Over the Counter
When the Beastie Boys stopped in town a couple weekends ago, Adam Horowitz's top priorities were laundry and vinyl. With two accomplices and a backpack full of dirty clothes, the MC walked into St. Paul's cozy Root Cellar Records and began perusing the stacks of LPs with the dazed concentration of a mad professor. Store manager Jim Francis recalls Ad-Rock eventually leaving the store with a pile of Moog music and jazz fusion thick enough to knock Herbie Hancock on his can. Horowitz's prize find? A rare funk record with a cut about Muhammad Ali.
Such is the serendipitous high that comes after a successful day of independent record store shopping. The feeling is familiar to all music fans, even if most of us don't head back to the tour bus to test our booty on Technics 1200 turntables. As record-hut haunters from the Beatles to the Beasties have always known, inside every Root Cellar--or Roadrunner, or Cheapo, or Soul Survivor--exists a universe of unheard music. Pop radio might have permeated Elvis's teen years, but small record shops were the focus of his life's musical obsessions. In Jamaica during the late '50s, record retailers became storefronts for recording studios and hangouts for musicians. In the Twin Cities of the Reagan era, bands like Hüsker Dü met and formed in independent record stores. And shops like Oar Folkjokeopus in South Minneapolis became conduits for underground music.
Even in our era of market bloat, most great music still remains unheard, and record boutiques continue to serve as incubators for myriad music scenes. The impact of a corner shop like Oar Folk doesn't end with dried-up tales of store employees hand-stamping copies of the Replacements' Stink in the basement. At indie stores, the new-arrival bins, staff-pick lists, and displayed favorites serve customers like secret radio charts or insider critics' choices. "With the display, we put the stuff we know customers want next to the stuff we think they should want," says Oar Folk manager Mark Trehus, echoing an honorable, proactive tradition of indie stores. "Personally, I couldn't give a shit about Liz Phair," he says.
Of course, it should surprise no one glancing at the diagrams on pages 29 and 31 that artists active in making music should want to immerse themselves in it as their day job.
"If you're hungry, work at a restaurant," Francis reasons. And though the salary scale is something less than executive, musicians can interact with consumers at one of the crucial points of entry for new fans: the counter. This was where Percy Miller (a.k.a. Master P) weighed popular tastes before expanding his independent disc store into a crass exercise in rap marketing chutzpah.
But the point of exchange is also the place where fans are made, where half-remembered songs are tracked down, and important news is communicated. I was at the counter when I first learned of D. Boon's death in 1985, and was there when I listened to Public Enemy's monumental second album in 1988. In 1990 I learned the titles of obscure house tracks I'd heard in clubs by singing the tunes to the stoic clerks in a D.C. dance shop.
Nearly every music enthusiast has developed a relationship with specific record stores, and I've heard more than once that counter staffers are more trusted than rock critics. "You get people who want your opinion before they buy something," says Pulse columnist Jon Jon Scott, who also works days as a fount of pop-music information at the Electric Fetus on Fourth Avenue South. "They look to us for validation."
If there is an identifiable epicenter of the Twin Cities music scene, it probably lies somewhere behind the counter at the Fetus, which marked its 30th anniversary this summer. The store currently employs such scene boosters as guitarist James Everest of the hip-hugging funksters Sensational Joint Chiefs, hip-hop activist Slug of the duo Atmosphere, St. Paul Pioneer Press music writer Amy Carlson, and DJs 2000 and Michael Elias, among others. For Carlson the store functions as a network for musicheads, and manager Bob Fuchs says he openly recruits fans-turned-professionals. "I actually called Amy," he says. "Which is pretty unusual for a record store."
Like the Fetus, Let It Be Records on Nicollet Mall is packed with music lifers, and most of the staff also spin vinyl for pay. Just as the Fetus can be credited with greasing connections between Slug's colleagues in Rhyme Sayers Entertainment and the funk cosmopolitans surrounding Everest's Joint Chiefs, Let It Be marks the crossroads of the Minneapolis house, techno, and Brit-pop communities. House spinner E-tones is resident DJ at the Gay 90's, while noise maestro Rod Smith and progressive technophile Pull round out the store's sound trust. And starting September 5, Depth Probe heir JT, another Let It Be staffer, will help techno legend Woody McBride put on Sugar, a monthly dance night at Ground Zero.
"The dance room of Let It Be is really integral for everything I'm doing in this scene," says JT. "There are a lot of kids coming in here and they're looking for a break, so they give me a tape. There's all sorts of places for punk bands to play, but if you're a no-name DJ, we want to be an outlet."
If the Fetus and Let It Be are big boys making big waves, then neighborhood shops, like underground-rock landmark Garage D'Or and the all-vinyl DJ shop Bassment Music (both in the Lyn-Lake area), are just as vital. Likewise, smaller pop stands such as the Root Cellar, owned by Earl Root--host of KFAI's Saturday night headbanger's ball, The Root of All Evil--help bolster a genre whose popularity has sagged in the '90s. "With Earl, it's not just a record store anymore," says Jim Francis, who directs the cable-access video-jockey version of Root's radio show. "The Root Cellar's whole goal is to keep metal in the local scene."
The ultimate example of the record store as subcultural-last-stand may be hardcore oasis Extreme Noise, which remains largely volunteer-run after last year's move to a renovated, neatly painted space on Nicollet Avenue. With a staff collective of punk musicians and activists, Extreme includes a basement that's a natural for in-store concerts, and hosts shows almost as frequently as Let It Be, Garage D'Or, and the Fetus.
As the distinct roar of speed-metal wafts up from the basement during one "in-store," musician and volunteer Patti Rhodes says her favorite season at the store is the winter holidays, which bring open-minded parents in search of green hair dye for their kids. Like the DJs at Let It Be, Rhodes dreams of customers who come in search of new sounds. "I'll show them all my favorite records," she says. "They may just end up getting something mainstream like Rancid, but at least they'll know more when they come back."
Starting in September, Earl Root's The Root of All Evil TV airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Channel 33 in Minneapolis and Thursdays at 11 p.m. on Channel 15 in St. Paul; call 644-2070. On Monday night, Let It Be's Pull helps present Minimum, Electronic Music Fun for Adults, at the 7th Street Entry, next door to the Mainroom's Evolution concert featuring a bevy of national DJs; call 338-8388.
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