CDs and vinyl round out Park Blvd. Records & Tapes in Oakland, but its cassette wall is its heart and soul. (Photo: Gabe Meline/KQED)
“I’ve been trying to escape the internet for a decade,” Andrew Nosnitsky says.
And it hasn't been easy. For the past 12 years, Nosnitsky has been better known online as “Noz,” the hip-hop critic and creator of the influential blog Cocaine Blunts that often features songs seldom found through conventional means.
But last month, Nosnitsky finally came offline and into an Oakland storefront near Lake Merritt. Opened with friend and fellow rap blogger Jason Darrah, Park Blvd. Records & Tapes brings their shared love of hard-to-find hip-hop to fans who want to engage with music IRL.
Listen to Andrew Nosnitsky discuss five influential Bay Area cassettes from Park Blvd.'s shelves:
“Part of the goal of opening the shop was to create a space to transfer some of those [online] conversations into the real world,” says Nosnitsky, whose chin-length blonde hair and tanned skin make him look more like one who spends his days chasing waves than someone trapped behind a computer screen. “All the bickering, fighting, name calling, and the general warfare of the internet -- none of that happens in record stores.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the scene inside Park Blvd. Records & Tapes is anything but hostile. Most of the half-dozen or so shoppers gather in a circle, excitedly discussing everything from their favorite all-time beats to the biggest missteps of the industry’s top rappers. In this way, the shop serves as a clubhouse for rap nerds, a safe place where one can obsess over the genre’s minutiae in good company.
Bay Area music stores that specialize in rare and used collectibles have been a popular destination for obsessed music fans since Rasputin Music first opened in Berkeley nearly 50 years ago. In fact, in the early aughts, New Jersey-born Nosnitsky would come west to buy duffel bags full of used rap tapes and CDs from Amoeba Music in Berkeley and San Francisco. Little did he know then that he was building his own future inventory.
“I got really into the idea of not having dozens of boxes in my mom’s basement,” he says, “and actually having people enjoy this stuff.”
But while recently opened Oakland shops like 1-2-3-4 Go! and Stranded specialize in punk and experimental music, Park Blvd. is the only specialty hip-hop store in Oakland -- a city where Noz once tweeted to his 15,000 followers that it was impossible to reliably buy a record by Bay Area legend Too $hort.
That oversight was remedied when Nosnitsky opened the store in late June with Jason Darrah, a fellow compulsive collector whose site 12ManRambo chronicles obscure Northern California rap cassettes. The store has become a resource for other local artists, too: in the store's first week, San Francisco rapper Roach Gigz stopped by the store to drop off physical copies of his albums, previously only available online; a couple days later the store received a package of music and iron-on decals from Bay Area artist Lil’ B.
“We definitely need a store that will fulfill our drought of Bay Area music,” says 26-year-old James Laurence, one-half of the production duo Friendzone. Laurence heard about the shop from his friend Squadda, a rapper in the group Main Attrakionz. “The chain stores don’t even sell local music, it sucks,” says Laurence, who, after browsing through the store’s bins, grabs a copy of a new Vince Staples CD that was released the day before.
“Is this any good?” he asks Nosnitsky. “Should I download it?”
Indeed, it will be a challenge for the Park Blvd. guys to compete with the ease of acquiring music in the digital age. But if every week is like their first two, they should be around for a while.
“We’ve done way better than we expected,” says Darrah, seated at his laptop, which reveals a long list of all the inventory sold that day. “There’s not a store that’s quite like this, that has a rap section that’s broken down into early New York rap, early L.A. electro, Midwest rap, etc. And we have quite a few cassettes that have been sealed for almost 25 years.”
Not only does Park Blvd. stock nearly every sub-genre of hip-hop, but unlike the algorithms designed by online music curation sites like Pandora (whose headquarters are located in Oakland just a few miles away from the store), Darrah and Nosnitsky’s knowledge is real, and it runs deep.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.