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From the street, Vintage Vinyl's shop in the Delmar Loop looks like your classic friendly neighborhood record store (albeit one housed in a former movie theater). A promotional display for the new album from Nelly, St. Louis' hometown rap hero, fills the front window, and in a nod to the recent vice-presidential debate hoopla, the marquee proclaims, "Other stores Palin comparison."
Inside, beyond the rows of neatly arrayed CDs and LPs, a hand-scrawled "Employees Only" sign on one side of a set of double doors leads to a narrow, dimly illuminated corridor lined with cardboard boxes filled with records. Still more records are piled precariously on desks. At the end of the hallway is a cell-like, brick-walled room.
A month ago it was impossible to set foot inside. Beginning in 1990, when the store moved from its previous location three blocks east, the room gradually accumulated box upon box of unsellable records and trash bags full of promotional materials. Longtime Vintage Vinyl employee (and frequent Riverfront Times contributor) James Weber was recently assigned the chore of cleaning up the place.
"Nobody had been in here for years. It took four months of excavation to even be able to walk in," recounts Weber, standing in the center of the now-tidy space. "It was a dumping ground for shit we didn't know what to do with."
Digging through the disorder, Weber struck gold.
The buried treasure: several dozen pressings of two records with roots that stretch deep into the history of St. Louis hip-hop. The discs, tucked in plain white sleeves and still sealed in cellophane, are twelve-inch singles. One, which dates back to 1987, is "The Power of Soul," performed by Dangerous D and DJ Charlie Chan. The other, released a year later, is Early D's "Culture Shock."
Like the vast majority of St. Louisans, Weber had never heard the songs. Still, he immediately recognized the significance of his discovery, not least of all because one of his bosses, Vintage Vinyl co-owner Tom "Papa" Ray, is listed as executive producer on the bright yellow labels of both platters.
"Tom has always told us stories about the records," Weber says. "When you work here, you just kind of learn things like that by osmosis."
To Ray and the others who made them, the artifacts are worth much more than the $6.99 price tag that was slapped on them when they were placed on the store's shelves for the first time in nearly twenty years. They tell the story of a handful of people who came together at the right place and time to write a new chapter in St. Louis' musical history.
Hip-hop historians generally agree that the music and movement originated in the housing projects of the Bronx in the early 1970s. It was there that a young Jamaican immigrant named Clive Campbell who'd dubbed himself DJ Kool Herc began using his turntables to manipulate the drum and bass portions (known as "breaks") of the day's popular soul and funk songs, playing them in a continuous loop. When performing at neighborhood block parties, Herc enlisted a friend to be his "master of ceremonies" and shout phrases like "Ya rock and ya don't stop!" — à la the "toasting" by MCs in his native country. Thus rapping was born.
Other DJs copied and expanded on the style. Eventually another New Yorker, who went by the name Grandmaster Flash, took the mixing of breaks to a new level by rhythmically scratching the vinyl against the needle on the tone arm and incorporating elements such as drum machines. A gang leader turned peace activist, Afrika Bambaataa, diversified the sound by using breaks from disparate styles — everything from African and Caribbean music to the songs of the German band Kraftwerk. But mainstream audiences were slow to catch on to the new genre, and as the '70s waned, knowledge of hip-hop's existence remained limited to a few thousand music-obsessed individuals living in the New York area.
One of those people was Tom Ray.
In 1976 Ray was a Webster College (since renamed Webster University) dropout living in New York and working three jobs in the music industry: He managed a jazz club in SoHo, worked at a wholesale music distributor in Spanish Harlem and clerked at a record store that served midtown Manhattan.
He can still recall the exact moment he first heard hip-hop.
"I was catching the A train one evening in 1978. Even back then boom-box culture was big, and as I was waiting for the train I started listening to what this kid had on his box," Ray imparts in the faint Southern drawl left over from his Georgia childhood. "When I heard it, I said, 'Oh wow, that's cute. He took a drum break and looped it. I've done that before.'"
Ray's approach to music has always been eccentric. He possesses a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of blues, soul and funk to go with his Kangol hat, sunglasses and pointy white goatee. He has traveled to Jamaica to hear obscure reggae and dub artists perform, and on his forearm he sports a self-portrait tattoo, depicting him playing the harmonica with the words "Cry Tuff" etched below. Ask Ray how's he's doing on any given day and he'll reply, "Musically."
[Editor's Note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]
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