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Beatnik visits a classic hip-hop institution
words & images Sven Carlsson
Shortly before it was forced to shut down, Beatnik paid a visit to Fat Beats, a legendary record store on lower Manhattan and a cornerstone of hip-hop history.
For many, it’s a familiar tale. Hiphop has gone from being an organic street culture in New York City to becoming an enormous, global industry. Ciphers are no longer formed by Lyricist Lounge MC’s in Washington Square Park; instead they assume a virtual existence on blogs through the spread of MP3-leaks. So how does this affect the record trade? What Beats Around the Bush went to Fat Beats New York, a classic hiphop institution if any, to find out how it’s coping with the changes in the music industry.
I first visited Fat Beats in 1999, 5 years after the store first opened. My sister’s boyfriend dragged me through lower Manhattan to Greenwich Village and up a narrow set of stairs on 6th Avenue to show me his favourite record shop in New York. As a 12-year old old hiphop fanatic, I wasn’t disappointed.
As you I glanced over the autographed walls and ceilings, I realized that all my heroes in hiphop had stood where I was standing. It felt like DJ Premier, Big L or Mos Def, in my mind all monumental figures of a distant world somewhere accross the atlantic, could enter the room at any second. I was at the epicentre of a culture, if only for 15 minutes.
It was around that time that a lot of then unimaginable changes to the music industry got underway. 3 months after my visit to Fat Beats, in June 1999, Napster was launched. MP3:s quickly proved a good alternative to over-priced CDs, and the software’s immense popularity helped spark the digitilization of music (and, along with it, the music industry, albeit a bit later).
Today’s impressionable teenagers download the latest tunes, legally or illegally, and DJ:s widely use Seratto, the result being a dramatic decline in the physical ownership of records – exactly the concept that Fat Beats has always thrived on.
J57, a music producer and MC for his crew Brown Bag All Stars who has worked at the store since 2004, has witnessed the transformation first hand.
”I saw a steady decline [in record sales] in 2007. In 2008… [that decrease] doubled. It just keeps declining on us. We are the last hiphop store in New York City.”
If cultural institutions received the same treatment by the US government as its banks do, Fat Beats would certainly be too big to fail. Its branches in Los Angeles and New York continue to be the venue for countless in-store performances and record signings by as widely different acts as Common, Eminem, MOP and KRS One (”he spoke for two hours straight”, J recalls), and it’s no secret that Fat Beats is in all likelihood your favourite hiphop artist’s favourite record shop.
Of course, the immense cultural significance of Fat Beats only pays its dues – not its bills. Yet despite the economic reality the store finds itself in, it’s still open.
An important factor in keeping Fat Beats afloat as a record store has been its involvement in other strands of the music industry. Aside from selling records in shop and online, Fat Beats also distributes records internationally and runs a record label. Without those crucial aspects of its business, economic ruin would be a lot more likely.
At the same time, Fat Beats Records (the label) prioritizes image over mass appeal. It is highly selective in the choice of its artists and has not lowered the high standard of its musical output, keeping its ”image real strong”, as J points out. Recent releases include albums by Akrobatik, Black Milk and Ill Bill.
In April of this year, Fat Beats Records released Enter the 37th Chamber by El Michels Affair, with the Brooklyn band breathing refreshing soul and jazz influences into classic cuts by the Wu Tang Clan.
By expanding its consumer base, a move possible largely due to its legendary reputation, Fat Beats has managed to face the changing realities of the industry. Innovation and expansion are here strategies that serve not only to make a profit—as in most other cases—but also to preserve Fat Beats as a cornerstone of hiphop culture, without having to compromise the quality of its realeases.
It’s the kind of philanthropy I’ll happily engage in. As J puts it, ”Everybody buying records from the Fat Beats label and buying the records we distribute are helping the cause of keeping Fat Beats alive.”
And so should you, either by browsing its website or by paying a visit to a Mecca so pivotal to hiphop culture.
Order J57′s new EP Digital Society here.