North America's Finest Reggae Shops
- Words: Jesse Serwer
You can satisfy all your vinyl needs over the internet nowadays but there's still no substitute for the experience of the record store. This holds particularly true in the world of reggae, where shoppers often have the opportunity to be advised on their purchases by the real experts. Until shortly before his death two years ago, reggae godfather Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd could be found manning the counter at Coxsone's Music City, down under the J-Z tracks in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. In London, you'll find the UK's pre-eminent roots ambassador Mikey Dread behind the counter at Roots and Culture Music on Leytonstone Road. Even Prince Buster, now a Miami resident, still shows up behind the register at Prince Buster's Record Shack when he's in Kingston. Here's a look at some of the United States' premier reggae retailers and the figures behind them.
Twelve Tribes Reggae Shop
345 N. 5th Ave., Tucson
"A little Jamaican hideaway in the desert" is how Trenchtown native Papa Ranger describes Twelve Tribes Reggae Shop, which, in addition to being the only reggae specialty store between California and Texas, serves as a mechanic's workshop and the premier venue for live reggae events in Tucson. While there isn't much of a West Indian community to speak of in this city of a half-million people, Twelve Tribes is well supported by students at the nearby University of Arizona as well as the area's large Native American community, according to Papa Ranger, a veteran soundsystem operator who moved to Tucson 15 years ago after originally opening the store in Detroit. "Native folks are more into reggae than anyone else in this country," says the 50-year-old Ranger, who runs the business with his 21-year-old son, Jamar. While some dancehall is stocked, roots consciousness is the name of the game. "I screen my newer stuff before I even buy. If it doesn't sound like something I want to represent to somebody, if the lyrics are incorrect, I don't buy."
Best-sellers: "When you can pick something up at Target, that's usually when we drop it," says Papa Ranger." We're in the business of oldies but goodies. [That said], Bob Marley Legend probably sold the most for us."
Papa Ranger Recommends:
1. Black Uhuru Chill Out (Taxi/Palm Pictures)
2. Burning Spear Marcus Garvey (Fox/Palm Pictures)
3. Dennis Brown Wolves and Leopards (DEB)
4. Jimmy Cliff "Originator" 45
5. U-Roy Wake The Town (1966-1971) (Rhino)
4308 Mission St., San Francisco
Javier Ibarra–DJ I-Vier of San Francisco sound system Jah Warrior Shelter Hi-Fi–was selling 45s out of his house until the operation "got so popular we had to get cats out of my living room." So he and fellow selector Alexis Friedman (a.k.a. Empress I Lexis) "found a good deal on real estate" and opened Wisdom Records, Northern California's first reggae specialty shop, at Mission and Silver in the city's Excelsior district. According to Ibarra, 70% of Wisdom's business is 45s, but with no other reggae-first outlets anywhere else in the area, mixes, CDs, and 12"s by the Bay Area's finest–the Lustre Kings, Rocker-T, Luna Angel, Rankin Screw, XLR8R scribe Ross Hogg, and Ibarra's own Jah Warrior Shelter–are keys to the business as well. "We were getting a lot of local DJ remixes on 12" and 7"–"Marijuana on the Corner" on "Jamrock," I-Wayne on "Murder She Wrote"–but the RIAA started busting on a lot of the DJs so that's slowed down. Not to boast but my crew, Jah Warrior, did a series of roots CDs and those are some of our best sellers."
Best-sellers: "The two biggest records at our shop are 'Jamrock' and (Tanya Stephens') 'It's A Pity.' We probably sold close to 1,000 copies of the 'Jamrock' 45," Ibarra says.
DJ I-Vier Recommends:
1. Fantan Mojah Hail The King LP or CD (Greensleeves)
2. Seasons Rhythm (Rhythm Streetz Series Volume 5) LP, CD or 45s (Don Corleon)
3. Sizzla Da Real Live Thing DVD/CD (Special Edition 2 Disc Package) (VP)
4. Selected Speeches Of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I, 1918-1967
5. Rockers: 25th Anniversary Edition DVD
Zion's Gate Records
1100 E. Pike St., Seattle
What do metal and reggae have in common besides dreadlocks? The two genres share top billin' at Seattle's Zion's Gate Records. In a few short years, the outfit has grown from owner Stephen Benbrook importing UK dub to his apartment into a general-interest music store that also counts house, drum & bass, ragga jungle, and hip-hop among its specialties. "I've been into metal my whole life–I didn't discover reggae until I was older," says Benbrook, who spins steppers under the name DJ Elevate. "When I started expanding, I noticed I was selling everything but metal. Now, we're finding that a lot of the same people who buy reggae also buy the heavy stuff, especially on the internet." One of the biggest sellers of both metal and reggae on Ebay, Benbrook recently began releasing dub and ragga (the first releases include Dub Magic, a compilation of dubplates from UK producers Alpha & Omega, and Debaser's recent "Hills and Valleys" 12") under the Zion's Gate name, and plans to launch a separate metal imprint, Kreation Records, this spring.
Best-sellers: "Reggae and metal are definitely our top sellers. Among reggae records, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown has always done really well for us."
DJ Elevate Recommends:
1. The Congos Heart of the Congos (VP/Blood & Fire)
2. Lee Perry Return of the Super Ape (VP)
3. Sleep Sleep's Holy Mountain (Earache)
4. Witchcraft Firewood (Rise Above)
5. Earth 2 (Sub Pop)
60 E. 3rd St. (at 2nd Ave.), Manhattan
While you might expect to see people like Lloyd "Bullwackie" Barnes or Congo Ashanti Roy inside the authentically roots-centric Jammyland, the store's location in the heart of the East Village (across the street from long-running DJ shop Dance Tracks) ensures some more surprising visitors as well. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Walter Becker from Steely Dan, and actor Michael Rappaport are all Jammyland regulars; even Friends star Lisa Kudrow has been known to pass through, according to Ira Heaps, a Manhattan native who opened up shop in 1992 after returning from a five-year sojourn in Jamaica. In abundance are NYU students and other newbies eager for guidance from Heaps (who is the bassist in Ari Up's band, The True Warriors) and his helpful staff (Black Redemption Sound selector Ras Kush was a fixture behind the counter for years). Dub, rocksteady, roots, and ska reissues are definitely the focus here, but all the key new dancehall releases are usually in stock as well.
Best-sellers: "The King's Dub record is selling real well since, well, we're the place to get it. Heart of the Congos is our all-time best-seller. When people walk in off the street–usually white kids with a rock 'n' roll or pop background–and say 'I'm new to reggae, can you hook me up with something cool?' that is what we give them. It embodies the whole roots vibe of Jammyland–(Ashanti Roy) is a friend of ours, it incorporates Lee Perry and Scientist. Most of the time they're like 'Oh my god, can I have more like that?'"
1. Dr. Alimantado Best Dressed Chicken In Town (Greensleeves)
2. Horace Andy Dancehall Style (Wackie's)
3. Downbeat the Ruler Killer Dancehall Instrumentals Studio One Collection (Rounder)
4. The Congos Heart of the Congos (VP/Blood and Fire)
5. Burning Spear Presenting Burning Spear (Studio One)
9487 SW 160th St., Miami
A South Florida strip mall might be the last place in the world you'd expect to find authentic culture, but a suburban stretch of southwest Miami is where you'll find the US outpost of Kingston's legendary Aquarius Records. Behind the counter, often flanked by his many kids, is the sage Herman Chin-Loy, a wealth of knowledge and wisdom for whom even the most basic of questions elicits an answer full of depth and clarity. Leaving the original Aquarius shop to his brother-in-law (Bass Odyssey Soundsystem founder Bunny), Chin-Loy set up shop in Miami 11 years ago–but, unfortunately, the original Augustus Pablo doesn't see much future for reggae vinyl in his adopted hometown. "Everybody downloads off the computer or burns a CD," Chin-Loy says, noting his new focus on clothing and general goods for the Jamaican community. "That's how I am going to pay the rent." Still, with its selection of new CDs and old 45s, Aquarius remains one of the go-to music operations in a city with the second largest Jamaican population in the US.
Best-sellers: "The biggest thing is Bob Marley t-shirts, Puma sneakers in the Jamaican colors, and Cooyah tanktops. What do you call them, wifebeaters? We're also selling a lot of paintings from Jamaica lately."
Herman Chin-Loy Recommends:
1. Various Artists Universal Message Vol. 3 (VP)
2. Warrior King Hold the Faith (VP/Universal)
3. Junior Kelly Tough Life (VP)
4. Luciano Gold: Very Best of Luciano (Jetstar)
5. Damian Marley Welcome to Jamrock CD (Tuff Gong)
3976 White Plains Rd. (at 225th St.), The Bronx
Greenwich Village might be the vinyl capital of the world, but NYC's pre-eminent reggae shop is in a far-flung corner of the northeastern Bronx in Flatbush, the heart and soul of Caribbean New York. Directly under the 22nd Street elevated station on White Plains Road is Moodie's Record & Tape, with its stacks upon stacks of classic roots and dancehall 45s, stray Studio One originals, and all the latest slackness on CD and DVD. "If anybody is starting a soundsystem, this is the first place they always go because it's the only place where you can find everything from way back up to now," boasts Earl Moodie, who opened shop in 1983 after working at the now-defunct Brad's Records (an early Bronx reggae shop opened by Clocktower Records founder Brad Osbourne). Moodie, who counts Kool Herc and Japanese soundbwoys Mighty Crown among his loyal customers, promises to resurrect the Moodies label–which issued such hard-to-find mid-'80s classics as Junior Delgado's "Illegal Gun" and Gregory Isaacs' "How I Feel"–via a highly necessary rarities compilation this year. Moodie's Jam City in nearby Eastchester (3428-A Boston Road, 718-231-4575) is operated by Earl's son, Doobie.
Best-sellers: "The Sean Paul 'We Be Burnin' and Richie Spice 'Earth Alert' 45s are the biggest sellers for us right now. I've never seen more excitement here than when 50 Cent (Get Rich or Die Tryin') came out."
Earl Moodie Recommends:
1. Bob Andy Songbook (Studio One)
2. Heptones On Top (Studio One)
3. Hugh Mundell Africa Must Be Free By 1983 (Message/RAS/Greensleeves)
4. Barry Brown Far East (Hitbound/Channel One)
5. Jacob Miller Dread, Dread (United Artists/Island)
Chances are, if you can't find it through Ernie B's Reggae Distribution, it's probably not in print anymore. With more than 13,000 titles, the El Dorado Hills, CA-based wholesaler/internet retailer currently has the world's most extensive reggae music catalog. Proprietor Ernie Boetius explains the science behind the reggae retail game.
XLR8R: Who are your strongest customers?
EB: Amoeba in San Francisco and Hollywood. They have management that understands you need to spend a little time and sacrifice a little space and payroll to make a good reggae section. Most record store managers don't understand or want to focus on exactly what it would take to have one.
How much of your business is wholesale to stores versus direct to consumers?
It's probably 80% wholesale and 20% to individuals.
I'm sure you've had some big surprises or accidental scores...
We purchased about 20,000 records from Tin Reddy's basement in 1995. It was Christmas every day going through those boxes. We sold them all for 10% of what they were worth but we made a lot of people happy. When you think you've seen it all, someone comes with a record you can't believe exists.
What are your best-sellers?
It's usually things that are exclusive to us. We're selling a lot of Lacksley Castell's Princess Lady, which we re-issued with Negus Roots, and Mikey Dread's Evolutionary Rockers. Prince Buster's Fly Flying Ska has also been a huge one for us.
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Best of the Rest: New York
There are probably more reggae-centric shops in New York City than the whole rest of the US combined. South of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Flatbush Avenue becomes "Yard Street," dotted with shacks carrying the latest soundsystem mixes, bootleg artist CDs, and Passa Passa DVDs.
You'll have to travel to the farthest-flung corner of East Flatbush to find Jah Life Records & Dub Studio (1234 Utica Ave. at Avenue D, 718-629-0841), home of the Jah Life label–which put out Barrington Levy's seminal early '80s output–and Jah Life International Sound System.
Crown Heights' Ethiopian Taste (985 Nostrand Ave., 718-774-0804) is another store with a label, and more books about Haile Selassie than you knew existed.
Over in Manhattan, soundsystem Deadlty Dragon Sound (102-B Forsyth St., 646-613-0139) recently opened a location in Chinatown and these new kids on the block already have one of the best selections of 45s in the city.
White Plains Road has NYC's most untouched cluster of record shops, with several excellent vinyl-oriented stores within blocks of the 225th Street station. Millennium Record (4045 White Plains Rd., 718-515-1909) has everything Caribbean, from soca to calypso, and a deep, disorganized selection of '80s and '90s dancehall singles.
And is there any better combination in the world then old vinyl and porn? Tony Ryan's (3956 White Plains Rd., 718-798-0773) stocks both and, despite the owners' Jamaican accents, their strong suit is actually used R&B and soul.
Out in Jamaica–Queens, of course–is the world headquarters and flagship storefront of VP Records (170-21 Jamaica Ave., 718-297-5802).
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