Taking A Beat In DC with Som Records

Photos by Joel Barhamand

Journalist-turned-record store owner Neal Becton on where to find new music in the nation's capital

After a decade spent as a journalist in the newsroom at The Washington Post, Neal Becton took a new beat — literally. Following his life-long passion for music and vinyl collecting, in 2006, he opened Som Records. As D.C.’s premier record shop for the last 14 years, Som sources and stocks an incredible array of vinyl, from 70s-era salsa and samba to reggae and punk rock.

Descending into the subterranean shop, you’re immediately immersed in Becton’s dreamworld of vinyl and memorabilia. Wandering among the racks, we take notice of a weathered 1983-dated concert bill for REM pinned to a wall. “I went to school with those guys,” mentions Becton. “That was the last free concert they played.” Immediately we're drawn in and sit down with our Lyric at Liz vinyl curator to talk about, among other things, his time as a DJ, where his love of music came from, and what he’s listening to now. 

When did you move to D.C.? What drew you in about the city?
I moved here over a century ago (1988). My first job out of college was in the hotel business where you get moved around a lot. They sent me to a hotel in Crystal City. Got a place in Adams Morgan and have been in DC (minus one year) ever since.

You have a really interesting background, ranging from hotel management to journalism. What inspired the move from the Washington Post to opening a record store? 
I worked at the Post for ten years and loved, loved working there. I'd always had a pretty big record collection starting in high school but then in the early 90's I started DJing and the collection really took off from there. I was getting up at 5AM on Saturdays to go to flea markets to look for records so I figured I should probably be doing that for a living because there's very little else I'd get up that early for.

Where did your love for vinyl begin?
With my parents who had a lot of records. My dad liked country and blues and my mom liked rock n roll. Bob Dylan and British folk music they both liked. I started buying records when I was 13.

What do you like about playing vinyl vs digital or other media?
Sound, art work and liner notes. 

You’ve probably heard some incredible stories from people over the years while sifting through vinyl - any you can share?
There are new stories daily. I love it when older musicians come in with their family and find one of their old records in the bins. "Look son, I played on this one," the guy says. Sometimes the kids are impressed, sometimes not.

How would you describe D.C.’s music scene, past and present?  
Hard to sum up in a few sentences but I'll try. It's big and varied. There's something here for everyone. We do get overshadowed sometimes by Philadelphia and New York but they're bigger cities with more musicians, venues and recording studios, so it's only natural. I've loved being a (small) part of the DC music scene for a while now and have gotten lots of support from other DJs and musicians.

Which neighborhoods are the best for live music?
I don't see as many bands as I used to but there are good venues all over town. Adams Morgan, H Street, and U Street for starters.

Any local legends we should look out for when visiting?   
Trouble Funk.

What are you listening to right now?
The last record I played was by a Venezuelan salsa band Los Satelites from 1971. Good salsa dura!

What’s one place you always take friends when they visit? 
Union Market to eat.

Your favorite place to…
Spend a quiet morning: My apartment
Hear new music: Hearing other DJs at Showtime or The Green Zone
Dig through records: Besides my shop, Joe's Record Paradise or HR Records
Get inspired: Any time I DJ
Relax and recharge: My dad's house in Florida (two blocks from the ocean)

Check it out
Som Records
1843 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009