It’s been four years since New York’s treasured hip-hop mothership Fat Beats closed down its historic 6th Avenue location. But while the physical space may no longer contain rows upon rows of vinyl and hungry rappers freestyling for absolutely anyone, the store’s legacy has found a new interest online thanks to its ambassador, turntable legend DJ Eclipse, who has been digitizing his Fat Beats archives, including the earliest known footage of Kanye West rapping. We spoke to Eclipse about these archives and documenting a time of New York hip-hop pre-YouTube.
See also: Sorry, But Kanye Is the GOAT
What made now feel like the right time to dip into the archives for Fat Beats footage?
It was just sitting there on the shelf and I thought it was time to start transferring all that stuff to see what was on there. One of the things was some of the older footage I had was record on a Hi-8 camcorder, so I wound up buying a used camera for a hundred bucks. What’s funny is the first tape I put in was the grand opening of Fat Beats in ’96 and that set the whole thing into motion.
That footage of course has the Kanye West clip. Do you remember him being there at the opening, or was that a surprise?
Totally surprised. I remember meeting him back around that timeframe, I used to go into labels all the time and at one point being introduced to him as Kanye West who’s down with No I.D.. Then, watching the footage from the in-store, totally blown away when I saw him show up on the mic. I had no idea he was at the store that day. It’s funny because, then the star MC of those who rocked that day was Al Tariq. And [Kanye] did his thing, and looking back from that timeframe to now, it’s crazy he was there that day.
It’s easy to forget that, in that era, there wasn’t a whole lot of access to cameras in underground hip-hop circles. Looking at the footage now, were rapper acting pretty much the same as you remember them, or did they change in front of the camera?
Nah, honestly, now that I’ve seen the whole day’s footage, everyone is pretty much the same as they were on camera as off. Same goes for Kanye, he, compared to the other MCs who performed that day, you could see how serious he was about what he was doing. Other than that, everyone was hanging around, they did their thing and that was it.
Are there any other big surprises you’ve found going through this footage?
Not so much surprises. I came across the Eminem in-store we did at Fat Beats. I remember I had footage, but I didn’t realize how little I had. It was about 45 seconds long, him signing at a table and the camera panning out the store to see the line outside the block around the corner. It’s just a melee of people not even on the sidewalk, but on the street in front of the store. That and the Gang Starr in-store were the two biggest in-stores we had. That’s probably the other other big or shocking footage. Other than that, it’s all the kids from our era, the Company Flows, the Arsonists, the Juggaknots, the Non-Phixions. There’s also freestyles that happened in there that weren’t even for in-stores.
It’s also cool seeing footage of people who aren’t around anymore like Roc Raida. I have some footage from the Puck Building for Rock Steady that Bobbito hosted. Roc had a broken arm so he couldn’t spin, but he was standing there while Bobito’s making a joke about him, and standing next to him is skateboard legend Harold Hunter. They meant so much to our scene and were so important to there scenes. That whole era was so awesome to be around.
What was different about Fat Beats in-stores compared to other in-stores?
We made you work. You had to perform. It wasn’t just you come in, have a bottle of watch and sign autographs. You had to prepare to perform and they did and they wanted to. That clip of Common, he came in that day and did a whole show with an intro and that clip I posted is near the end of that performance. He could have stopped after doing a few songs, but he stuck around and freestyled and invited Lord Sear to come up and rhyme with him. That’s how those dudes were. It wasn’t just the artist who was scheduled. We had an Organized Konfusion in-store and El-P is there rhyming, Sir Menelik is there rhyming. People would come by and do these big cypher sessions. That would be the first thing that happened when they would come in the door. They would perform, get that out of the way and then sign autographs. You’re coming into the store, but you’re going to perform because we’re hip-hop.