The album buying process, from discovery to purchase, has drastically deviated from what I remember it being like when I was an adolescent. As a 30 year young hip-hop head and overall music enthusiast refusing to accept this as a reality, it was up to me to somehow recourse that perspective.
I’ll never forget my first album buying experience. I was sitting on the couch the other day, reminiscing on this historic day in my life, and I realized that an almost unbelievable situation had happened to me that day. The hip-hop scene was flourishing, and the culture was still coming of age. Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers had just come out. I was with my cousin, who’s one year older than me, on the day this album released – November 9, 1993. We specifically remember buying this album on its release day because Strawberries was having a big, one day only, event for it. We could never forget that or the packed entrance of the store on that historic day.
If you’re not a Massachusetts local, Strawberries was a Massachusetts-based record store chain back in the day. As a kid, I’d spend a ton of time up there, staring at their chalkboard of upcoming releases. This was the 90’s, before the internet, where (ask a kid) we had to physically walk to the store and read a giant handwritten list to see what and when new music was coming out.
I was born in 1986, and my cousin was born in 1985. Now if you can do basic math, you quickly realize that we were young as shit – somehow buying 36 Chambers at ages 7 and 8. Just picture this for one moment: two scrawny kids walk into a record store with high hopes of leaving with a piece of history, neither of whom can see over the counter. Heavily draped in the finest Bugle Boy attire, complete with swishy pants and original J’s – the two fearlessly march inside.
We knew were we home. Everything just felt…”right”, being surrounded by the one thing other than our moms that we unconditionally loved – music. Immediately encountering and staring aimlessly at a giant, glorious Wu-Tang cardboard display, they reach out – hesitate for a moment as if to to almost touch a hot stove – and bravely snatch a copy of 36 Chambers off the shelf. Nervously walking up to the register, the pair tosses $25 (most likely in change) to the cashier and say a silent prayer while he counts it for the next 15 minutes. The CD gets dropped into the bag and we out the front door (most likely in slow motion). WHAT.
We felt like champions walking home. We didn’t even need to stand on each other’s shoulders in a trench coat to disguise ourselves as an adult – we were just a couple of toddlers running shit. Nobody could tell us anything. Random reminder: we were 7 and 8 years old and just bought fucking 36 Chambers. We got back to the crib and popped the CD in my cousin’s Aiwa boombox, sat back and absorbed. Not two minutes later, his mom rushed in screaming about the swearing and the content. She forced us to return it that same day. We were pissed to say the least, but instead of just getting our money back – we went all in and swapped it for Black Moon’s newly released debut, Enta Da Stage.
I was afraid I might not ever feel that same feeling, or form a memory, like that again. But this reflection just one in a sea of many to come.
How times have changed. I can easily say the process for discovering a new artist or buying an album today is exponentially less fun, and less involved, than it was growing up in the 90s. It’s just so instant. You scroll, you click. Scroll, click. Woop, what a blast. It seems like the most exciting part now is the initial announcement, which is kind of lame. The marketing plans of today are just that – plain old marketing plans. Rarely do they connect with fans on a personal level and actually plant an instinctive need to buy. I seek that. I praise all current artists today who still make an effort to give fans a memorable album buying experience. They might not always (conveniently) be right out in the open for you, but there are a lot of them out there.
My favorite marketing tactic an artist has done is still Kanye’s “New Slaves” video premiere, when he debuted the visuals by projecting them on 66 buildings across the globe. I can’t forget to mention packaging. How about when Freeway and Jake One released The Stimulus Package in 2010 and it was basically a wallet formation with giant cash inside when unfolded? Brilliant. I have a huge box under my bed with the craziest promo items: Smif-N-Wessun rolling papers, DuckDown stress balls, Roc-A-Fella pens, Loud Records koozies, Cool Kids’ Swedish Fish from their When Fish Ride Bicycles album – you name it. It’s the big things and the little things.
Top 3 ways I discovered music as a kid:
1. Physically walking into a store and seeing signage
2. BET, MTV and music videos
3. Word of mouth
Top 3 ways I discover music as an adult:
3. Word of mouth
Shoot, I remember when albums used to come with giant posters and other promotional items and you didn’t have to buy them separately in “deluxe packages,” as you would today. Big Pun’s Endangered Species album poster from ’01 still hangs on my wall today; torn, tattered and taped corners from years of moving around. Artists, before the beautiful tool we call the internet was invented, were also more obligated to be around the public more so than today. It wasn’t unlikely that your local record store, given you lived in a decently populated area, would have something called an “in-store” where you’d see (and maybe even speak to) them up close and personal. Today, we admire them more from a distance, and that disconnection is felt often for someone my age…or maybe it’s just me.
Artists like Chance The Rapper, Kanye, Cousin Stizz, Michael Christmas, Siimba Liives Long, Jay Prince, Russ, Amine and Jungle are just a few great examples of artists who understand the importance of directly connecting with fans. Man, this guy OG Swaggerdick from Boston dropped his Game Boy Colored project in 2014 and had the “listening party” on a Red line train as people got on and off. BRILLIANT. These guys always find a way to ignite a flame in me when they let a record go. That’s a rare feeling, being compelled to make a purchase based solely off an image or image set, a strong visual, or a powerful promo message. We have to appreciate artists who take the time to put themselves in fans’ shoes and ask “What would I want to see?”, “What would inspire me?” The music is one thing, creatively marketing it is another.
As I was born in ’86, I just missed the crate digging era. I was buying tapes and CDs all through high school, but as I got older and streaming was coming of age, I was less interested in purchasing albums than I was just listening to them for free. Limewire, Bearshare, Napster – eventually graduating to today’s services: Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music. It was cool, but something about that process was siphoning away my interest in the music, and the culture. I was in a weird place, even feeling guilty for not supporting the artists I listen to. A lot of people take this topic for granted, but I love hip-hop so much, it was personal. I wasn’t having fun discovering and I wasn’t contributing to artists’ success financially so something had to change. I had to get out of the slump.
That’s when Record Store Day came around and changed all that. I bought my first Crosley record player. It was a special RSD/Peanuts edition. When I was handing my card to the cashier, I just know I had an excited smirk on my face. My passion for discovery was instantly re-sparked. I started visiting places like Newbury Comics, flea markets and The Salvation Army to dig for vinyl, eventually asking my OG’s like the honorary Hip Hop Webster, Dart Adams, and DJ Ready Cee for advice on where the hills were that contained the real gold. It’s crazy to think that one $75 purchase could change my entire outlook on how I buy music. It feels fun again. Between digging for old and new vinyl and streaming, I’m in a pretty damn good place right now – creating new memories and Strawberries flashbacks through prolific/innovative modern-day marketing, advancements in the ease of streaming and the physical experience of attending live shows.
What’s the moral of the story? Your happiness is dependent on interpretation, and how you see the world. I may have gotten older, and people on Twitter may call me an “elitist,” but I’m still learning new tricks and still not giving a damn what people think about the music I LIKE. From the way you stumble upon it to the sound it plays, music is highly manipulatable and leaves you with an open-ended question that also relates to life in general: Will you allow yourself to be happy, or get lost in the trials and tribulations of minor issues?
In this overly saturated market we live in today, good music is still out there and it’s no longer the artists fault if you can’t find it – but it is still their responsibility to find a way to informatively connect to you so you can discover it. The internet may have morphed our experience a little bit, but it’s also intensified how the hunt plays out in many good ways by speaking to us through new and adjusted mediums.
Find happiness in your process.