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Arts & Entertainment

Peek Inside Top Ten Records, and its New Nonprofit Media Library

Curator Barak Epstein shares three good gets.
By Alaena Hostetter |
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all photos by James Coreas
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Peek Inside Top Ten Records, and its New Nonprofit Media Library

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Top Ten Records reopened this weekend as a nonprofit archive of Dallas media. It’s perhaps best known as a stop on history tours: Dallas Police officer J.R. Tippit made his final phone call there before he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, just after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated downtown. Top Ten has been a mainstay in the city for longer than most businesses have been around. It opened under proprietor JW “Dub” Stark in 1956 on Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, and in ’78, Mike Polk took over. Polk reinvented his business with the changing times, catering to the Hispanic and Latinx demographic of the shop’s neighborhood with Tejano tapes and CDs.

Last spring when business dropped out, Barak Epstein, part owner of the Texas Theatre, joined forces with Polk to launch an IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds. And it was a success. A party with free beer and special performances by DJ DeadWax, Sudie, and VideoJuice marked the store’s reemergence as a media library.

Polk’s inventory of Tejano hits made way for a new collection, as well.  He’ll sit on the nonprofit board alongside Epstein, who partnered with SMU to allow members of Top Ten’s new streaming service to access a vast library of media or check out rare titles from Polk’s collection and another he’s curated.

I asked Epstein to give us a preview of some notable titles in Top Ten’s new collection. His picks:

  1. The Blood of Jesus, a 1941 film by Spencer Williams.  Not to be confused with Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, the 2014 Spike Lee remake of Ganja & Hess, a 1973 vampire flick.

Spencer’s overtly religious race film is part cautionary tale, part redemption story. The premise: a non-believing but well-meaning husband, Ras (played by Williams), accidentally shoots his Baptist wife; she then meets the devil who tries to lead her astray.

Some may know Williams as the actor who played Andy in the controversial 1950s TV show, “Amos and Andy”. But he may have had more of an impact on the other side of the camera. He directed roughly 12 movies with all-black casts for black audiences that celebrated African-American life and traditional Southern Baptist values, known as race films. They mostly screened in church basements and segregated movie houses.

Only about 500 race films were made, of which only about 100 remain. The Blood of Jesus was thought to be lost forever until it was found in a university’s storage warehouse, in Tyler, Texas in the 1980’s along with other previously lost race films. SMU now holds a copy of the original scan, and the film can be viewed through Top Ten’s streaming site.

“[It’s] the Citizen Kane of Dallas-made race films,” says Epstein, a film fanatic in his own right.  “Spencer Williams is a maverick filmmaker. He was making independent films in the 1940s when that wasn’t being done. The ‘40s was all about movie studios, DIY filmmaking wasn’t a thing. We think Spencer Williams is an important filmmaker, and he was doing this all here in Dallas.”

  1. Oak Cliff, a 1987 record by local rap group Nemesis and DJ Snake, on 12” vinyl.

Nemesis were called “the fathers of hip-hop in Dallas” in this 2015 Oak Cliff Advocate interview with the group’s DJ Snake. The alums of Roosevelt and South Oak Cliff High School met around 1983 at a club called Pizzazz on Camp Wisdom at Polk. Nemesis released “Oak Cliff,” their first single, on their own label, called Get Off Me Records.

DJ Snake told the Advocate: “A lot of our parties were in Oak Cliff, so we were like, ‘Let’s make a song about Oak Cliff.’ I made the beat for ‘Oak Cliff’ on an SP 1200 drum machine. The side B was called ‘Snake Beats,’ and I did that on a different drum machine, a Sequential drum machine.”

“It’s a really cool piece of Oak Cliff history,” says Epstein. “I don’t think it was ever released in other formats. It talks about Oak Cliff, how it was in the ’80s. It’s a fun record.”

Epstein says the record was donated to Top Ten, and members can borrow it.

  1. A Ghost Story LP Soundtrack composed by Daniel Hart for the 2017 film by local filmmaker David Lowery.

Daniel Hart of the band Dark Rooms made headlines last summer for his big-time commission as composer of the score for Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon, another film directed by Dallas-based filmmaker David Lowery. Lowery was raised in Dallas and continues to call it home. 

This year, the duo teamed up again for A Ghost Story, a tale of love and loss featuring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in the lead roles. After Affleck dies tragically, his spirit, covered in a bed sheet, lurks through the home that he shared with Mara, watching over her. Years pass in the span of minutes and his spirit transcends time and space, eventually watching over other inhabitants after Mara moves out.

Epstein says the soundtrack is for sale and for loan to members of Top Ten.

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