Flat and Black Goes Back

Music can be seen and heard all around us. From the rhythmic tapping of a person’s foot, to the beat of our own heart. From the blaring of a car speaker, to the melodious voice of a musician bellowing through a microphone. Technological advances have even allowed us to put on our headphones and take those sounds with us wherever we go. Whether it be an iPod, a laptop, or maybe even a Walkman technology has brought music to a completely portable level. But what happens when those same technological advances cause us to forget the true roots of music? What happens when we forget the value of a real vinyl record? What happens when we cheat ourselves in knowing what real music sounds like? Well, those roots of real music can be found within the walls of one of East Lansing’s only authentic vinyl record stores. It is the store that Sports Illustrated called one of the top music stores in the nation. That home of music’s classic roots can be found on Grand River Avenue at Flat, Black and Circular.
[recordswall]Flat, Black and Circular (FBC) was founded in 1977 by current owners Dave Bernath and Dick Rosemont, who after realizing they had a shared love for music and records, decided to rent a space on the upper level of Grand River’s Campus Town Mall. A friend of theirs suggested they name the space Flat, Black and Circular Recycled Sound. With no time to think of other names and a phone ready to be installed, the duo decided to keep the name. “We wanted a name that would stand out,” Bernath said. The store’s name is not a reflection of what our generation is used to purchasing when it comes to music, but the authentic and classic feel of the store holds significance to customers and music listeners both on and off campus, and the name only adds to the atmosphere. [Colmanero2]
FBC is one of the only remaining classic record stores in East Lansing. Years ago, there were close to seven record stores along with FBC, but eventually most went out of business. Today FBC houses classic vinyl records, current albums, used DVD’s, magazines and authentic music equipment. Customers can purchase nearly every genre of music and entertainment that they desire at fairly low prices. However, with today’s mega music stores such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, and the popularity of downloading music online, how can classic record stores such as FBC continue to be in business? Bernath said it is because the staff at FBC is dedicated to really knowing music. “No one at those mega music stores are experts of music. No one knows music like we do. The mega music stores of today simply know how to sell TV’s and other big appliances. We just know more than the bigger stores,” Bernath said.
One of FBC’s most distinguishing characteristics is its personal touch: all of the vinyl records, CD’s and DVD’s are sorted by hand and the receipts are hand written. FBC has its own system of organization tailored to its classic music. Along the walls, there are used records from all different eras. Cartons that are full of various artists from Al Green to N.E.R.D line the aisles. Vinyl records from all genres and decades are stacked in boxes that line the windows, walls, and a box of free vinyl LP’s are lined outside of the store’s entrance. Bernath said that though it is a tedious job to hand sort the store’s CD’s and records, they have the process down to a science that involves few to no mistakes.
[owners]Although FBC may find itself competing with the constantly evolving technology of mega music stores, current supporters of authentic record stores will argue that stores like FBC hold a significance that the music stores of today’s digital era will never be able to imitate.
Communications sophomore Carmen Colmanero shares that same enthusiasm and support for record stores. “Classic record stores like FBC present an old school nostalgia,” Colmanero said. “Mega music stores are more interested in meeting a quota rather than actually selling a record.”
Along with customers looking for that old school feel, classic DJ’s and music producers find that record stores meet their needs because they assisting them display their talent on the turntables. University of Michigan graduate Donovan Bembery is a current DJ and producer in the Detroit area and holds an undeniable love for classic record stores of today. He describes the record store as “the DJ’s playground.” Bembery said that record stores like FBC recapture an art that was lost years ago. “Vinyl records use to have several versions of a single song on them,” he explained. “There was the clean version, the un-cut version, the instrumental, and then the acappella version.”
[lights]Bembery said that technological advances of today have put limits on the creative options of today’s DJ’s. He said that at one point record labels would give free vinyl samples to listeners in exchange for a written review of the single. However, it has become very expensive for record labels to continue such for an favor such as a written review. “It costs companies a lot more money now to make vinyl records,” Bernath said. “Vinyl records require more material obviously because they are larger and also you have to factor in the materials such as the cardboard for the vinyl record case, and not many companies are pressing vinyl anymore.” Bernath also noted that the vinyl records that FBC sells are considered records “from the vault” which makes them seem more hip and cool.
As a result of the increase in the price of vinyl records, it is typical for only pure DJ’s and producers to purchase vinyl records. In fact, most DJ’s that can be heard in clubs today are known as digital DJ’s. This branch of DJ’s download various playlists and songs from internet programs and house them on their laptops, allowing them to play what is commonly heard on the radio playlists in the clubs. Songs not on the DJ’s laptop can be downloaded easily and as needed.[Wilde]
With such a common trend in digital entertainment in practice, where does this leave classic DJ’s such as Bembery? And where does this leave vinyl record stores such as FBC? “The only thing that we as DJ’s can do is to keep these types of record stores open by continuing in our craft of music production,” Bembery said. DJ’s and music producers like Bembery cherish record stores like FBC because they can continue to preserve the classic values of music by purchasing vinyl records. “Things on vinyl just sound better. Digital music is more compressed and not as full as the sounds of vinyl records,” Bembery said.
FBC employee Josh Wilde, 24, adds that he has a great level of respect for the pure DJ’s that still use vinyl records. “Those types of DJ’s can portray a marriage of the past and the present when they use vinyl records,” Wilde said.
Though FBC has remained strong over the years the trend of classic record stores disappearing is still on the rise. For classic music lovers, stores like FBC have become necessary to not only supply music to its customers, but to also provide a sense of simplicity and the essence of what pure music really is. With technological advancements in music and sound quality, it has become necessary for record stores like FBC to supply its customers with a reminder that music’s roots began with the simple beat of a drum and the simple strum of a guitar string. FBC is more than just a classic record store with an even more classic name. It is a home for pure music that leaves a legacy in the hearts of the music lovers of yesterday, today and the ones of tomorrow.

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Best You’ve Never Heard: RBLS

[hip4]What is a rebel? Most would describe this word as an individual that never conforms to the “normal” ways of life. A group of four young men from Detroit take this word and make it into a revolutionary title for their very own hip-hop group that does anything but conform to the established convention of today’s music. That title is the group known as Rhyme Beats Life Soul, or RBLS.
What’s in a Name?
The revolution began in the summer of 2007, when the four college students came together and began to embrace not only their love for hip-hop music, but their hunger for a revolution in this genre. Together, Brandon McGhee, Desmond Hunter, Donovan Demberry and Preston Jones became the group known as RBLS. All the members managed to not only pursue their talents in music, but stay grounded in their studies as well. Jones is a junior attending Wayne State University where he studies psychology; Brandon is a junior attending Eastern Michigan University, studying business; graduating senior Donovan studies English, and junior Desmond is studying business at Bowling Green University. With all of them in different locations and studying a range of topics, how did such a name become the foundation for a hip-hop group?
“Donovan actually came up with the name,” Jones said. One of the inspirations behind the name is a legendary hip-hop group known as A Tribe Called Quest. “There was an album that they came out with early on that inspired our name,” Brandon said. “The album was called Beats, Rhyme, Life, and we rearranged the letters and just happened to put the ‘s’ at the end for soul.”
The Sound of a Revolution
[goal]The men of RBLS pride themselves on not sounding like the typical hip-hop group. “Nowadays, people say that hip-hop is dead,” Demberry said. “Our goal as a group is to see to it that we revolutionize hip-hop for not only our generation but generations to come as well.” So who or what is it that inspires such a goal? The group agrees artists such as Lupe Fiasco, A Tribe Called Quest, MF Doom and Wu Tang Clan have laid a foundation that is sometimes hard to recognize with all the various sounds of hip-hop today. Even issues such as never having a father at home, troubled families and friends, societal ills of African Americans, propaganda and girlfriends have also inspired the lyrics of the group’s songs. Historical individuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party, and even Prince Machiavelli of England, have found their way to the hearts and souls of these four young men and have inspired them to let their lyrical content uplift the soul and not constantly conform to what is considered “normal.” “There was actually nothing normal about those individuals,” Jones said. “They saw changes that needed to be made and unlike the normal person, they decided to find the courage to make those changes become a reality.”
One of the songs RBLS has found to receive the most popularity among fans is titled “Much More.” This track is not their original production, yet is more stylistic on delivery. By original production, the group explained on a mix tape, a person puts out new songs where they only construct their own lyrics and put them to someone else’s instrumental. Jones and McGhee wrote this particular track. “Brandon actually outshines me on this track,” Jones said. “While my portion of the song tells more of a story, Brandon’s portion is what I call word play.” This song undeniably has a great deal of emotion behind it, because the lyrics outline the life of Jones and McGhee’s outlook on the changes that need to take place amongst African Americans today. Some of the mentioned changes among African Americans were social changes such as allowing your true self to shine and not to conform to how society defines you. “The title is ‘Much More’ because this track implies that there is so much more to life than what is simply on this track,” Preston said. Listeners will agree this song will have them wanting to hear much more from RBLS. [rbls2]
Another track titled “Tell ‘Em” is one that was originally produced by Donovan. Though the track is not as dynamic as “Much More,” it gives Donovan a chance to show some of his best production yet. “The sound is more electronic,” Donovan said. “The lyrics are also very ‘arresting’ – meaning that the strength of the lyrics takes you, and holds you hostage almost.” The meaning behind this song will definitely hold listeners hostage as it tells the story of each of these members biographically.
Forming a Revolution
Of course, the idea of forming a group did not simply come overnight. Before the name could take place, a foundation of a group had to be laid. The revolution began with only Jones and McGhee during their freshman year of high school at Detroit’s Renaissance High School on the city’s west side. “Brandon and I had been friends since our freshman year,” Jones said. “And we used to always battle one another all the time.”
“I think we were actually more serious about our music than we were about our school work,” McGhee said.
After their freshman years, both McGhee and Jones continued the rest of their high school careers at Mumford High School, also in Detroit. It was here the two realized their talent in not only music, but poetry as well. Jones especially engaged this skill and began competing in citywide poetry competitions, where he had the privilege of getting several of his poetic works published.
In the downtown part of Detroit, Demberry and Hunter had become close neighborhood friends. Demberry had developed an undeniable talent in producing instrumentals, not only for his own entertainment, but for other local artists as well. “That’s how he got the nickname Kutmaster,” Hunter said. It was not until later on during one summer Demberry and Jones would meet.[unique]
“I was actually a chaperone on the annual Black College Tour,” Jones said. “Donovan’s little brother heard me battling with some other guys on the trip and then we began talking about the different productions of artist Gnarles Barkley and Nas.” It was during that particular conversation Jones was informed of Demberry’s talents in music production. Soon after, Jones contacted Demberry and the revolution of music began to take place. They both could not help but notice their similar tastes in production styles of music and both had a dream of forming a team of rappers that could not only produce their own music, but take hip-hop music to an entire new level. Jones then explained to Demberry his own best friend, McGhee, would be an excellent addition to the group, and Demberry likewise spoke of Hunter. Ironically, Hunter had known McGhee since middle school. Four young rappers, awesome production skills, great lyricism and high hopes of a musical revolution soon brought about the group RBLS.
And the Revolution Goes On
So where does RBLS see itself going? With constant studio work and upcoming summer performances, there isn’t an end in sight. New York producer/DJ K-Salaam had a chance to comment on his views of RBLS. “The group has their own sound. They bring something unique, cool and new to the game.” K-Salaam has been a mentor for Jones for quite some time. “He’s a fast learner and that’s an excellent trait to have in the industry.” K-Salaam has also worked with artists such as Young Buck, Nas, Dead Prez, Kelis and Mya. After recently doing some work with his own group, K-Salaam & Beatnick, K- Salaam has recorded an album – “The World is Yours” – soon to hit the streets in June.
What is that makes this group the best you’ve never heard? Well, as Jones puts it, “We’re consistently inconsistent and efficiently inefficient.” In other words, the sound of their music is never consistent because each track is different from the ones before it and after. The sound is also new, original and is never conforming to the sounds of other artists heard over the radio airwaves. “We’re just going to keep making music and never stopping,” Brandon said. With an ear-arresting sound, thought-provoking lyrics, electronic production and non-conforming mentalities, listeners will definitely agree RBLS is a revolution the hip-hop genre has been searching for.

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