Meet Tom Aelbrecht, the Flemish Guy Behind One of the Biggest Hip Hop Blogs in the World
In the late eighties on a local schoolyard in Antwerp, Belgium, a hip hop cassette was swapped between friends. It would change the life of Tom Aelbrecht forever and eventually result in the creation of Hiphopcollector.com. With almost 1 million (!) Facebook likes, it is one of the biggest platforms regarding hip hop culture. We sat down with him to discuss the unique platform, but also to talk about the man behind it.
Tom, according to your website, it all started with one cassette. What was on that cassette and why did it change your life permanently?
Well, I clearly remember it being a Maxell cassette being given to me by my best friend back then. On one side N.W.A. and on the other side Public Enemy. When putting it in my Walkman and pushing the play button I was immediately hooked, it was simply something I had never heard before. The beats and lyrics instantly had a huge impact on me. A bit later the first official hip hop album I bought in a shop was “Licensed to Ill” by the Beastie Boys. That was also on cassette.
There are a million websites and blogs writing about hip hop. Why is yours so successful?
It all started as a hobby, it still is and will always remain my hobby. I never look at it as work. I do put a lot of effort in it and make sure people remain entertained and attracted by it. I see a lot of other people creating stuff but in many cases they stop after a while. It’s all about dedication and passion for me. Believe me, if I don’t do anything on my pages for a month you will for sure see the numbers drop. Another thing is that it takes time to reach something. My pages didn’t become what they are within a few days, weeks or months. No, it took me years and years. The website and Facebook page, for example, were released to the world at the end of 2010.
You chose to write in English only, even though you are a Dutch-speaking fella from Flanders. Why did you make that decision?
Simply to reach more people around the globe, as English is one of the world languages. If I would do it in Dutch only, I would never ever have achieved what I have now.
According to your website, it was actually your girlfriend who pushed you to create the site. Most girlfriends would probably say their boyfriends shouldn’t spend so much time on things like that, but yours triggered it. Does she share the same passion for hip hop?
Indeed, it was my girlfriend, now my wife, who triggered this whole story. Since I had a big hip hop collection, she told me to get out there on the internet and share my passion with the world. She likes hip hop, when she was young she was a big fan of Salt-N-Pepa for example, but she’s not as deep into hip hop the way I am. Still, I will be forever grateful that she triggered this: it’s so much fun and it makes me very happy and proud to see that lots and lots of people like it.
When did it occur to you, “damn, this is getting big”?
In my head it always went and still goes in steps. You put certain goals ahead of you and once you reach them you put the bar a bit higher. First you want to reach 1,000 fans, then 5,000, 10,000 etc. I remember in the past trying to visualize the number of fans by looking at the number of people that can enter certain football stadiums. But then when growing bigger, you really do start to think “damn, this is getting big, much bigger than I ever expected”. Yet it remains fun and I still try to constantly find new goals to keep it even more interesting for me, but also for the followers.
There’s no way around it: nowadays social media has become incredibly popular. Most people can be reached through platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Do you think that joining those platforms helped Hiphopcollector to grow?
For sure, it wouldn’t at all have become so popular without social media. I focus mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram as I can reach most of the people there. And although I have a Twitter account, it has never been my thing 100%. The interaction you get with people on social media is simply amazing. It just brings people together in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Together with your close friend Stijn Coppens, you also document hip hop concerts. You get to meet the artists that you have been writing about and looking up to for years. Have you somehow become accustomed to meeting and speaking to them in person, or is it still nerve-racking?
In the past maybe more than now, because it was all new then and we didn’t exactly know how to take control of things. In the past it was also more an adventure to get to all the artists since we didn’t have a lot of credentials or a portfolio. Nowadays it becomes a bit easier as we got to know lots of people and a lot of people know us. Even artists themselves know us now after having met with us several times. Me being the Hip Hop Collector and Stijn being one of the top photographers capturing the hip hop legends makes a great combo to make it all happen.
Which artist made the biggest impression on you when you met him / her / them?
Chuck D, Ice-T, Rakim and so many others. They are all legends in the game, so being able to meet them and have a talk with them is just amazing. KRS-One made the biggest impression on me. That man just breathes hip hop! Slick Rick was also such a great and humble man.
Are there any crazy backstage antics that you would like to share with us?
One of the craziest things must have probably been in 2010, waiting for hours and hours outside the Paradiso in Amsterdam together with Stijn to see a Wu-Tang Clan performance. We didn’t really have a clear appointment to get in. Once some of the Wu-Tang members arrived we finally got in and went to the backstage basement. We entered a room and just waited there already happy to be inside the venue and actually being in the same room with some Wu-Tang members. BUT before we could even realize it, we were surrounded in that same room by the complete Wu-Tang Clan (except for ODB of course). Me, Stijn and the complete Wu-Tang Clan in one room… I can tell you: LEGENDARY!!! I’m pretty sure we can write a book about our backstage experiences in the world of hip hop.
You also have a Wall of Fame on your website, and it’s quite impressive. None other than DJ Premier, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and M.O.P. recorded videos for you, giving shout-outs to Hiphopcollector. Why do you think respectable artists in the game support your site?
I always ask them very nicely if they want to do a shout-out for my website/project. I always show them a business card to make sure they know I’m for real. Most of the artists do it without any problems. I still have to post a lot of whom I have drops in my archive. And I could have had many more, but in the beginning I was not really asking for it.
You call yourself a ‘preserver of music’. You barely have any MP3s, but prefer to own the original album, CD, vinyl or cassette. Why is it so important to you to own a physical copy?
It’s just the real deal. It comes with the artwork, credits etc. It’s just so nice to open a CD booklet, for example, to look at all the extra pictures, comments, shout-outs etc. With an MP3 that's just not possible. The few MP3s that I own just disappear somewhere in a map on my hard disc. I do understand that not everybody collects like me and that having MP3s is a good equivalent to listen to the music. And it’s definitely less place consuming: I have a 25 m² room completely filled with hip hop. All of it would fit on one hard disc.
Do you think you will switch to MP3s in the future or is that not an option for you?
Pretty sure that will never happen: collecting gigabytes of music just doesn’t sound right to me. Everybody can do that, there is nothing special to it. Instead of MP3s, I prefer listening to Spotify on which I have a premium account. Spotify is also an easy way to get to know new stuff. I’m not just talking about hip hop, as I really like lots of music genres. A few days ago I was even at an Anthrax show!
Really? Thrash metal is completely different than hip hop. Did you enjoy it?
For sure! It brought back so many memories of being young. I'm a person who can really enjoy thinking about the past. It gives me a good feeling. By the way, I'm into all kinds of music! From classical to thrash metal, new wave, drum 'n' bass etc. I've always had that. I just don't want to focus on one genre only. There is more in life than just hip hop.
How many physical albums, CDs, vinyls and cassettes do you think you own? And how much has this hobby cost you already?
At the moment I am archiving my collection on the Discogs website. The CDs, tapes and 7”s are more or less done. Now I’m starting with the 12”s and LPs. It’s about 8,000 hip hop CDs, 1,000 cassettes that I already archived, plus thousands of records that I still need to archive as mentioned before.
What it all cost… to be honest, I have no idea and maybe I don’t want to know. But you always have to remember that I bought my first tape back in the late eighties and the real collecting started in the early nineties. A nice thing about collecting is to find everything as cheap as possible. It gives a person a good feeling to find an exclusive or out-of-print album for a few euros. For example, I once found a Run DMC album for just 7 euros in a second hand store, yet is was autographed by the late great Jam Master Jay.
Do you have a job to support this all? In other words: what is your profession?
For the first items I bought, I was still in school. I was depending on my mother, for which I will always be grateful. She kinda hates hip hop, she just cannot stand it, but she did everything to make me happy. After my school days I first went to the army and during my years in high school I was working in a Quick fast food restaurant. Most of the money I earned over there went directly to the “Popkelder” music store on the other side of the street. In 1998, I started working in logistics in the port of Antwerp, which I still like doing after almost 20 years. I’m just happy when I can buy a few extra items each month. Being happy with small things is very important for me. I was brought up that way and I still act that way. Appreciating small things in life should really make a person happy.
Is there any time left for other hobbies?
Besides all the time I spend on hip hop, I of course make time to spend with my wife. I really like to watch the quality series that are produced nowadays. Other than that, I’m also an old school gamer coming from the age of the Atari 2600, Commodore 64 and Nintendo NES. Therefore you can also find me in front of the television, playing on the PS4 which is very relaxing to me.
You have roughly 950,000 Facebook likes on Hip Hop Collector. What are you going to do when the page reaches 1 million likes?
Good question! Well, I didn’t really think about that yet. I will probably go to my basement and open a nice bottle to celebrate this together with my wife. Sounds like a plan… Sitting together, mesmerized by all that I have achieved in the world of hip hop. It’s really living a dream. Who would have thought this when I was buying my first hip hop items back then!
Thank you for sitting down with us, Tom!
My pleasure. Thank you very much for having me as well.