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Night Of The Living Baseheads: Welcome To Da’ Menu

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This is the third installment of an ongoing series about my years as a white rocker dude who became a player in the Northwest hip-hop game during the eighties and nineties. Previous articles in this series can be found here.

Ray Watson was a British (or was that Irish?) eccentric I got to know over the years kicking around Seattle's retail record store industry. He was, if nothing else, a loud and obnoxious sort of character who was also a rather lovable sort of rogue in his own odd sort of way. Ray was also a real character and a fixture in the local music scene.

A silver-tongued devil if ever there was one, Ray also had a prematurely grey head of hair to match, along with a colorful pocketful of catch phrases he would bark out in his Brit's accent to anyone who would listen. They included "you couldn't get laid in a French whorehouse with a fistful of fifties," and my personal favorite, "this ain't your mother you're talking to." It should also be noted most of these were punctuated by the ever-present "babe."

To Ray, everyone was his "babe."

Although Ray had his hand in several different pies at any given time — such as managing both Seattle's Moore Theater as well as the short-lived Seattle rock band, Perennial — Ray was best known for his Seattle-based record-store chain, Music Menu. As a kid, I can remember going to see Ted Nugent at an in-store at the Music Menu superstore on lower Queen Anne Hill (it later became a Tower Records) and later applying for a job at the downtown store on Third and Pike.

But by the mid-eighties, there was only one Music Menu location left in Seattle, on 23rd and Rainier in Seattle's mostly-black Rainier Valley neighborhood. I often used to run into Ray at our local one-stop (industry lingo for record distributor) and, to hear Ray tell it, even that store was in deep trouble.

Ray of course knew how well Penny Lane — the store I managed in Tacoma — was doing, frequently picking my brain about what rap records he should be bringing in. Then one day, Ray surprised me with the news he was going to close his store. What I didn't realize at the time was that he had no actual intention of doing this. Rather, this was the silver-tongued devil's way of planting the seeds of a job offer for me to come work for him.

As those seeds began to grow in my own head over the next few weeks, so did Ray's offer. And so, in June of 1984, I left my gig at Penny Lane to become the manager of Music Menu in Rainier Valley.

This is the story of my five years at Da' Menu.

What I remember least fondly about this time is slinging base pipes to everyone from street-level addicts to superstar athletes (whose names I will keep anonymous). Though I also remember breaking dozens of rap music acts — including Seattle's very first future rap superstar. Not to mention being thrown out of virtually every bar I ever stepped foot in with the crew at Da' Menu — especially when Ray was drinking with us.

The store was a mess. For starters, it was about one quarter the size of Penny Lane and housed in a shoebox without any windows right in the middle of one of Seattle's nastier neighborhoods. Having been the victim of an armed robbery once at Penny Lane already, this gave me considerable pause. It also didn't have any music inventory, save for about 50 copies of some jazz album I'd never heard of (I later learned these were "cleans" — the record company sent free goods I would later come to know much more about).

So when the first question Ray asked me was "what should I do with it?," my answer was short and to the point. "Ray," I said, "you need to blow this place up." Instead, Ray handed me a check for $1000 and ordered me to to restock the place. As I had done in Lakewood at Penny Lane, I did so by going on a spending spree for rap records.

The other thing I noticed about Ray's store, though, was that he sold "smoking supplies," which is basically industry speak for drug paraphernalia. I just figured Music Menu was one of the last holdovers from the sixties days when record stores often did double duty as head shops, and I mostly shrugged it off. The thing that puzzled me most, though, was why were there so many glass pipes? Color me naive at the time, but once I figured out the answer I nearly quit before I started.

The problem was I was pretty much stuck at this point. Penny Lane wasn't about to take me back after I had left them in the lurch by quitting. And Ray wouldn't budge on my repeated pleas to get out of the crackpipe business. The way Ray saw it, the 100% markup on paraphernalia paid for my music budget, which made a 30% return at best for the store. He did have a bit of a point there — although we could have done the same thing with posters, blank tapes, or T-shirts. You couldn't budge Ray on those damn pipes though.

So, day after day, as the most tweaked out collection of baseheads came into my store for their "paps and skeens" — and I had to grow eyes in the back of my head just to stay safe — I made it my vow to sell so much rap music that the store would eventually turn the profit needed to discontinue our line of freebase supplies.

It took me awhile, but I eventually accomplished this too. What helped most, though, was that I also had allies.

KFOX DJ Nasty Nes played rap on his Fresh Tracks radio show. And we soon sparked a deal where if Music Menu got him the records, he would plug the store on-air. My own writing gig at The Rocket was also by now a full-time endeavor, where my once occasional rap music articles were now a regular feature in Seattle's music monthly paper.

Between these things — and the fact that we got lucky with some great records — Music Menu in Seattle was starting to take off the same way that Penny Lane had before it in Tacoma. We had become the go-to spot for rap in Seattle, as records like "The Roof Is On Fire" by Rockmaster Scott And The Dynamic Three, "Juice" by the World Class Wreckin Cru (who later morphed into NWA), "Rock Hard" by the Beastie Boys, and "Egypt, Egypt" by the Egyptian Lover flew off the shelves.

None of these compared to the "Roxanne, Roxanne" phenomenon, though. As happens every so often in rap, the song by UTFO spawned a slew of knock-offs and response records with titles like "Roxanne's Revenge" and "Roxanne Gets Even" by artists like Roxanne Shante and The Real Roxanne. A then up-and-coming Seattle rapper named Sir Mix-A-Lot even got into the act with his "Roxanne Gets Cut" getting airplay thanks to Nasty Nes at KFOX. Roxanne was everywhere, but in Seattle Da' Menu was the only place to find her.

The record labels all loved us too. But this was more a product of our status as a Billboard reporting store than anything else. Before Soundscan changed the way things were done in the record business for good with its retail sales tracking system, chart positions on Billboard were determined by a weekly survey of stores who reported their top fifty sellers to the magazine, which were then tabulated to determine the makeup of the charts.

Since this was based on an honor system, chart manipulation was rampant and record labels would send out "cleans" (or unmarked copies for resale) in exchange for a higher report on their records. At the height of this practice, Music Menu was taking in several boxes of unmarked cleans per week. Their sale even paid my way to the New Music Seminar in New York one year.

Around this time, a competing store called Beverlys Records And Tapes opened up about a half mile from us on 23rd and Jackson. Its owner, a guy named Terry Morrison, made clear his intentions to put Music Menu out of business from the get-go. His first shot was fired with the release of Michael Jackson's album, Bad. Beverlys ran ads all over KFOX that week, putting the album on sale below its wholesale cost.

At around the same time, street demand was off the charts for a new rap group straight outta' Compton called NWA, who had a song in the new gangsta' rap style called "Dope Man." The song had huge street buzz and Nes was playing a heavily-censored version with sanitized lyrics on KFOX. The problem was nobody stocked it.

However, the record label did have copies pressed and ready. And NWA were about to play a show in Seattle opening for L.L. Cool J and Whodini. They also needed Billboard reports.

That's when Nes and I came up with the idea of the NWA instore. We made arrangements to get the product, and Nes made a few mentions on the air that the group would be stopping by Da' Menu.

The icing on the cake though was our large overhead readerboard sign, which could be read by every car passing 23rd and Rainier, one of Seattle's busiest street corners. It simply read: "We have NWA. They Don't." I heard stories for years afterward about how ol' Terry at Beverlys blew a gasket when he drove by and spotted the sign. This was truly a masterstroke of what they called ghetto tactics back then.

Of course, things didn't always work out quite this well.

When the politically charged rap group Public Enemy played Seattle, I scored an interview with its leader, Chuck D (based on a review of their great second album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, I'd written for SPIN magazine that he liked). Backstage, Chuck praised my article before a room of supporters. "Don't believe the hype," Chuck told this crowd. "Believe Glen Boyd."

Just when I thought my head couldn't swell any bigger, a guy in the crowd went on a tirade about my store selling base pipes. Ray and his damned crack gear that I hated selling so much had once again come back to bite me on the ass. I can laugh about it now in retrospect, but at the time I was never so embarrassed.

Vindication would come soon enough, though. In addition to my writing gig at the Rocket, I would soon have a rap radio show of my own, as the Shockmaster on KCMU.

I would also become heavily involved in promoting a very talented cat outta' Seattle the world would soon come to know as Sir Mix-A-Lot, eventually going to work as the national retail promotions director for his label, Nastymix.

That part of the story is next.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Greg Barbrick

    I remember the “They Don’t” billboard quite well. It was hilarious. Beverly’s were never in the same ballpark as “Da Menu” as far as those of of us at General were concerned.

    One thing that keeps coming back to me when reading this series are the electro-funk classics of Bambaata, The Jonzun Crew, and the other Tommy Boy-style artists of the day. I know you are writing these articles in a time-line, but maybe as an addendum, you might find a space to discuss in-depth the great music in and of itself.

    There are two early 12″ singles in particular that showed me how cool rap or hip-hop or whatever you want to call it were. The first was the hilarious “Cooky Puss” by the nascent Beastie Boys.

    The second is the undeniably killer “Mirda Rock,” by Reggie Griffin. The low-end on that song is still unbelievable. It may seem like just some kind of novelty song to some. In reality, it was a landmark piece of music.

    I am hoping that the almighty Shockmaster himself might address some of these classic, and somewhat forgotten tunes.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Once we get this whole back-story thing out of the way — which for me has proven to be both fun and very therapeutic at the same time — I can definitely see this column headed more towards some examining some of those early, old school hip-hop records. In fact, I think thats a great idea Greg, if this series is to continue past that story.

    But for now, the story continues…

    Thanx for chiming in…and we’ll still do that lunch sometime soon (when I have some notice, or better yet, when I’m actually awake…LOL)

    -Glen