By Damian Ghigliotty
We used to call the best places and things gems because they were hard to find. Places and things you had to dig for.
Back in high school, my friends and I would spend a lot of our time (and lunch money) at the record store Fat Beats in the West Village. The biggest craze among us, as 16-year-old Brooklyn kids, was original, unfiltered underground hip-hop. It was the same music anyone can find on iTunes today, but back then — ’95-’99 for my graduating class — it was usually local, almost always on vinyl, and extremely sacred compared to what everyone else was listening to on the radio at that time. The only exceptions to that were Stretch & Bobbito, two well known voices on 89.9 FM (WKCR.) From 1 am to 5 am on Thursdays, they spun nothing but good hip-hop. And a lot of us stayed up to record it.
The albums and 12-inches that generated the biggest buzz across the five boroughs were quickest to disappear off the walls of Fat Beats, and one day my friend Frank and I became the envy of 20 other Brooklyn teenagers for having found two of the last original pressings of the debut Juggaknots LP (later re-released on CD as “Re:Release.”) I soon came to learn with a tinge of jealousy that Frank also owned an original pressing of the Company Flow “Funcrusher” EP, a fresh clear-green vinyl, and Frank later became a little jealous as well when he found out my sister’s friend had given me a copy of the original Slim Shady EP (though he won’t admit it now that Eminem’s beyond famous.) Funny enough, all three of those records had plain white sleeves, meaning no cover art and no pictures of what the artists looked like.
When the internet started to become a recognized place to find and buy independent music — I would argue around the beginning of 1997 — my friends and I discovered a website called Sandbox Automatic that gave us instant access to even harder to find records. It was a sudden maturity in our exposure to the whole subculture of hip-hop and we went to the site as much as we could to buy albums, EPs and singles that record shops like Fat Beats and Beat Street in Brooklyn didn’t carry. Less local, but just as precious and just as tangible when the packages finally came in the mail. Then suddenly, the next few years shot ahead something like this:
I quickly jumped into the first wave of the Napster phenomena in my first semester of college, went back to buying records when I came back to the city feeling guilty, had trouble getting those records onto my computer, awkwardly began buying CDs (blasphemy though it was), got tired of spending money on full-length CDs, quickly moved onto LimeWire, then SoulSeek, and occasionally iTunes, where my access to music — hip-hop, rock, soul and otherwise — thrives today.
Needless to say, most of the value we placed on underground hip-hop throughout high school has dissipated with the past. The physical records will always look and feel like gems in a way, especially caked in dust these days, but in 2008 that same music is ubiquitous and no longer hard to find. And that’s a disappointment at times. Not just due to personal nostalgia, but also due to a fear that when I have kids one day they won’t be able to cherish something the rest of the world hasn’t already seen or heard.
And here’s the much needed caveat I can’t seem to find a proper place for: I hold no resentment against the growth of the Internet and digital music (only a minor grudge), nor am I adverse to other forms of digital media, or digital networking sites like facebook, or blogging (though I hate the word.) But I do believe the ultimate downside to the digital era hasn’t been fully realized yet. Or I’m too reluctant to join an online chat group about it.
Since last year I’ve been a regular contributor to one of the world’s oldest hip-hop magazines, HHC, based out of London. As a personal formality of sorts, whenever I interview artists I ask them what they think of the Internet as a promotional tool. And almost every time I get the same response albeit in different form: “It’s great.”
“But don’t you feel like hip-hop is becoming oversaturated?” I ask.
“Nope, I stand out,” is the usual reply.
It’s arguable that iTunes and LimeWire have been good for most independent artists — since so few choose to stay underground. But something was lost in the transition to ubiquity and it wasn’t just the physical embodiment of music.