When I was a preschooler I passed hours with my father’s stacks of 45’s, playing with them as much as playing them. I loved the exotic labels — Swan, Roulette, Dot, obscure names that many years later didn’t exist in my mall record store hellscape. Out in the provinces we were pretty much limited to records from the Big Six: WEA (Warner Elektra Asylum), CBS, EMI (Capitol), PolyGram, MCA, and RCA. “Pretty much” are the operative words here: The rare SST or Bomp! release made it to the sticks.
I romanticized the fifties and early sixties, with their abundance of obscure little labels. This was when the rock and roll business was the Wild West and storefront studios like Sun Records took their shot. Eventually all of those little labels either were busted or bought by the Big Six and the industry standardized.
Standardization is the death of art. Maybe that’s why sequels are always so bad — no risk, just safe adherence to a template. Prior to consolidation those little labels were putting out regional records, and each region had its own sound. The legacy of that era remains: The Motown Sound; Memphis’s Stax Records; Philly Soul; the California waves of hot rods, surfers, and hippies; Chicago Blues. Some of these examples are from the indie labels, others are the Big Six co-opting that vibe.
That’s what I envied — regional sounds. By the mid-eighties the Big Six were dishing up the most horrible, boring, safe garbage. Popular music was the equivalent of this era’s summer blockbuster movies: formulaic crap driven by star power and special effects. Here’s the Billboard top 10 for the week of September 27, 1986:
- Dancing on the Ceiling, Lionel Richie
- Top Gun, original motion picture soundtrack
- Raising Hell, Run DMC
- True Blue, Madonna
- Back in the High Life, Steve Winwood
- Fore! Huey Lewis
- The Bridge, Billy Joel
- Eat ’em and Smile, David Lee Roth
- Control, Janet Jackson
- Invisible Touch, Genesis
The only standout on that list is Run DMC, representing the New York school of rap and by then even their label, Profile, had a distribution deal with Arista, which was part of the RCA family.
And that brings us back to tiny Starship Records in Savannah, Georgia, wedged between a TCBY and a Wal-Mart on the road to Tybee Island. We couldn’t sell a Top Gun soundtrack if we promised a personal visit from Tom Cruise to discuss his daddy issues, but we sold the hell out of 12-inch rap singles.
The 12″ is a single that is the size of a normal album, usually one or two tracks to a side. These are the club versions, the extended remixes that go on forever so that you get seven minutes of S-S-S–S-Salt-N-Pepa intercut with shouts of “Hurby Luv – Hurby Hurby Luv Bug.” These were our bread and butter: $4.99 each or 3 for $12.
I wasn’t a rap dude, but I had a green ledger in the back room that said if I wanted to keep my job I better be the rappiest motherfucking art school white boy in Savannah. I didn’t buy a gold chain or an Adidas track suit; no, I grew my hair long and wore jeans, denim shirts, and Chucks. I’d still dress that way if I could find a decent denim work shirt.
But I learned the music, and I was thrilled to discover that rap was experiencing its own Wild West. Kool Moe Dee even put out a cut named “Wild Wild West.” The regional scenes were very distinctive: Miami was heavy on sex and beats, New York heavier on bragging and attitude. Los Angeles was the home of pimps and hustling — gangsta rap was still incubating. Even Seattle had something going on, and I cannot lie though some other brothers might deny.
There were the battles via response records: “Roxanne Roxanne” and “The Real Roxanne” (and many more); pre-lawsuit Skywalker Records answered their own “Throw the D” with “Throw the P.” There were story records like General Kane’s “Crack Killed Applejack” and Kool Moe Dee’s “Go See the Doctor,” and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s family friendly songs.
And then there were the dance cuts: Egyptian Lover, “Pump Up the Volume,” on and on. The rap/hip hop world during the eighties was kind of like those films you see of early flight, where no design was too crazy: flapping wings, eight wings, men wearing wings. Eventually the good designs rose to the top and the others disappeared, though I still can’t explain the Fresh Prince.
I had help. My assistant manager was a girl named Felicity who decorated her Mazda with an airbrushed front plate reading “Sensual Lady.” My other regular employee was a police dispatcher named Marvin who bore a passing resemblance to Stoney Jackson. Felicity once told me that she could sell me the “carpet off your floor,” and Marvin had my boss Scott’s “I got it! All right!” rap down cold. They were the ideal staff for my little record store.
For most of the day, though, I was there alone, just me and the 12-inch wall and the DJs trying to out-record me, the kids trying to out-shoplift me, and the occasional customer who just wanted to act like an asshole.
One afternoon a middle-aged gentleman came in with his lady. I didn’t even get “hey, how you doing” out before he said, “White boy, get me that Eric B. record.”
“Sure, no problem.”
“How much that is, white boy?”
“You got the Dazz Band?”
“I got it!”
“Go get it. Hurry up, white boy. How much this is?”
“That’s too much, white boy. I’ll give you four.”
“I’m sorry, it’s eight bucks.”
“Who you think you is, embarrassing me like that, white boy?”
“I’m not. That’s the price.”
“I’ll cut your white motherfucking throat.”
“If you want to save some money I can sell you three 12-inches for 12 bucks.”
“You saying I’m poor, white boy? I buy this whole motherfucking store if I want.”
“I know you can.”
“How much that incense?”
“Give me one, white boy. No tax.”
“Okay, no tax.”
It was worth a dime to get him out of the store. The funny thing was that I felt bad about the whole incident. I knew that he was just trying to impress his girl — who was I to cock block him? But at the same time I couldn’t hide my irritation at being called “white boy” while he treated me like a servant, and – oh, now I get it.
Once I dialed into what happened I was oddly proud. For a few minutes I served as a proxy for the lifetime of anger that had accumulated inside this nasty bastard. I was a one dollar therapist, and with each session the patient took home a free pack of incense.
This is why every person should spend a little time in retail or some other service industry. One either becomes a compassionate amateur therapist or calcifies into a bitter, opinionated curmudgeon who paints strangers with broad strokes. But enough about Rush Limbaugh. The latter strategy doesn’t work if you want to earn a tip, though maybe it’s more satisfying. Try paying your rent with a handful of “I kicked the rude bastard out of my store.” On the other hand, try to make your monthly sales goal one hard-earned incense sale at a time. Getting treated like shit in the name of making a sale is a tightrope walk.
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, indie labels and regional records. It’s true: There was a time before the entire record industry was one giant, shitty Red Lobster that tasted the same no matter what freeway exit you were on anywhere in the country. We had another regional wave with early rap and punk, and we’re experiencing a new indie renaissance thanks to the intergooglewebtubes. Let’s hope Superhuge Music Group doesn’t figure out how to gobble up all of the great independent music in this wave and standardize it into oblivion.
Keep that Billboard top ten from 1986 in mind the next time you read that its your fault the “Big Six” version of the record industry tanked. They drew first Huey Lewis, not me.