’s Burning” by The Clash. It was voted onto the report by the people! That’s when he got fired the next morning.

I was lucky to have a general manager, his name was Jeff Coelho, and he stood behind what we were doing, he thought it was a good idea.

Right after that, they started playing the [voted on] music during the week, and then boom! it became the number one station. That’s when the station just boomed, but it only lasted 20 weeks because the owner of the station wanted to corral it to himself and take it around the country. I wouldn’t give him the name [Hawaiian Island Music Report] because I didn’t trust that he would do it right. His name was Jim Gabbard. So, I told him ‘no’ and then he fired me and changed the name to The Official Hawaiian Music Report. They tried to maintain it but couldn’t because they cheated and it became like any other radio station. They didn’t really come up with the votes.

That was 1979.

I had this memory of how good it worked, and I’m at Jelly’s and we’re huge then—we’re doing like a million a month in sales, really popular—and all the music we were selling wasn’t on the radio. I said, “Well, shit, let’s do it.” Why, that’s the biggest fence: you had to convince a radio station to do it. Of course no one would do it, so I had to buy time on a radio station, on a country radio station.

I paid them, uh, $30,000 a month and I took over the station, that’s how we did it. I wouldn’t have done it but the guy [who owned the country radio station] was ready to go belly-up so he had to do it.

This was 1991. KDEO.

So you bought him out?

I didn’t buy him out, he still owned the station but I signed the lease to do the radio.

So he gave you full—

Basically I was running the station, he had a few things he’d say but nothing to do with the format. Things about the building, like busting the floor steps [laughs].

I moved to Hawaii in 1995 but I didn’t really start listening to music consciously until maybe 2000. So for me, I don’t know too much about Radio Free Hawaii. 

It was so popular you have no idea. I’ll tell you how fast it was popular: the very first week—we were on the radio for two days, Saturday Sunday—on Monday morning the guy from Pink Garage comes down to the station and says I want to do a remote on Friday and Saturday nights from his nightclub. The very first week we had two thousand people there. That’s how fast that thing hit—the first week we’re on the air!

And of course we were playing things nobody else ever heard—that would ever play [on air], I should say.

Here? Or nationally?

Anywhere! On the first report we had a lot of Cure, we had the Smiths—never been played on the radio—we had Bob Marley, we had N.W.A. [laughs], we had a flock of music that had never been played on the radio.

The first week “I Wanna Sex You Up” by Color Me Badd got to number one, the next week it got so many negative votes it was off the chart.

We got 4,000 votes the first week because we went on TV and we said what we were doing and that there were ballot locations across the islands. Two hundred ballot locations. We had a computer system and eight or nine people who punched in the ballots every week. The first printouts were 4,000 different songs got votes.

Those songs lasted through the entire week?

We did it every week, we would vote every week.

The first-ever Hawaiian Island Music Report. Note that the second least wanted to be heard song was "Every Single Thing that NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK has ever done!!"
The first-ever Hawaiian Island Music Report. Note that the second least wanted to be heard song was “Every Single Thing that NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK has ever done!!”
The Hawaiian Island Music Report, Number 57
The Hawaiian Island Music Report, Number 57

Radio Free Hawaii Survey

And you guys only played what the listeners voted? That’s hard to fathom, but yet it makes so much sense. That’s incredible.

We played all the oddball stuff. Like, we’d pull a ballot at random and play a song we don’t normally play. I used the library from Jelly’s, so we could play pretty much everything. There were very things we couldn’t play.

And then we had a Song Discovery where you would vote for the positive and the negative, and then you could vote for a song you thought might be a hit if we played it. On Saturday, I would pull at random—literally at random, the only thing I did was have somebody check for language—and we’d play five songs [from the Song Discovery ballot section] and whichever got the most votes would be our high rotation song of the week.

Five random songs. But that was only on your show, on Saturdays? 

Well, we’d play the Song Discovery Of The Week on high rotation. It was called Golden Ear Tin Ear. You know, do you have a golden ear or a tin ear? And the song that gets the most golden ears would be the Song Discover Of The Week.

So a listener could have fifteen minutes of fame.

For example, Rage Against The Machine didn’t even have a record out but somebody had brought a tape back from New York that they had recorded live. It sounded pretty funky, but we pulled it at random so we played it and it became the Song Discovery Of The Week. Of course, Rage Against The Machine became huge [soon after].

You had already done something like this in the 70s, so with Radio Free Hawaii you knew this was revolutionary. It was different. 

Well, it was so different the second time around compared to the first. The first time around, not too many songs got voted and people just picked songs that were basically around [on the air] already with a few exceptions.

It wasn’t what happened in ’91. In ’91, it was like rage: “We don’t wanna hear anything that’s ever been on the radio, ever” [laughs].

Why was that?

I figured it out, it’s a long story, but I figured it out. But it was shocking at the time, I mean we didn’t expect 4,000 different songs being voted for in the first week.

What was the average? Did it grow from there?

No, because the first week was actually about a month and a half’s worth of votes. After the first week we had on average about 1,000 songs voted on. It got to maybe 2,00 or 3,000 every week, but then later people got lazy and stopped voting every week. But we had enough votes to maintain the chart.

The Radio Free Hawaii Crew
The Radio Free Hawaii Crew

Do you ever think about what Radio Free would be like today with the power of the Internet?

It would work wonderfully. I did a speech at UH and the kids who had never heard of Radio Free Hawaii were like, “Oh god… oh yeah!” [laughs] That was about two years ago, three years ago.

Sites like Pandora or Spotify are considered revolutionary in their own ways. But those services are centered around personal preferences rather than a community’s.

You have no idea what radio is: it is so powerful it is unbelievable. It makes you feel a part of the world.

You hear all this music you’ve never heard before. You hear Frank Sinatra followed by Metallica followed by—we had a classical piece that was a Song Discovery Of The Week, it stayed at number one for seven weeks after that. I just pulled it out of the hat, played it, and we sold 500 copies at Jelly’s, of this classical piece. Tower Records was trying to get more.

Seven weeks. We only had one song that beat that, it was a Sublime song.

Good example: all these bands that got popular in the nineties, we played them first. A year or two ahead. Rage Against The Machine. Sublime was in Maui on vacation, they didn’t know they were getting airtime on the radio. They heard the first few notes of “Waiting For My Ruca” and the first thing they thought was, “Who’s ripping off our song?!” And then they realized we were playing it. They DJ announced afterward that that was the Song Discovery Of The Week, “Waiting For My Ruca” by Sublime.

When we had our Big Mele’s, which we probably had about 15 to 20,000 people there at every concert.

An annual festival?

Yeah. Bands would come out and give away their CDs for free to anyone who walked through the door because they wanted votes to get on the radio. Reel Big Fish came out in 2000 and, it took six months but they finally got on the radio—because we used to accumulate votes. If you just got one vote, we wouldn’t lose it. But once you made it on the air you had to start from scratch. Eventually Reel Big Fish made it and got to number one with a song called “Beer”.

Fishbone at The Big Mele in 1992.
Fishbone at The Big Mele in 1993.
The Big Mele 1997 Concert Poster.
The Big Mele 1997 Concert Poster.
Big Mele at Kualoa Ranch by Radio Free Hawaii & Goldenvoice
Big Mele at Kualoa Ranch by Radio Free Hawaii & Goldenvoice

A lot of bands from the eighties who never got played [on air] in the eighties finally got played in ’91 because they got votes. Nine Inch Nails, al the reggae bands—there was no reggae on the radio [before then]. There was no Gregory Isaacs on the radio. Actually, I had pushed KCCN to play reggae so there was a little bit of reggae on the radio in ’90 because I was promoting concerts, like for Alpha Blondy.

Knowing what you know now, do you think something like Radio Free Hawaii could thrive today as much as it did in the nineties? 

Yeah, but you can’t make money from it, that’s the problem. They block you from getting advertising dollars. They have this service called Arbitron. Great name for it. [According to Arbitron] we didn’t have any listeners.

We were black balled, we couldn’t even get a promo record because we were a renegade station.

I couldn’t pull the plug myself, I just had to wait until it happened. It was like a living thing, you just don’t pull the plug on a living thing. I went down with it, I lost every cent. Fortunately somebody stole my car and I got $5,000 which saved me for Christmas that year.

Then the business got taken over another company.

Wait, you still had Jelly’s to fall back on, right?

No, I just said. Jelly’s got taken over by another company. We got it back, I don’t know how we did it. We got it back by accident.

You lost both Radio Free and Jelly’s at the same time?

Let’s see, we lost Jelly’s in ’93 and the station in ’97. [How we got Jelly’s back] is another story. We won’t get into that. I just walked in it, I guess God wanted me to have it. My wife was very religious.

So what about now, do you want to get back on the air? Because you’ve had shows off and on, right?

Well, I do the Oldies show to help Jelly’s but I don’t like to be on the air. i really do not like it at all. It’s not my style. I feel very uncomfortable on the air and I’m a lousy DJ at the booth. But to promote the store I do it.

OK, so when is your show on air now?

I got kicked off the air like everything else in my life, you know. The lady was so rampaged she doesn’t want me to talk to the DJs, she doesn’t want me to talk to the new manager at the station. I’m destroying their things.

But really you’re trying to do the opposite, no?

When I go on the radio I play all kinds of stuff that’s never on the radio. It’s oldies, you know. Probably half of my listeners are over 60. I do have a lot of young listeners who listen because you know why? There’s nothing on the radio. When I was on the air at least you could hear something different! Stuff the older people haven’t heard in, 40, 50 or 60 years; the younger people, “Hey, I haven’t heard this.” [laughs]

Radio is so terrible that if you play anything different, people will listen. [laughs]

Do you listen to the radio still?

I have my—it’s still on there—I lost my show about a year ago. I had a website called the Long Lost Oldies Radio Show.

What really happened to radio was, when I did this format it was because when I was growing up radio was fantastic.

In what ways? 

Number one, they didn’t have “sounds” or “formats”, they just had the music of the day and that was it. So you would hear Frank Sinatra followed by Chuck Berry followed by Little Richard followed by a surf song instrumental. They don’t play instrumentals anymore, you know why? You know what their rule is? We don’t play instrumentals, we don’t play foreign music, because the listeners don’t understand it. And we don’t play songs that don’t have meaning, like “Papa Oom Mow Mow”.

They block off everything.

You know, in 1958 “Nel blu dip into di blu” buy Dominco Modugno—all Italian, not a single word of English in it—was the biggest selling record of the fifties. In those days, radio didn’t care. If it was popular, they would play it. They played Dave Brubeck, they played jazz—

—they catered to the people—

—naturally. No one was too stupid to realized that “We have to make a sound, we have to have a sound.” So, that’s the radio I remember. And they used to do voting, too! That’s what gave me the idea. It wasn’t the way I did it but they did have a voting system. What was popular was on the radio.

radio free hawaii Top 36

Tickets from concerts by Radio Free Hawaii / Goldenvoice
Tickets from concerts by Radio Free Hawaii / Goldenvoice

It’s not just radio, is it also the music that’s changed?

No, radio changed. Not the popular music. They played all kinds of genres in Pop format. If it was popular, they played it. If it was jazz, they played it. If it was country western. No matter what it was, it was that simple. [laughs]

That’s what I remember. That’s why I brought back Radio Free because music had been so suppressed that by the time I brought it back the response was just crazy.

In the fifties all the music that was played on the air was by independent record companies.

In the late sixties, the major record companies said “We better get into this.” First they thought rock and roll was gonna die. They started buying out all these guys. They had a better distribution system, everything like that.

What happened was they wanted to control the market. For example, there was a Billboard magazine. Billboard would call a lot of the record stores and get theirs lists of the top songs of the week. And everybody was very dutiful, we counted out how much we sold of each song and tracked every week so we could give an accurate report of what sold. That was the chart, that was it. The chart was truth, a fundamental truth across the country.

Of course in those days, every market had their own songs they liked and didn’t like. So you wouldn’t see every market playing the same damn song like they do today. No. Down in New Orleans the songs were entirely different than Los Angeles.

In Hawaii, a third of the songs that were popular in Hawaii never ever made it to the charts on the mainland. Every area had its sound and the radio of that day reflected what was popular in that particular world.

Anything could happen on the radio in the sixties. Only when the major record companies tried to control the charts did things get ugly.

For example, MCA would call up and say, “Could you give me a number one for this song?” And the record stores would start to say “Oh, no, I already gave the number one to Columbia. I can give you a number six, can you give me some ad money and free goods”. That’s the way the charts started getting ugly.

And radio only played what was on the charts, and the charts were controlled by the major record companies. All the exciting music of the ay from the independent record companies was gradually being sifted away or not getting as high in the charts because of all this manipulation.

Radio Free Hawaii charts in 1993.
Radio Free Hawaii charts in 1993.

Are they still doing that?

There’s no more radio. I don’t know where you’ve been. [laughs] I’m talking about when there was radio!

So in the seventies it got worse and worse and worse. Then came the eighties and that was the end.

Without The Beatles, the world wouldn’t have changed. They really changed the mentality of the whole world with their music. And when you get to the eighties who are the super stars who are kind of like The Beatles? Bob Marley, to a lesser extent Cure and The Smiths. But they were never on the radio? Why? Because they were on independent record companies, and the Smiths were in Europe. They weren’t on the radio, period.

Bob Marley was so popular, I mean, kids would come to my store—I had a little store on the North Shore at the time in the late seventies through ’81, called Space and Lace—they would come to my store with a list of which Bob Marley records they didn’t have. They had to have them all—of course in those days it was cassettes, but nonetheless, because I was the only one to carry those people would come from all over the island to get this stuff. I was the only one who had it. But it wasn’t on the radio.

What happened in the eighties was radio was suppressed. And what happened to the kids in the eighties? They went off the rockers. They started writing necrophilia poetry, hanging out in dingy coffee shops and wore all black in hoods and just sit there and mope. [laughs]

I mean, all the boisterous and happy youth of the fifties was gone. They were just totally shut off from the market, musically. So when Radio Free Hawaii hit the air and that music came up, the excitement was phenomenal.

You guys were getting a lot of attention nationwide?

We were voted either number one, two, three or four in the Rolling Stone readership poll for best radio station in the country. By the readers, the readership poll. But guess what, we couldn’t get any money cause we “didn’t have any listeners”.

BBC came down, did all these specials on us. An Australian guy wanted to take the three big radio stations in Australia and do the same format. Of course, they abused it so I had to go down there and sue ‘em.

It was huge. And yet if I sent a word in to the trade magazines that we were playing Pearl Jam “Yell Better”, they would not mention it. And then three years later when “Yell Better” became number one in the nation, they would mention all these other stations were the first to discover it. They always black balled us from even existing. We did not even exist.

Radio Free Hawaii
Radio Free Hawaii

It was easy for them to ignore you because?

They have a rating service called Arbitron. The ad agencies basically use the rating service, if a retailer says they wanna go with Radio Free they couldn’t find it if they’re looking at the rating service.

You know how the sound thing came about? How radio stations started playing certain kinds of sounds? The record companies wanted to have a sound on the radio so that they could get the bands to produce that sound so they could get airplay. So stations would have a sound: R&B, Pop, Rock, Adult Contemporary, et cetera. They even had Jazz stations. The record companies encouraged this, they wanted to control the radio, not because people really wanted to hear just one sound. I didn’t find that out until ’91.

Back in ’79 people only voted for 50 or 60 songs [in my format]. In ’91, it was 4,000 songs. The rage was out there. Radio was so suppressed for so many years. And now the stations today are thinking they need to play stuff from the eighties for the “oldies” because people are getting older, so they’re playing stuff from the charts that nobody listened to.

I was in the retail business and I could tell you, they didn’t listen to that music, they didn’t buy that music.

Here’s what happened: First they manipulated the charts. They weren’t happy with that, so they wanted to just count radio play instead of counting sales, so Billboard agreed to count half sales and half radio play. Then in ’92, Metallica made a ridiculous poppy song called “One”. You know the Casey Kasem show? Every station in the country would play the Casey Kasem show on Sunday, and Casey played would always play the Top 40 on the Billboard. in 1992 on one bizarre morning, Casey Kasem played a Metallica song.

Even though the radio didn’t play it, “One” still got enough sales to make it on the Top 40 chart. He played the song. The programmers found out that they played a Metallica song—they didn’t even listen to it, that song is pus, it’s not even Metallica, it’s a pop hit!—but they heard the word Metallica was on the radio and they tried to cancel the show!

So Billboard made an agreement that said they’ll forget about sales and just count radio play. And then it was over.

That’s where we are now. Radio’s gone.

Record Culture In Hawaii: A Film by The Vinyl Factory

The Vinyl Factory invited Aloha Got Soul to create a film about Hawaiian records and vinyl culture in the islands. The film showcases local record shops and my current Top 5 favorite Hawaiian records.

It took a but longer to pull together than I anticipated, but it’s here now—and just in time for our Soul Time In Hawaii party. Watch, share, enjoy, and when you get the chance, make a trip out to Hawaii.

Excerpt from The Vinyl Factory’s original post:

“…Over the last few years Honolulu native Roger Bong has made it his business to become the authority on Hawaiian records, chronicling his various digging adventures on his fantastic Aloha Got Soul blog and feeding the more voracious US and UK collectors with utterly neglected gems from the paradise isle on a selection of superb mixes.

The music, ignored and inaccessible for so long, is, thanks to Roger finally filtering over the ocean and is feted by the likes of Psychemagik, Floating Points and the hardcore collectors at BBE records for its sun-soaked and gloriously carefree breed of island-tinted soul, funk and rare groove. Heavily influenced by the US and recorded primarily in the 70′s and 80′s, it’s basically impossible not to fall in love with this stuff.

Now, for the first time, Roger has flung open the doors and given us an unprecedented look into the heart of the record digging scene in Hawaii on this lovely film, sharing five of his favourite records and providing an insight into the best record shops and markets on the Pacific archipelago…”

If you’re in London or Honolulu this weekend, plan on attending our Soul Time In Hawaii events. Details here.

2014 Friends of the Library Hawaii Book & Music Sale

My goodness, it’s been a year since the last FLH Sale at their warehouse in Kaka‘ako. The annual event crept up on me—it’s happening this weekend in Honolulu! I hope you’re ready for another extended weekend (it’s the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend here in the US) of 10,000+ books, CDs… and records. Me? Yes, I’m ready.

And from the looks of the Friends of the Library of Hawaii’s website, there’s gonna be a sizable helping of Hawaiian records to rummage through:

FLH recordsEvent details:

January 18, 19, & 20, 2014
Open 9:00 am – 4:00 pm
FLH Harbor Warehouse
(directions & location here)

Featuring over 10,000 records and CDs from the the FLH music collection, plus more than 10,000 books and other media for sale.

FLH Music Sale 2012
Inside the Friends of the Library of Hawaii Annual Sale in 2011, about 30 minutes before the garage doors opened and collectors rushed in.
Dennis Chun of Friends of the Library of Hawaii sorts records for the 2013 annual book & music sale.
Dennis Chun of Friends of the Library of Hawaii sorts records for the 2013 annual book & music sale.


Read these posts about “The Sale” from previous years:

2012 Honolulu Record Sale: Before the Storm
- Insider Look: The 2013 FLH Music & Book Sale
5 Thoughts on Record Collecting in Hawaii

Justin Thyme: A Life In A Day (And A Long September)

To say that September brought extraordinary opportunities to my door would understate the fact that it was probably the busiest, craziest, most serendipitous and exhausting month in my life thus far, passing in what feels like a single day.

September in Honolulu

One of the biggest opportunities to strike me in September is a new career shooting video five days a week, often working 12 hour days—which goes to show why I’ve had little time to update Aloha Got Soul. I did, however, afford the unique opportunity to co-host a special performance with Amalia of Cherries Records at Motown On Mondays Honolulu, plus spin alongside Jah Gumby at his new all-vinyl Rub-A-Dub reggae series at thirtyninehotel.

Motown on Mondays Honolulu with Amalia
Motown on Mondays Honolulu. Left to right: Roger Bong, Amalia, Maria Remos, Oliver Seguin.
Sir Bong: Amalia Cherries 45
Sir Bong: Amalia Cherries 45
Triple Film
Triple Film

Amalia even made it out to Jah Gumby’s event that Thursday night, the night before I had to catch a 7am flight to Hilo. We danced and laughed and enjoyed conversations on every subject (ancient Hawaiian spirits, sharks, surfing, relationships… you name it) until closing time, which wound us on the streets of Chinatown at 2am with Oliver, Amalia and I “triple filming” each other. Of course, I made my flight later that morning—otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this post.

One of the biggest blessings in September has to have been a four-day weekend I (luckily) got. Even my boss said he’s never had four days off in a row. (Hello, serendipity). So, with the intention to hunt for records and relax after shooting video eight days straight, I flew to the Big Island. On my first day there, I found this:

Justin Thyme "A Life In A Day"
Justin Thyme “A Life In A Day” LP

Justin Thyme: A Life In A Day

My first impression from the cover: ambient music. I didn’t realize it was recorded in Hawaii until I looked at the liner notes and saw in bold lettering: RECORDED LIVE! at Orvis Auditorium at University of Hawaii. I promptly texted a few friends to see if they knew anything about Justin Thyme, but they hadn’t heard of it before.

My next impression after doing a few searches online? Jazz fusion funk. Not only is Justin Thyme A Life In A Day listed on Collectors Frenzy a few times, turns out Gary Washburn, the man behind the band (Justin isn’t an actual person), decided to reissue the LP in 2011 on all major online outlets and CD.

I didn’t have a turntable during my trip, so I went straight to Spotify to see what they had. And there it was, my anticipation satiated with amazing tracks like this one:

The story behind A Life In A Day

Gary revisited A Life In A Day decades from its original release date in 1979 after a Japanese collector contacted him in hopes of purchasing all of his remaining vinyl stock. (!) Surprised by this out-of-the-blue inquiry, Gary and his brother, who released the live album under his label EmKay in Hollywood, California, reissued A Life In A Day. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from the Hamakua Times back in early 2011:

This unique Jazz-Fusion album is a work composed by the noted Hawaiian based composer/musician/educator, Gary Washburn. “I wrote “ A Life In A Day” as a project to fulfill a National Endowment of The Arts Grant that was awarded me, and performed it to fulfill a State Foundation Grant that was also awarded me.

I composed the music in Hilo specifically for the individuals who performed the music, (much in the same manner that Duke Ellington composed for his band). It is a conceptual album which depicts cycles of life from conception and formulation through self-realization and fulfillment, and on to death which in turn presents rebirth and evolution”, states Washburn.

“We, (Justin Thyme), did a series of concerts all over the island, and they were recorded initially on a 4 track tape machine. I played it for my brother, Kent Washburn, and he agreed to put it out on his indie label, EmKay Records. The album was mixed and pressed, but the distribution company that he was with folded and the album really never made it to the public.

The album then kind of just laid around with nothing happening until a gentleman from Japan, Yusuke Ogawa, brought it back to our attention by wanting to purchase all of the remaining vinyl albums that we had. After that type of interest, Kent re-listened to the album, (which he hadn’t heard for many, many years), and realized that it was a very serious Jazz Fusion offering for those type of enthusiasts, and felt that it should be re-released for todays market.”

The musical styles used by Washburn to present this unique conceptual depiction include traditional and contemporary jazz, funk, pop, and in some passages classical.

“The recording and mixing is excellent, and the performance of Justin Thyme is very tight and completely filled with passion,” stated Kent. “I just was not properly focused when I initially released it. I was a budding record producer, and was so focused on finding “hits”, that I really didn’t see the musical artistry that was housed in this work. Well times have changed, I have slowed down, I pay more attention to the “art” instead of the “hit value”, and I am just thrilled to have the opportunity to re-release this Album on Milan Records.

Perfect timing

I couldn’t have asked to unearth this double LP at a more opportune time. Everything in my life changed in September, and Justin Thyme’s A Life In A Day arrived at the right moment to reward me for a long and exhausting month of hard work—quickly becoming one of my favorite Hawaiian finds of the year.

Digging on the Big Island
Digging on the Big Island
Records in the trunk of the rental car.
Records in the trunk of the rental car.

What’s been your biggest find of the year so far?

Hawaii Record Fair 2013: Reinvigorating the Local Music Community

You probably wouldn’t have guessed it when you walked into the McKinley High School cafeteria last July, where the thousands of records, tapes, CDs and stereo equipment were seemingly matched in number by the amount of people who attended the 2012 Hawaii Record Fair—but last year’s was the first ever Hawaii Record Fair. It was enormously popular in the local music community, and the people arrived in droves from start to finish.

Hawaii Record Fair (photo taken July 2012)

RELATED: 2012 Hawaii Record Fair in Instagram Photos

This year’s Hawaii Record Fair promises to be no less popular than the last—in fact, my guess is that double the number of people will attend the 2013 Hawaii Record Fair.

It’s happening on Sunday, August 11 from 10am – 3pm. Admission is $5 (that’s cheap!).

Hawaii Record Fair 2013

Reinvigorating the local music community

It’s true that you’ll never what you might find at a record fair, but it’s also true that you’ll never know who you’ll meet. While digging for vinyl is indeed the highlight of this once-a-year event, there’s also a chance to meet and chat with like-minded collectors, artists, and music-lovers in our community.

Much respect and mahalo to Dennie and Ward of Hungry Ear for organizing this important event. They received such a great response from last year’s fair, and hope to make this year’s event even more memorable. Visit for more info.

What do you hope to find at this year’s record fair?

Aloha Preserved Daily: The Fitted Mix Is Finally Here

I’m a different kind of digger. The other day I met this guy who’s an audio engineer at a Honolulu recording studio. He’s got a Hawaiian record collection stored somewhere in his house and offered to pass it on to me.

I’m grateful he offered, but the truth is I told him exactly this:

“As much as I am a collector of vinyl, what really matters to me is the music. I don’t even care about having the physical album as much as I care about hearing the music—and letting other people hear it, too.

Roger Bong digging at Jelly's, Honolulu.
Roger Bong digging at Jelly’s, Honolulu.

Which is why I’m honored to announce that the Aloha Got Soul x Fitted mixtape is coming out on April 20, 2013.

That’s right—Saturday, April 20, 2013!

Nearly two years after we started this journey, I can humbly say that in just a month’s time you’ll have a super funky (and super danceable) mix in your hands, plus a dope limited t-shirt, thanks to to good stewards at Fitted Hawaii.

But it’s not me you should be thanking. Give your mahalos to the musicians who created this music. They made this a reality. Without their imagination, creativity, dedication, and talent, we wouldn’t be bringing you this mix.

But before I go on further, watch the video:

Globally played, Locally made

Back in January 2011, I dropped the Pupu Mix as an “appetizer” to the full mixtape.

Since then, a lot has happened. Even though we planned to drop the mixtape in 2011, then in 2012, and finally delaying it until 2013—whew, we did it!—I’ve tracked a lot of progress with Aloha Got Soul.

With every mixtape, featured article and special contribution, the audience for Hawaiian funk, soul and rare groove music has grown bigger globally: Thailand, Sweden, Japan, Brazil, the UK, Australia, Italy, France, South Korea—there’s at least an ounce of soulful aloha in every part of the world nowadays.

In other words, the message of this music is universal.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of the artists who have made this Fitted mix a reality: Kirk Thompson of Lemuria, Jay Molina of Music Magic, Lil Albert Maligmat of Society Of Seven, Mike Lundy, and a handful of other talented musicians.

Lil Albert and Roger Bong at the Glass Candle reunion show, December 2011.
Lil Albert and Roger Bong at the Glass Candle reunion show, December 2011.

It’s not about me though…

You see, it’s not about me, the crate digger. It’s about the musicians who dedicated their energy to recording their music and pressing it on wax. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. Without them, we wouldn’t have this music.

Diggers beware: we’re nothing without these artists. 

And they deserve their music to be heard.

Fitted at Hungry Ear Records
Fitted at Hungry Ear Records.

Surprisingly (not really, though!), the Pupu Mix received much acclaim after its release. Although I stayed up late every night promoing the mix on Twitter, the best exposure came organically. Like my chance collaboration with Instagrammer @HeavySoulBrutha, who is also a regular Mixcloud user, too.

Dig this: even Mixcloud had something to say about the Pupu Mix!

But now, the good news.

We’re releasing it on Record Store Day

And you can buy it directly through Fitted online and in-store.

Wait—a CD release on Record Store Day?? Let me explain.

This CD is made possible because of vinyl. Without records, Fitted & Aloha Got Soul wouldn’t be able to share this incredible music with you. Records—we love ‘em! But releasing a vinyl compilation isn’t quite within our reach (yet), that’s why we did a CD. Plus it’s easy to pop in your car stereo and jive to while you’re driving around the island.

So we give you a mixtape to preserve Hawai‘i’s soulful sound.

A mixtape that will make you want to dig deeper for these records. To seek the funky vibrations that tell a story about our ‘aina.

Dig deeper: crate digging in Hawaii.
Dig deeper: crate digging in Hawaii.

Aloha Preserved Daily

I started digging in 2004, but it took me six years to realize that Hawaii had all this gorgeous music recorded and released right here in the islands.

In 2010, I started Aloha Got Soul not knowing I’d be interviewing legendary artists, releasing mixtapes to a worldwide audience, DJing at local parties (more to come, by the way), reconnecting with friends I grew up with, collaborating with international tastemakers, and doing exactly what I love for all the right reasons.

I do this for the music. I do this for the artists who made the music. And I do this for you, the listener. Because you deserve to hear what these musicians created. 

What matters most—first and foremost—is the people who created this music. Here, Kirk Thompson with Oliver Twist, Cianté Valdex, and Roger Bong.
What matters most—first and foremost—are the people who created this music. Here, Kirk Thompson with Oliver Twist, Cianté, and Roger Bong.

Check back for more updates through April 20th.

I’m doing tons of of interviews, reviews, and teasers in anticipation of the release.

Repeat: tons.

You can follow me here:

And if you missed this:

Download the Pupu Mix now, free:

Pupu Mix: Aloha Got Soul x Fitted

Mahalo for your support!

Shout out to these exceptional people:

Hevehitta and The Diggers Union, Bill Brewster of DJ History, Craig Charles of the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show, Heavy Soul Brutha, Trip Magazine, iCrates, coletivoACTION, Paris Groovescooter of 2SER, Danny McLewin of Psychemagik, Dig This Vibe and all the people I collab with, Kirk Thompson, Hungry Ear Records, Ges and everyone at Fitted…


More details on how to order coming soon.

Don’t miss a thing: Follow @alohagotsoul on Instagram.

5 Thoughts on Record Collecting in Hawaii

Over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in Honolulu, the annual Friends of the Library of Hawaii music and book sale in Kaka’ako drew thousands of bargain hunters, casual shoppers and hardcore collectors of comics, CDs, vinyl LPs and books. With camera in hand, I documented the set up process and, subsequently, the first opening day, when the line to get in exactly at 9am grew to nearly a hundred people.

Record Collecting in Hawaii (Friends of the Library of Hawaii)

It got me thinking (again), but this time about what makes digging in Hawaii special. Some of the conversations I had with local record collectors—like the guys who arrived at 7am sharp for the 9am sale, and the other collectors who showed up at 7:30am only to be the second party in line—reinforced my thoughts about record collecting in the Islands.

Following yesterday’s popular Instagram post, here are 5 thoughts on digging in Hawaii:

1. People from all cultures and regions of the world come to Hawaii, bringing their music collections with them. There’s lots to discover.

I’m consistently amazed by what’s available here. Granted we don’t have mountains of music shops like Portland, Oregon, where there are almost as many vinyl houses as coffee shops. But we have a handful of good records stores, like Hungry Ear and Jelly’s. And what you can’t find at a traditional establishment, you’ll likely find at a thrift store or, better yet, a garage sale.

FLH 2013-01-19 Kakaako-4451

2. Absence of a “cutthroat” atmosphere. You hardly see any pushing, shoving, or snaking at big events.

You won’t see elbows fly at record shows. That’s because people respect one another here. Respect goes a long, long way in Hawaii, and if you’re not respecting others, there’s gonna be a lot of stink eye coming your way. Plus, the aloha spirit and laid back lifestyle permeate the collectors aura. Every collector I know is relaxed and friendly.

Record Collecting in Hawaii

3. Most everyone knows each other, and everyone’s friendly.

Did I mention people were friendly? Not only are most collectors easy to talk with, many of them are willing to share their knowledge—and their collections. I wouldn’t have been able to write about Nova, a super obscure disco/funk band from 1980, if it weren’t for a collector friend who lent me their LP. Sure, there are some collectors in the Islands who’d rather keep most of it to themselves, but the people I’m closest with are the ones who enjoy sharing music with friends, even if that means knowledge of a holy grail raer passes on to others.

Record Collecting in Hawaii

4. Few hardcore diggers in the city = low competition.

How many times have I—or someone I know—been digging just after another collector and found that they passed up on some incredible ish! Because so few hardcore collectors populate Oahu, there’s less competition and more chance of finding what you’re looking for. In fact, the competition decreases further because everyone’s looking for something slightly different than you. It’s true! If you’re looking for rare Latin salsa funk, you’re probably the only one. Hell, during the first 15 minutes of day one at the Friends of the Library Sale, no one touched the Hawaiian section!

Few people touched the Hawaiian section... Thoughts on Record Collecting in Hawaii

5. It’s digging in paradise!

Can’t say much else about this one!

The crew of True Story Textstiles listening to their comeups.
The crew of True Story Textstiles listening to their comeups.

What attracts you to digging in Hawaii?

I’d love to hear what draws yo to Hawaii for records. Comment below or tell me on Instagram.

Insider Look: The 2013 FLH Music & Book Sale

The biggest used music and book sale in Honolulu is here, presented by the Friends of the Library of Hawaii. It isn’t the popular McKinley sale, but “Friends, Books, Music: THE SALE”, as FLH dubs it.

The event takes place at their Kakaako warehouse this weekend, January 19-21, 2013. Doors open at 9:00am.


The FLH Kaka’ako Warehouse

In this huge warehouse, FLH stores thousands of books, CDs, and records. And every year they open it up to the public for their annual sale—after hauling and sorting and pricing everything, of course. I spent the past two afternoons helping Dennis Chun, FLH’s vinyl records manager, move thousands of dust-covered LPs from pallets to tables.

Sunrays peered though the warehouse skylights on Wednesday, casting a beautiful light onto the collectibles below. Some 10 volunteers quietly worked to complete their tasks, whether sorting through hundreds of CDs or unboxing used books on everything from astronomy to zoology. I snapped photos between lifting boxes. Over the sound system, a selection of Hawaiian, bossa nova, swing, and 50’s pop music filled the air amidst the floating about.

And me: my hands were filthy. I need not tell you, but cardboard boxes resting on shelves in a harbor warehouse for months collect a lot of grime. No doubt there’s a film of dirt on my SLR, cause I took lots of pictures.

Here’s an insider look at this year’s sale:







Why shop at THE SALE?

Firstly, you’re supporting the Friends of the Library of Hawaii, and they appreciate your help!

Secondly, it’s one of the few annual events where collectors across the island gather for a weekend of browsing (if you’re there at 9am the first day, expect more aggression than) thousands of items, some gently used, some worn, and some brand new. In other words, events like this are scarce (thankfully, Hungry Ear launched its first annual Hawaii Record Fair to great success in 2012, and we can expect the same in 2013.)


See you this weekend!

Check out photos from last year’s sale, click here.


Friends of the Library of Hawaii: 2013 Vinyl & Book Sale

The time is near when frenzied music collectors gather in Kaka’ako to dig through what may be Honolulu’s biggest annual used music (and book) sale, the Friends of the Library of Hawaii Annual Sale. Thanks to Dennie & Ward at Hungry Ear Records for the tip.

This year, the event takes place at their Kaka’ako Warehouse (same location as last year’s) and will feature books, records, CDs, and lots of fingers craving to flip upon a dusty copy of that rare gem.

The music & book sale is Saturday January 19 – 21, 2013.
Saturday & Sunday hours: 9am – 4pm
Monday hours: 9am – 3pm (expect huge discounts on the last day!)

The FLH Sale runs Jan 19th - 21st. Doors open 9:00am!
The FLH Sale runs Jan 19th – 21st. Doors open 9:00am!

Don’t miss this event!

One reason I enjoy these types of events is seeing all of Oahu’s collectors gather in one place. Many come out of the woodworks to do some digging. Others are veterans who frequent practically every vinyl bin and garage sale on the island.

Regardless of what you’re looking for (avant-garde Russian jazz, Hawaiian disco, Japanese enka, or 1960s garage & freakbeat singles?), everyone goes home with something. And anyone who goes home empty-handed at least has a story to tell, especially if you arrive before doors open and battle your way to the Collector’s Corner, where you’ll wrangle out rare LPs amidst scores of elbows.

Do you remember last year’s sale?

Here’s a visual recap of last year’s FLH warehouse sale to give your saliva glands a workout:

FLH Music Sale 2012-7

FLH Music Sale 2012
Inside the Friends of the Library of Hawaii Annual Sale, about 30 minutes before the garage doors opened and collectors rushed in.
Digging through records.
Digging through records. I now know three of the five collectors pictured here thanks to Aloha Got Soul.
Barry made an appearance.
Barry made an appearance.
Ready to make a new discovery.
Ready to make a new discovery.

Have you compiled your Hawaiian vinyl wantlist yet?

And the winner is… Hawaii Record Fair!

As I mentioned earlier, the Hawaii Record Fair was a complete success. Music collectors from all over the island gathered to dig up long-time wants and new discoveries. Hell, some of the attendants didn’t even own a turntable, but they still showed up to buy some vinyl! (This is 100% true, trust me.)

Hawaii Record Fair sequence

One of the highlights of the event was the Aloha Got Soul door prize giveaway. Emcee Hector Elpe drew a raffle ticket at random and selected a lucky number. The winner? A guy decked in a Fitted cap, what a coincidence! Jason Smith won a set of Home Grown LPs—volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4—some Aloha Got Soul stickers and a voucher for a free CD and tee from the Aloha Got Soul x Fitted collaboration (which he’ll receive as soon as the project releases).

And for the rest of the event, I kinda wish I could go back in time and spend more time digging for records, since I split my time between photographing the event, assisting Dennie and Ward of Hungry Ear, updating two Instagram accounts, and meeting new and familiar faces. Looking at these photos, I just know there are tons more records awaiting discovery. If only I had more time to find them.

Enjoy these photos from the Hawaii Record Fair. Be sure to follow @alohagotsoul on Instagram for more photo updates. Thank you for supporting vinyl music!

Jason Smith and Roger Bong at the Hawaii Record Fair 2012
Jason Smith and Roger Bong at the Hawaii Record Fair. Jason won an Aloha Got Soul prize pack.
Digging for vinyl gems at the Hawaii Record Fair
Digging for vinyl gems at the Hawaii Record Fair.
Dennis Chun signs people up for the FLH Music Sale newsletter.
Dennis Chun signs people up for the FLH Music Sale newsletter.
Everyone finds something they like at the fair.
Everyone finds something they like at the fair.
Vintage Hawaii concert posters.
Vintage Hawaii concert posters.
Pulling a RAMP LP....
Pulling a RAMP LP… Before the crowds arrive.
Hawaii Record Fair, packed.
Hawaii Record Fair, packed.
The crew of True Story Textstiles listening to their comeups.
The crew of True Story Textstiles listening to their comeups after a long digging session.
Action up close.
Action up close.
Dennie and Ward, proud of their accomplishments.
Dennie and Ward, proud of their accomplishments. Good work, guys.

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