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With Retail Stores Closed, Fat Beats Soldiers On...

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The bad news is that both Fat Beats retail shops – on Sixth Ave in Manhattan and Melrose in Los Angeles – are officially out of business. Following a calendar of coast-to-coast celebratory in-store send-offs that dovetailed with this year's Rock the Bells schedule, the racks came down, and by now contractors have probably peeled off the storied sticker collection that's tattooed from the floor to the track-lighting.

The good news, however, is that the Fat Beats name and spirit live on – and not just on the logo shirts that, I predict, are soon to become the Hot Topic hip-hop equivalent of CBGB tees. With its namesake label and vast distribution network, Fat Beats is poised for True Coast powerhouse status, and to become an increasingly reliable source for hardcore rap that doesn't dabble in Southern trash like some of its competitors.

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I once profiled the Fat Beats operation for “Read The Labels” – my column in the long-defunct subterranean staple Elemental Magazine. Unlike nearly every other imprint I examined – from Duck Down to Rhymesayers and ABB – the New York-based label stood out for its diverse roster of mostly unrelated artists. From Count Bass D and Ill Insanity to Glue, J-Zone, Edo G and Akrobatik, Fat Beats was moving past the crew-turned-label model.

While variety remains a strong suit – Fat Beats recently dropped projects ranging from Moss and Eternia's Canadian tag-team to AG, Roc Marciano, and Detroit double-threat Black Milk – the label has two recent works of note that are related in crew, sound, and style. Easily two of the best rap discs of 2010, Q-Unique's Between Heaven & Hell and Kill Devil Hills from DJ Muggs and Ill Bill are intricately deep efforts that no serious head should creep without.

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It's been six years since ex-Arsonist Q released the most tragically slept-on album of the 2000s, Vengeance is Mine. But in that time he's been scripting and scoring yet another masterstroke. Between Heaven & Hell touches all the bases, from his trademark illustrations of catastrophic urban oppression to battle-happy Arsonist reunions with Jise, D-Stroy, and Freestyle. As a bonus, “BK, BX, BK” is a Brooklyn tribute on par with any Boot Camp or Biggie borough banger.

On the darker end of an already morbid spectrum is Ill Bill and DJ Muggs, who on Kill Devil Hills laced a Soul Assassins classic from beats and rhymes to cover art. These two were designed to collaborate, and Bill paints the Cypress Hill architect's biblical canvas with horrific and conspiratorial tales of strife and triumph that no doubt have “bitches grabbing their tampons.” As expected, the posse cuts are especially large, with everyone from Vinnie Paz and Slaine to OC, Sean Price, and Sick Jacken piling on.

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According to DJ Eclipse, who played an integral role in both those projects as a Fat Beats artist liaison, Between Heaven & Hell and Kill Devil Hills are mere indications of what's to come. It's hip-hop to my ears to hear that Fat Beats is also planning live events to fill the void left by their retail closings. “We're thinking about how to keep that vibe going,” Eclipse says, “because you can't catch that on line.” The Brooklyn-based label is also a major vinyl distributor, recently handling custom color wax for cats including Raekwon, Homeboy Sandman, and Rakaa Iriscience.

I still haven't decided if I regret not trekking to New York for the last day at Fat Beats. Not just because my friends who went couldn't get into the crowded upper room, but because I hate thinking of New York without that store. Since moving to Boston, it's the absolute first place I've always walked to from the Chinatown bus. With that said, though, corny as this may sound, these albums helped me realize that hip-hop will prevail through the decline in album sales, and perhaps even through bling-thug and hipster rap trends. Right now, between heaven and hell ain't a bad place to be.

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