warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Melrose Says Goodbye To Fat Beats

Amy Silverstein |
September 20, 2010 | 12:11 p.m. PDT


Fat Beats founder Joe Abajian (photo by Amy Silverstein)
Fat Beats founder Joe Abajian (photo by Amy Silverstein)
In 1996, hundreds of kids packed inside the Fat Beats retail store on Vermont to watch a DJ battle. Then the fire department shut it down.  

"The fire department can go anywhere and find something wrong," said Fat Beats founder Joseph Abajian.  

Fat Beats, which moved from Vermont to Melrose about 10 years ago, closed Sunday night much the same way, with two police officers showing up by 9 p.m. to stop the music, the customers from drinking on the balcony, and C-Minus from coming back inside to get his equipment. "It's not come back and forth time, it's stay out and leave time," the police officer said, before people explained that C-Minus was actually a DJ who really did leave his equipment inside, and not an imposter.  

The closing day otherwise wasn't particularly rowdy. A crowd of about 40 people stood in front of the stage at any given time, listening intently to the DJ's spinning records.  There were some head nods throughout the evening, but more people were busy recording the performances with their cameras and smart phones.

This kind of hip hop is more about artistry than dancing anyway, and the store was too crowded to move around much. 

The crowd of shoppers was diverse, but mostly young. Some people looked like hipsters, but not as rich as the hipsters at Coachella and FYF Fest. Other people looked like hip-hop heads while others looked like no social group in particular, a symbol of the mass appeal underground hip hop has gained throughout the years.

But even as fashions change, "the [traditional] hip hop community still is rocking the Adidas, the Pumas. They still got that same sort of look," said Abajian. 

With the thin, wiry build of a teenager, and dressed in a Fat Beats t-shirt and baggy army shorts, it's hard to tell Abajian's age from looking at him. He says he is 40 and has three children.  

When he first opened a Fat Beats retail store in New York City, it was 1994. Hip hop hadn't gained huge commercial success, so the crowd in his store was more uniform.

"Every crew had like one white dude," said Abajian, who counts himself as one of them, though he is of Armenian heritage. "The reality was, most people didn't know what I was...some crazy-looking dude." 

Abajian was an 11-year-old living in Queens in 1981 when he first became interested in hip hop. Before he learned how to DJ, he became involved in the hip hop culture through graffiti and break-dancing.  

After going through the military and college, Abajian said, he decided to start a business.  

"Trying to shop for records is when the record store idea came. It was a blessing from God."

Fat Beats became famous for its ability to create word-of-mouth buzz for lesser known hip hop artists just by playing them. "It wasn't necessarily underground, it was just more music without a budget," Abajian said.

The Village Voice cites Eminem as someone who owes his success to Fat Beats and Abajian mentioned an act called Company Flow.

"Although I haven't been in years, countless hours during my high school days were spent getting lost sifting through the music you couldn't find anywhere else," wrote Emily Green on Guest of a Guest, in one of the many articles that describes the store's strong influence. 

Though products can still be purchased on online, the original New York store already closed in the beginning of the month.  

Now, of course, people don't need to go into a record store to hear about new bands, and many don't bother paying for music.  Abajian has accepted that it's a different world. He puts more of his energy now into the Fat Beats record label, whose biggest acts include Atmosphere and Black Milk.   

"The record store is funner...record labels, you've got to deal with a lot of the artists and the artists' ways. The record store, you get to deal with more fans," Abajian said. But he still likes running the label, plus it's more practical.  The stores were just too much work and not enough profit.

"He's been going at it for 16 years," said his friend, Randy Nkonoki-Ward, who was in Los Angeles to help Abajian close the store and to film a documentary about it.  "He's been doing it pretty much by himself."

Among the people who came to watch the last in-store show Sunday was a 35-year-old man who goes by the name Black Shakespeare. Though Shakespeare was once was a regular customer, he said he's only been to the Melrose store about ten times in the past decade. And he can go to other venues to see independent hip hop artists. Still, he considers the death of Fat Beats to be a sad occasion, and not just a sign of the changing times.  

"So many people only go into record stores if they're like real, real collectors, or really fit the vibe and the culture. And just to see those cats perform over the years, it's amazing."

Reach reporter Amy Silverstein here or follow her on Twitter.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.