Wan Joon Kim, left, and his son Kirk work behind the counter in their stall… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)
By the time Bobby Wilson met Wan Joon Kim, he'd been to 15 record stores.
It was 1994, and no one would stock his cassette, "Comin' From Watts," with raps Wilson had written in prison and recorded himself upon his release. Wilson had a daunting resume: a decade-long membership in the Grape Street Watts Crip gang; five years incarcerated for attempted murder; the prison nickname "Kill Kill."
Just out on parole and desperate for money to support his wife and child, Wilson's last stop was the Compton Fashion Center indoor swap meet.
Kim, the owner of the Cycadelic record stall, was in his 50s, spoke little English and liked classical music. But he stocked what sold: the music of young rappers who were chronicling the crack-and-gang-addled neighborhoods around them. He took a chance on Wilson. "I think he understood my struggle, more than anything," said Wilson, 42. After all, "he's in the heart of Compton."
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The cassette sold close to 15,000 copies over the next year. Wilson went on to become an underground rap star. Kim "gave me my shot," said Wilson. "It saved my life."
While the world knows of the major L.A. gangsta rap figures who helped popularize the raw urban genre two decades ago — Suge Knight, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube — a far less likely figure pushed the music long before most folks knew it existed. If it came straight outta Compton, the birthplace of gangsta rap, often it first went through Wan Joon Kim.
The L.A. riots of 1992 created an indelible image of Korean immigrant shop owners in urban neighborhoods often in conflict with their African American customers, but that was hardly the whole story. "Most of my customers were the gang-bangers and drug dealers, so I built a friendship with them," said the now frail Kim, 79, in an interview interpreted by his son, Kirk. His son now runs the stall, selling Latin music to a changing demographic. Kim works there once a week. "They were good to me as I was good to them."
New country, new sounds
Wan Joon Kim escaped his native North Korea in 1950, sailing down the coast to South Korea with his family in his father's fishing boat. In 1976, he and his wife, Boo Ja, and their three young children were among the first waves of immigrants who left South Korea for Los Angeles.
At first, Kim and his wife sold women's hair clips and barrettes at outdoor swap meets around Southern California. While selling at the Roadium Open Air Market in Torrance, Kim noticed that the man selling records always had a line.
Then in 1985, a few Korean swap-meet vendors leased an empty Sears building in Compton, partitioned it, and renamed it Compton Fashion Center — thus inventing the indoor swap meet in Southern California, said Edward Chang, a UC Riverside ethnic studies professor, who has researched swap meets in the Korean business community. Later, dozens of indoor swap meets opened, virtually all of them Korean-owned, and became malls for the inner city. Their stalls were the doors through which thousands of new Korean immigrants entered the L.A. business world, without bank loans.
Kim was selling barrettes at an outdoor swap meet one day when "the owners were coming around to individual vendors, saying they were going to open a bigger, nicer place," he said.
Kim envisioned it as an easier way of doing business than traveling every day to a new swap meet, so he was third in line when Compton Fashion Center began leasing to vendors. He chose Stall Z-7, the spot nearest the building's main entrance, with a monthly rent of $500.
A wholesaler suggested he sell the R&B, gospel, funk and rap coming from New York, though he eventually developed an ear for black music — and his own customers' tastes — aided by his second daughter, Jinna Grace, who worked at the store and spoke English. When a song hit the radio, he drove quickly to wholesalers and had it in the store within hours.
Kim opened for business just as crack invaded Compton. Gunplay ruled the streets. "Several shootings happened here," Kim said, indicating the entrance to the swap meet.
But amid the chaos, a hive of kids were mixing tapes in cramped apartments and garages, rapping and sampling like famous New York rappers. "They didn't know nothing about signing to a record label, so they made music for their own neighborhood," said Arlandis Hinton, who grew up in Compton and raps as BG Knocc Out. "That's where they took it, to the Compton swap meet. He was like their first distributor."
Its themes of drug dealing and the thug life made gangsta rap intensely controversial, and many record stores wouldn't touch it at first. But it met about the only criteria that mattered in the microcapitalist world of the indoor swap meet: It sold.