Every dedicated KCSB listener remembers what originally hooked them on the station, and I’m no exception. When I settled into my UCSB dorm room in 2003, the first thing I did was flip on the radio and tune it to 91.9, eager to find out what this station that broadcast from campus was all about.
Having become a fan of old school soul, funk, and R&B in high school, I naturally dropped everything and snapped to attention when I heard The Whispers’ 1983 cut Keep on Lovin’ Me flow across the airwaves. How could I never have heard quite possibly the finest old school jam in existence before? More importantly, who was spinning it? I soon found out the answer: It was none other than Ray Ramos Jr., host of Jammin’ a Little Old School,a pillar of KCSB’s music programming. Keep On Lovin’ Me turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg.
As I tuned in religiously over the years that followed, I heard Ramos and his on-air crew, Danny Reynoso and Carlos “C.Z.” Zaragoza, serve up everything from extended mixes of the old school classics to the rarest tracks of the rare, expanding my own knowledge of the genre a thousandfold. Needless to ask, what finer treat could I have enjoyed after seven years of fandom than sitting in on the show as research for this column?
But surely the uninitiated have a question of their own: What, exactly, qualifies as “old school?” There’s a certain Potter Stewart-ness to the definition; though the boundary between what is and is not old school is fuzzy, I tend to know it when I hear it, and Ramos and company most definitely do. All of us in the studio seemed to agree that it begins around 1975 and ends around 1985. Any earlier and you’re in the domain of “classic” soul; any later and the music starts to sound somewhat chintzy, rendered bland and uniform by the onrush of cheap synthesizer and sequencer technologies.
Though that stretch from the mid-70s to the mid-80s remains a sweet spot where electronics, “real” instruments, and solid grooves coexisted peacefully and fruitfully, there’s still much discussion to be had about which specific year was old school’s best. “Get anything from 1982,” Ramos argued. “If it’s from 1982, you can be sure you’re going to like what’s on there.” Reynoso, a man of few words, nodded in agreement. “But I’d never buy anything from 1988,” I responded. “If I pick up an album that looks interesting and see a 1988 copyright, I put it right back in the box.” The hosts concurred.
I found a certain validation in having my opinion agreed with by two aficionados of such long standing. Ramos has been listening to and collecting old school since it was new school, the cutting edge of funk, soul, and R&B. “I was born and raised in Santa Barbara,” Ramos told me, “and I got my first low rider, a 1970s Cutlass supreme with an eight-track, when I was sixteen. I tuned in KDAY out of L.A. and XHRM out of San Diego on clear days. That’s how I heard the ‘new’ old school—Pleasure, Lakeside, bands like that. My thrill was driving down to L.A. every weekend to pick up their latest records.”
Collecting nonstop since high school, Ramos has amassed a collection of over 2,000 vinyl albums, which he burns to CDs to play on his show. The night I sat in, he brought what I thought were two large binders of discs, but later, Reynoso showed up packing an absolutely gigantic case containing a seemingly endless variety of all the artists I know and love and many others besides. From this impressive selection—one that represented only a fraction of his entire collection—Ramos spun a wealth of material from the Chi-Lites, Cashmere, Slapback, Con Funk Shun, Slave, the Crown Heights Affair, and more.
Ramos and Reynoso, who was originally a buddy of Ramos’s little brother, have known each other since middle school. Zaragoza, an old school collector in his own right, had been hunting, unsuccessfully, for a copy of Monster Jam by Brother to Brother. One day, he happened to hear that very track on the radio. Immediately calling up the station, he found Ramos on the other end of the line, and soon the two had forged the kind of bond you only get from shared enthusiasm for a musical subgenre. “Carlos still turns us on to stuff we’ve never heard!” Ramos said of the always-hunting Zaragoza.
Surprisingly, after almost 35 years, Ramos still regularly unearths old school jams hitherto unknown to him. Old school, it seems, is like some sort of magical natural resource: Despite being produced for only a relatively brief period, its well never runs dry. Ramos still makes his regular trips down to L.A., checking in with his usual record shops and contacts, always finding something new. But at his level, old school collecting can be a pricey, competitive game. “I have this dude in L.A. who hooks me up with the good stuff,” he said, “but I don’t tell anyone about him.”
It’s only natural that Ramos, a drummer and a live DJ who gets even “the whitest of the white” dancing with his services at parties—and as one of the whitest of the white myself, I understand what he means by that—should possess such an undying affinity for the finest grooves. His father, Ray Ramos Sr., was both a congero with the Latin soul New Barrio Band and a well-known DJ on KCSB. Ramos Sr. found his way into the station in the 1970s after hearing Radio Chicano while working on sprinklers as a member of the UCSB maintenance staff.
“He looked at my records and said, ‘Man, what are you gonna do with all this?” the younger Ramos recalled. Heeding his dad’s words, he underwent the necessary broadcast training and joined the FM schedule in 1992, inheriting the time slot of well-known Santa Barbara soul DJ Frank Ramirez. Though the technology wasn’t quite as advanced in those days—Ramos and Reynoso retain strong memories of carting up to six crates into the studio every week on a dolly—the sensibility has remained the same all these 18 years, to listeners’ delight. There may be a life without this music, but, like the many Jammin’ a Little Old School fans who inundate the studio line with requests, I doubt it’s one worth living.
Jammin’ a Little Old School airs Fridays, from 6-8 p.m. on KCSB, FM 91.9