Back in January 1999, I’d just been recently promoted to manager @ Tower Records & Video in Boston. Within two weeks, I’d become the senior manager of the 1st floor. Within a month’s time I was in charge of the entire video & magazine floor. After 6 weeks past 6 PM every night I was second in authority to only the store’s key supervisor. This meant that I was in charge of all three floors if he was off premises or busy.
In six short weeks I’d become the “Right Hand Of God” as they called it in the store. Not only was I charge of the store but I also was trained extensively in loss prevention and apprehension techniques. I was essentially trained in everything but camera work so when they were going to take down thieves, I usually got the call to help out.
Being that I worked mostly at night I had to be trained in everything so I learned the ins and outs of that store in record time. Six weeks on that job felt like six months. It was physically, mentally and emotionally draining. I immediately started looking for a way out. I hated the overly corporate get money at any cost approach @ Tower. The employees loved music but the management? They only loved profit. It is possible to have a job doing what you love, right?
One of my co-workers, Oscar Melendez was thinking the exact same thing I was. He was a DJ, producer and a student taking studio engineering. His heroes were Ivan “DJ Doc” Rodriguez & Eddie Sancho and he began telling me about a storefront he’d recently seen available in a great location. He told me that the rent wasn’t exorbitant in the area, either. We had a discussion with fellow employees and ex Tower workers about the possibility of opening a Fat Beats in Boston there. We began to dream.
We’d always had discussions in the past about how we didn’t understand how come Boston didn’t have a Fat Beats location but Oscar said “Maybe we should put together a proposal and try to get one here”. Word? We decided to go around the store and see if we could round up some people that knew some people. If we could get a Fat Beats made, we could run it ourselves and finally escape the tyrannical grip of MTS Inc.
At the time we were in an area full of quality record stores that included Tower Records, Newbury Comics, UndergroundHipHop.com Store, Biscuithead Records, CD Spins, Boston Beat, Mystery Train II, Satellite Records, Nuggets, Looney Tunes and a Kenmore Square Strawberries. We had a location in mind that was a fair distance away from the competition but not hard to reach by the T (MBTA) with decent foot traffic from potential heads.
We began doing research to figure out exactly what we needed to do in order to make this thing actually come to fruition. We had around 20 people with connections in the store alone all down to help us any way possible. Oscar told me that he had a contact at Bobbito’s Footwork in Philadelphia so we could pick their brain on the matter. Repeated attempts to get them on the horn proved fruitless (was it Stef Tataz?). Later on, we discovered that Bobbito’s Footwork was in danger of shuttting down. Bad omen?
In any event, if we were going to actually try to get a Fat Beats location in Boston we had to have no room for error and every single base covered. This meant that we had to talk to as many record store owners as we could to weigh the pros and cons plus figure out what we needed to get the job done. Once we had all of the facts we could take it from there. The first person on our list was DJ Bruno of Biscuithead Records. Luckily for us, he was directly across the street.
The next day, myself, Oscar & our co-worker Shaka Ramsay (who would later run Sun Moon Records & open the Achilles Project with yet another former co-worker Mike Krupp who’d recently left Tower for a position @ Landspeed Records) went over to Biscuithead to talk with Bruno about possibly opening a Fat Beats in Boston and what it takes to keep a vinyl based Hip Hop shop afloat. What a sobering experience that was.
We all went to 93 Mass Ave, piled into the infamous elevator and pressed 3. We got off and walked right into Suite 9 where Yeshua & DapoED’s “The Visualz” was playing. All I could think about was running my own spot like that one day. We saw Bruno behind the decks and told him all about our idea. Before we could finish Bruno cut me off and said “Don’t do it! Nah, don’t even think about it”. I asked why and Bruno began to break it ALL the way down for us. Ouch.
If I recorded that conversation and released it commercially it’d be called “Funcrusher Plus Infinity”. Bruno told us all about the headaches he faced daily and the shaky nature of the business including diminishing returns and shrinking profits in an age where the internet was becoming more and more of a factor. “I don’t know how much longer THIS place will last” he confided in us. He had a girl, a home & a kid on the way back then so something had to give.
I brought up Fat Beats recent expansion into Atlanta, Japan and Amsterdam and a customer in the store piped up “I heard the Atlanta store isn’t doing that well and the Shibuya Fat Beats is doing even worse. Who knows how long the Amsterdam location will survive”. I wish you all could’ve seen the look on Oscar and Shaka’s face after hearing that. Bruno might as well thrown Soul II Soul’s “Back II Life” on the decks at that point.
We continued to chop it up with Bruno and he told us about conversations he had with other local vinyl spot owners including the owners of Boston Beat and Satellite Records about various pitfalls of running a vinyl based record store at the time. It was becoming painfully obvious that trying to get a Boston location for Fat Beats would be a bad gamble and more trouble than it was worth.
The final nail in the coffin came after talking to Dave Piekoz, an electronic music buyer for Tower who was friends with the owners of Satellite Records. “Don’t do it unless one of you happens to be Bill Gates. I’m looking directly at you guys. None of you are Bill Gates”. Keisha? Dead. Duh Duh Duh Man? Dead. My dream of bringing a Fat Beats to Boston and perhaps even running it? Dead. Back then the dot com bubble hadn’t even burst yet (it was still a year away) so it looked like the internet was taking the entire world over.
My final day at Tower Records/Video in Boston @ the corner of Mass Ave & Newbury St. was March 15th, 1999. St. Patrick’s Day. Back then the economy was so good that I wasn’t worried about getting another job. I had my choice of any record store, video store or retail store between Boston or Cambridge and damn near all of them were hiring. In a year’s time there would be a gang of record store closings announced.
By 2001, only half of the record stores we regularly frequented in 1999 were still in existence. I remember an Other Music location opening at Harvard Square in Cambridge around late 2000. I think that location only lasted a year before it was a wrap. The HMV at Downtown Crossing vacated it’s space and several CD Spins locations closed a short year after the franchise’s expansion.
By 2002 only the UGHH.com store, Nuggets, Looney Tunes, Satellite Records, CD Spins and Newbury Comics were still standing. The New York, LA & Amsterdam Fat Beats locations were still staying afloat even post 9/11 (though I heard things were shaky during that stretch). Tower had become a Virgin Megastore but it was always empty. Record stores were going bankrupt and closing left and right. The Backpack Era (1997-2002) was coming to a close and time machines had yet to be invented.
Fat Beats was the end all be all of Hip Hop stores/venues. Fat Beats was at the center of the entire movement we were all a part of then. When you went online a fair amount of the footage you saw of your favorite artist or groups whether it be interviews or performances was done at Fat Beats. I have numerous VHS tapes full of defunct Hip Hop shows that have in store footage of some of the best in the game back then, all from Fat Beats.
When MTV did it’s You Hear It First feature on Massinfluence guess where it was shot? Fat Beats Atlanta. When MTV did a feature on Non Phixion they shot it at Fat Beats NY. When I read interviews or features about many of my favorite underground acts they were either conducted @ Fat Beats NY or LA. Fat Beats made it a point to showcase and support Hip Hop and in the end we all failed Fat Beats. This wasn’t a new situation, though. Far from it.
Let’s recap, shall we? Back in 1999, a group of my friends and I were looking to bring a Fat Beats location to Boston at the HEIGHT OF THE INDEPENDENT HIP HOP ERA and were told NOT TO because Fat Beats retail stores weren’t doing well. The following years were a constant fight to keep things going but Fat Beats did what it had done since 1994: Survive. The Fat Beats name was prestigious. The Fat Beats logo was iconic. Anytime one of my people went to New York they tried to make it a point to visit Fat Beats so they could have their own personal “shopping at Fat Beats” story when they got back to Boston.
Hearing that Fat Beats will be closing it’s New York & Los Angeles locations hurts me deeply even though I never personally stepped foot in either spot in my life. It actually brings back the pain of seeing all my favorite local vinyl spots disappear slowly one by one. As I frequent the remaining spots it’s akin to going to see one of your favorite relatives in the hospital weak and on life support. You hope against hope you don’t lose them but all signs point to an upcoming funeral.
After I finish this paragraph and press publish it will be official. It’s the end of an era. ANOTHER end of an era. At 35, it’s starting to get weird seeing so many institutions that helped to shape the person I am today cease to exist in the physical sense. In this placeless society there are fewer and fewer places where people can visit and experience certain things firsthand.
Hip Hop was meant to be lived and you need to actually get your hands dirty in order to truly appreciate it. Fat Beats was the last stop for Hip Hop and now it’s a wrap. We’re facing a crisis, people. We are in serious danger of becoming the last generation of Hip Hop record store frequenters. I never got a chance to go to Fat Beats and it looks like I need to get my ass on a Bolt Bus to New York soon, huh? At least there’s still the Sound Library and the Record Exchange…