After five decades of hip-hop history behind us, there’s very little room for argument over the four key elements of genre and their importance. Most hip-hop heads understand the fundamental impact of emceeing, break dancing, turntablism and graffiti art. But what is it that all those different types of artists have in common? More likely than not, they’re all record collectors. While hip-hop culture has continued to evolve, the roots of the genre always revolved around wax. Without a beat to breakdance to, or a sample to scratch, a rhythm to rhyme over or a soundtrack to inspire artistic revelation and rebellion, the genre would be non-existent. Coming to that realization in his early 20s is what led Robby “Utmos” Powers to create Beat Swap Meet back in 2008.
“I noticed the hip-hop community was lacking an event that really honored the record collecting aspect of hip-hop so Beat Swap Meet came out of that concept,” Utmos says.
What started as an excuse to host a gathering for record collectors and hip-hop heads turned into one of the most respected crate digging events in all of Southern California. The art of searching for rare vinyl of genres ranging from funk, punk, reggae, soul, jazz and hip-hop underneath easy-ups in the blazing sun expanded in include b-boy competitions, car shows, DJ battles, and live shows in both Santa Ana and LA on a quarterly basis. This weekend, Beat Swap Meet celebrates its ninth anniversary at Diego’s Rock-n-Roll Bar, proof that rock and rap are always intrinsically linked—no matter what Gene Simmons says.
Though the was actually first launched in Echo Park, Utmos—who lived in OC for several years during the event’s development—says having a presence in Santa Ana is what helped save the event. After moving from Echo Park to Chinatown for several years, Utmos says local pushback against Beat Swap Meet in Chinatown due to minor local politics was making it hard for the event to operate or get permits needed to throw the event in that area.
“Due to that frustration we started reaching out to different areas out there and OC was one of them,” Utmos says. “There was also a property owner out there who was already becoming a big supporter of Beat Swap Meet and knew when he caught wind about the issues we were going through and offered us this property in Santa Ana to let us host our events.”
After creating an outpost in OC, Beat Swap Meet steadily began to grow as more and more crate diggers, hip-hop heads and well known artists started to catch wind of it. The difference between Beat Swap Meet and other more traditional record swaps is the involvement of local artists, the unique vinyl inventory and the element of fun and hip-hop culture that pervades every aspect of the event. This year’s anniversary party features seven music areas, performances by Beat Junkies, Stones Throw rapper MED, a b-boy battle, a lowrider car competition, turntable repair, DJ tutorials, DJ exhibitions, live art and street vendors. Every Beat Swap Meet also doubles as a canned food drive for the homeless. The sheer amount of activity going on in between a maze of music areas and record collections in and around Diego’s makes this event unique.
“Back in the day, you'd go and it’ll just be a bunch of record dealers sitting there, no DJ playing, it’s hard to really get into the buying experience or find a fun element to it,” Utmos says. “So we put more pieces into the event that entertain people in a more mature way.”
For him, that also means educating people in a way that avoids being condescending or corny. Simply by placing elements of hip-culture in front of people, Utmos says, Beat Swap Meet has the ability to inspire people who never realized any one of the elements could be their true passion.
“People are going to a swap meet looking for all these breaks but have never actually seen anyone breakdance to that breakbeat,” Utmos says. “So you can actually see stuff like that happen at the b-boy competition and even learn why it’s called a break. There’s an education piece to it without us even telling people...it’s like poetry in motion.”
It also helps when you’ve got A-list beat scene artists like Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer and J. Rocc dropping in, not to perform, but just to come and check out records like everyone else. That’s exactly what happened during the third Beat Swap Meet which really helped the event take off.
“[All those artists] did a video over there while at Beat Swap Meet,” Utmos says. “When people saw that video, it made them want to go out and be someone buying records just like their favorite musician does. After our third store a lot of people wanted to live that lifestyle.” While one single event can’t exactly take credit for the vinyl resurgence of the last decade, Utmos says it’s no coincidence that vinyl sales started an uptick after events like his started becoming more prevalent around the country.
“Pretty much all [the record stores we visited] were on the verge of closing when we first started and if you were to look at record sales...the first year Beat Swap Meet started was the first year record sales started going back up,” Utmos says. “So I think we had a big involvement in redefining what it’s like to be a record collector and what that experience should be like.”
Just like hip-hop itself—experiments they try out don’t always work. But even when things don’t work out, like Utmos attempt to expand Beat Swap Meet out of state in places like Dallas or Chicago for a couple years, it’s usually not for lack of trying. On a constant mission for refining their events and looking for a financial boost through partnerships with credible brands in the hip-hop community, Beat Swap Meet continues to search for ways to nourish hip-hop’s wax roots.
“There’s so many brands out here that claim to be the one that cares about this demographic so much we just need one of those brands to care enough to help us out a little bit,” Utmos says. “Beats By Dre could support Beat Swap Meet off of two hours of their income. If we could do that then really all our dreams of expanding beat swapmeet could really come true.”
Of course, the fact that Beat Swap Meet has survived this long on the strength of the community and the love from hip-hop heads throughout Santa Ana and the rest of SoCal means they’re obviously doing something that could very well last for decades down the line if properly cared for.
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“I organize a lot of events and work on a lot of events and bigger events that make a lot of money but I’ve never worked on an event that gets as much respect from the artists that Beat Swapmeet gets,” Utmos says.
Probably because even in its cultivation of the four elements of hip-hop, the ability to bring so many groups of artists and music lovers together to contribute to the hand-me-down tradition of the culture leads to one more important vital element: the element of surprise.
“I’ve seen established musicians who find some of their own stuff and never even knew that stuff was out on vinyl,” Utmos says. “You never know what’s hiding in some of these boxes of records.”
Beat Swap Meet’s Nine Year Anniversary featuring Beat Junkies, M.E.D., Free the Robots, Daedelus and more at Diego’s Rock-n-Roll Bar and Eats, 224 E. 3rd St., Santa Ana, (855) 946-3472, www.diegosbarsa.com, Sunday, July 23 12-6 p.m. Free (please bring a canned food item to donate). All ages.