Turning the tables

Alums find success off the beaten path

Their work has taken them around the globe while establishing them as pillars within their communities. Their unconventional paths to career success have been guided less by the prospect of fame and fortune than by their own pursuit of excellence in their chosen fields. If a Gettysburg education is designed to encourage us to pursue our passions, to expand our global perspectives, and to sustain our belief in the greater good, the four alumni profiled in the following pages are fine exemplars of those values.

“My whole life has been unconventional.”

Dion Liverpool ’93

Dion Liverpool ’93 has never exactly marched in lockstep with the cubicled masses. A Trinidadian by blood, he entered the world through Fort Saint John, in northern British Columbia, the first black baby—or so he was told—to be born there. His father was a wireline operator in the oil fields outside of town. It was itinerant work, and every few years he’d move the family to a faraway dot on the globe. After Fort Saint John, Liverpool’s next home was Abu Dhabi. By the time he entered Gettysburg in the fall of 1989, he’d lived in Guatemala, Brazil, England, Holland, Spain, and the United States.

Today, at 42, Liverpool has fashioned a multifaceted career in the music business as a DJ, producer, branding consultant, radio host, and distributor of high-end turntable head shells. (“I believe in seven streams of income,” he says.) These days he manages hip-hop icon Phife Dawg and Phife’s band, A Tribe Called Quest. With Phife, he recorded the Dallas Mavericks’ theme song, “Mavericks Phire.” He’s produced music for ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, and the video game maker 2K Sports. In the two decades since leaving Gettysburg, in fact, Liverpool, who also goes by DJ Rasta Root, has never held a conventional 9-to-5 job. “I feel like my whole life has been unconventional,” he says.

It’s fair to say his career got its start at Gettysburg. As a freshman he started to deejay with his roommate, Mark Kieffer ’93, and another friend, Rich Norris ’93, who were mixing records at the Dive (now the Junction). From them Liverpool learned how each component of a mixer and turntable functioned—“very basic stuff,” he says. It soon became a happy obsession. Liverpool would finish classes, go straight to the Dive, and, as he says, “start blasting music.”  From those early days, as he was just finding his way around a turntable, a career was launched. “Once I understood the theory of it, putting two songs with different tempos together, with practice I was able to fine-tune that ability and cut down the time it took me to match the tempos,” Liverpool said.

A year after graduating with a degree in Spanish, Liverpool was chosen for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET). He spent three years in Yanai, in Yamaguchi Perfecture in southern Japan, teaching English to public high school students. While in Japan he continued to hone his DJ skills, working three nights a week in local hip-hop clubs. He also started Smokin’ Needles Records. “It started as a DJ collective,” Liverpool said, “a way to put out our DJ work. It turned into Smokin’ Needles Records, with mixed tapes and, later on, CDs.”

When he returned to the United States in 1997, Liverpool settled in Atlanta, to be near his mother. He continued to hone his DJ skills while expanding his business interests. In 2004 he was one of sixty people from around the world to be chosen for the all-expenses-paid Red Bull Music Academy in Rome. The academy is a two-week series of workshops for singers, producers, instrumentalists, DJs—in the words of Red Bull, “a platform for those who make a difference in today’s musical landscape.”

For Liverpool, the experience was transforming. “It’s designed to bring young and upcoming talent from across the world to exchange ideas, exchange musical experiences, be around people who are your contemporaries,” he said. “It might be somebody from Argentina doing exactly what you’re doing, but in their town, their language, their way.”

A decade later, Liverpool continues to do things his way.

Photo by Lasse Kofod

Dicker“We haven’t really shied away from anything.”

Glenn Dicker ’88 

“If you’re fortunate enough to be passionate about anything,” said Glenn Dicker ’88, “just pursue that with every possible ounce of energy.”

Since he was a boy growing up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Dicker’s consuming passion has been music. He played in bands, became music director and disc jockey at Gettysburg’s WZBT, and got his first job after college at Rounder Records in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1997 Dicker and childhood friend Tor Hansen founded Yep Roc Records, an independent label now based in Hillsborough, North Carolina. (He and Hansen are also partners in Redeye Distribution, one of the country’s largest independent music distributors.) Through Yep Roc, Dicker has worked with some of his musical heroes, such as Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock, and helped nurture new bands just breaking into the business.

“We haven’t really shied away from anything,” Dicker said, “if it’s something we get passionate about.”

Yep Roc is not a rock ‘n’ roll label, or a folk label or a blues label, or a roots label. It’s all of those, and much more. Instead of hewing to one musical style, Dicker said, he prefers to sign bands that he likes to listen to. “It sort of represents the record collections my partner and I have,” Dicker says of Yep Roc’s roster of musicians. “We don’t really go at it as a specific genre or targeting marketing. I really like all kinds of different stuff. It tends to be based on good songwriting, or what I would consider good songwriting. I just want to do really good music and create a kind of classic record label. We’re not really trying to cash in on the latest trends.”

An un-trendy record label? In twenty-first century America? Is that even possible? As a matter of fact, Yep Roc has the musical goods to prove that it is. The label has produced more than 300 records in its sixteen years, from the Los Angeles punk-rocker-turned-country-crooner John Doe, the British anti-establishment folkie Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Chuck Prophet, Fountains of Wayne, Los Straitjackets, Tift Merritt, Jukebox the Ghost, Dave Alvin, John Wesley Harding—the list goes on. Many of Yep Roc’s artists came together last fall for a four-day festival to celebrate the label’s fifteenth anniversary.

“What we consider our path and our job is to find people that we want to work with and that we believe what their vision is,” Dicker said, “and present them with the best possible atmosphere to achieve that vision. If someone’s vision is to sell millions of records, we’re probably not the right place to be.”

Yep Roc received an adrenaline shot of credibility when Nick Lowe signed with the label in 2001. Lowe rose to prominence more than three decades ago as the author of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” as a co-frontman (with Dave Edmunds) for Rockpile, and as a producer for Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and the Pretenders. Lowe has now put out four records with Yep Roc.

“I call him the great legitimizer for our label,” Dicker said of Lowe. “It was suddenly safe to sign with us.”

Yep Roc aims to help its artists sustain a career over the long haul at a time when the music industry is going through some traumatic changes. After a quarter-century in the business, Dicker is still pursuing his passion.

“I’m really happy about doing what I’m doing now,” he said. “Some of the people we work with are people I grew up being inspired by and being massive fans of. Having to work with these people has been a pretty amazing, rich, rewarding experience.”

Photo provided by Glenn Dicker ’88

MacIntyre“I can make a difference.”

Sheffield MacIntyre ’00

For most of her time as an undergraduate at Gettysburg, Sheffield MacIntyre ’00 figured she’d pursue a PhD in psychology, and train to become a psychologist. But a semester she spent abroad during her junior year made such a profound impression that it moved her to reconsider her career path, a transformation that eventually saw her opening an online vintage clothing business in her hometown of Miami. And while it might seem like an unlikely stretch to veer from aspiring psychoanalyst to virtual fashion maven, MacIntyre can trace the shift to the deprivation she witnessed over the three and a half months she spent aboard a retired cruise ship in the fall of 1997, during the national Semester at Sea program.

The ship took MacIntyre and hundreds of other students to China, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia—to twelve countries in all—but MacIntyre recalls in particular one destitute woman she encountered in India. The woman was begging for food and money for herself and for her infant, who clung to her in a sling, appearing on the brink of death. MacIntyre’s memory of the woman stayed with her long after the ship reached its final port in Miami. Once back home, she decided to take a semester off. “I couldn’t go back to Gettysburg,” she says. “It really caused me to reevaluate my priorities and what I wanted to do with my life." 

She returned in the fall of 1998 with a renewed vigor for her studies—“a completely different mindset,” she said. “I was much more motivated, more interested in the humanities, in human development, in finding out what makes people make the choices they make.”

She’d always had an entrepreneurial spirit—at Gettysburg she started her own stationery business. Within weeks of graduating, MacIntyre made the choice to create her backinstyle.com site. And she’d always loved shopping in thrift stores. In her teens she’d go to garage sales with $5 in her pocket and learned that you make better choices when your options are narrowed. “I never considered myself particularly fashionable,” she said. “I was thrifty and value-driven. I’d pick up all sorts of strange, funky, fun items. And my friends would say, ‘Oh, that’s cool, where did you get that?’”

Yet in a very real way, the poor woman in India was still on her mind.

“Fashion is, like, so frivolous,” she said. “It’s kind of a strange connection to such poverty and despair. She couldn’t help herself. She had nothing to offer, no way to make a living. It confirmed for me that I wanted to be independent. I didn’t want my job to be based on someone else’s evaluation of my skills.”

These days MacIntyre uses backinstyle.com to help raise money for local nonprofit organizations in Miami such as Therapy Dogs Inc., the Children’s Bereavement Center, and Janelle’s Wishing Well, which works to raise awareness about carbon monoxide poisoning. “Having seen all this poverty and hardship, it makes me recognize how fortunate I am,” MacIntyre says. “It makes me recognize that I can make a difference and help other people who are not as fortunate as I am.”

Photo provided by Sheffield MacIntyre ’00 

Erskine“We crafted a lifestyle.”

Peter Erskine ’86

Blame it on The Drifters. When he was still in junior high school, Peter Erskine ’86 read James Michener’s 1971 Age-of-Aquarius novel about six rebellious young people from across the globe who meet in a Spanish village and from there ramble on to adventures in Portugal and Mozambique and Morocco. The book fired Erskine’s imagination. The wanderlust bug bit him hard. After his sophomore year at Gettysburg, he bought a sixty-day Eurail pass and backpacked across Europe. “I always had this romantic idea of traveling around and being groovy,” Erskine said.

A few years after graduating, a Theta Chi fraternity brother, Eric Lipkin ’85, approached Erskine with a wacky business proposition. Lipkin was plotting to travel to Mexico and Guatemala, where he would buy locally made clothing and crafts, then ship them north to Portland, Maine, where he planned to sell them in a new store he was opening.

He wanted Erskine to join him. It was ludicrous, of course, a scheme straight out of The Drifters. They were barely removed from Gettysburg. Neither one had any experience running a business. Naturally, Erskine didn’t hesitate. “I’m in!” he told Lipkin.

They opened their first store on March 25, 1988. They called it Mexicali Blues, after a Grateful Dead song. (You may not be surprised to learn that Erskine was—and remains—a fan of the band.) A few years later, Lipkin left to start a restaurant, and the store belonged exclusively to Erskine and his future wife, Kim. Each winter he’d spend a few months traveling in Central America, buying clothing and jewelry from local artisans and selling the goods back home at Mexicali Blues. “We started off with our kids and a backpack and a stroller,” Erskine said.

Somehow it worked. The business grew, adding a second store. Then another, and another. Twenty-five years later, Erskine oversees a mini-empire of six Mexicali Blues stores that employ about eighty-five people and generate annual sales of nearly $5 million. With their three kids, the Erskines live on Maine’s craggy coast, on waterfront property once owned by Peter’s grandparents. “We crafted a lifestyle that works well for us,” he said. “We’re trying to create a brand up here in rural Maine.”

Of course, he’s never stopped traveling. Erskine said his kids—now 21, 19, and 16—have taken “tons of trips” with him and Kim. Their annual buying expeditions take them to Bangkok, which gives them easy access to Nepal, India, and Indonesia. They scour villages for locally made clothing, jewelry, artwork, lanterns, and statues of Buddha. “We’re buying directly from the artisans themselves,” he said. “The artisans get more money because they don’t have to go through several layers to get to us.”

When Mexicali Blues first opened, the typical customer was a granola-eating, teenage hippie. Today it’s more likely to be a middle-aged mom. “We sell a lot of jewelry and clothing,” Erskine said, “also singing bowls and prayer flags.”

Business is booming. Internet sales are growing by more than 100 percent annually. In September a new flagship store opened on Route 1, in Newcastle. And the Retail Association of Maine named Mexicali Blues its 2013 Retailer of the Year. This winter, to celebrate its silver anniversary, Mexicali Blues is sponsoring a “Share the Adventure” contest. The winner receives a five-day trip for two to Bangkok.

After a quarter-century in business, Erskine has lost none of his enthusiasm for his work. And with good reason. “Because it’s fun,” he said. “Anyone who went to school with me at Gettysburg knows I’m big on fun. If it’s fun, I do it a lot.”  

— by Christopher Hann

Photo by Mark Fleming

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Tue, 21 Jan 2014

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