For 40 years, the World Famous VIP Records and Tapes was central Long Beach’s cornerstone. Not only was it the mecca of G-funk, but it also provided a cool place to pass the time while shielded from the ills of street life on Pacific Coast Highway and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. For those who needed it most, VIP was an open door.
Subwoofers in front of the shop rattled the windows. DJs spun bass-heavy jams in a booth fashioned after the bow of the Queen Mary, luring OGs and youngsters to flip through racks of vinyl, tapes and CDs. When the store wasn’t packed for in-store appearances from LL Cool J, Shaq and Too $hort, mounted TVs lit up with throwback music videos. The walls were cluttered with billboards, artist posters and T-shirts, and cardboard cutouts featured rap stars such as Snoop, Warren G, Daz Dillinger and Nate Dogg—all were neighborhood kids who started rapping in the store’s backroom studio over beats from an E-mu SP-1200 drum machine. Their demos brought G-funk to the world.
“People used to come to VIP just for the experience,” says Kelvin Anderson Sr., a spry 64-year-old known as “Pops” to the community. Despite his role as the Berry Gordy of Long Beach, his southern drawl hints at his upbringing in rural Mississippi. “They didn’t just come to buy music. They wanted to come because we had a DJ there; they wanted to come because we had a stage. They wanted [to come] because there was no telling who they might bump into.”
Today, the record store’s sign—a 20-foot, Googie-style fixture featuring a black man whistling next to a vinyl record crowned by the letters VIP— sits in storage. Less than a year ago, the city designated it a historic landmark. The original store shuttered in 2012 and moved one building east of the original spot, a shell of its former glory.
Though the original VIP is gone, its spirit is being reborn about a mile away on Long Beach Boulevard. The new VIP Create Space is preparing its soft opening for this month, a first step in reclaiming the fame of the beloved brand.
On a recent afternoon, Shirin Senegal, president of VIP, trails through the 3,200-square-foot space, pointing out the large rooms that will host recording studios, a radio program, business workshops, a retail store, a lounge and a backyard-event area. Prior to its renovation, the previously city-owned property was used as an illegal cannabis growhouse. With Anderson’s help, Senegal created an economic engine for LBC’s Sixth District, benefitting entrepreneurs in tech, small business, cannabis and, of course, music. “Our plan is to lease-to-own here, so we can put the stamp on this place and keep it growing. You can build up to 10 stories on this property,” Senegal says. “I have future plans for it in terms of development for entrepreneurs so they’ve got the ability to live and work on-site.”
Using a tiered system of registration fees, applicants can access VIP’s space, network of connections, and coaching and workshops on the nuts and bolts of how to grow a small business. “Coming up, I would’ve loved to have a space that was actually affordable. The rich folks have always had spaces like that,” Senegal says with a laugh that echoes through the empty halls.
Senegal’s sharp wit and optimistic demeanor stand in contrast with the fight to get VIP the respect it deserves in its hometown. It started with a battle to secure the VIP sign as a landmark—which chief city officials initially tried to do without Anderson’s involvement. VIP then removed the sign from the original location, hoping its two-year contract with the city to secure a property for a hip-hop museum would be honored; it’s still waiting for a home. Meanwhile, rap elders such as Snoop and Warren G have yet to step in to help revive VIP’s legacy.
Senegal put up her personal savings to open VIP Create Space, hoping to raise funds toward securing land for a VIP museum while providing professional training, cultural pride and public equity. The community that used to look up to VIP every time they drove by the sign needed to feel its presence again.
“It hurt [when the sign came down] because that was our claim to fame,” says DJ Slice, who, along with Sir Jinx, mastered the art of the beat machine and cut Snoop’s first demo. “When we’d drive down the street, we’d be like, ‘Yep, that’s where I was at in ’87, ’88, ’89, whatever.’ We were the ghetto heroes, the ghetto superstars.”
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It should’ve been the proudest moment of Anderson’s career. On Dec. 20, 2017, Mayor Robert Garcia stood with Anderson and his brother Cletus (VIP’s founder) alongside Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews to proclaim VIP’s sign a historic landmark. But the Anderson brothers were not in front of the store they built together over 40 years. Below the iconic sign, the storefront once housing VIP was now a 7-Eleven, celebrating its grand opening with balloons, a hip-hop DJ and rows of vendors tossing out free cans of whatever caffeine-loaded concoctions they were promoting.
As neighborhood crowds and news cameras gathered for the ceremony, it was as if the city went out of its way to broadcast that it had traded the soul of the Sixth District for Slurpees. Even Anderson—with all of his polite, Mississippi-bred manners—admitted, “It wasn’t a good look.”
Weeks after the awkward photo-op, construction crews took power saws to the base of the sign, dismounting it from the building with a crane at 1 a.m.
It was a devastating sight for Anderson, a man who’d once been a tastemaker for the record industry. As president of the United Independent Retailers Association and a trusted source for record labels and store chains, executives flew Anderson to New York regularly to meet with moguls who needed to know what he thought about their next big artists. “I used to go to Bad Boy Records and sit down with Clive Davis and Puffy and listen to music-marketing campaigns,” Anderson says. “What I got out of it was a trip, a nice hotel, some marketing dollars, free CDs—but that was it. That was the mindset of a retailer; I was never looking at what I was worth.”
As the industry collapsed decades later, what was once an empire of 12 VIP stores in Southern California evaporated to one store that was barely hanging on, failing to turn a profit for several years.
Fed up with his situation, Anderson put VIP’s sign on eBay in 2015. Within days, it garnered bids upward of $170,000. Once the city discovered this, officials asked him to take the sign off the auction site. Little did Anderson know, they planned to make the sign a landmark without his knowledge.
The day after the sign was removed from eBay, the city asked the building’s property owner, Offer Grinwald of Triss LLC, to apply for its landmark status. “John Edmond asked me to forward this form to you,” Kimberly Dodson, an administrative analyst in Andrews’ office, wrote to Grinwald in a Dec. 29, 2015, email. “Please fill out and return (ASAP) because the moment you submit it, the legal process to protect it can start. The two of you have discussed doing this in the past. Based on the article in this morning’s [Long Beach] Press-Telegram, Mr. Anderson will be selling the sign on eBay, so in order to preserve it, you must submit it today.”
An ordinance passed by the city in 2015 made it so the city didn’t need consent from the owner of a landmark to designate it historic—and garnering its tax breaks and benefits. Social conscience aside, it’s not uncommon for local ordinances to forego owner consent in doing this for privately owned properties.
Officials in the city’s Planning and Development Department say they weren’t overreaching by applying for the sign’s new status without Anderson’s involvement. They even paid for the report that accompanies the application, which is usually handled by the property’s owner. “It doesn’t particularly matter whether the owner consents, and it certainly doesn’t matter if the owner was the applicant,” says Christopher Koontz, a planning officer with the city. “Any third party can be the applicant to start the landmarking process, according to the ordinance.”
But Senegal says the city violated a number of laws, including the Natural Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the 14th Amendment, which gives VIP the right to due process and equal protection under the law.
“If the law says something can become a landmark and you are able to enjoy the benefits of that landmark, then you as a black man should be able to enjoy the benefits of that landmark,” Senegal says. “If the law says historic spaces are supposed to be protected, then they should be protected, even if it’s a black historic space.”
In May 2016, Triss LLC claimed it didn’t want to pursue the landmark. Thanks to the insistence of Senegal and the public, the city changed its tune and began working with Anderson to make the sign a landmark. According to VIP, Garcia told Anderson last year that the city would help him to find a new home for the marker, but those talks stalled prematurely.
The city had initially said it would appraise the property that VIP was located on to secure it with the intention of buying it. But that fell through thanks to what the city describes as budget restrictions. Long Beach officials also say they can’t simply grant them the land across from the original store on MLK, despite it being city-owned and having a number of unsolicited offers. “We’d still love to purchase a property and pay off the other entities for our redevelopment properties and make something available, but [the land] wasn’t available at the time,” Economic Development Director John Keisler says. “When the time is right, our hope is that we’ll be able to finish the remaining items within our agreement and get this deal done.”
Meanwhile, other proposed landmarks including the Jergins Tunnel (which barely anyone outside of LBC knows about) are poised for a sizeable cash infusion for revitalization purposes. Such city-owned properties must be dealt with in the wake of the dissolution of Long Beach’s Redevelopment Agency. As construction of new apartment buildings and towers go up all over downtown, one of the two African-American landmarks got $80,000 (barely the price of a used Range Rover) to restore a sign that has nowhere to go.
However, city officials say they’ve got nothing but love for VIP.
“VIP Records is an important part of the history and culture of Long Beach,” says Garcia’s chief of staff, Mark Taylor, via email. “We are pleased that the City Council designated the VIP sign a cultural landmark and has provided funding towards restoration. The city is partnering with Mr. Anderson to relocate and preserve the sign so that VIP’s legacy will continue for years to come.”
Several attempts to speak to the mayor about his promise to find VIP a home were unsuccessful.
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For members of the black community in Long Beach, the lack of material support toward VIP confirms a belief that when it comes to black-owned businesses, officials can never seem to find time or money.
Citing the shrinking African-American population in the city over the past decade, black leaders and activists including the Reverend Osie Leon Wood Jr. see a lack of black-owned businesses as a symptom of a larger problem. “One thing that’s missing in Long Beach is African-American entrepreneurship,” Wood says. “The people that are considered successful primarily work for the city, the county or the state, but not of an individual business nature.”
With the shift in population comes a shrinking of political influences as a community, making it even harder for businesses such as VIP. Wood believes such pillars of the black community as Anderson are taken for granted. “We say how employment and economic development is so important,” he says. “So if we as a community are serious about that, then why wouldn’t we want to support VIP?”
The property VIP likes for the future hip-hop museum is a city-owned lot on the northwest corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway. The land will be put up for public bid in the coming months with a stipulation that any project built there should reflect black historical significance. VIP obviously fits the bill, but Anderson says the city officials who represent him shouldn’t make him bid on land that should’ve been offered to the brand that built that corner. “To be asked to jump through hoops and have to compete against other developers, it was very disheartening to me,” Anderson says. “Sometimes, it makes the fight more difficult when you feel like you have to fight against all of these elements that I feel should be embracing us.”
Andrews, however, says the city has no authority to offer or provide land or breaks to anyone. “One must present a well-thought-out plan and a proven track record of successful development to ensure the sustainability of a project,” he says. “Otherwise, all you have is a good idea.”
One thing the City Council may be overlooking is the amount of good a historic landmark can do for land that was once a liquor store and later sat vacant for 14 years. “On PCH, motels engage in a lot of sex trafficking and drugs, but if you put a historic landmark there, the laws say you can influence up to 25 miles to maintain the integrity of that landmark,” Senegal says. “The city could’ve gone to these motel owners to make them mixed-use and affordable housing and more development. . . . We pitched the city on an economic engine, not just some big museum.”
As news coverage began to focus on the sign, one question commonly asked was why many of VIP’s native sons didn’t step in to help financially in the years since Snoop danced atop the store’s roof and showed his Long Beach love to the world via “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?).”
“I took Long Beach everywhere I went; I took VIP with me everywhere I went because there’s certain things I was taught that I learned on the East Side that were instilled in me that I take with me everywhere I go,” the Doggfather said in a mini-doc for VIP.
Snoop has filmed the VIP sign several times for his own projects, including music videos, social-media posts, even the recent documentary G-Funk. The famous marker is also featured in HBO’s documentary The Defiant Ones, during a segment detailing the birth of West Coast hip-hop.
Before a last-minute request to include VIP in a video for Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta (Remix)” in 2001, Anderson recieved a call from Snoop asking if he could bring a big crew to the store to film there. “Man, it ain’t Long Beach if VIP ain’t in it. We gotta have VIP in it,” Anderson recalls Snoop saying.
Anderson hid the fact that he wasn’t getting help from the hip-hop community—producers, artists and agents who’ve promised him help, but rarely delivered.
“Why are all these people calling me and checking on me to see what they can do to help,” Anderson says, “and then I get no call back, and when I see ’em, they look like a deer in the headlights?”
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Though the hip-hop stars Anderson helped aren’t physically aiding the new VIP Create Space (not yet, anyway), the photos and memories of the G-funk era at the original VIP adorn the walls of the new center. In addition to part-time members, VIP will select 10 entrepreneurs per year for full incubation in the creative project.
The first is Tromaine Ellis—better known as the LBC Photographer—who even helped to decorate the walls with vinyl and posters of his hometown’s musical heroes and grew up going to VIP records (it was also the site of his first film project in college). Ellis is also the city’s first recipient of a KIVA grant, a program that offers micro-financing loans to entrepreneurs. He received a $5,000 loan for his camera equipment, and VIP connected him with jobs shooting photos all over the city. “I’ve always had ties with VIP, and they’ve seen that I’m always trying to help in some way, and they said, ‘Since you’re the only one that was helping us when we were going through it, we’re gonna help you,’” Ellis says.
Another benefit is the support from Senegal, an unlikely candidate to be president of VIP’s branding. Though it’s Anderson’s brand, this Canadian-born Palestinian/Egyptian Muslim woman with an unrelenting work ethic is the bulwark behind the center. Prior to the fiasco over the sign, Anderson—a two-time survivor of prostate cancer—was beaten down and ready to retire.
In late 2016, Senegal came into the picture, a former tech developer and music-promotions manager who also worked as a real-estate advocate against the predatory lending industry to save homes. Her husband, Ronnie, was shot and killed during an altercation with a man outside a mini-mart in San Bernardino County in January 2016. Throughout the trial, there were nights when Senegal says she slept on the floor of her house because she didn’t want to sleep in bed without her husband.
In Anderson, a longtime friend she’d known through the music industry, she saw someone else in need of help. “I’m more passionate about asking for others—that’s what gives me peace,” Senegal says. “And after losing my husband, it feels that way even more so.”
VIP also gave her a way to throw herself into a positive mission in her husband’s memory. “There’s always a moment when you’re faced with the decision of ‘Do you fight all the way with the people or not?’ And I’ve always chosen to fight all the way because I feel that if you stand for what’s right, people might not always like it, but they will respect you.”
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For as much as it’s praised in articles and documentaries, seeing VIP’s connection to the community in real life is truly breathtaking. In times of trouble or the need to feel united, Long Beach always rallied around the store, a symbol everyone from gang members to governors respected. Even as hellfire burned its way into Long Beach during the LA Riots, Anderson never had to close his doors; the store was untouched.
Though he no longer has control of the old store’s parking lot, people call Anderson about hosting public demonstrations or candlelight vigils similar to the ones they held the night Nate Dogg died in 2011. Twice, a flood of Bloods, Crips and Longos gathered, with rap fans holding glowing flames in reverence to the G-funk icon without incident. Though it feels as if the fight to protect the VIP brand and legacy is a never-ending struggle, there’s an intangible value that has always gone far beyond music when it came to VIP.
In the parking lot of the 7-Eleven that stands in place of VIP, the most sorrowful difference is the sound. The spot where DJs played tunes welcoming people to a meeting ground is replaced by a convenience store pumping out classical music as a tactic to keep people from loitering.
Despite the obstacles and the lack of support they feel from city officials, Anderson and Senegal are committed to making VIP Create Space a place that might one day yield the next Snoop Dogg—or, better yet, the next Bill Gates. “After 40 years of doing business in this city, I still see a bigger picture at the end,” Anderson says. “A lot has been accomplished, but with the support of the city and other agencies, we could do great things.”
As plans for development at VIP Create Space unfold, rappers, artists and a few city officials have pledged to rally around it. With as much as Anderson and VIP were able to do with one little backroom in a record store, imagine what they could do with an entire building? For Senegal, that’s a cause worth fighting for.
“No entrepreneur shows up and the situation is perfect—that would just be a silver spoon in your mouth,” she says at the end of a long day readying the center. “You don’t show up to play ball and shit is perfect. That’s why when bodies are in here and people are working, it’s gonna be a good energy.”
VIP Create Space, 2242 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, (213) 322-6404; www.facebook.com/vipcreatespace.