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World Famous VIP Records in Long Beach struggles to stay relevant

The record store, key to the birth of West Coast rap, retools amid technological changes in music.

February 07, 2012|By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times
  • Kelvin Anderson, owner of World Famous VIP Records, sits in his new downsized store, just a few feet down the street from his former location on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach.
Kelvin Anderson, owner of World Famous VIP Records, sits in his new downsized… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

In its heyday, World Famous VIP Records in Long Beach had a full-time disc jockey playing music for customers, and clerks learned their clients' tastes so well they knew what to put on as soon as customers walked in the store.

Over the years, VIP became a family owned chain, with 14 locations across Los Angeles County, the Long Beach store eventually emerging as the flagship. Now owned by Kelvin Anderson, VIP in Long Beach midwifed the careers of some of America's best-known hip-hop stars. Rapper Snoop Dogg filmed parts of three videos on the VIP roof, next to its landmark sign, which featured the cartoon image of a black man in a baseball cap walking toward an enormous vinyl record.

But that was years ago. Anderson's siblings have long since closed their stores. Today, in the age of Internet downloads, Anderson remains in music — barely. VIP Records recently abandoned the space it occupied for 33 years on Pacific Coast Highway and will reopen in a space half as large next door. (A beauty supply wholesaler will open in the music shop's former 3,300-square-foot location.)

Anderson, 57, said he signed a lease for only one year.

"There's hardly anything we have in here that you can't download free — legally or illegally," he said as he set up his new shop recently. "That's pretty much what turned our world upside down. You can't compete with free."

The music world was very different in 1972, when Anderson flew to Los Angeles two days after graduating from high school in Brandon, Miss. He went to work in his older brother Cletus' record store at 108th and Main Street in Los Angeles that afternoon. In 1978, Anderson opened the Long Beach store for his brother and bought it from him six months later.

Eventually, all but one of his 10 siblings made the same migration. They opened stores in time with the expansion of the Southern California black community: in Inglewood, Pasadena, Compton, Crenshaw and more.

This was at the beginning of intense and effervescent do-it-yourself underground music that emerged from Southern California streets. Punk rock took root in Hollywood in the late 1970s. In the late 1980s, narcocorridos — ballads about drug traffickers — were transformed into a major form of Mexican music by balladeers in Paramount, Huntington Park and other southeast L.A. county cities. VIP was rooted in the black community and thus positioned to promote gangster rap, which began in the mid-1980s in garages in Compton, then Oakland, and later spreading to Long Beach.

Podcast: Interview with Kelvin Anderson

Black kids made their own recordings using the relatively cheap E-mu Systems' SP 1200 drum machine. The machine rose to iconic status in hip-hop by enabling rappers to program beats and record lyrics cheaply and easily. "That turned a lot of people's career and life around — that simple drum machine," Anderson said.

Anderson bought one and put a makeshift recording studio in the back of his shop. Youths hung out there all day. One trio dubbed themselves 213 — then the Long Beach area code. The crew — Warren G, Snoop Dogg and the late Nate Dogg — recorded its first four-song demo at VIP. Anderson shopped it to numerous rap labels; all passed.

Then Warren G worked it into the music a few times at a birthday party for his stepbrother, Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, of Compton's NWA, who was by then a record producer for Death Row Records. Dr. Dre signed Snoop Dogg, and his career took off.

There were plenty others who followed, and obscenity-laden West Coast gangster rappers scorched the rap world, then dominated by New York artists.

The West Coast rappers "told what a lot of people figured they were making up," Anderson said. New York rap "was more fiction, the things they rapped about. West Coast rappers rapped about real life."

Behind the counter at VIP, Anderson saw car stereos that shook windows as they passed. Massive boom boxes, which kids carried on their shoulders, were also a fad. He made sure he got his store's latest music onto these stereos and boxes.

"It was street promotion," Anderson said. "None of it was ever clean enough to play on radio. The major labels were not touching it at first. [But] a lot of record label people would visit and find out I'm selling a lot more of this independent artist than they are of their own artists."

Lately, though, World Famous VIP has struggled with the pressures facing the rest of the industry. Anderson found himself filling niches to survive: printing music fliers, deejaying parties, charging to transfer records and VHS movies to digital files, and selling vinyl, cassettes and CDs online.

He even considered turning VIP into a rap museum and tourist attraction — not unlike Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash recorded in the 1950s. That hasn't happened, though Anderson continues to look for funding.

Anderson said that even though technology has killed independent music stores, "there's never been a better time for independent artists than now," he said.

Singers and musicians can record, produce, market and distribute songs with inexpensive laptop computers. But because everybody can do so, the volume of product has become overwhelming.

Anderson wondered whether the kind of intensely creative, do-it-yourself regional music scenes such as gangster rap, punk, and narcocorridos can take root today, much less change pop music.

Nowadays, "I don't see any longevity to any of these artists or movements. It's hard for one particular artist or movement to really hold its position," he said. "It's people's attention span. Every week, there's someone new. And the competition is fierce online."

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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