thesis vomit #5

March 26, 2012

I bought the book Audiotopia as soon as I began taking Josh Kun’s communication and culture class as an undergrad at SC. Wvhen I realized that academia was already beginning to explore the cultural implications of a globalized America, I latched on to many of the authors trying to make sense of new hybridized local identities and the culture that stems from certain social/racial/economic forces. But none served more useful to me than Kun’s research as it emphasized music as a key expressive vessel for these forces. Like many academic writers dissecting music from a cultural perspective, I have quoted Audiotopia in several papers because it’s ideas and examples are foundational for this realm of study.

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Re-reading it for this class, however, has given me yet another perspective on Kun’s book and not just because he is teaching said class and has assigned his book as a reading or that 4years after the Amazon box containing the book showed up on my doorstep, Kun is now my thesis advisor. This time around, I highlighted different passages, tabbed entirely different pages and began to make sense of the parts that once confused me. Maybe because I was reading it with a specific place in mind and specific artists I was trying to understand, but Audiotopia in many ways validated for me that I’m right in thinking that Long Beach (just as the Mexican/American border in Audiotopia) is a unique space for cultural production.

One of the most useful passages in the book for me this time wasn’t buried deep within the middle chapter, but up front—in the first two pages. Kun begins his book with a description of his local record store on the West Side of Los Angeles and describes the experience of discovering new sounds within its walls. “It was where musical knowledge was just waiting to reveal itself, a living archive of sound” (p.2), he describes. No genre was out of reach there and soon, music became his entry into a “social world of difference and possibility.”

Many Long Beach artists I have talked to also mention their personal experiences with local record stores and the importance of such brick-and-mortars in the pre-internet era is something I have been wanting to explore for some time. This semester, for my sociology of culture class, I will be writing a paper on the significant genre-specific record stores in Long Beach and how they fostered sites of musical exploration for local musicians who, like Kun, used the knowledge found within them to create their own hybrid identities.

Kun doesn’t quote Doreen Massey in his book, but should have because both scholars deal with the idea of place similarly. For Kun, audiotopias are “identificatory contact zones” where sound, space and identity converge and where heterogenous national, cultural and historical styles meld together (p.22-23). For Massey, identity is rooted in place and place exists at an intersection of local, national and global cultural flows. I am beginning to think of these Long Beach record stores as places in the Massian sense, physical locations at the literal intersection of local, national and international musical flows. Unlike the record store that Kun frequented, the record stores in Long Beach in the late 80s and early 90s were very niche. There was not a store like Tower Records where punk, pop, rap, world music and others lived in one room, separated by markers on the racks. Instead, the small stores were splintered into specific genres—all of which would need to be visited in order to obtain a comprehensive selection of sounds. Thankfully, that is exactly what local musicians did, navigating the audiotopia of Long Beach through the use of these establishments.

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Dennis Owens, for instance, told me about the importance of four stores on his diverse musical knowledge. First, there was Culture Beat, the reggae store located on 4thand Alamitos where Owens discovered (like Bradley Nowell before him) the sounds of roots reggae, dub and ska. Then there was Bagatelles, an all-used vinyl store where Owens found rare soul and funk records with which to DJ (he credits Bagatelle’s owner as being a mentor to him). He also frequented and later worked at Zed Records, the West Coast’s first punk record store, which originally subsisted on rare British punk imports, but eventually stayed alive on its high sales of Sublime bootlegs. Finally, there is V.I.P. Records, the iconic home of West Coast gangster rap, where the local hip-hop community gathered in its early years.

Somewhere between these four stores lies the music Owens eventually produced, first in the pop-punk band The Silent Invasion, then with ska band Suburban Rhythm and today as bass player of Free Moral Agents. Record stores are important places to discover new audiotopias, new sounds to live through and within and I am looking forward to writing about this more!

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