In 1997, Paul Rosenberg, the attorney of an aspiring rapper from Detroit calling himself Eminem, was walking along 6th Avenue in the West Village with ten copies of an independent 12-inch vinyl single titled “Just Don’t Give a Fuck.” His mission was simple: try to persuade a record store called Fat Beats to stock it. He’d heard the store mentioned on Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito’s WKCR college-radio show, and thought it crucial to launching the career of an underground rap artist.
Q-Unique, a Fat Beats employee at the time and member of the Arsonists, remembers the encounter. “Paul came in and asked me to take the record,” he says. “The manager wasn’t sure about it, but I knew Eminem’s rep from the underground battle circuit. I said I’d be responsible for them if they didn’t sell.” All ten copies sold within an hour.
A year later, Eminem would return to Fat Beats for an in-store to meet and greet fans. By then he was on the cusp of going ballistic, and the line backed up to 9th Street. His ascent to superstar status was almost preordained–a major-label deal with Interscope and the guiding hand of Dr. Dre did most of the work–but the emporium played a key part in his come-up. Rosenberg, now Eminem’s manager, insists that “for a totally independent artist, one without any distribution deal, getting your record in Fat Beats was the only way back then.”
Now that way’s gone. Fat Beats closes its New York branch on Saturday, September 4th. For fans and underground artists, the demise of the store that dubbed itself “the last stop for hip-hop” feels like the loss of the music’s spiritual home.
The Fat Beats story begins in 1993, when Joe Abajian, a local DJ, was hopping around the city’s record spots looking for new rap releases. Bouncing from Music Factory in Times Square to Beat Street in Downtown Brooklyn, with detours at Downtown Records (Flatiron) and Vinyl Mania (West Village), he had the idea to open a store where you could “get all your rap records in the same spot.” A year later, he opened Fat Beats in its first location, a basement on 9th Street. In 1996, he expanded to the 6th Avenue spot.
From the outside, Fat Beats was inconspicuous, situated unceremoniously above a Bagel Buffet and accessed through an adjacent door and up a dimly lit staircase. Inside, the store glowed like a hip-hop junkie’s secret stash: Racks of vinyl records lined the walls, while signed 8-by-10 promotional photos and posters covered the ceiling like a hip-hop who’s-who: Outkast, Main Source, Common, Redman, KRS-One, Public Enemy. “They were like hip-hop plaques,” says DJ Premier, whose former group Gang Starr claimed two pieces of paraphernalia in the store. On his own pic, D.I.T.C. member Diamond D wrote, “Fat Beats, Keep servin’ the fiendz.”
Abajian based the store on “a DJ’s bedroom,” and the design decision paid off: The store blossomed into a meeting point for fans, artists, industry folk, and inquisitive tourists. Fat Beats didn’t just sell records–it created a community. The scene it fostered was a physical, hands-on one epitomized by in-store appearances. DJ Eclipse, who started working at Fat Beats in 1995, recalls an early visit from Organized Konfusion: After group members Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po performed, upcoming artists El-P and Kool Keith-associate Scaramanga joined in. “If there was a performance, nine times out of ten other artists would end up rhyming, too.”
Along with encouraging an inclusive scene, the store enabled independent artists to monetize their music. Q-Unique sums it up: “Back then, the college shows would play, and then you’d go to Fat Beats to pay. It was a beautiful machine.” The store’s impact was nationwide. Massinfluence struggled to sell 25 copies of their 1997 debut, “Life to The MC,” at local Atlanta stores; then, as member H20 recalls, “Bobbito played our record in NY and put in a good word for us at Fat Beats.” After that, they sold 1,000 copies in three weeks. Having a record on the wall wasn’t going to secure a mainstream presence, but that wasn’t the goal. “The threshold for success was selling 5,000 copies of a vinyl 12-inch,” says DJ Spinna, who’s collaborated with Eminem and Pharoahe Monch. It was also an effective way to link underground music to an underground fan base. (According to Abaijan and Eclipse, the store’s all-time best-sellers were D.I.T.C.’s “Day One,” Mos Def’s “Universal Magnetic,” and Reflection Eternal’s “Fortified Live.”)
But the machine wasn’t infallible–after peaking in 1999, it slowly sputtered to a halt. The market became saturated with indie-rap releases (many spread worldwide through Fat Beats’ own distribution arm), while 9/11 brought about a decrease in the tourist trade and a disintegration of the sense of community. Then came the physical music industry’s common executioner: the Internet. “I hate to say it,” says Abajian, “but underground rap fans are the most guilty of all for illegal downloading.” He suspected the store would have to close around two years ago.
Fat Beats’ demise casts a harsh light on an underground hip-hop scene that claims a sentimental attachment to much-loved bastions of the culture while also enjoying music for free. It’s disingenuous to add a #SaveFatBeats hash-tag to a Tweet while downloading entire artist discographies. Independent rappers have lost a physical outlet to sell their music, but hip-hop fans and DJs stopped buying 12-inch records nearly a decade ago. Today, being independent means being Internet-dependent. “It leaves me feeling sad that they took a legendary spot,” says Raekwon, whose Wu-Tang Clan released their debut single, “Protect Ya Neck,” themselves. “But it’s important to move with the times and use the new digital tools we have.”
Rosenberg agrees: “I hate to say it, but online is easier now. There’s no physical barrier–if you get the right person to tweet a link to a YouTube URL, you can have a bigger and quicker impact.” Abajian says the immediate future for Fat Beats is to concentrate on fatbeats.com, while also pushing for harsher legislation to combat free file-sharing.
A month before Fat Beats closed, DJ Premier walked up that well-worn staircase and bought new records from Vinnie Paz, Reef The Lost Cause, and Roc Marciano. He went there because “they have stuff you’re not going to find in any other store.” He didn’t just mean the records themselves.
Fat Beats is hosting celebrity-stuffed in-stores Friday and Saturday. Go buy something.