Before Joseph Abajian opened the legendary hip-hop record store Fat Beats back in 1994, shopping for hip-hop vinyl in New York wasn’t easy. “I remember having to go to so many different stores to find records. It made no sense in a city where hip-hop was born,” recalls 39-year-old Abajian, whose frustration would push him to turn his relatively modest mom and pop shop not only into an iconic vinyl playground frequented by artists and fans alike, but a meeting place where the craft of hip-hop always took center stage. Now, 16 years after becoming one of the most recognizable ambassadors of the genre, Fat Beats’ Manhattan flagship store at 406 Avenue of The Americas closed its doors last Saturday, September 4. It was the last nail in the coffin of an era that really ended years ago.
“In the heyday of Fat Beats in the ‘90s, what other record store could you see Premier, Q-Tip and Crazy Legs, coming through to shop or chill, have a DJ scratching it up on the turntables, MCs freestyling, or graffiti writers comparing each others’ work?” ask Abajian. Such scenes were de rigueur at the NY and LA locations, which is also shutting down on September 18. “Fat Beats is not a company that is selling hip-hop; it’s a hip-hop company.” Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon recognizes Fat Beats’ decade-old support of hip-hop and says the store will be missed. “Fat Beats was a place where real hip-hoppers and lovers of music could go and find inspiration and influence.”
Designed to look like a hip-hop junkie’s bedroom, every inch of the place was covered with posters, stickers and flyers. And let’s not forget the hypnotizing rows of album covers lining the walls. They were part merchandise, part décor. This was the perfect backdrop to their often sold-out in-store performances by artists like Mos Def, Roc Raida and even Eminem. The enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff were made up of DJs and MCs who had a genuine love for the music and scene. “The closing is bad for hip-hop. My fondest memory was always DJing in there. If you were an artist promoting yourself, Fat Beats was the place to do it,” said influential DJ and producer Pete Rock.
But that was then.
For the last couple of years Fat Beats has been struggling to stay afloat in the midst of a struggling economy, skyrocketing New York rents, and the shift into digital music. It’s a wonder how Fat Beats managed to stay open this long, outliving mega chains like Virgin Megastore, HMV, and Tower records. “Music has taken a digital turn, so we’re beginning to see some of the foundational elements like vinyl disappear,” says Raekwon. Despite Fat Beats’ retail issues, the online store’s digital sales of MP3s are growing. “A lot of people who made up the community we had at Fat Beats moved on to Hollywood. They stopped scratching, using vinyl, and many just fell off, so the energy has not been there in the store for some time,” muses Abajian. That may be true, but all last week Fat Beats was looking like its former self. The store was bustling with activity—with live performances from Immortal Technique, Rob Swift, Masta Ace, Pete Rock, J-Live and DJ Premier—as the crowds returned in full force to bid a bitter sweet adieu to this New York landmark and reminisce on its legacy. “Indie retail is something that is needed in hip-hop. Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart have a dominant presence in the market, and if they decide to pass you have nowhere to sell your record,” says Abajian.
“If it wasn’t for Fat Beats, I would have never had an outlet for music. They made me see that I can record music even if it’s not mainstream,” says Jise One, an MC of the now-defunct The Arsonists. The group reunited at Fat Beats on September 1st for a special performance. “It has been years since I last stepped inside. I guess now subconsciously I feel like I might have taken Fat Beats for granted.”
Therein lies the problem, according to DJ and writer Bobbito Garcia. “I really don’t want to hear any DJ say ‘Oh, I’m so sad Fat Beats is closing,” he says. One of the foremost international DJs, Bobbito has stayed true to spinning only vinyl. “If [DJs] converted to digital, or they download songs for free and subsequently stopped shopping at Fat Beats, or any vinyl store, then they’ve contributed to the problem.” Nevertheless, Abajian is excited for what the future holds for his company. Fat Beats is now shifting its focus to their successful label, online store (where vinyl is sold) and Fat Beats Distribution. “We have our best releases at the label right now,” says Abajian. He is also currently working on plans to open a virtual store, The Last Stop, where he hopes to educate consumers on the history of the four elements of hip-hop: emceeing, DJing, break-dancing and graffiti. While hip-hop vinyl in New York will now, once again, be hard to come by, fans would agree that Fat Beats’ uniqueness lay not just in the indie gems they stocked but in the inimitable retail experience they nurtured.