Kelvin Anderson always says that no matter where he’s traveled in the world over the last few decades, anytime he asks strangers to name two places in Long Beach, the answer is always the same: The Queen Mary and VIP Records.
The final unanimous vote by the Long Beach City Council on Dec. 19 gave the sign the long awaited landmark status
“One thing about the [VIP] brand is when people see that logo they light up and it’s always a pleasant conversation,” Anderson says.
However, of those two world famous landmarks, the former has been so marred by neglect that repairs will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix it. The latter, though on a slightly smaller scale, was gutted and closed in 2015. The only thing that truly remains of the World Famous VIP Records (besides his back stock) is the 20 ft. tall, Googie-style sign that sits defiantly (for now) on top of the building’s new tenant, 7-Eleven.
As the longtime owner of VIP, Anderson saw his store’s rise to fame in the early ‘90s thanks to its integral role in the history of West Coast hip-hop and its cameo in a host of music videos including Snoop Dogg’s video for “Who Am I (What’s My Name?).” That alone was probably enough for the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission to vote as they did last week to approve the sign to become a historical landmark. The final vote, which comes from the city council, will happen in late December or early January.
But the world famousness of VIP and the list of rappers who helped forge that fame aren’t the only reason this cultural beacon on the corner of Pacific Coast Hwy. and Martin Luther King Blvd. should be preserved. At the meeting for the Cultural Heritage Commission at Long Beach City Hall last week, no one lobbying for the sign’s designation as a historic landmark was a celebrity—except maybe Trip Locc of legendary rap duo The Twinz. However, all of them shared stories of how Anderson, aka “Pops” and VIP Records forever changed their lives for the better.
“I was a young knucklehead out in these Long Beach streets, I happened to meet Kelvin when I stopped by VIP to buy some records and he told me they'd be hiring so he took me off the streets and he helped transform me from a knucklehead to one of the most well known DJs in Long Beach,” says veteran crate digger DJ P, one of the original employees at VIP. “He's like a father to me...an icon in our neighborhood.”
The entire evening felt like a flashback to early ‘90s era Long Beach, a time when the most historic thing to happen outside of music was the LA Riots. As the city continues to expand and plaster new high-priced facades over its fading architecture, it’s hard not to notice what segment of Long Beach’s history is being neglected. Of the 100 historic landmarks in Long Beach, only two has anything to do with African American culture—-one of which Craftsman bungalow belonging to the late civil rights pioneer Ernest S. McBride, founder of the local chapter of the NAACP.
Meanwhile, VIP—one of the most important black-owned businesses in the city, drowned financially music’s digital deluge—was unceremoniously shuttered and forced into a small storefront, it’s owner stripped of what should be a comfortable retirement. But during the council meeting last week, it was clear that Anderson’s legacy hasn’t faded in the minds of people like Tromaine Ellis, aka The LBC Photographer, who first got into shooting photos and video as a young community college student and part time drug dealer when Anderson allowed him to shoot a film in his parking lot and wound up inspiring him to follow his passion for photography.
“If it wasn't for Kelvin Anderson spending his time with us like a second father, I'd probably be locked up or dead by now,” he told the commission last week.
While rap has been VIP’s claim to fame for years, few recognize its relevance in the gospel, jazz, blues, reggae and funk scenes that shaped Long Beach culture into what it is today. Even Sublime was able to get their first consignment deal at VIP.
“Not just people who have gotten world-wide recognition as far as artists, but there are small people who end up having their creativity catapulted through the city of Long Beach through my father,” said Anderson’s daughter Tenisha.
The store shaped the local youth community by giving them opportunities to succeed through music. When Anderson turned an underutilized back room into a recording studio in the early ‘90s, it was the first time that youth in the area had a place to go to get off the streets to be a part of something positive.
“He allowed us the opportunity to let the music be heard and created an experience in VIP records,” said VIP president Shirin Senegal. “An experience for young people in a place where they wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity in a tough part of Long Beach to have a place of hope where they could see a star, where they could record, where they could be inspired.”
Over the years, various artists who got their start through being part of the community at VIP have come back to thank him, and last week was no exception as one by one, local rappers, small business owners, customers of all races and backgrounds (even State Treasurer John Chiang) came up to speak on his behalf before the council voted.
“I was very touched by the various testimonies from people even though I already know how they felt about me, but when you hear it that's a little different. I just look forward to the future and I know going from the end of 2015 when I was going out of business and selling the sign on eBay to where we are today knowing that the sign is becoming a historical landmark will open up other opportunities for VIP.”
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Though most people look up to the sign as an emblem of hip-hop culture, Anderson’s daughter sees it differently as someone who watched her father take in many wayward souls and make them feel as if they were his own.
“When I look at that sign I don't see the man that was put there, I see my father standing on top of that roof next to that big record and for me it’s a symbol that he continues to show love to a community that continues to show love for him and I am grateful for that,” she says.
Following the unanimous vote by the Cultural Heritage Commission to turn the sign into a landmark, the sign will be removed from its current location, at 1030 Pacific Coast Highway and will remain in storage as plans for the restoration take shape.
Senegal said she and Anderson submitted a bid on a city-owned lot across the street. The hope is that one day VIP can be reincarnated as a media, technology and small business development center. The real fight will be the follow through to assure that wherever the sign lands that it stands as tall and as proud as it once did. Meanwhile, the city should ask itself the motives behind the systematic erasing of its history to make progress that in this case, feels like the opposite.
“To see that VIP Records is not there and to see that where there was once a liquor store where we once had so many problems makes me wonder what is going on,” said small business owner Michael Baker, who has lived in Long Beach for 57 years. “We have a historical landmark that should be petitioned there but yet we're going backwards and putting in a 7-Eleven.”