[Update Friday, April 21, 2017: After this story was published, L.A. Weekly was notified by VIP Records branding president Shirin Senegal that due to the positive response from the city, the sign is no longer for sale. More details below.]
A little over a year ago, VIP Records in Long Beach said it was finally, officially, for real, no joke closing for good and that the legendary hip-hop record shop’s sign — you know, the one Snoop Dogg turned into a global symbol of West Coast hip-hop after he rapped in front of it in his debut music video for “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” — was for sale by the store’s owner, Kelvin Anderson.
Well, none of that went quite as planned. Boxes of records and cassettes still live in the small strip-mall storefront Anderson has occupied since 2012 and, perhaps more sadly, the iconic sign never sold, leaving the man who provided the recording studio and retail space to launch the careers of Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg still scrambling for the necessary funds so he can finally, officially, for real, no joke retire.
Despite its celebrated status and priceless place in the ’90s pop culture pantheon, the sign was a difficult piece of memorabilia to hawk. This is partly because of the terms involved — in need of pricy repair, the sign was being sold as is, and the buyer had to figure out how to haul it away — and partly because Anderson wasn’t just seeking to sell it to the highest bidder.
After losing the store to the internet era and having little but faded pictures and memories to prove his integral role in the rise of West Coast hip-hop, Anderson saw the sale of the sign as a way to preserve his legacy — and finally see some dividends for his lifetime of work.
“I won’t sell it for less than what I feel it’s worth,” Anderson said in 2015, estimating it should be able to net him at least half a million dollars. “What do you think 36 years of your efforts are worth to you?”
In the meantime, unbeknown to Anderson, the building’s owner filed to register the sign as a historic landmark, a move that would have made it difficult for Anderson to move or alter the sign without permits from the city. Though Anderson said he owns the rights to the sign, the Long Beach City Council voted to alter the preservation process in August 2015 and explicitly removed the provision that requires owner consent.
Basically, if the landmark status went through, it would have functioned as a form of eminent domain, where Anderson would still technically own the sign (and could sell it) but have no control over its movement or renovation. The city would get its cool-kid historical landmark — representative of music that emerged out of a harsh and violent era in the city’s history that officials have up until now done their best to ignore — but the man who turned the former Whistler Liquor sign into something historic in the first place would just return to life as the struggling executor of the VIP Records brand.
Anderson didn’t find out about the move to make the VIP sign a historic landmark until early March, when someone told him that a city-commissioned study found the sign to be of cultural and historic significance to Long Beach, and the proposal to award it landmark status would be voted on at the April 10 Cultural Heritage Commission meeting.
Luckily, the local community that Anderson spent decades cultivating stepped up to defend his right to do what he wanted with the sign. He launched a Change.org petition to stop the “illegal” preservation of the VIP Records sign and received about 1,900 signatures in just under a week. Anderson also organized a coalition to mob the March 14 Long Beach City Council meeting, which got the attention of Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who called a confusion-clearing meeting with Anderson the next day.
The precise terms of the meeting between Anderson and the mayor were vague, but we do know it ended up solving two things: It guaranteed continued ownership of the sign to Anderson and it removed discussion of the sign’s historical status from the April 10 Cultural Heritage Commission meeting agenda. What remains unknown, however, is who will step up to buy the sign now? If someone does buy it, will it remain in Long Beach? How much money will Anderson make from it?
In a perfect world, someone — either a well-off rap nerd or, hell, any number of successful members of the hip-hop community (which has been oddly silent throughout all this) — would buy the sign from Anderson, then donate it to the city of Long Beach along with some extra money to fulfill what Anderson now says is his ultimate goal, turning his former storefront into the World Famous VIP Records Black Music Museum and Creative Arts and Technology Center. A more grassroots tactic would be to launch a GoFundMe campaign where hip-hop fans and Long Beach locals alike can donate money toward a collective pool, which could be used to buy the sign from Anderson and finance the construction of a museum.
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What’s at stake here is not only the fate of the sign but Anderson’s cultural and financial legacy. The man who spent a lifetime supporting artists and selling their records doesn’t have much to show for it. He deserves to retire with dignity, not totally broke.
Last week, Anderson posted an update on Facebook that hinted at progress on at least a few of his stated goals. In the caption alongside a photo of him with Snoop Dogg, Anderson said the two were discussing plans for the museum. When a commenter asked, "Where's Warren G at?" Anderson replied, "Coming soon."
There was no mention of the sign itself. But after years of uncertainty over what will ultimately be the legacy of both Kelvin Anderson and VIP Records, things finally seem to be moving in a positive direction.
[Update: After this story was originally published on Tuesday, April 18, 2017, VIP Records branding president Shirin Senegal informed L.A. Weekly that the sign will remain in the possession of Kelvin Anderson, who has plans to restore it and keep it in Long Beach as an anchor for the World Famous VIP Records Black Music Museum and Creative Arts and Technology Center, which he hopes to build inside the strip mall that housed the original shop. Once the museum is open, Anderson hopes to submit the sign for local, state and possibly national historical landmark status.]