Urban Lights celebrates 20 years of record store madness in St. Paul


If these walls could talk. Urban Lights is one of the longest-running -- and underrated -- music shops in the Twin Cities, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this Saturday at Nomad World Pub. That's a pretty big deal; anything lasting 20 years in these ADHD days is nothing short of a miracle, especially in the record-selling business. 

So how did a small record shop in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul last 20 years in one of the most fickle and shady of industries? Good stories and good people.

Behind the secret to its success is Tim Wilson. Much respect goes out to Travitron, Siddiq Sayers, Q-Bear, and so for helping to build the foundation of our urban music scene here in the city, but Tim Wilson should be on the top of the list. 

Wilson first got involved in the late '80s, skipping school and bolting to Ray Seville's house to watch him work the tables, talk music, and get personal DJ lessons from one of the Cities' best. By the end of the day, Seville would boot Tim out of his home to make way for his legendary adult basement parties, which were usually spun by a DJ named Jimmy Jam -- yes THAT Jimmy Jam -- Tim could only watch through the windows like some sort of musical peeping tom. 

Throughout the years, even though Tim worked random corporate gigs, he always kept music in his back pocket, sneaking off to New York City to work on records with Daddy-O of Stetsasonic and rubbing shoulders with longtime friend and collaborator Jam Master Jay. With his contacts and influence in local record pools, Tim purchased Northern Lights in St. Paul in 1993 and renamed it Urban Lights, the record store for everything hip-hop, R&B, soul, and gospel. 

As a member of the Black Music Coalitions at Sony/BMG, Warner, EMI/Capitol and Universal, major artists who wanted to get in good with the local DJs and programmers made it a point to stop by Urban Lights when in town and hang out and pay some respect. Artists such as Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Common, and RUN DMC have all stepped into the shop over the years. 

One day as people milled around the shop, the then-unknown Will.I.Am stood in the corner, pop locking and gyrating to the overhead music. Customers became spooked and concerned and asked if the strange guy in the corner was having a seizure and needed assistance. Who knew years later that same guy would be getting paid millions to have seizures with the likes of Britney Spears, the Game, and Justin Timberlake. 

But that's what makes Urban Lights so special. You walk into Urban Lights today and it's a museum of music history. Platinum plaques hang on the back wall; framed autographed photos and posters fill every inch of wall space. It's so striking to record geeks that one St. Paul City Council member considered giving the store a landmark status for future protection after some recent light rail construction damaged the shop.

What also makes the store so special is the people and neighborhood. Regular customers who have been shopping there for years still come by for local gossip or to catch up on what's hot. It's also a bonus that Tim hasn't changed the prices on his CDs since 1993. It's also a secret vinyl diggers' paradise: While hipsters shuffle overpriced records in Uptown and mainstream joints, Tim's collection sits mainly untouched, much to the glee of smart DJs who still search for urban imports, rare remixes, and New Jack Swing gold. 

But not everyone thought the store was special. In November of 2004, the RIAA -- with the help of the FBI -- raided Urban Lights on a sleepy morning. Tim was working the counter and a Houston man came in nervously asking for any hot new mixtapes -- mixtapes at the time were looked down upon by record companies as direct competition from the artists and DJs who wanted to make some money under the table and go around copyright laws -- and Tim felt a weird vibe from the man and sold him a recently shipped live mixtape from Aftermath Records.

Minutes later the door busted open, and federal officers in full riot gear with guns and riffles drawn filled the store, weapons and lasers aimed at Tim. The cops looted the store, taking everything in sight and loading it up in boxes and carrying it out. Urban Lights was almost done as a store. After a call to his lawyer and some backing from the state attorney's office, Tim got his store back a couple of days later and has been open ever since. 

It's no surprise that this shop has lasted through FBI raids, big box retailers, light rail construction, and iTunes. Everyone leaves the shop with something -- be it a record, a story, some advice, or in the case of Redman, a magazine. During the closing of an in-store appearance, Tim Wilson was settling up with Erick Sermon and his crew when he noticed Redman had something secretly tucked underneath his arm and was trying to walk out the door quick. Tim caught him trying to steal a Source Magazine to the embarrassment of the Def Squad crew. Only if these walls could talk.

Urban Lights 20 Year Anniversary Show/ Block Party featuring Naughty by Nature, Obie Trice, MTV/BET's 106&Park DJ Kid Fresh, DJ Such n Such, I Self Devine, St Paul Slim, and much more. Food Trucks, vendors, and more. Saturday August 10. Nomad World Pub 510 Cedar Ave, Minneapolis. Doors: 1 p.m. Presale tickets $20/$30 at the door.