CDs at Park Blvd / Photos by the author
Is art—particularly music—flourishing in the digital age? Sure, technology's opened up music production and distribution to be more accessible and democratic. But the internet produces so much noise and is such a yawning abyss of content that it can drown out groundbreaking work in favor of more "scalable" alternatives. Nothing matters so much as being louder than everyone else. So maybe there's a case for escaping offline. That's what Andrew Nosnitsky and Jason Darrah, a pair of rap bloggers who met online more than a decade ago, are betting on with Park Blvd Records, their new Oakland shop specializing in rap tapes and vinyl.
Nosnitsky and Darrah both came into the business through hard-to-peg, largely digital careers, and, with their passion for a genre that's embraced the internet so readily, it might seem counterintuitive that they haven't stayed there. Nosnitsky (better known by his online handle Noz) started the influential rap blog Cocaine Blunts and has spent over 12 years as a blogger-turned-journalist and critic, as dedicated to highlighting overlooked acts as he is to uncompromising criticism of popular artists and the genre at large. Darrah has spent the better part of two decades as a professional record salesman and collector, and his blog, 12ManRambo, is a rap tape completist's goldmine, posting high-quality scans and downloads of forgotten and unheralded Bay Area releases. Selling tapes and records is nothing new for either—Darrah’s been flipping since college, while Noz has been selling “rap tapes on the cheap!!” since at least 2005. Their store, open since June, is an attempt to take it full-time; they just launched their online store last week.
Their space is as minimal as its name, where the only album marked “Better than the Beatles” is Yoko Ono’s Fly. When I drove there this Fourth of July to interview the owners—they hadn’t thought to close for the holiday, they told me—the store, then open for two weeks, was undecorated save for rap magazines stacked beside a couch, records on the walls, a basketball, a house plant, and a bobble head of Mac Dre on the counter. It isn’t trying to sell you a lifestyle or a look; just records, which makes it an outlier itself. It's a physical space into which its owners can reinvest their lifelong passion for rap, try something offline, and hopefully foster the same passion in those who stop by, whether to dive into their collection or simply hang out and chat about whether there is indeed any hope for music, as I did. “The world’s bigger than the internet,” as Noz puts it. “You realize how small that world is? We sold eight copies of the Bored Stiff LP already and we can’t sell a single copy of Drake.”
Noisey: How long have you been selling records?
Jason Darrah: God, since ‘95. I spent college chasing records, I was really into finding original samples in rap records, then I took them to the Pasadena Record Swap and started selling extra copies of David Axelrod records and whatnot. That was my education. Here I am now, running a store after selling full time for eight years. I always wanted one but wouldn’t do it on my own.
Andrew Nosnitsky: Yeah, when you told me I was like, fuck yeah. I worked in record stores for years and always thought it would be cool to do this without a boss. Jason asked me about it last fall. He had the stock, and I have my nerd network. Then in March everything started sliding into place with our landlord.
That’s four months from lease to store.
Darrah: Seems pretty sustainable so far. It’s easier than I thought.
Nosnitsky: It’s not difficult to run a record store, especially in Oakland, where there’s so much local pride and cultural interest. Opening was brutal. Neither of us are paperwork people. But it’s been pretty painless.
Darrah: It’s not just friends sustaining the business.
Nosnitsky: When you have a network, word travels. And if you have a good space and good products, people tell everyone. Press like this is cool, but word of mouth is incredible in the age of the internet.
The record store, especially, is a place to worship music. If you really love music, what are you going to do? Blog about it forever?
Nosnitsky: It’s funny, KQED is writing about us too, the editor on that used to be at XXL, and we were saying to each other, wow, we escaped the music journalism infrastructure.
The cool thing about XXL was that you could walk into any room and artists would be like oh, shit. They might not be the most forthcoming, but they’d be down. I’m sure it was similar with Pitchfork—these niche publications that carried so much weight they lent authority to the writer.
I’ve heard about certain artists now who are like, “if you want me to do your cover, you have to pay me.” It’s insane to do that, as a journalist. But given how the scales have tipped, yeah, what does it do for them to be on a cover today? They’re putting their narrative in the hands a company that might have a wide audience, but it’s not going to be the definitive story where a century on someone says “go get that cover.” It might be, if the right writer’s on it and everything aligns. But it’s a risk. They’re setting themselves up for something unpredictable.
Darrah: Long story short, we’d like to be paid for this interview.
Nosnitsky: Yeah. No, but with journalism either you’re Kanye West and you don’t need press and you don’t need press because you’re Kanye West and you have eight million Twitter followers and anything you do you can control and document—not to mention there’s TMZ jumping down your throat— the 80,000 artists that aren’t Kanye West and then all the press in the word isn’t going to change the fact that you’re not Kanye West. What you need is to be Chance the Rapper and tap into the zeitgeist, hit everything at the right moment. Or Tyler the Creator. You meet that kid and he’s a superstar, whatever he’s doing. Certain people are blessed with charisma and talent has nothing to do with it. If Tyler wasn’t a musician he’d be famous as an actor, a skater.
Or a GIF maker on Tumblr.
Nosnitsky: Exactly. But a lot of people don’t know how to do that. In some ways, that’s the story of Bay Area rap, where talented people aren’t savvy enough to tap into that. Which is fine, but it shouldn’t be detrimental to their career. Someone like Jacka should be as famous as Kanye West. If talent were the measurement, absolutely. But he’s not going to wear drop crotch leather pants.
It’s the commodification of the personality. You see it everywhere, even with your friends on Facebook.
Darrah: Yeah. Whoever can exploit themselves the most gets the furthest in that whole game.
Then they get $20,000 for a Kickstarter. It’s a weird, weird system.
Nosnitsky: I’m going to get on my soapbox now. It cuts across class lines, racial lines. Look at something like the Geto Boys Kickstarter. They had a packed show here last week. In certain communities, Scarface is one of the most famous men in America. But because his audience isn’t nerds sitting around with a fat PayPal account, waiting for the right Kickstarter to contribute to, their Kickstarter’s not popping. And it reflects poorly on them when it shouldn’t, it’s just the nature of their audience. It’s wack.
The most boring people on the internet have all the wealth and make all the choices. And it doesn’t have to be that way. And it’s not just boring people. The economy of internet celebrities and how everyone is promoting themselves fucks up the conversation about music, too, because it’s no longer about liking a song or not. It becomes political. Like, what does it mean to like Kendrick Lamar? Is that’s what’s expected of me?
Darrah: It’s all what’s cool, who to like, what represents you. There’s no real conversation about music anymore.
Nosnitsky: That’s what’s tight about this shop. Those people aren’t coming to record stores. They’re looking in the mirror. People who come here are excited about music—they’re like, oh, shit, that’s T.I.’s Trap Musik. There’s none of that social climbing or personal grooming. Some dude’s going to come in and buy a Soulja Boy 12-inch and a Can LP and we’re not going to judge him. I think that’s cool as fuck, honestly. Online, a lot of it is people getting suspicious. Are you being ironic, do you actually like Young Thug? If you pay $8 for something, you probably like it. Nobody’s going to buy a Soulja Boy 12-inch ironically, just to make a point to me. Like, see? Aren’t my tastes so unique?
Darrah: They can come in here and see you listening to Young Thug. But, hey, is that a put on, too?
Nosnitsky: This entire shop is an ironic put-on. We don’t even like rap. It’s all a sham for this Noisey interview.
Darrah: I can’t believe there was a time when people didn’t believe you like Future.
Nosnitsky: Well, that wasn’t a popular opinion. But when you’re listening to a song you love and someone’s on Twitter like, that’s a put-on—that’s a terrible feeling. Dishonesty was always what killed me about the internet. It hurts when you’re honest to a fault and people say nah, you’re full of shit. It’s fair, though. I’m suspicious, too. That’s the distance of the internet. If I put on a song that we like and you and I are standing here right now, there’s no question that we’ll both respond and see each other’s faces and know we like it. Online, you have to deal with this limited amount of information about how someone’s responding to something.
The people who do get noticed online are the loudest. It's like teen accounts with 200,000 followers that post pictures of blunts and Kendall Jenner.
Nosnitsky: That’s just a different game, though. And I don’t want to get too down on the internet. If you don’t like it, don’t play it. But for a lot of people from our generation of blogging out of curiosity and wanting to learn things, rather than presenting ourselves as authorities or cool people? We got swept off into the hype machine. At least I did, because my career was directly aligned with writing. The breaking point was Odd Future, where it went from “did you hear this weird B-side?” to “who’s the next big rapper to sign?” Our job became this prospecting thing.
There are parallels with Chicago and Chief Keef.
Nosnitsky: You can almost track it. It’s one to one. You get an Odd Future, then a Kreayshawn. A Chief Keef, then a Trinidad James. Keef got to marinate, but he was the breaking point of that street rap aspect of it. Odd Future was so easy for the indie guys to slide in on. After Keef happened it became a whole thing. I guess I contributed to this in some degree. But I was actually interested. All I’ve ever done is cover weird regional rap music. I wasn’t breaking artists. But if you look at a lot of these publications, it’s like, why are you covering this stuff? It’s the stock market for them. That’s how they get in on the ground floor.
Darrah: It’s nice for both of us, maybe especially you, to have this store as a place to escape the internet. I mean, I spend a lot of time online, but it’s auctions and internet sales. I don’t browse a whole lot.
Nosnitsky: Yeah. Online record stores are a whole different cesspool.
Darrah: We’re always talking about other stores whose owners don’t know much about rap. They’ll look things up online and get a totally unrealistic price. Here, we know when things aren’t worth much or, musically, aren’t that great.
Nosnitsky: eBay and Discogs and all that are a global marketplace, so pricing and demand are different. A record might be worth $50 because one dude in Germany and one dude in Japan are in a bidding war. Then American stores put it on the wall for $50, and, often, that record sucks. We’re just not going to have that shit in our bins.
Darrah: That’s for the internet. It works out nicely, what’s for the store and what’s online.
Nosnitsky: The overseas-slash-deep collector isn’t buying a Tribe Called Quest 12-inch. Whereas here, people are like oh, shit!
Darrah: Yeah, people who don’t live on the internet buying records see that and are like, I haven’t seen this in 20 years!
Nosnitsky: It’s exciting to sell music that we like again! I sold two copies of the Witchdoctor album already. He’s from the Dungeon Family with Outkast and Goodie Mob. It’s like mystical swamp Outkast. His records are worthless online, but here people say whoa, this is really interesting. The first guy bought it because it had a sticker that said mystical swamp funk Outkast, or something, and he asked me about it. I miss that as a buyer. Things have gotten so indie and classic rock-centric in retail music. I bought the Aphex Twin vinyl at Rasputin’s and two different clerks approached me to talk about it. And I bought the Migos CD, but I was thinking, dude, nobody’s going to talk to me here if I just buy this. It’s not a rap store. They won’t even make eye contact with you.
Most stores selling hip-hop have this 1999 mentality. They still have Dilla and Madlib. Which is cool, but if Migos came out on vinyl, it wouldn’t be a priority. It’s a self-affirming prophecy. People say, we’re not putting out Future’s 56 Nights because everyone downloads it, nobody would buy it. But people aren’t buying it because shops don’t have a culture that encourages you to buy it. Not that we have bootlegs of 56 Nights on the wall, but if we did, it would be our best-selling CD. If this store existed in every city in America, it would sell a lot of Young Thug and Future CDs. If it doesn’t exist they can’t produce the CDs, and it can’t exist because they can’t produce the CDs.
And then kids lose out.
Nosnitsky: Kids don’t come to record stores. Ninety-eight percent of our customers are over 25. I passed some kids skating on the way over here the other day, and I thought of my 12-year-old self in my neighborhood and this shop opening. If we opened this shop 20 years ago, it would be a dream. But those kids will never come here, which is what it is. I mean, they can just come hang out, they don’t have to buy anything.
Darrah: As far as we can tell, no kid from the movie Dope actually exists, with MTV Raps cards and NWA tapes in his room. And that’s our clientele.
Nosnitsky: But they should come! Honestly, they don’t have to buy anything. It’s just cool to know what it feels like to hold a Tribe Called Quest tape in your hand. It’s more interesting than looking at the artwork on Tumblr. I guess this could sound creepy. Like, kids, we have Young Thug.
Darrah: There hasn’t been a record store like this in Oakland in a long time. Since the 90s.
Nosnitsky: People have very quickly figured out what kind of store this is. We bought two copies of the Drake album and haven’t sold one yet.
Darrah: Yeah, you were like, Drake is going to sell ten copies the first day.
Nosnitsky: But again, I think Drake is a perfect example of what we were talking about. People who like Drake aren’t as invested as the people who buy a Totally Insane tape. They don’t come in here like, I remember playing this in my mom’s Acura in ‘97. The relationship’s different. And I’ve come to terms with Drake, I’m not anti-Drake anymore. But there’s a generational divide, and it is what it is. I can sit there for the rest of my life banging my head against the wall being like, fuck Drake, listen to Totally Insane. Or I can build something for the people who want to listen to Totally Insane. It’s a really easy choice.
With me, like, it’s alienating. Straight up. It’s alienating to be here listening to Bored Stiff and being on the internet and all anybody’s talking about is Drake and FKA Twigs. You know? That’s not the way it used to be on the internet.
But you have to build a space for people with different tastes. It’s all about scaling. If 100 people like something, they’re putting 100 percent of their energy into it. If 100,000 people like something, they’re putting 1 percent of their energy into it. It’s the same amount of support and energy in the air. That’s why something like Bored Stiff goes unknown, but for a certain person into Bay Area rap, they’re like, oh. This is out on vinyl? It’s like Prince said. The internet’s over, man. Earl Sweatshirt, that dude’s reading books. Even Future. Those are my two favorite tapes right now, Earl and Future.
Darrah: What about Barter 6?
Nosnitsky: You know, Barter 6 is all right. I don’t think it’s perfect. But Thug, too. These people aren’t on their phone 24/7, tweeting. You need to have content as an artist, but they do the bare minimum. Our store needs to have an Instagram, too. But they’re not internet artists, in the way Odd Future was in the beginning, with 40 hours of Tyler tweeting and new art on the Tumblr. Anybody who wants to do good work in the world has already figured out that it’s not going to happen on the internet.
Tyler Trykowski loves and hates the internet. Follow him on Twitter.