Why Specialist Record Stores Like Big Apple, Rhythm Division Were Important For UK Music

Words: Son Raw
Image: Ghetts at Rhythm Division (mid-2000s)

Vinyl’s been posh for a little while now. What began as the sole commercial medium for distributing recorded music has, over the past 20 years, slowly morphed into a luxury item, despite our understanding of the medium not quite keeping pace. In our collective imagination, vinyl is still a DJ’s tool, whether that means scratching up a storm over breakbeats, carefully beat-matching two house records, or pressing up a dubplate at Transition Mastering Studios. Picture a record shop, and you might imagine something like Koop’s Record shop out of Human Traffic—a hub for misfits looking for the freshest sounds, far from the mainstream product hawked by major label interests.

In reality, however, that is far from the case: these days, the only wax most DJs carry along are Serato timecode discs, and that’s only if they haven’t made the leap to Pioneer’s CDJ offerings, which themselves rarely even play CDs anymore. Meanwhile, if the vinyl market is growing year over year, it isn’t thanks to new, cutting-edge music but instead because of legacy catalogue releases by aging major-label rock bands and deluxe, prestige releases by megastars (think Adele and Taylor Swift instead of Digital Mystikz or Wiley). I’m not here to advocate for vinyl as a DJing medium—sure, it sounds great, but it’s also costly and bulky, and having lugged my fair share of crates up and down nightclub stairs, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone choosing a digital option. Beyond a questionable loss of fidelity, however, vinyl losing its place as a DJ’s medium has led to another, more concrete loss: that of local, community record shops.

The history of UK music’s evolution from reggae and house to jungle, garage, grime and dubstep is the history of its independent shops, whether West Indian specialists in West London supplying the sound of Jamaica to newly arrived immigrants post-Windrush, or dance music specialists building a new scene, sale by sale, at the turn of the millennium. Take the now-legendary story of Big Apple Records in Croydon: a local haunt for both already experienced garage DJs like Hatcha and a crop of curious kids including Skream and Benga, this humble purveyor of dance music had an impact that rippled far beyond its customer base. By hiring local tastemakers as clerks and providing brave punters with an opportunity to test their dubs on the shop’s oversized soundsystem, Big Apple provided a crucial outlet for a tight-knit community of garage fans who could imagine a different, darker variant of the then massive genre.

At a time when a sole club night (FWD>>) was dedicated to “dubby, dark garage”, the store even launched an in-house label, pressing up the earliest releases of what would become known as dubstep. Simultaneously, across town on Roman Road, Rhythm Division was taking East London garage in its own new direction, selling white label instrumentals by future legends like Dizzee Rascal, Slimzee and Wiley, and creating a groundswell of enthusiasm for what would become known as grime. Otherwise limited to pirate radio broadcasts due to a lack of club support, Rhythm Division provided a crucial outlet for producers to sell their tracks to fans, offering a financial windfall to artists otherwise locked out of the music industry. In both of these cases, community record shops weren’t just a place to buy and sell wax—they were incubators that connected producers to MCs and artists to fans by offering a physical space to exchange ideas and records.

Unfortunately, on account of shifting trends in how music is consumed and skyrocketing rent driving out local businesses, creating this type of community hub seems like a fool’s errand, circa 2023. While the freedom of exchanging music online opened new possibilities for producers and DJs (see: dubstep’s international boom in the early 2010s and UK drill’s more recent impact in Europe and beyond), UK genres have also lost vital hubs that allowed for a local exchange of ideas. Would dubstep have survived its early years of industry neglect without a home? Would grime have evolved into its unique hybrid of garage, dancehall and hip-hop had it not been based in East London? Probably not.

Today, the situation seems more dire than ever, as musical communities are at the mercy of streaming services and playlists often curated by outsiders without a tangible connection to the music they’re selecting. Worse, given the abysmal royalty rates paid out by streaming services, up-and-coming acts are unlikely to see significant returns for their labour. Pressing wax and driving it to shops may have been an awful lot of graft, but at least a local hit like Dizzee’s “I Luv U” or Wiley’s “Eskimo” proved that music could pay out—exactly the kind of tangible reward that these young men needed to pursue their dreams.

Despite this grim outlook, it is worth shouting out the few remaining record shops keeping the faith and providing an outlet for adventurous shoppers looking for forgotten classics. Though genres like drill and Afrobeats don’t move many units (if tunes are even pressed on wax at all), determined and passionate music fans can still explore the UK’s musical history via second hand shops. The last time I visited London (far too long ago, blame Covid), I took the train down to DnR Vinyl in Croydon to pick up some wax. Leaving the glut of Beatles represses and limited-edition Beyoncé discs I’d seen in Central London shops behind, I was greeted by an enthusiastic staff member and more grime and dubstep classics than I could possibly hope to bring back in my carry-on luggage. Digging through their crates, I spent the better half of a day figuring out my purchases, and that visit turned out to be even more memorable than the rave I’d flown over to attend. I’ve certainly never said that about a playlist.

Posted on August 14, 2023