It’s the most famous record store in hip-hop history, and not just for what used to be inside.
VIP Records — which first announced it would be closing in 2012, before downsizing into a smaller unit in the same Long Beach strip mall — is finally, officially, seriously and no joke, not a brick-and-mortar reality anymore. It officially closed Dec. 31.
But it’s not the 36 years’ worth of slinging fresh 8-tracks, records, cassettes and CDs that most of the world will remember about the historic shop. Or the small homegrown studio built into an old storage room where Nate Dogg, Warren G and Snoop Dogg recorded their first demo tape together as 213. VIP won’t even be remembered (though it should) for its tenacious owner Kelvin Anderson, who has been instrumental to the success of not only Long Beach's best rappers, but also a slew of gospel, jazz, R&B and reggae artists.
No, VIP Records will be best remembered for its iconic sign — a 20-foot-tall, Googie-ish, painted steel structure, which, for now, rests on top of the original location facing drivers as they cruise down PCH. It’s the store’s de facto logo, one that became globally recognizable after it was featured in Snoop Dogg’s 1993 “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” music video and has since become synonymous with both VIP Records and West Coast hip-hop as a whole.
And in the wake of the store’s closure, it's for sale.
“We were always locally known, but as far as around the world, people didn’t catch on until hip-hop happened and Snoop’s video made it famous,” Anderson says from behind the counter inside the small storefront where VIP spent its last three years. He’s not technically open anymore but he’s still got some inventory work to do before he moves it all to a warehouse (online store coming soon), so the door is unlocked and locals trickle in to say their goodbyes.
To prove his last point, he tells a story about a customer of his who was traveling in Africa some years back and decided to wear a VIP shirt, which only had a drawing of the sign on it. The man kept getting stopped by fans of the shop who recognized the logo — people who felt a connection with a record shop half a world away.
“I knew it was known but not on that level,” he says. “The reaction has been unbelievable.”
The sign itself already existed in some form when Anderson’s brother Cletus opened the Long Beach outpost of his L.A. record-store chain VIP Records in 1978. Anderson, who bought the store from his brother the following year, says the sign belonged to the business that occupied the storefront before VIP, a liquor store called Whistler Liquor, which explains why the man on the sign is whistling.
Using Whistler’s original sign as a base, Anderson transformed it into something that represented his own business, painting “VIP” in the top part and turning the center into a black vinyl record, complete with blinking neon lights that gave it a spinning effect.
Since then, the sign has gone through nearly a dozen incremental changes and touch-ups. For a while, the writing on the record was removed, then the yellow portions were painted white. When Snoop Dogg’s album was released, they installed a promotional doghouse on it.
Sometime in the mid-‘90s, after fans from as far away as Germany and Japan started calling in orders and stopping by while on vacation, Anderson added the words “World Famous” to the sign. He also, and perhaps most symbolically, changed the skin tone of the whistling man from white to black.
By 1998, after the sign had been canonized in even more rap videos, the store’s reputation was so great that Anderson had to do something besides sell records — he had to accommodate the tourists.
“People always wanted to get up on the roof and take a picture with the sign but I only allow certain people up there,” Anderson says, “so I had a local guy paint a version of the sign I could put inside. He didn’t want to paint the whistler guy, so he painted me on there instead.”
Now that VIP Records is closing for good (blame the digitization of music for that one), Anderson is looking for someone to buy the sign that made his store as “world famous” as it touts. He would love for it to stay in Long Beach, and says he heard the city might be interested in making it a historic landmark. But mostly, he just wants to put some money into his retirement fund, which he admits isn’t much right now.
“People keep telling me, ‘You can’t sell the sign.’ But the sign represents 36 years of my life and I can’t leave it here to end up with the names of other businesses on it,” he says. “I got love for Long Beach, but at my age, it’s about me.”
He briefly put the sign on eBay with a minimum opening bid of $50,000, but the auction was canceled last week, before it could receive any offers. Terms of the auction stated that the sign would need to be removed at the buyer’s expense, but without an immediate buyer, he might soon be calling a company and removing it himself. Covered as it is in several years of bird droppings, and with only one of the three balls on its top spires intact, it also needs a loving restoration.
“I won’t sell it for less than what I feel it’s worth,” he says.
And what does he feel it’s worth?
“Maybe not a million but I figure at least half that,” he says. “What do you think 36 years of your efforts are worth to you?”