It's a smoggy afternoon in Long Beach. World Famous V.I.P. Records sits tucked in a strip mall off Pacific Coast Highway, its façade marked with sun-bleached outlines of album posters. The store's iconic record-shaped sign still stands tall, though it could use a paint job. Speakers in the doorway, meanwhile, blare '90s R&B.
The shop is open, but it's empty, which is par for the course lately. That's why after 33 years in business, owner Kelvin Anderson was scheduled to close V.I.P.'s doors for good this past weekend.
Taking calls behind the register on his Bluetooth, the 57-year-old Anderson wears a polo shirt, frameless glasses and a neatly trimmed goatee. He hardly looks ready to retire, yet there's resignation in his voice. "I waited way too long to try to reinvent us," he says.
V.I.P. Records hasn't turned a profit since 2003 — the year iTunes launched — and began accruing debt about five years later. Anderson says he and his son, Kelvin Jr., with whom he runs the store, can no longer afford to pay their rent and utility bills.
V.I.P. has undergone several downsizings in the past decade. The store's original entrance on PCH now leads into a vacant storefront next door, and the wall that divides the two spaces is crowded with sunglasses, hats, jewelry, incense burners — anything to help counter dismal CD sales.
Record stores have been shuttering all over the country, but the fall of V.I.P. is particularly dispiriting. After all, "World Famous" isn't an affectation; V.I.P. is iconic in the annals of West Coast gangsta rap. It housed the studio where Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg — then a trio known as 213 — recorded the demo that led to their big breaks. The rooftop sign has been the backdrop for videos including Snoop's "Who Am I (What's My Name)" and Jermaine Dupri's "Welcome to Atlanta" remix.
Taking a seat on the in-store performance stage — which has been graced over the years by artists such as Nate Dogg and LL Cool J — Anderson discusses the establishment's 1990s heyday, during which it hosted standing-room-only record signings and concerts.
The store also has played a key role in breaking urban artists, even those who never stepped through its doors. It once served as a tastemaker for the neighborhood and even for Los Angeles as a whole.
At one point, the V.I.P. name was attached to a dozen outposts in Southern California. The chain's original location in South Central was founded by Anderson's older brother Cletus in the late 1960s; it specialized in gospel, Motown and R&B.
After graduating from high school in Brandon, Miss., in 1972, a teenage Anderson followed Cletus to Los Angeles and got into the business. Together they opened V.I.P.'s Long Beach location — their 12th — in 1978; Anderson bought it shortly thereafter.
"Some kids go to college, but I got my degree in the music industry working at V.I.P.," he says.
In the '70s and '80s V.I.P. distributed albums and housed two labels, Magic Disc Records and Saturn Records, the latter of which put out Ice-T's 1982 debut single, "The Coldest Rap."
By the next decade, V.I.P. was an urban-music powerhouse. Eugene Luckett, a former retail marketing and distribution executive for Polygram, BMG and Capitol, has worked with Anderson for 15 years and describes him as instrumental to the success of artists he handled, including Warren G, Notorious B.I.G., TLC and Whitney Houston.
"In the '90s all the labels wanted the next West Coast gangsta rapper," Luckett says. "Kelvin was a portal for executives who didn't know anything about those artists."
Label reps like him relied on Anderson to tell them who was hot and how to market new albums to urban communities like Long Beach. After all, Anderson always seemed to understand what those audiences wanted to hear.
"He could get 1,000 people to show up to an in-store with minimal advertising," Luckett says. "That truly speaks to his bond with the community."
By the early '90s, West Coast hip-hop was taking over, and the kids visiting the store wanted in. Anderson enlisted the help of L.A. producer Sir Jinx to build an in-store recording studio, in part to bolster what he calls V.I.P.'s role as a "safe haven" for young people in the community.
Fresh off the success of Ice Cube's first two solo records, Jinx brought Anderson to his cousin Dr. Dre's house and showed him an SP1200 drum machine. "That was all you needed to make a hip-hop record in those days," Anderson recalls.
With Jinx's help, he soon transformed the store's back storage room into a veritable musical playground for the local kids.
Snoop and 213 recorded a demo there — "[V.I.P.] gave us life," Snoop recently told Current TV — and Anderson was struck by their sound. "They were something totally unique," he says. "You had Snoop's smooth delivery, which you could enjoy even without music to back it up, and you had [Nate Dogg], who was incorporating hooks right into the raps. That was brand new."
Death Row Records signed Snoop later that year, after Warren G played the demo at a birthday party for Dr. Dre, his half-brother.
Anderson also helped facilitate the rise of Warren G, hooking him up with director John Singleton, who needed music for his 1993 film, Poetic Justice. Warren G's track with Nate Dogg, "Indo Smoke," caught the ears of executives at Violator/Def Jam, and his debut, Regulate ... G Funk Era, went multiplatinum.
But that was then. Now, to ease his debt, Anderson plans to open a small V.I.P. outpost in the same complex to sell the 30,000 vinyl records V.I.P. has accumulated over the years.
"We got a little of everything in there — 12-inch records, 45s," Anderson says, adding that the inventory — which also will be sold online through the store's website — ranges from the gospel hawked in V.I.P.'s salad days to 213's demo.
It smells something like a fire sale, and it has provoked widespread angst.
"You can't walk into a Best Buy and have a discussion with the clerk about the new local artist playing on the speakers, and get recommendations from them," laments Luckett. "And you certainly can't get that on iTunes."
Not that the community hasn't tried to save the store. In October comedian Ricky Harris — a former Def Comedy Jam host who got his start doing skits on albums recorded at V.I.P. — hosted a comedy benefit at the Laugh Factory; it brought in several thousand dollars.
"That was great, but we'd need to throw about 200 more of those just to break even," Anderson says.
Ideally, he'd like to reinvent the store as a music museum, showcasing the history of music technology — think 8-tracks and old SP1200s. He'd also reconstruct the recording studio, torn down during V.I.P.'s downsizing in recent years. Eventually, he wants to revive the Kelvin Anderson Foundation, the stalled nonprofit he founded in 2006, which provided local kids with music-industry opportunities. "Right now, though, I'm just hoping I can get a good price for the sign on eBay," he admits.
Anderson will use that money to pay off the rest of the store's debt and eventually return to Mississippi, where he hopes to find more lucrative business opportunities. His son, however, plans to stick around the music industry in marketing and distribution. He cites his father's work as his inspiration.
"As a kid, I'd see the Wu-Tang guys or Notorious B.I.G. come in here just to buy records and meet the man behind the counter," says Kelvin Jr. "Everyone who came to the store treated me like their little brother. It was like all of Long Beach was my family. And in that sense, we'll never really leave."