Photos by Brian Addison. Historical photos and video courtesy of Kelvin Anderson Sr.
In the matter of six hours on May 24, 1972, Kelvin Anderson Sr.’s life went from a lone, dirt road along the backwoods of Mississippi to the booming, sunny life of Los Angeles just two days after graduating from high school. From there, he would become not only become one of the most well-respected legends in helping form West Coast rap’s firm grip on American culture, he would come to create a Long Beach icon that served as a source of inspiration, a record shop, a recording studio, and a neutral ground between the Bloods and the Crips.
In the age of digital sales running laps around tangible record stores, Kelvin has finally found a second life of sorts for VIP after having to deal with multiple closures, moves, and reinventions: a VIP museum and educational center that will hopefully provide as much inspiration and creativity as the record store itself did throughout the eighties, nineties, and the millennium.
“This idea came to me when this guy came into the store when we was still in the original building,” Kelvin said. “His kids walked down this row and saw vinyl. They looked at their dad and said, ‘What is this?’ and the whole store laughed… It was funny but it really made think about how this story—the story of this place and our neighborhood—needs to be told and preserved. That’s when I decided what I wanted to do for Long Beach: a museum. After I’m gone, I want people to be able to experience the influence of our city, my shop, and the people in Long Beach.”
As Kelvin said this, a young black man, searching for a copy of the “Welcome to Atlanta (Coast 2 Coast Remix)” by Jermaine Dupri that features Snoop, listened intently. Hesitant at first, the man expressed his gratitude to Kelvin after noticing Kelvin’s gathering of signatures to support his museum.
“My pops brought me into the original store back in the day, man,” he said. “Every time I got me my little allowance, I straight up headed to VIP. I one-hundred-percent support you and I just wanna thank you. Thank you for the experience and the history.”
That word “experience” is key. People didn’t go into VIP just to buy a record; they came to experience the rising of a black-centric art coming to life and seizing the popular culture of an entire nation—sometimes literally watch it come to life given the DJ booth inside the store, its stand mimicking the front end of a boat and a dedication to the Queen Mary, would have someone spinning records that influenced the sounds of the times. That tastemaker would introduce you to Snoop. DJ Quik. Nate Dogg. Warren G. All before they became hip hop legends in their own right. All inherently connected to VIP.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy for a man who has worked the past 38 years at an average of six days a week. In fact, it would be outright damning to not include VIP’s history to this pivotal point.
Kelvin’s path was outright challenging if not sublime in a sense: he came to Los Angeles just after the Watts Riots of 1965 only to find his store—approaching its peak in popularity and influence—come head-to-head with the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 that had seeped past the borders of LA and into Long Beach. South LA saw white flight, led by racist home buying and selling practices led by the California Real Estate Association and the passage of Proposition 14, and created the segregation we currently see to this day. Perhaps most impressive is that he and his store withstood the effects of both riots to bridge deep divisions—the incredibly complex dividers that are race, class, and community violence.
Kelvin, humble and charming with his not-so-subtle accent forged by the histories of the South, believes in the worth of hard work and the power of kindness as a deterrent to violence.
“There was this thing between my brothers and me,” Kelvin said. “We were always told that the best manager of a McDonald’s franchise started off with a mop bucket—and it was a huge promotion to start doing fries. My brother [Cletus, who opened the first VIP Records] believed the same thing. I was a cleaner, a stocker… VIP wasn’t just handed to me.”
In June of 1978, VIP Records opened up shop in Long Beach at MLK and PCH, after “getting his degree from the record industry,” as Kelvin puts it. Come January 15, 1979, Kelvin purchases the shop from his brother Cletus, becoming a store owner for the first time in his life.
Walking in with massive connections from working at his brother’s other stores, the music industry was thriving but Kelvin wasn’t handed success on a platter. He opened up shop in a proud, if not defiant community that wasn’t there with open arms for anyone and everyone.
“This is not a community that embraces new people—so I had struggles becoming a part of the community while dealing with the rise of the gangs,” Kelvin said. “But if I’m anything, I’m respectful and a good sales person. So I took my time getting to know the community, earning their respect through service and kindness.”
Kelvin’s philanthropy soon became engraved into the spirit of Central Long Beach, his influence and humble demeanor creating a space that defied the violence and frustrations that often overshadowed the community’s working class aura. The ability to achieve neutral grounds in place where concerns were often addressed with violence over dialogue was—and is—definitively awe-inspiring.
“I stood my ground that no matter how bad things got on the outside, that inside these walls everyone—no matter where you came from—that this place was a peaceful place,” Kelvin. “I grew up under the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and I live by his words on violence… I made sure VIP was a no bang zone. And I got the respect of even the roughest of the rough in this community for that.”
For Kelvin, this achievement at creating a zone of neutrality was marked with dark spots of reality as he watched young men tragically murdered at a rate that was staggeringly high.
“In the early 90s, for six weeks straight, every Monday morning I would come to work and there would be another dead kid in the mortuary nearby [now a church],” Kelvin said. “A kid I knew. Between the ages of 14 and 25. Revenge killing by these local gang members gone wrong because the craziest part of it all was that most of the time, the person killed was an innocent bystander or the one tryin’ to break things up.”
By this point, Kelvin was full vested in Central Long Beach and remained admittedly baffled at how kids who were raised and grew up together would resort to killing one another. But Kelvin is also no fool: without a place to hang besides King Park (and even that place, as Kelvin notes, “had a lotta stuff go down there”), black kids had few options at not just socializing healthily but maintaining a healthy identity.
Understanding the evolution of gang culture is essential to understanding the context of Kelvin’s and many black folks’ ideology about why gangs gain power within black communities. From the institutional racism that disproportionately incarcerates black men to the systemic division of black families through governmental assistance laws, it is not that these communities are “prone” to more violence; our society creates it as an answer to their concerns.
Take the example provided by Duke Givens, Long Beach photographer and the man whose photo is the cover of Snoop’s Murder Was the Case album, who was able to view ganghood through his lens since many of his friends were part of them. For Duke, who had never joined a gang himself, “Many gang members don’t have fathers or father figures—this is such an important part to understanding the inner city struggle… When you chilled with these cats, there was a fierce loyalty with all of ‘em. It looked more like brotherhood than ganghood when the guns weren’t drawn.”
Kelvin [left] with Warren G [right] shortly after the release of his debut album, Regulate…G Funk Era in 1994.
The respect for Kelvin very much lies in that he was and remains a father figure for many; from the start of VIP, he maintained relationships with the youth that evolved and has been passed down through each generation.
“I reached out to ‘em and I got to know all the kids,” Kelvin said. “And when it finally hit me that this gang problem is real, it motivated me create a studio space… I took everything I learned from my brother Cletus about the recording industry and gave it back to the kids in the hopes that they express themselves through music and not a gun.”
The respect for Kelvin and the VIP space, in fact, was so strong that Kelvin never had to shutter his doors during the tumultuous, week-long Los Angeles Riots.
On April 29, 1992, the verdict on the Rodney King trial was read, acquitting four LAPD officers after they were videotaped violently beating King for over a minute. The verdict, publicly dismissed by then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley as egregious, prompted outrage and led into day one of the Los Angeles Riots.
Come April 30, the “language of the unheard” had made its way onto the streets of Long Beach, where Kelvin heard the chants and roars of a people who were frustrated, angry, and felt hopeless marching down MLK.
But he stayed open and his store endured not a single violation or incident of damage.
“Someone asked me why I stayed open,” Kelvin recollected. “‘I’m here for the community,’ I said, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna mess with the VIP.’”
Comedian and entertainer Ricky Harris discusses the importance of VIP Records.
That very year, one of the two most important musical epochs according to Kelvin was being created: Dr. Dre’s seminal, massively influential debut album, The Chronic. (For Kelvin, the other musical epoch was Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982.) Kelvin was thrilled for this album because it would be the launching pad for a Long Beach artist he had been trying to get signed for years: Snoop Dogg.
“I knew Dre long before VIP was established in Long Beach,” Kelvin said. “He was one of the hottest DJs back in the day—we would sell his mixtapes. So to watch the success of Dre after him and Easy [E] were coming out of here and then the big movement out of Oakland with E-40 and Too $hort… Well, that’s where the idea of a studio initially came from.”
The aforementioned studio, built to provide black kids a space for expression and creativity, is hallowed ground in terms of its history. After throwing down $2,500 bucks on a SP1200 drum machine, Kelvin let Keith Thompson, back in the day known as DJ Slice, use the machine to create demos for both Snoop and 213, a never-fully-realized trio that would now be considered a hip hop wet dream featuring Snoop, Warren G, and Nate Dogg.
“Snoop’s first demo was recorded in VIP,” Kelvin said. “And that kid… He had flow like no other. So did Warren. I’m telling you, a lot of talent has passed through here… And I’m glad Dre signed Snoop because, to this day, I’ll never understand why no one in the industry was interested in 213.”
Always the Pops of Central Long Beach, Kelvin was met with a somewhat saddened Warren G after Snoop was signed by Dre. Fear not, Warren, Kelvin got the hookup. Fresh off the success of becoming the first black person to earn an Academy Award nomination in directing (for Boyz n the Hood), John Singleton was planning his next film, Poetic Justice, and wanted Dre to do the soundtrack.
But Kelvin didn’t have Dre’s number so he deferred to Warren.
“Warren was always ridin’ around on his 10-speed and when he came in that one day, he was still pretty angry about not having a deal,” Kelvin said. “So we called John and Warren played him ‘Indo Smoke.’”
Headed by Mista Grimm (and being the only song he charted in his brief career), with appearances by Nate Dogg and Warren G (who also produced the track), the song was the biggest hit off the soundtrack and launched Warren G into the annals of hip hop history with his debut album Regulate… G Funk Era in 1994—just one year after Snoop released his debut, Doggystyle.
Supporting his adopted children and their success wasn’t always easy following the tension between gangs and the LBPD before, during, and after the riots.
“We was having a midnight sale for Doggystyle and I did my usual routine with City officials to request it and what not,” Kelvin said. “The day before, the City told me I couldn’t do it because of ‘possible hostile situations.’ I went back to the folks at Interscope Records… They had already put down quite a bit of money on the album and its promotion, so I had to tell the City too bad. We was gonna be doing it. And all they told me was that if something happened, it was on me.”
On the set of Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” in 1993, which used VIP Records as a backdrop.
Even recently, the LBPD wasn’t too fond of gatherings: when Nate Dogg passed in 2011, Kelvin was told he wasn’t allow to hold a candle vigil honoring the passing of one of Long Beach’s most respected artists. Despite being told not to, the community refused, with hundreds showing up to honor Nate. Another memorial the Saturday after his death drew thousands.
“Y’know, it’s moments like those that take me back to the fact that I never thought I would lose the original VIP space—it was so important to so many people,” Kelvin said.
When 2003 came and brought along with it iTunes, the record industry panicked—and for good reason. Virgin Megastores and Tower Records were closing locations by the minute and VIP was not immune to the new trend. It downsized and downsized and downsized until it was unable to remain in its original location and instead sits just one building east of the original spot.
After multiple attempts at reinventing VIP, the realization that brand and identity of VIP still stand strong forced Kelvin to be more creative about how to keep it alive—and it wasn’t going to happen through selling music.
“I ain’t gonna try to restart the music industry and bring it back to the way I knew it—I can’t compete with free,” Kelvin said. “But I know what the brand means to people and this community… Not just here in the local community but regionally, I was an advocate for indie record companies and shops. Independent retail? We changed the way independent retail was viewed by the majors. I remember back in the day, the big record companies wouldn’t give us posters or in-store record copies to play for customers.”
That connection brought Kelvin into the fold of The Majors, where he advocated for record companies and producers to be more aware of what their artists said.
“I wasn’t asking them to censor themselves but I was trying to tell artists that they can talk about their crew, their friends, and their families—but don’t be talkin’ about your enemy because this gangbanging thing is real and it has consequences,” Kelvin said. “I still feel like I could have done more to prevent the deaths of Biggie and Tupac. Because what you say on your songs can kill you.”
This intimate history isn’t filled with name-dropping; Kelvin was attached to these people on a deeply personal level. Following Tupac’s death, Kelvin talked with reps at the Soul Train Music Awards after party at the House of Blues on Sunset: “Someone has to tell Biggie and Puff Daddy that they can’t be walkin’ around here like it’s Brooklyn. Tupac’s dead. Suge [Knight] is in prison. And Puff Daddy has a song playing every 15 minutes on the radio that’s spoutin’ off how ‘nobody can’t stop be, nobody can’t hold me back.’ That’s a bad combination.”
That perfect storm eventually led to the murder of Notorious B.I.G.
It’s about these many stories that Kelvin sees attached to the future identity of VIP—and not just the histories. Kelvin also hopes his museum is an “all-in-one” facility that is not just home to historical artifacts, but has a recording studio, printing space, and radio station that will teach the youth the art of recording, creating music, and marketing it.
“It’s about finding talent, promoting them, recording them, and giving everyone the history of music in Long Beach,” Kelvin said. “It’s what I want to give back because it’s what I believe in. Sometimes I think I might have more support if I was more notorious, y’know… But for me, I just love Long Beach and my community.”
In these times, when violence is ubiquitous almost to the point of being common, there is something more punk, more subversive, and more challenging to be found in Kelvin’s nonviolence—and that right there is worthy not just of “being in the news.”
It’s worthy of a museum.
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