Earlier this year, at the see-and-be-seen opening party of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exhibition “Pump Me Up,” the District that is toasted the District that was—and if you squinted the right way at the vintage Globe posters lining the museum’s second-floor rotunda, the surreality of it all began to seep through.
Partygoers scarfed down catered half-smokes and Shake Shack custard while dancing to Trouble Funk classics queued up by Henry Rollins. Rare Essence flyers, Dischord album sleeves, Ian MacKaye’s skateboard, and DJ Kool’s turntable were all on display, while in the museum shop, the exhibition’s 300-page hardcover catalog sold for $45. Photos of wall tags by Cool Ass Lisa of the World and Cool “Disco” Dan sat behind glass, probably the one place they were never intended to be displayed. The exhibit (the sponsors of which included Washington City Paper) was intended to celebrate the fascinating cultural anomalies of D.C.’s grisly Reagan era, but it also served as a eulogy, a reminder that a once-living culture could be summarized with so many dusty relics.
Not far from Chuck Brown’s jacket and Little Benny’s trumpet, attendees heading toward the bathroom might have noticed one artifact from the “Pump Me Up” decade whose legacy still quietly persists. “$5 off any pants or blues jeans with a record purchase,” read a pumpkin-tinted poster from Kemp Mill Records and Tapes. The cross-promotional offer, which expired in the spring of 1985, won’t earn much credit toward luxury denim in today’s District; all the Up Against the Wall outlets named in the advertisement’s fine print are defunct.
The rough-edged city that “Pump Me Up” explored for nostalgic value may have faded, as trend pieces on the blanching of Chocolate City frequently proclaim. But Kemp Mill, once a 36-location chain as ubiquitous as the sound of go-go’s off-kilter rhythms, still has one outpost, a location at 3743 Branch Ave., just outside of the city’s Southeast quadrant in Temple Hills, Md., in a notoriously rough part of Prince George’s County.
The last remaining Kemp Mill is located next door to the Iverson Mall, which comedian Katt Williams once dubbed the “most ghetto mall in all of America.” In 1986, Kemp Mill launched an outlet inside the shopping center. The existing store sits in a strip mall alongside an apparel store and a Cricket Wireless.
Although Williams’ description would never be mistaken for flattery, Kemp Mill’s overt efforts to cater to an underserved community give it much of its charm. Voluptuous cover girls line the magazine racks courtesy of street-oriented publications like Straight Stuntin’ and Don Diva; there are none of the back issues of Wax Poetics you might find in vinyl boutiques in Adams Morgan or Montgomery County. The hip-hop, jazz, soul, and go-go sections are some of the more impressive you’ll find in the region.
Armando Cruz, one of the three current owners, puts it this way: Kemp Mill Music, he says, is “D.C.’s last true record store.”
It’s barely 9 a.m. on Record Store Day, and there’s already a line growing in the parking lot outside Kemp Mill Music. Unfortunately, the queue leads to the entrance of DTLR, the tenant next door, which today happens to be selling Barkley Foamposites and the umpteenth reissue of the Air Jordan VIIIs.
Inside Kemp Mill, Cruz and co-owner Sam Lloyd are preparing for a brief in-store appearance by the rapper Stalley. Behind the sales counter, Lloyd is shuffling through paperwork; over his head hangs a portrait of R&B crooner Raheem DeVaughn created by painter Demont Peekaso during an event at the store five years ago. “It’s business as usual, Stalley just happened to coincide with Record Store Day,” says Cruz, who’s lived in the United States for 30 years but still speaks in a smothering Guatemalan accent. “Any type of in-store we do nowadays isn’t really even an in-store. It’s more like a walk-in, because it’s very casual. In the old days we had real in-stores.”
Elsewhere across the region, record stores are ushering in herds of early-bird customers hungry for overpriced vinyl reissues. Kemp Mill’s comparatively slim attendance can probably be attributed to the store’s limited vinyl stock, which is barely enough to fill a couple of 16-quart milk crates. Instead, the aisles are flooded with thousands of compact discs encased in bulky plastic anti-theft frames. Kemp Mill doesn’t invest much in wax because of the high prices for new releases.
Lloyd rummages through his cluttered desk drawer and yanks out a recent wholesale order form. Kid Cudi’s latest full-length, Indicud, is listed at $29.99; LL Cool J’s Authentic costs $19.37. “These are two pieces we were interested in purchasing this week,” he says. “But that’s just too expensive for such slow-turning items.”
The store’s management, which also includes co-owner Danny Lamb, has flirted with the idea of launching an online system for downloadable titles, but thanks to a customer base that averages somewhere between the ages of 30 and 70, they do fine selling physical product. Many of their older customers still aren’t comfortable with ordering, much less downloading, music from the Internet. “Today I did a special order for a guy that came in with an Amazon page he printed out at home,” Lloyd says. “The CD would have only cost him $14.99 plus shipping to order himself. But he says ‘I don’t know how to do it.’ I tell him straight up that it’s going to be an extra $10 for our time and energy, and he says ‘fine.’ We have that kind of customer base.”
While many Washington-area record stores have at least a rudimentary go-go subdivision, 16 feet of rack space at Kemp Mill is devoted to the genre. After years of networking with local bands, Cruz, who says he handles the store’s “street flavor,” has amassed a deep collection of PA tapes, or live performances recorded from audio boards. The section is littered with momentous gigs: “Rare Essence @ Anacostia Park 3-10-83.” “Trouble Funk @ Tokyo, Japan 2-28-88.” “Backyard Band featuring Scarface @ DC Armory 5-29-99.”
While Kemp Mill’s owners, all veterans of D.C.’s music retail world, are able to make a living selling CDs, that’s not why they remain in the business. There are other rewards.
“The Chuck Brown poster that you see over there, that was autographed by him,” Cruz says, motioning toward a life-size cardboard cutout of the late godfather of go-go. “I’ve had people come in and offer to pay $300 for it. I always refuse. It’s just one of those things I like having around.”
The Kemp Mill story begins in Uniontown, Pa., about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh. In the fall of 1972, founders Darryl Sherman and Stanley Wahler pooled their money to purchase a small archive of LPs. After a few weeks of peddling vinyl out of a local boutique store, they transferred to a small basement location in California, Pa. “The landlord was a really nice guy,” says Sherman. “He used to have his kid come in every month and buy a few records when he realized we couldn’t afford to pay the rent.”
Eventually, Sherman and Wahler retreated to Pittsburgh, where they were both from, to lick their wounds and contemplate whether they should continue pursuing a career in the music business. On a whim, they set their sights on D.C. after a friend insisted the city was a foolproof “growth area.” That offhand suggestion was the full extent of their market research, Sherman says. Soon after, they set out for D.C. with $2,500 worth of vinyl in tow, searching for a reasonably inexpensive sublet.
In early 1973, they leased a modest, 1,300-square-foot unit sandwiched between a grocery mart and Chinese restaurant in Kemp Mill Shopping Center, tucked behind a working-class neighborhood near Wheaton. Initially, business was slim, forcing the duo to sell records for next to nothing just to get buyers in the door. During their driest spells, the managers barely made enough to afford lunch. “I’m not making this up, I used to take a quarter out the register and sell a poster off the wall for a dollar,” says Sherman. “$1.25 could get an order of chicken fried rice. If you really wanted to treat yourself, the beef fried rice was $1.35.”
Business started picking up when Sherman and Wahler (who couldn’t be reached for this article) rolled out an advertisement on 102.3 WHFS-FM. The station, which then specialized in progressive rock, had recently started broadcasting in quadraphonic sound. Competing against more straightforward chains like Waxie Maxie’s and E.J. Korvette, Kemp Mill’s owners’ idea was to attract an audience of rock obsessives looking for, say, the next Spooky Tooth or Little Feat record. From there, Kemp Mill built a savvy consumer base that valued the atmosphere of a reputable record store almost as much as the music itself.
“People enjoyed talking about the music,” says Sherman. “Even if you didn’t know anything about it, they still wanted to discuss it. All you need to be is a good listener. I grew up listening to mostly classical, but that wasn’t the market. People didn’t want it. Over time, I learned by listening to records in the store and catching up on all the things I should’ve learned in college.”
By 1982, what was once a shoestring operation had grown profitable enough to open its 20th location in Tysons Corner. Kemp Mill was now a major player in D.C.’s music retail industry, and well on its way to becoming the area’s largest independently owned record chain. Sherman says he left the company in 1991—for reasons he won’t elaborate on—and went on to earn a master’s degree from George Washington University. He’s now a special-education teacher at a local secondary school and says he has no lingering qualms.
“The technology was changing,” Sherman says. “After I left, [Stanley Wahler and later co-owners Howard Appelbaum and Marc Appelbaum] made some choices that I didn’t think were terribly prudent at the time. But it is what it is.”
Kemp Mill’s current owners make for an odd trio. At one time, they all fought on behalf of competing record shops. Lloyd and Lamb have always represented Kemp Mill in some capacity, while Cruz got his start with the chain’s nemesis, The Wiz, in 1984, when it specialized primarily in stereos and electronics. He was transferred to the chain’s music division in 1987.
The two companies share a tangled history. In the early 1980s, The Wiz leased a space at the same 3743 Branch Ave. address currently occupied by the last remaining Kemp Mill. Cruz was hired directly by Douglas Jemal, who would eventually leave the retail industry to become one of the most successful real estate developers in D.C. Back then, he was but one of four well-to-do siblings credited with founding the chain best remembered for its indelible catchphrase: “Nobody Beats The Wiz.”
The chorus and title of Biz Markie’s 1987 hit single “Nobody Beats the Biz” is a play on The Wiz’s jingle. Throughout hip-hop’s golden age, The Wiz and its contemporaries were commonly acknowledged by rappers as primary liaisons to the streets. Nas, at age 19, revealed plans to “expand a lot from The Wiz to Camelot.” Jay-Z, likely riffing on Nas’ lyric, once declared, “Like The Wiz and Camelot, the mom-and-pops is the gate.”
Battles between Kemp Mill and The Wiz were waged mostly via in-store exclusives, but luring popular musicians didn’t guarantee an immediate spike in sales; big spenders, the current owners say, were deterred by large crowds. Still, the buzz was worth something, and record companies would dangle cash incentives in exchange for the intimate kind of promotion that only a meet-and-greet could provide. “It was very competitive back in those days because of the labels,” Cruz says. “We were fighting for marketing money.”
As both franchises fell into financial trouble in the 1990s, their rivalry only intensified. According to a petition filed with U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland in 1995, Kemp Mill’s respectable $8.5 million in assets was outpaced by $8.7 million owed largely to unsecured creditors. After decades of leisurely expansion, the chain was forced to unload 32 of its 39 stores to keep afloat. That prompted Wahler to resign as president, retaining a 30.6 percent stake in the company. His successor, former executive vice president of operations Marc Appelbaum, routinely engaged in tit-for-tat shenanigans with The Wiz’s general manager, Lou Russelfield.
“Lou was well known in the entire community,” Cruz says. “He and Marc had a love-hate relationship.”
“It was more like a hate-hate-hate relationship,” Lloyd says. “Marc would walk in here back in the days when The Wiz had security cameras. One time, while on the phone with a customer, midconversation, Lou caught a glimpse of him on the televisions and screamed ‘what the fuck are you doing in my store? Get the fuck out of my store!’ That’s just how it was back then.”
Just three years after Kemp Mill’s massive downsizing, The Wiz underwent a similarly devastating bankruptcy. The 3743 Branch Avenue location was absorbed by a Richmond, Va.-based chain known as Willie’s. Russelfield’s first order of business under the new moniker was to call in a crane and hang Appelbaum in effigy in the parking lot.
“There was a lot at stake,” Appelbaum says. “They felt that if our business flourished, it would come at their expense, and vice-versa. It was spirited competition, but there wasn’t a lot of love between us. I never invited them over for dinner or barbecue, if that says anything.”
Crane-facilitated theatrics were commonplace during the Willie’s era. “We had a tremendous in-store with Nas,” Cruz says. “We had a stage and crane set up outside! That was when he came out with his album with the Egyptian face on the cover. They hauled in a coffin out there!”
Before Cruz finishes telling his Nas story, he’s politely interrupted by a stout, bald-headed man inquiring about contemporary jazz and R&B veteran Will Downing. Lloyd assures him that the album in question is of high quality and well worth the sticker price. The man is sold on the purchase because he trusts the opinion of Kemp Mill’s staff considerably more than any distinguished rock critic. Their specialization in black music, in particular, has helped keep the store alive in an era of disappearing independent record stores. It’s also endeared them to some of the artists themselves.
“I had some great days with Kemp Mill, man,” Downing says when I call him up. “They accounted for a good portion of my income back in the days. They sold a lot of my products, and still do, actually.”
Both Cruz and Lloyd have had a working relationship with Downing for nearly his entire 20-year career. They still take pride in cultivating rapports with up-and-coming acts, as evident by their remarkably profitable consignment rack. “We like to work with consignment and bring in a lot of independent artists,” Cruz says. “That’s how we develop relationships.”
At the turn of the century, both Kemp Mill and Willie’s were bought out by a Norcross, Ga.-based conglomerate called Music Network. The deal allowed both franchises to live on, ostensibly as independent record stores. After years of bad blood, Cruz and Lloyd were finally employed under the same umbrella. Lloyd accepted a position as regional supervisor; Cruz continued managing Willie’s.
Shortly after, Music Network acquired 64 outlets from Wherehouse Entertainment, more than doubling its total store count. In hindsight, the move was brazen and careless. Just days before the deal closed, Billboard magazine quoted the president of Wherehouse Entertainment, Larry Gaines, saying the stores being unloaded by his company were “unproductive and located in insufficient markets.”
“The owners of Music Network just overextended themselves,” Lloyd says. “After investing so much time and money into the deal with Wherehouse, they couldn’t stand the idea of it not going through. So even though it was clearly a bad deal, they still went through with it. They purchased 64 bad stores.”
After nearly 18 months of trying to accomplish an out-of-court restructuring, Music Network folded in 2003. As the liquidation process ran its course, Cruz, Lloyd, and Lamb conspired to go into business for themselves. By this time, Cruz’s old supervisor from The Wiz, Doug Jemal, was redeveloping much of D.C.’s downtown. Despite selling his stake in The Wiz three years before the chain went belly-up, Jemal was, and still is, the official leaseholder of the 3743 Branch Ave. storefronts. Desperate for a lifeline, Cruz and company reached out.
“We approached Douglas Jemal with a business model and asked for support,” Lloyd says. “We purchased the Kemp Mill trademark from Music Network and opened five weeks after Willie’s liquidation was finalized.” They also took over a Kemp Mill location at 1113 F St. NW, which folded after several years. In its place is now a Pret a Manger.
Today, the Kemp Mill on Branch Avenue stands as a microcosm of D.C.’s golden era of music retail. The old-timey neon lights on display in the storefront windows were carried over from Cruz’s managerial stint at Willie’s. Nestled in a corner, Aaliyah’s cardboard silhouette, covered with countless signatures, is propped up on bundles of outdated promotional trappings. “I had this Aaliyah cutout over at The Wiz on Georgia Avenue,” Cruz says. “She was in town for a listening party at Union Station not too long before passing away. We allowed her fans to come back to Willie’s and write messages on it.”
As far as exhibitions on D.C. subcultures go, you couldn’t do much better.
It’s the late afternoon when Stalley finally arrives to satisfy his in-store obligation. After making brief introductions, Lloyd leads the heavy-bearded rapper and his small entourage to a booth near the DVD section. Gradually, customers start to splinter off from the aisles to take pictures and ask for autographs. There’s a police officer tasked with crowd control pacing the showroom floor, but Stalley isn’t popular enough yet to invite conflict nor bedlam. Even though he’s an up-and-coming player in Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group, he says this is the most fulfilling part of his job. “I try to do everything the old-school way,” he says. “It’s good to see my fans personally and learn what they’re all about.”
Stalley’s most passionate fan, at least at this particular affair, is a little girl who looks to be about 4 years old. She receives an ovation from the entire store after singing an unintelligible nursery rhyme in his honor. Before leaving with an elderly chaperone, she darts at her favorite rapper’s right leg and bear-hugs his sweatpants.
With brick-and-mortar record stores becoming less and less common, such heartwarming exchanges are also becoming an endangered experience. Currently, the store pays about $15,000 a month in rent, according to Cruz. Kemp Mill’s lease with Douglas Development expires in May 2014, at which point the owners will have to renegotiate.
“We’d like to be optimistic and say we’re going to be around for a while,” Cruz says. “But we don’t know what the future holds.”