A few weeks back, I stopped by Jack's Rhythms, a modest record shop (and stockist of guitar strings) on the main street of New Paltz, New York. I had been going there for a few years, always with my friend Josh, always after stopping by another shop up the road with fresher stock. But this time things were different. Josh, owing to the caprices of the academic world, no longer lives near me and only enjoyed the details of this visit via text message, and the affable Red Sox fan Jack was no longer behind the counter. He died earlier this year after a lengthy fight with brain cancer.
There's really no reason to care about a record store unless you actually care about records. Step outside Jack's, for example, and you can find neighboring shops that specialize in healing crystals and running shoes, both of which might seem, to someone walking down the street, infinitely more practical uses of storefronts. A record store offers no real utility to the passerby, save taste-communicating dorm room furnishings or the momentary vertigo of nostalgia. To those who've spent any time browsing through a stack of vinyl, hopeful for some misfiled gem, a good record store can be a theater of dreams, but I've never expected anyone beyond this community of finicky consumers to understand this, or care about all the record stores hanging on for dear life. Their ranks are dwindling, and, given the free movement of MP3s across the Internet, there's really no reason this shouldn't be the case. Jack's Rhythms was one of the lucky ones. After Jack's passing, the store lived on thanks to his friends and colleagues. It's still there, only with a smaller and, it should be noted, better curated stock of records, and a newly dedicated corner of used books.
To understand that this is the state of affairs, though, does little to ease the spirits, especially when the record store in question was once a wellspring of such great, youthful idealisms. Last Saturday, I went by Fat Beats, the fabled, Manhattan hip-hop record shop closing its doors after some fifteen years in business. Hidden in plain sight on 6th Avenue and 8th Street, upstairs from the Bagel Buffet, Fat Beats was always a noisy sanctuary from the noisome city below. At their peak, Fat Beats had stores in Amsterdam, Atlanta and Los Angeles, but even these colonies only served to confirm the authority of the original, New York location and their staunchly opinionated staff. You might have been able to find the records elsewhere, but you went to Fat Beats in order to see what new singles they suggested or get badgered by the aspiring young spitter downstairs hawking his demo. You would go to overhear conversations about who M.O.P. beat up or whether the new Tribe record was actually good, and you would suffer the surliness of the DJs working behind the counter as you asked for the latest Tape Kingz or X-ecutionerz mixtape.
Nowadays, Fat Beats' sternly independent, Bartleby-like sound and philosophy can no longer pay the rent, particularly in that part of town. It's arguable whether this version of hip-hop still qualifies as "relevant," even. The demise of Sandbox and HipHopSite, the two premier online hip-hop vinyl stockists of the late 1990s and early 2000s, portended Fat Beats' eventual closing. Hip-hop changed, as the hegemony of New York was broken and once-struggling artists like Kanye West harbored dreams of glory beyond Sixth Ave. The way we heard about new acts changed, too, as vinyl gave way to cheaper, more efficient systems of distribution. Over time, the defiantly D.I.Y. sensibility of a place like Fat Beats came to embody an outmoded idea about hip-hop, one that was tradition-obsessed in an insular, stifling way. The gatekeeper's time had come. And, really, how were you going to compete with this future:
Mingling among the DJs, rappers, artists, promoters, writers and fans outside Fat Beats on Saturday afternoon, I felt like I was in the modern-day equivalent of one of those stories you hear about World War II soldiers stranded behind enemy lines, emerging from the woods years after the fact, unaware of the treaties and victory parades and Hiroshima. This was not the hip-hop that won. This was hip-hop that still viewed itself as a subculture, as opposition, as conscience; these were adherents to a philosophy about hip-hop that essentially has nothing to do with hip-hop nowadays, even if Eminem or Kanye once craved the store's approval. Draped in vintage 90s tees and a frightening amount of Polo, they were drawn by an idea: this sense of accountability, this sense that hip-hop was a tradition that needed to be guarded.