On Crate Digging

Crate digging with Otis Jackson Jr. (a.k.a. Madlib)

“Crate diggers” are a peculiar species of modern consumer, endlessly and omnivorously searching for the obscure, the unusual, and the overlooked. They exhibit incredible patience, a keen eye, and an absence of expectation in their compulsive pursuit of forgotten vinyl treasures. It would be impractical and unrealistic to seek out a single desired LP when rifling through dozens of unorganized, overstuffed crates of vinyl. Instead, the crate digger–typically a DJ or producer–exhaustively browses each crate, driven only by the desire for novel sound, the possibility of finding a record never before sampled.

The habits of these fanatical browsers prefigure the way certain new web applications now frame our relation to cultural material. The microblogging platform Tumblr and social wish-board Pinterest provide a seemingly endless stream of content, allowing users to redefine the cultural referents that express their uniqueness on the fly. In these growing online communities, images of architecture have become collectibles to be displayed and archived as signifiers of an individual’s taste and identity.

Unlike the crate digger’s collection, these stockpiles of images and ideas require no physical or financial commitment. Entire periods of architectural history might be adopted and discarded as hastily as a viral video. Many have observed that this cultural flatland gives everything equal weight, but even a million feathers can be a burden. The fuller the flatland, the more difficult it can be to act upon it inventively.

Hip-hop producer Otis Jackson Jr. (a.k.a. Madlib), perhaps the quintessential crate digger, has made a career splicing together obscure samples from his (allegedly) two-ton collection of vinyl. Could his cut-and-paste musical aesthetic–the outcome of his crate digging–prefigure a transformation in method among the next generation of architects, those reared under the regime of the like button? One might rightly wonder if they will be more or less adept at dealing with the weight of architectural history, now flattened and dispersed on thousands of blogs and digital walls.

Michael Abrahamson