When Joseph “DJ Jab” Abajian opened up a small record store in the summer of 1994 — in a basement in the Lower East Side section of Manhattan — he had one simple goal: to make a “one-stop-shop for hip-hop.” Abajian had been frustrated by his shopping experience as a record collector. So he made a hub — decorated the walls of the basement with graffiti and rap covers and posters. He named the hub Fat Beats.
“People who came to the store in those days were looking for good records and sounds that they never heard before,” Abajian said. “How like New York used to be.”
For 25 years, the name Fat Beats has been synonymous with underground rap music. It’s a brand that went from a small store to becoming a distributing powerhouse in a music industry that is always in flux.
Within two years of its opening, Fat Beats would upgrade its digs, moving to 406 Avenue of the Americas — right above Bagel Buffet. For over a decade, every significant rapper, DJ, and producer walked up those stairs, from underground figures like El-P, Lord Finesse, Ill Bill, and DJ Premier to eventual hip-hop stars like JAY-Z, Eminem, and Questlove. Sometimes they came to move product; other times they came to do in-store performances; but most of the time they just came to shop and talk rap.
Fat Beats would peak during the years from 1997 to ’99 when underground hip-hop ruled. Those were the years that saw landmark releases from Company Flow, Black Star, and more. But as the new Millenium started, selling physical music became difficult, with the rise of technology, illegal downloads, and conflicting interests.
“All the kids in our scene, in their mid-’20s, stopped buying records. They started buying sneakers…The boys, would have like 20 pairs of sneakers,” Abajian said. “It was hard because I was dying, so I’m like ‘Damn, those sneakers cost you $150. You can get a whole wall of records at Fat Beats.'”
The New York City record store would close its doors in 2010. The closing was seen as another casualty of the music industry and rising New York City prices (Bagel Buffet would close a couple of months after.) But Fat Beats wasn’t just a record store. They were a record label and, more importantly, a distribution force. And even after their flagship store closed, Fat Beats would still continue its role as one of the leaders in distributing vinyl, this time through an online storefront. They have also extended their palette, distributing music outside of underground rap, like projects from Daron Malakian and Eddie Palmieri.
Last month, they celebrated the 25th anniversary of the brand with a show at Sony Hall in New York City, featuring underground legends like Vinnie Paz, The Juggaknots, Natural Elements, Non Phixion, and more. Tonight, August 10th, they continue the celebration with a Los Angeles show at The Regent theatre: featuring more acts affiliated with the Fat Beats brand, including Dilated Peoples, Tha Alkaholiks, Elzhi, Cut Chemist, and Blu & Exile.
During the lead-up to the LA show, Okayplayer talked with Abajian and Non-Phixion’s DJ Eclipse — one-time regional manager of Fat Beats and the one-time host of the legendary The Halftime Show on 89.1FM. We asked the two figures, who were there from the beginning, to talk about the most impactful records in Fat Beats’ distribution history.
The interviews have been condensed.
Joseph Abajian aka DJ Jab
[Company Flow] was signed to a major label, and then they got dropped. They put out “Eight Steps to Perfection'” and “Vital Nerve” which Big Daddy [Distribution] was distributing it. It’s an early introduction of, you know, just artists putting out their own records. It was a very good record, but not from major labels.
El-P actually would come down to the store in 1994, early ’95. He would come to the store all the time, and we were selling that record like crazy, and then we started distributing it. We picked up Fun Crusher and then Rawkus bought it from us and put out Funcrusher Plus [in 1997.]
[El-P] was just a hungry artist. Really nice guy, smart, he would come by and just kind of hang out, a really good person to talk to. He had it good with customers. Funcrusher, to people, was just such a good record. Every song on there was good. So I used to play it all the time, and at that time there weren’t that many projects like that — on the colored vinyl and stuff. They had clear vinyl. That made it kind of stand out.
The music industry was trying to kind of get away from vinyl. Sony was trying to take over the industry with CD players. So the vinyls being pressed was just regular versions. They weren’t really looking at the vinyl as art at the time. I don’t know whose idea it was to do it on clear vinyl, but I just remember opening the package and saying “oh, this is cool. It’s clear and has a blue tone to it.” It was, in a weird way, a selling point.
We were still in the first store location when Company Flow put out their EP and that was kind of like, “this is great and…let’s just keep putting out all these guys that’s coming into the store, hanging out, putting these records out. [Joseph] was just saying, “stop wasting time waiting on major labels.” Specifically, because the direction of music was changing from major labels at that time, so it just made more sense.
It just became a spot that people just hang out at, have conversations. Friendships were built at the store, just from hanging out. El-P was definitely one of the noted people to come out and hang out, spend hours there talking hip-hop, music.
New York was going through a weird time. The hip hop style, it was a very big look, big pants, big sweatshirts, big jackets, big boots. In New York, during the period, clubs were like “no boots, no hoodies.” If you go shopping…security would sweat you and stuff. But when these dudes would come into Fat Beats, they would get shirts.
It didn’t matter if you looked like a killer, if you looked like a punk, whatever you looked like. You walk into Fat Beats, you got greeted, and you were spoken to.
We had all kinds of people coming into the store, all kinds of earrings, rings in your faces, different color hair, guys with mohawks, guys with dreads, people in business suits. It was just a mixture of everyone that just liked good music and somehow it worked for that time.
Before we started distributing I started getting into label stuff and we put out a record from Rob Swift featuring the Cracker Jacks [called “Sly Rhymes / Nickel And Dime.”] Then, the second record we picked up was from Non Phixion. That was the second independent record that we picked up as a label before we were a distributor and that thing just took off. That was before Fat Beats Distribution even started, and it was going through Big Daddy Distribution at the time.
We worked that record exactly like a major label would work theirs. We had a budget that Fat Beats provided, where me and [MC] Search brought however many copies of the record with us to give to all the DJs. We actually broke that record the same way the major labels were doing it, through those DJs. We were making what we do through a major label system, then implementing that into the independent world that was just starting to really bloom.
I remember, at one point, [we] checked out a show and [DJ] Premier was the DJ that night and he played our record, and this was before any of us knew him personally. We didn’t have a relationship with him, but just to walk into the club and hear Premier playing the record it’s just like “wow, Premier knows who we are.” You know what I’m saying? We could feel that the record was taking off.
And then in terms of sales, I mean, Joe, you remember what the end result was? I can’t even remember at this point.
I mean, it definitely sold over 20,000 singles.
A record that made a lot of noise for our distribution was Jurassic 5’s, first single, which was “Unified Rebellion.”It had that really wildstyle, MCing feel to it. Four Mcs are rapping, kicking it a little bit —”party people” and all that stuff. They are from LA, and I don’t remember exactly how I heard [the record] — if it was on Stretch and Bob or if we played it.
I brought the record in. They had a manager named Dan [Dalton] at the time. And somehow they got it into TVT [Records.] TVT came down to the store to play it. They A&R’d the record at the store. They got signed and they just took off from there.
A lot of guys from D.I.T.C. were just coming off their deal. Showbiz and A.G. just came off of Payday. And their second record, GoodFellas — great record — came out at an odd time in the industry and kind of got lost. I remember playing that record all the time. They didn’t know where they were in the game. Because they were a major, the major shutdowns, and they’re kind of in limbo land. Because now the whole scene has changed.
[Big Daddy executive] Rich King was pushing the group to do a record together. He’s trying to get them all under D.I.T.C. records. So they produced “Day One.” Diamond D took it. I remember at the time they didn’t understand the concept of having them all on the same record. “Day One” is just a sample from Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s [“Tell Me”]. Diamond is like “I’ll just loop this”
When that came out, it was just a constant seller. It just took off. It was just good hip-hop beats with good MCs over them.
“Day One” kinda introduced the crew on one record. And then they followed it up with “The Enemy,” which DJ Premier produced. And Big L’s verse was just so classic on there. That song was up there with Mos Def’s “The Universal Magnetic” and Reflection Eternal’s “Fortified Live.” In our scene at the time, these were platinum songs. “Universal Magnetic” — that 12″ sold like 45,000 copies.
The first pressing of “Deja Vu,” before [Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz] got signed to [Columbia] we were distributing that single. And that thing just took off.
I remember we kept pressing and selling them, even when they got signed. I think that single, we had it for a pretty long time, and we sold it for a pretty long time. I think it was a red cover, with a pretty simple jacket.
That was his huge comeback. To come from Lifestylez [ov da Poor & Dangerous] to now doing “Ebonics.” To this day, hip-hop has so many different sub-genres in it. There’s hood records, there’s “backpack” records, all that stuff. But “Ebonics” was one of those records that everyone had to have. Everyone loved it. The hood dudes, the backpackers. Like, everyone loved “Ebonics.”
For the store, the absolute pinpoint of [when things started going downhill] was September 11, 2001. The day of the Twin Towers, it was such a gloomy vibe in New York. No one was going out, everyone was staying home…and it just went downhill from that point. Between technology like Serato — before Serato there was Final Scratch. But Serato was the one that really took off. We got digital downloads, lack of people shopping, technology, Serato. All these elements took off to the point of selling records less and less.
The other thing was also, it wasn’t just us anymore. A lot of smaller distributors started opening up too. Other distributors were coming on and they were taking on all kinds of different projects too. We’re trying to take on projects that were going to sell a certain amount of units. And at the time, that was at least 5,000 units. If we thought it will sell 5,000 we would take it in. But then other distributors would take a record that would have only sold 4,000 or 3,000. And it got to the point where, even though we had a lot of space, we couldn’t fit for every single independent record. There was too many projects coming out.
Atmosphere’s first album with us was in 2002, but before that, we were doing all of their 12″. So they had Overcast! in ’97 then they did Lucy Ford. God Loves Ugly was the first album Rhymesayers put out through us. And he was just a different type of artist. At that time we weren’t too sure, he had a kind of of a different sound. Slug was very, very hard working and he was hungry and it paid off.
At that time, DITC, Natural Elements, Natural Resources, Company Flow, Mos Def, that was kind of the sound that we were listening to. And he comes from the Midwest, and the beats were really good, but a different style lyrically. But we took it in, and God Loves Ugly was a huge record for us.
The staff was definitely not for it. A lot of guys in the store were DJs. So, they might not play that stuff, so they’re not going to play it, they’re not going to push for it.
I mean, ultimately the album ended up selling over 200,000 units.
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