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Magic Transistor Is the Best and Weirdest Thing to Ever Happen to Internet Radio

It's the opposite of Pandora—it doesn't play what you already like, it plays what you might end up loving.
December 15, 2014, 7:00pm

If you're the type of person who spends hours on YouTube trawling through rare recordings, you may have happened upon Magic Transistor, an incredible resource for music nerds that's appallingly underpublicized. I stumbled across it while searching for the Willie Mitchell sample that GZA used in "Liquid Swords." That led me to YouTube user page for a guy named Ben Ruhe, the founder of Magic Transistor. His playlists were jaw-dropping. There were only six of them at the time (there are now many more), each with upwards of 100 songs, most from rare vinyl rips that listeners could have only dreamed of hearing before YouTube.

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Ruhe's playlists led me to the Magic Transistor website, a seemingly-infinite internet radio player. It's a straightforward, four-station radio that plays hundreds of these wonderful relics of music history every day. The sequencing is determined by Ruhe and a few other team members based on an individual song's musicological relevance. It is the antithesis of Pandora's "here's more of what you like" philosophy—Magic Transistor's playlists aren't concerned with catering to personal taste. Listening to any of the radio streams is an essential lesson in audio history curated by Ruhe and his comrades. It doesn't hurt that the tracks are all lovable in some way or another.

As a companion to the streaming site, Ruhe has a podcast, exploring these different strains of music genealogy. The best part of this whole thing? There are no goddamn advertisements or solicitations.

I assumed Ben Ruhe was some kind of Lester Bangs-worshipping obsessive—a frazzled basement-dwelling archivist running on fumes and amphetamines, tossing records around his room, unpaid bills buried beneath dusty crates. I reached out to him, and it turns out he's a pretty level-headed dude, albeit one with a pretty serious mission.

Ruhe is a mustachioed 45-year-old visual artist who grew up in Brooklyn and cut his teeth in the 90's downtown scene. After his artwork sold into private collections, Ruhe began devoting his days to digging up forgotten art for Magic Transistor. He also runs a popular Tumblr blog that curates art images using Google, and a Facebook group that revolves around the simple yet addicting game of pairing these images with songs.

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His passion and devotion to the arts—specifically to recorded music—is rare these days. He's put everything he's got into this project, which is (as of now) a financial dead end, but has inspired thousands of art and music nerds to participate in the online practice of curating, sharing, and listening.

I sat down with Ben and talked to him about where Magic Transistor came from and where it might be headed.

VICE: Where'd this knack for music history come from initially?
Ben Ruhe: It began as an idea of curating music at galleries and listening in my studio at the Chelsea Hotel in the early 2000s. As an artist, I wanted to listen to music that was authentic while I worked—the real thing, an undiluted flow of material that I could draw from. Whatever you play is going to influence your work in the studio.

Coming from the hip-hop generation, and having worked in hip-hop— I did the logo for The Source, for example—I was noticing how hip-hop was objectifying artists and songs as great samples rather than part of a broader history. There'd be a great recording and then someone would say, "Oh, yeah—Wu Tang sampled that!" And that's fine, but it's like, how can you not know that this is Eddie Harris, and how do you not care?

So this was born out of a dissatisfaction with how content providers were handling their shit?
Yes. I became more and more disturbed by the fact that there was nothing that really fit what I felt we needed—a filtration system for all the buried content on the internet that is so hard to sort through.

I founded Magic Transistor as the idea of creating a more human filter for all this content, which is only possible because of the internet. I wanted to know about music in the way an entomologist wants to know where all the root species of creatures emerge from.

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It's like a cultural Noah's Arc.
Exactly. It's like, "Let's get two or three of every kind and start organizing it in some way." There's so much out there and all you need are individuals to get involved and sift through it. I don't really want to do this alone, but I am. I'm still figuring out how to monetize it.

The problem with the internet now is that people only seek out content that they want to learn about. If you only pick what you want to look at, you're going to keep returning to what you recognize. We are the opposite of Pandora. I have to take people into the woods to find new stuff. And none of it would even be doable were it not for the remarkable individuals who help with the project, namely Ron Beinstock, Ryan Aull, Caspar Von Bizmark, Alejandro Merola, and Miguel Hernandez, as well as countless contributors.

How'd you expand into curating visual art online in addition to music?
I quickly recognized that I couldn't just curate music, I had to curate art in general. It's almost like if I adapt to what people want or expect, then I can't give them what they need. I would just be giving them more of what they're comfortable with. You can explore Magic Transistor and, within half an hour, find one thing that's gonna make you want to spend the rest of the day learning about that artist and what they did.

It's not about personal taste, it's about important stuff.
Exactly. The way people navigate music history doesn't take that history into account properly. If you're relying on genre in order to go through stuff, you're going to miss a lot of important things that don't fit into one particular mold.

I play stuff that's weird not because I'm trying to be weird, but because these recordings are sublime and eloquent and important. For Magic Transistor, I'm just going around the internet, turning over rocks. I'm not looking for salamanders, but if I turn one over and there's a big golden salamander under there, I'm happy.

Click here to check out Magic Transistor.