I am by no means an expert in the gangsta arts. I typically defer to Mark and Zman in matters rap, hip hop, sneaker, and DJ. But I do enjoy a good juxtaposition, and quite like finding stories about people who connect across cultures.
But Wan Joon Kim didn't open a dry cleaning shop, or a bodega, or any of the other establishments the stereotype would have us expect. Instead, by simply recognizing what the market wanted and acting on it, he became the Godfather of Gangsta Rap.
Kim was one of the early vendors who rented space when a sort of indoor swap meet opened in an empty Sears building in Compton, CA in 1985. When he realized emerging hip hop music represented an underserved market, he became its unlikely go to source.
Says underground rap star Bobby Wilson, “I think he understood my struggle, more than anything. It saved my life."
Kim's wife Boo Ja and his kids helped run the business, and developed relationships across what might seem a yawning cultural gulf. From the article linked above:
Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, who started Ruthless Records to record his raps
and that of his seminal group, N.W.A, would bring Kim his 12-inch
singles. Boo Ja Kim treated rappers like her children and would scold:
“Eric, pull your pants up!”
Kim's Cycadelic records sells more Latin music today than rap, continuing to focus on what sells on the ground in Compton. Wan Joon doesn't work as much as he used to, either, letting his son, Kirk, man the store these days. But his legacy as one of the most prominent early distributors of gangsta rap music is secure. And he professes not to particularly care for rap itself, but his understanding of its purveyors is what drew me to this story: “This music I don’t like. But I understand
where they come from. They’re speaking from their hearts and their
minds. I understand that.”