Smack My Disc Up

A Guide to Buying Music in Prague.

Walk down Václavské Námesti or Revolucní, or pretty much any ulice in Old or New Town, and you may notice a poster, sandwich-board or abandoned car plastered with arrows and computer print-outs announcing yet another CD Bazar. And, after having walked the 100 meters through an alley, up some steps, and down a hallway, you may also notice that they all suck.

The problem with these places, aside from the fact that they sell nothing but bootleg compilations of techno-pop and the new Gorillaz record, is that they're the size of a 1984 luxury model Skoda. Aside from the heat and stank you wade through in hopes of one gem (please, ghost of Captain Beefheart, let me finally find a copy of the VU's Squeeze, even if it's a shitty, Eastern Moravian burn), you also never know what your fellow cell-mates are up to. Is the guy who stands by the counter looking out for my safety, or is he calculating how long it will take me to realize my wallet, watch and keys are missing after I leave the store? And you wonder, can they really make enough money off Dara Rolins posters to keep this place open, or are there some laundry machines in the back?

"So," you ask, "where do I spend the 200 crowns I got for a week of teaching English to bankers?" Don't go to Bonton or any other stepbrothers of King Tower and Queen Virgin, where the new Creed disc will run you at least 650 Kc, (though some fans of Christian rock may argue it's worth every heller). Instead, try these refreshing alternatives.

First stop: Musicland on ríjna, between Mustek and Jungmannovo nám. Their tagline reads "All kinds of music & young fashion," and they deliver, if you consider hip-hop and electronic "all kinds" and t-shirts to be "fashion." I do, so this place gets high marks. True, they have other kinds of "music" (but is Phish really music? Or just an excuse for hippies to not kill themselves?) but it's really all about MCn' and DJn', as it's always been. You'll realize how lucky we are to have Musicland's hip-hop section when you consider we're in a country that usually just lumps "all that shit" into an offensively labeled "Black Music" section along with Tina Turner, the Commodores and Al Jolson records. But the Czechs know not what they do.

You may have some trouble sniffing out the obscure, but you should be able to find most of what you want: Rob Swift/Executioners, Del, D.I.T.C. and its spin-offs, and all your old favorites from the Wu (and its spin-offs) and Outkast. If you like electronica, you could also peruse the solid selection here. We're talking healthy doses of DJ Spooky, Musiq and Orbital, with more on vinyl. Expect to pay U.S. prices. Liquid Swords stings the wallet (and the mind) on both sides of the pond.

If you're not satisfied with all the names and aliases bantered around in hip-hop, maybe you should check out two scenes perhaps even more overstuffed and ridiculous: hard-core and punk. For both, go to Maximum Underground. I don't really dig stores that try to be counter-culture refueling stations - selling everything from clothes to bongs to decks and trucks, oh, and some music over there in the corner - but MU's selection is so varied I'll excuse its other excesses. Vinyl: Subhumans, Crass, The Misfits and, thank god, more than enough obscure crap to make Army boots for the approaching war. CDs: The Minutemen, Bane, Cable. The store may be hard to find, the staff may be snotty and the cover art (all cartoon porn) may be too much to stomach, but it's often necessary to be reminded that these two scenes are still dead and kicking.

If you're into classical, or 'classics' as the Czechs call it (is that John Denver on the oboe?), you can hoof it up to and across Staromestské Nám. (Old Town Square) and up Parížská. Isn't it nice to live in a town where even the shittiest hole in the wall has a Bruckner section? So why go to Philharmonia on Parížská and pay a little more? Selection, maestro, selection. Those Naxos discs are cheap because the performances are merely decent, and the collection - exhaustive rather than selective - leaves much to be desired. Instead, enjoy the excellent variety and atmosphere of Philharmonia. The staff are well-informed snobs: you know, those people you simultaneously look up to and down upon. But if you not only want the Gould variations but also the Jarrett variations, this is the place and these are the people to guide you.

The other great thing about Philharmonia - and any classical music store worth its weight in snuff - is that they acknowledge the concept of twentieth (and, now, even twenty-first) century 'classical.' Want the Schnittke complete string quartets? Will that be the Kronos or the TALE Quartet? Liner notes by Rostropovich, or Schnittke himself? Some cognac to drink with that? My only caveat is that you may want to dress up before going in here. Tuxedo, cassock, undertaker's suit - just not jeans and a t-shirt. They always look at me like I'm going to start plastering the walls with Moby posters.

If you'd rather avoid all the turned-up noses in this part of town and get back to normal musicians who name their songs, not number them, head up to the second-hand CD shop on Krakovská, at the top-right of Václavské Námesti. This place is the size of not one but three Skodas and offers a respectable selection. They, too, have heard of The Fall and Tricky and will fill your 1987-2001 rock and electronic needs. Remember, the CDs are used, but if that matters to you, go to Bonton and shell out a month's wages. The selection is limited and doesn't get too obscure (probably a blessing) and you'll find plenty of the crap nobody wants, as at all used places, but there are plenty of gems and, to quote a walking corpse, the price is right. There's another decent used Bazar on Karolíny Svetlé which complements the Krakovská store rather nicely. What they lack in less-commercial rock they make up for in used jazz (mostly the Duke, but I'm not saying that's bad) and classical. This place also has some used Czech videos, a few of which are porn but, alas, not anime porn.

Then hop over to Legerova and check out Radost, the CD shop wing of the club. This is the place to go if you're indie or, as Kool Keith said, an obsessed music industry fan who not only knows what bands are on Kranky!, Quarterstick and Capitol, but also who the A&R guys are. Looking for Wilco, Beulah or Grandaddy? Right this way. Costello, The Jam, The Fall? No problem. Hey, they even have a hip-hop section and a separate DJ section. Just don't ask any of the staff for help. They don't seem to be able to recall the bands to which entire sections are dedicated. Nick Cave and the who?

Finally, there's the long lost CD-LP Antiquariat located diagonally across from Tesco in that mess of a gallery with the 'Laser Game' sign above it. Antiquariat place is worth visiting, even if just to admire the cute girls who work behind the counter. Actually, this place is my favorite stop, even when I don't plan to do much buying (I left my turntable in Charm City). If you're a rocker or a beat-head and you dig vinyl (which, in both cases, should go without saying), this is your place. They've got 60s, they've got 70s, they've got 80s, and the vinyl even peeks into the 90s a bit, though in the bastardized form of late Cure and early Ugly Kid Joe. Still, if you have the time, there's tons of stuff here you can do something with. Flying Burrito Brothers Live anyone? Alas, they too have a section called "Black Music," but it's the size of my thumb. The real juice is in the near-mint jazz section: Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman sleep surprisingly snug in the bins.

If Antiquariat lacks anything, it's regular CDs. There are tons of bootlegs and, depending on your moral worth, this is either good or bad. I just can't help but rage when I see a Nirvana bootleg called "Final Solution" with Kurt on the cover holding a gun. I don't think the Potato-Skins/Doom addict who burned this had Pere Ubu in mind when he made the sleeve, though I could be wrong. But, on the good side, the place is a living Nuggets II box set! They seem to have everything that did and didn't make it on that great psych-rock compilation, both vinyl and disc. They also have a lot of Beatles, and there's not a Gorillaz disc to be found in the whole dang place.

-Jon Lost is his real name.

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