Funky Riddm Records survives the merciless music industry by taking it to the Berkeley streets
On a recent sunny afternoon in Berkeley, the head-nodding rhythms of Barrington Levy's '80s dancehall hit "Here I Come" could be heard wafting down Telegraph Avenue. As the outdoor reggae mix continued, the music's mysterious source soon became evident. Right off the ave on the corner of Haste were two chunky 10-inch JBL speakers, booming. They were attached to the back of what resembled a Mexican ice cream bike painted in bright Rasta colors, which was in fact a unique mobile record store, complete with turntables and a mixer and boasting a selection of CDs, 7-inch records, DVDs, and even T-shirts dangling from hangers hooked on a nearby metal fence.
Propped against the three-wheeler's saddle and mixing reggae 45s behind the wheels the turntables, that is was the pedal store's owner: longtime Bay Area DJ and former independent music store owner Riddm. Since his retail shop, once a few short blocks away on Bowditch, went out of business after five years, he has taken his vinyl to the streets, where he has successfully eliminated overhead and increased profits. "I definitely make more money on the street than I used to in the store," Riddm said with a smile between cuing up a single of Freddie McGregor's "Roots Man Skankin" and taking $8 for a local DJ's mix CD from one of this afternoon's many customers. "And it makes me feel much better ... to be out here ... not having the confinement of walls," he said before quickly adding, "Of course, I couldn't but feel a sense of defeat when I had to close the store."
A well-established Bay Area record collector, Riddm, whose gigs include Tuesdays at Farmer Brown and whose current popular mix CDs are Living in Love and Can't Get Me Down, is known for such things as compiling the Bay Area Funk collection of local rare grooves for Luv N' Haight and, of course, for his defunct shop.
On Sept. 1, 2000, Riddm did what most music fanatics only dream of: he opened his own record store, Funky Riddm Records, which was stocked with reggae, funk, and hip-hop and located a few blocks from the UC campus. And there he stayed until December 2005, followed by an immediate additional six months in a cheaper, more out-of-the-way space on Ashby. Running a retail business is always hard, but starting a music store in the first half of this decade had to be one of the hardest challenges anyone could take on. "A year into my business, 9/11 happened, and that really affected the whole mood of retail," Riddm said.
Then came the flood of reissues and bootlegs, which directly cut into Riddm's collectors' niche. "I wanted to be the East Bay Groove Merchant to some extent, as far as rare hip-hop was concerned. And I really did have the hookup on original hip-hop," he said. Digital file sharing and free MP3s didn't help. "It would get a bit frustrating when kids would come in and say, 'Hey! What's the name of what you're playing?' and then write it down and leave," he explained.
By last summer Riddm had fully accepted that the traditional retail music store model was economically defunct and decided to take it to the streets, or rather first to the Berkeley Flea Market at the Ashby BART station. But he figured he needed something unique. "I wanted to have some kind of sound station where I could play records and CDs. So I hit the drawing board ... and went from a wheelbarrow to all kinds of things," he said. One lucky day he "heard the guys from Critical Mass roll by with this big sound system towed on a bike." Riddm was impressed. "So I went to their headquarters or where they used to have meetings at PedEx, or Pedal Express, a green-powered delivery service out of Berkeley, and they were really supportive."
After he saw his inspiration's old-fashioned three-wheel bike with two wheels in the front, he decided that would be the basis for his new shop's design: "My main idea was to have the turntables right in front of the steering so that the second you stop steering you can start spinning. You are right in position. You don't have to go around the back." Over a couple months he designed it and with help from his friend Steve from clothing company Rasta Boom Box successfully built the 250-pound mobile system, 300 with inventory. The mix CDs are the most popular, and Riddm sells CDs and DVDs for $10 or less, 45s for $3, and the T-shirts he designs himself for $15. You can find him at the Ashby flea market on weekends and on Telegraph during the week sunshine prevailing, he noted.
And what about the future? "I want to get a better van to take it out on the road to more reggae festivals," Riddm said. He was very successful last year when he hit Reggae on the River, among other fests. "What I really love about this now is that I can set my own hours. People always ask me, 'When will I be out again?' " he said with a smile. "And I say, 'When the sun shines!' ... You don't feel the Jamaican vibe when it's gray or raining!" *
Tuesdays, 611 p.m., call for price
25 Mason, SF