The Beat Goes On: 16 Years of Fat Beats
The legendary Fat Beats is closing its New York and Los Angeles doors after 16 years of holding it down as the "Last Stop for Hip Hop."
It’s hard to think of independent Hip Hop without thinking about Fat Beats. Although the store franchise may not be the powerhouse it once was a decade ago, it’s become almost a time capsule of an era when Hip Hop was a concrete entity and not just something you could find by searching Google. But to quote Biggie, “Damn, shit done changed.” Now, after 16 years of raucous in-store performances, late night employee cipher sessions and on-air shout-outs from Stretch & Bobbito, the legendary Fat Beats will close its New York and Los Angeles stores this September 4 and 18, respectively.
For true heads, Fat Beats was a musical Mecca. The walls were lined with row after row of hard to find 12”s and LPs. Hip Hop luminaries like DJ Premier and Q-Tip frequented the store not only as performers but also as customers. The friendly atmosphere of the store was a far cry from the impersonality of cult complex-sized chains like Best Buy and Borders. It was a safe haven for people who listened to J Dilla before it was cool and believed in the revolutionary notion that mixtapes ought to include some degree of mixing.
Now, Fat Beats finds itself the victim of a commercial knee capping courtesy of the Internet. And while the Fat Beats brand with live on through their online store and their widely successful label, what we lose in the closing of the stores is a vibrant history of a tangible culture that is becoming increasingly digitalized. In honor of the years of service on the frontlines of HipHopDX reached out to Fat Beats owner Joseph Abajian, general manager/La Coka Nostra alum DJ Eclipse and one-time employee/emcee Q-Unique to discuss the closing of the fabled “Last Stop for Hip Hop.”
“It was a Childhood Dream Come True…”
Since it’s opening in July 1994, Fat Beats had been a veritable playground for deejays, emcees, b-boys and bombers. Joseph Abajian says it was nothing short incredible to see his dream for a one-stop Hip Hop shop come into fruition. Likewise, Q-Unique says simply working in Fat Beats was a life changing experience that schooled him to the ups and down of the industry.
Joseph Abajian: At the time in ’94 [when I first opened Fat Beats], Hip Hop was sort of playing a little bit of a background to other things that had come in New York…house music was very really big and Hip Hop was a little bit forgotten…I was still very into the art of Hip Hop, mainly with the deejaying at the time and I still really loved B-boys…I saw that vinyl was really hard to find. In ’93, when I used to go record shopping, I had to go to four or five different record stores to get my Hip Hop vinyl in New York, where Hip Hop started. I felt the culture was strong at the time, [but] it was just underground, so if I just open up an all-Hip Hop record store, I believe that everyone will come…I just thought that we could sort of remind New York of what started here: this great art form that had been forgotten about.
It was a childhood dream come true, going into the business of something that I grew up on as a deejay and b-boy. Being able to do business with and even do shows with some of my childhood icons, it was just a great experience…in the Hip Hop culture.
Q-Unique: For me, Fat Beats was everything from learning how the business flows to even a life learning experience for myself. Being there and selling Arsonist records amongst everybody else’s records and then making friends with certain people and just learning how to deal with the public as well because when you get into retail that’s a whole [different] thing you’ve got to learn…for me, it was just that. I was younger at the time and it was both learning how to deal with business as far as independent hip-hop is concerned and just life lessons along the way.
“It’s Exactly like Someone Dying…”
The store’s closing proves as an especially painful experience for those who were at Fat Beats from the beginning. As Abajian explains, however, maintaining the store in these economically trying times is nearly as painful as losing, and although the loss of the store is heartbreaking, it does afford the company the chance to grow in other areas.
DJ Eclipse: [The store closing] is exactly like someone dying. That’s the best way it can be described. It’s like a baby that we raised. Joe opened up the company in ’94 and I was there to witness the grand opening and to be around that first years supporting as best as I could when I was working at Wild Pitch [Records], then I joined the company in ’95 a year into it, so from that point, it was something that we all loved. We all of course loved the culture, so we wanted to see the business end of it that represented the culture do well, so we always gave it our all. To raise it from then to now and to see it have to shut down the stores…it’s definitely a sad day. It feels like a part [of your family] is dying and you’re reminiscing on all these memories, and it is sad, but the only thing you can do is move forward with those memories and make sure to keep the brand name of the company going and the aspects that are still working.
Joseph Abajian: It’s upsetting, because I do believe that if I had say the right backer or finances, I could definitely keep [the stores] open. It got really rough because it you have to work so much more to keep the doors open and make money, and because I have other companies and other stuff going on, my time was focused on other parts of the company, so I wasn’t able to really focus on the retail. At the same time, as sales are going down, I can’t pay people more to do more.
“We’re in the Ninth Inning of this Game…”
The closing of Fat Beats is another sign the Internet’s ever-growing stranglehold on Hip Hop to both Eclipse and Q-Unique. Although both artists recognize the Internet’s commercial potential for the company and new artists alike, they predict that the end of the store will have a major impact on the physical aspects of the culture, particularly with vinyl collectors.
DJ Eclipse: I think [the closing of these stores] is going to hurt in terms of whenever you can’t find [a certain record], it’s going to make someone wonder if they should change something up. Although we’ve already lost a big percentage of our deejay clientele over to digital technology, for the ones that are left…the collectors, when you take the stores away, it’s like…are they now going to change up from even buying the vinyl if they can’t find it…hopefully, we can let everyone know and get the word out there that these items will still be available, it’s just not going to be in a physical location. It’s going to be online now, it’s going to be through FatBeats.com. You’re not going to be able to come into the store and talk to the sales person their and vibe, but they can still go online and order that same piece of vinyl that we had in the store. The product isn’t going anywhere, but the medium to getting the product is.
Q-Unique: For a percentage of those indie artists that really relied on Fat Beats, they’re going to be in a place where they’re going to have to ask themselves a very serious question [as to whether they can continue]. But you know, there’s this joke [me, Ill Bill and Slaine] have been telling each other on the Rock The Bells tour. We’ve been saying we’re in the ninth inning of this game that we’ve been playing for such a long time, and when you see things like this happen, then you start to question what are you doing and why are you doing it because certain things that we were so accustomed to having around like Fat Beats…are slowly leaving. If your Internet game isn’t up-to-par, I don’t know what to tell you at that point. We’re losing not only a piece of history, but a headquarters, a place where people went. And I don’t know how it was as of up to date, but I know when I worked there with [Ill] Bill, [DJ Premier] used to go there, Funkmaster Flex, these are all big names and they used to go there and build and chill and buy records and talk about things. You’re not going to have that now. Now what?
“We Had that Foundation…”
While Fat Beats did provide fans with hard-to-find records, it was also a meeting ground where emcees, producers and DJs connected over music. This aspect of the store is what Eclipse says is most painful to see go, While the store may have been a haunt for heads a decade ago, both Eclipse and Q-Unique realize that the younger generation artists has a different means of interaction.
DJ Eclipse: The biggest thing we are losing [in the stores shutting down] is the meeting place [aspect]. Music, you can always find it and again, Fat Beats will continue in this by pushing the music through the label, the [website] and the distribution, but the meeting place is the saddest thing to see go…artists like Q-Unique and Ill Bill and Brown Bag [All-Stars all connected at Fat Beats].
A lot of relationships were formed there, [but] you can’t even say that we’re missing it now though, because honestly, we’ve been missing it for a while now. Brown Bag benefitted from this new generation of Fat Beats, and that was the last connection that you can say came about through Fat Beats, but Fat Beats’ stores haven’t been what they once were. That’s the thing – the fans, the customers, the artists, they don’t come through as much as they once did. So when we‘re missing this meeting place, we’re thinking about something that’s [been] missing from like a decade ago. It’s not what it once was. Now, again, Brown Bag [All-Stars] did benefit from it recently, and I’m glad that we were able to have them be apart of the generation, but it’s like we’re really having our memories based on something that doesn’t even really exist that much now.
Q-Unique: Being [at Fat Beats] to listen to everything that was current, me and [Ill] Bill were able to keep our fingers on the pulse [of Hip Hop]…we got to hear things that were coming out before everybody else [did], so as a student, you sit there and you’re listening to different styles and different approaches not only to lyrics but production…even when in-stores would pop off, maybe like your favorite artists would come up and you’d observe that as well, and as a student, you just sit there and absorb. Me and Bill were very fortunate to be there at like the right time.
With the younger generation, when it comes to that whole learning process…man, that’s such a good question. For me, I see it as these younger kids, they deal with the Internet more than anything and I guess that’s one of the reasons why Fat Beats is in the place where it’s at right now…I don’t want to sound like the older dude looking at the younger kids like, “That’s now how we did it back in the day,” but they’re just learning differently. They go on the Internet, they go on YouTube, so they I guess their dependency on Fat Beats isn’t even there, whereas people that come from my era, we had and needed that. I don’t know what that’s going to take away from what the younger cats do. I mean, you can hear it for yourself. If you listen to the Hip Hop that we did back then and you listen to the Hip Hop that’s being done now, it’s a matter of opinion…if you’re looking at the Ill Bill’s, and the Q-Unique’s and the El-P’s and you’re saying “I prefer that,” that’s because we had that foundation. We had that place [and] time.
“You Feel it When You’re in There…”
Fat Beats is renowned for its off-the-wall in-store performances from the likes of Gang Starr and Eminem. But sometimes, it was just the day-to-day dealings of the store that left a lasting impression Abajian, Eclipse and Q-Unique reflect on some of their favorite memories of the store, from epic ciphers with Godfather Don and Organized Konfusion to Redman chiefing on a blunt while performing.
Joseph Abajian: I do hear a lot of stories of people talking about their experiences at the store, and I’ve had the same experiences because I was also a fan. Back in the day, I used to have a public access show [called Fat Beats Review], filming all kinds of artists and people to be on the show, and I remember one time back in…early ’95, Redman came around. I was in the store and I heard, “Yo, Redman’s upstairs in his car.” I was like “Well, what’s he doing?” [The person telling me this] was like "He’s selling weed." So I was like, "Tell him to come down"…he came down and he gave us beach balls and Redman towels and then he sold us some promos, and then I asked him to be on the show. So he [and Diesel Don]…rolled a big fat blunt and I just filmed them on the show…I was deejaying, and they were basically just emceeing.
It was an experience, and a lot people [who have been to Fat Beats] have had experiences. Someone was telling me recently that the first time they went to Fat Beats, one their way up, Roc Raida was coming down [the stairs]. That was their experience, first walk[ing] in…and then here’s Roc Raida walking out.
It’s a feel-type thing.You feel it when you’re in there, like when Redman was in the store. It’s just an experience. Here he is, he rolls a blunt and he hogs the blunt, doesn’t pass it to anyone…they were emceeing, going back and forth, and Diesel Don in his rhyme told him to pass the blunt [laughs].
Q-Unique: For me, overall, it was that I was fortunate to be there at a time when the independent and [commercial] scenes were just at a nice place. I was there when [DJ Premier] used to come up there and Q-Tip and to be there for these things. I mean, I have plenty of stories [that are awesome] and I have stories that are not so cool.
I could tell you a funny story about Guru, God rest his soul. I remember Gang Starr was doing their in-store for Moment of Truth, and Premo put on some instrumentals and he asked me to kick a verse, so obviously…I went right in and kicked my verse. Guru was watching me, and he was a little tipsy, you know, whatever. At the end of the in store, he came up to me real close and he was like “Yeah son, I like what you was kicking, but listen to this,” and he kicked a verse like right in my face, and he was real close and then at the end of his verse, he bumped me with his belly. [Laughs] Just to have that kind of an experience, to me, it’s stories like that [that made Fat Beats what it was], just great stuff. I remember when [Capone-N-Noreaga] had their in-store, I remember Common’s [in-store], just so many stories. It’s just awesome stuff.
Like I said, I don’t know what it was like up-to-date now, but back then when an in-store popped off, it was popping. I remember Friday nights, Godfather Don would come through with Sir Menelik and me, [Ill] Bill, Godfather Don and Sir Menelik would have a rhyme cipher for hours. I’m talking hours, and I was smart enough to record one of them and I have it in my stash, and it was just right there at Fat Beats.
DJ Eclipse: There’s so many different [in-store performances that stick out] for different reasons. We’ve done a couple of different in-stores with Gang Starr, but definitely they’ll always be one of my top three in-store just based on the amount of people that came out…another one is Eminem…when he just dropped the “My Name Is” single. I don’t even believe the album was even out yet and we had a line around the block…Organized Konfusion doing one back in the day and it ended up like being an open mic session with at that time, Scaramanga, El-P from Company Flow…I think [Talib] Kweli might have been there at the time, too.
It wasn’t even just the in-stores, it was just being at Fat Beats. Between [Q-Unique] and [Ill] Bill and Breeze [Brewin’ of The Juggaknots] working at Fat Beats, you never knew when there was going to be like a cipher session going on. I’ve got tons of video footage of Bill and Q and Thirstin’ [Howl, III] and Kweli and all these dudes rhyming because they were all hanging out at the store.
“You Couldn’t Get that Anywhere Else…”
Over the past 16 year, Fat Beats played witness to the numerous stylistic shifts in the Hip Hop landscape. Although the store specialized in vinyl records, Q-Unique remembers how fans would pine fore everything from Rock Steady dance tapes to fat caps for spray paint. Yet what sticks out in Eclipse's mind is the shift in the quantities sold.
DJ Eclipse: I don’t know why I remember this because there’s nothing significant about the release, but I just use this as a point of reference, I can remember when we ordered from Unique Distribution…Mobb Deep’s “Frontlines” 12”. I remember when that came out and at that time, almost everything that was equivalent to that type of Hip Hop, we would order four boxes of vinyl, which is 30 pieces a box. We would order in 120 pieces of a record and that’s what we would sell. It might take us that week or so to sell it, but we would move 120 pieces of a 12” in a week, whereas now, we’ll be lucky if we order three copies of a 12”, and it might take us a week to re-stock that. That just goes to show the differences in the amount of records that people were buying from that era until now. Nowadays, it’s kind of like only the strong survive. Like I mentioned before, names like [J] Dilla, Premier, Pete Rock, a lot of the bigger name producers, people still do support their releases, but again, in smaller quantities. It’s not like it was in our heyday in the late ‘90s where we were jus blowing through boxes of vinyl.
Q-Unique: Graffiti spray can fat caps, to me. You always had people on the low buying tons of caps. And there were just certain records that [sold well]. I remember when the East Flatbush [Project's “Tried By 12” record] came out, man, everybody was banging that instrumental. Like I said, me and Bill on a Friday night with Godfather Don, forget it. Those types of records would just get spin after spin…the graffiti magazines also did really well. A lot graffiti stuff actually did good for us at that time. Even mixtapes – there just wasn’t a lot [of them]. The Crazy Legs Rock Steady video. He was making a killing on that.
A lot of the classic stuff definitely got a lot of love, and that’s another thing. If you study the youth today, I feel like they lack a lot of respect. I see a lot of younger rappers speaking out of their mouths about the old school in a foul way, and I’m like, you know what man? When [me and Bill] worked at Fat Beats, people would buy the old school battle tapes and the old school Rock Steady tapes. People would call and reserve them. The elements were definitely in effect. People were definitely checking for graffiti stuff…or the old school stuff or the B-boy stuff, they knew they could come to Fat Beats. You couldn’t get that anywhere else, period.
“Going Out with a Bang…”
The closing of the New York and Los Angeles stores isn’t the end of Fat Beats, however. Abajian says the label and online store will expand their operations and that plans for a new store are already in the ground stages. In the meantime, however, Eclipse indicates that the plans for Fat Beats’ final week are sure to cap off the store’s legacy with a bang.
Joseph Abajian: I do have a plan for a [new] retail operation that caters to the whole Hip Hop community…[the new store] will have something for every element of Hip Hop. There’s going to be things for graff writers to interact with and also show the history of graff where you can purchase…merchandise. The same with break dancing…where you’ll get to learn the history of how it came about. These days, a lot of photographers are putting out these really good books on the culture and history of Hip Hop and how it came about, so I want to have a place that can carry all that stuff…there are books and stuff out there for people to learn [about the culture], there just isn’t a place where you can buy it all.
The label and the distribution company already have a ton of releases. For a while, we were doing a lot of exclusive vinyl projects, and the catalog is pretty deep…we’ve got some really good records coming out, we’ve got one from Ill Bill & DJ Muggs [called Kill Devil Hills] and a True Master & KRS-One album [Meta-Historical] coming out. We have a Black Milk album [Album of the Year] we’re really looking forward to. I’m working on a project with a group that I formed with Sadat X and A.G. We’re [also] looking to go into different genres. We just did a deal with E1 Records to do…vinyl, and one of their first projects was a Rock record. We’ll pretty much stay alterative, but it won’t just be Rap and Hip Hop anymore. We sell a lot of Funk, R&B, break records, so we’re just going to be expanding into a few more genres. Down the road, you’ll see a Gospel project that we’ll be involved with.
DJ Eclipse: Right now, what we’re focusing on for the closing of the store is making the last week a big in-store week…I probably have no less than 40 people on a list that want to perform or deejay at Fat Beats, so what I’m doing this weekend is basically scheduling everything for the last week. From [August] 30 to [September] 4 at the New York store, it’s going to be at least half the day is nothing but back-to-back in-stores with everyone that’s ever had a part to do with Fat Beats coming through and spinning…from names like Just Blaze and Clark Kent to Da Beatminerz to the Juggaknots to Ill Bill and [DJ] Muggs. Anyone and everyone’s going to be coming through Fat Beats to do an in-store, make an appearance or perform. Rock Steady Crew is going to be doing something…everyone that has something to do with Hip Hop is coming to show love, so we’re going to make sure that the people know exactly what we were there for and that we go out with a bang.
More information about final week performances can be found at Fat Beats' website.