The Last Days of Dub Vendor (the shop, that is)

October 31, 2012

Here is a little piece I wrote for Riddim mag last year about Dub Vendor just after the riots (apologies if hindsight has proved anything I said wrong…)


On Saturday 6th August, 25 years after the infamous Broadwater Farm riot, a weekend of street violence kicked off in Tottenham, North London. Ostensibly in response to the police shooting of one Mark Duggan the previous Thursday, gangs of youths looted local businesses and burned cars and buildings – starting a chain reaction that would reverberate around the country for days to come.

By Monday the riots had spread south to Clapham Junction. In an attempt to steal masks to hide from CCTV, the fancy dress shop Party Superstore was broken into and set alight. The blaze became one of the enduring televised images of the  disturbance. Miraculously, the business next door, Britain’s most famous reggae record store Dub Vendor – due to celebrate its 35th anniversary the following month – stood relatively unscathed.

Owner John McGillivray – who started Dub Vendor in 1976 as a market stall selling pre releases with his school-friend, the producer and journalist Chris Lane – was alerted to the situation when his upstairs tenants phoned him fearing for their lives. John and his son attempted to put out the fire but the police held them back in case of gas canisters and fireworks igniting within.

“Thankfully the fire engines got here just in time to put it down before it did any major damage to Dub Vendor, which is a serious blessing” says John a week later once the phone lines are working again. “We suffered as a result of them putting out the fire more than anything else because it flooded our basement!”

Randys producer Clive Chin who was in London on business had left his belongings in the shop while appearing at the Reggae Geel festival that weekend. “I came in the Thursday, left the Friday morning for Belgium and when I came in on Monday all the looting started. My suitcase got wet up and thing but nothing perishable. John is really blessed because that building beside him is charred from top to bottom”.

Long time staff – and members of the company’s musical arm the Dub Vendor All Stars – Oxman and Papa Face believe their being spared was about more than just luck. “We heard on the grapevine something was going to go off” says Face who still deejays with Rodigan three decades after meeting him through John. “John said ‘Do you think we should take the money out of the tills?’ I said ‘I don’t think anyone is going to touch us John.’ The kids that are going to come down here were probably sitting on the counter when their parents were buying records. Not even a stone was flung at the window.” Oxman – a jovial talkative personality who used to buy John’s top sellers to stock the failing Balham store he worked in, agrees. “I could almost have predicted they weren’t going to touch his shop. He’s served the community well”.

Back in 1977 John had to close his first shop in Peckham following a break in but Dub Vendor soon rebounded. By 1982 he had two outlets: Ladbroke Grove’s Record Shack, right in Carnival territory, and the main Clapham Junction store. The two shops enjoyed a friendly rivalry and had their own vibes. “South London has a different vibe from rest of London.” laughs John, “People tend to remember Ladbroke Grove more in the media. But the shop that’s always made the most money is Clapham Junction. South London always had a predominance of sound men and that used to be our staple back when everyone used to be in a sound”.

Certainly many in the reggae industry have warm regard for Dub Vendor. When Chris and John started their Fashion label in 1980 it became a launching pad for youthful talent.

Gussie P who now runs respected imprint Sip A Cup was Fashion’s first dub-cutter and apprentice engineer. “It was a good school because once you came out of it you had a good understanding of the business.” says Gussie (the “P” stands for ‘Prento’ or ‘apprentice’). “Being around good people you always pick up good ideas”.

By the late 80s Gussie’s own productions (pressed by Dub Vendor) began to take off. So the engineer role was filled by future Maximum Sound producer Frenchie who had been making pilgrimages to the shop from Paris since he was 16.

“Frenchie was a reggae fanatic who knocked on the door long enough for us to think ‘Let’s give him a job!'” says John. “If you’ve got talent then you’ll make your mark in the business which both of those guys have done”.

“John’s helped loads of people in the business” adds Frenchie, now one of Europe’s most well known producers “He suggested Greensleeves as distributor for Dr Alimantado’s Best Dressed Chicken album and Oh Carolina for Robert Livingstone. If he can help you he’ll do it. That’s the sort of guy he is”.

For Clive Chin John’s retail experience makes him an invaluable guide. “Since I started reissuing stuff I’ve been putting them through Vendor. John will say ‘Clive that tune can sell you know’ so I put it out. When you work the counter you know what people want”.

Then there are the many legendary characters on the other side of the counter. Ox recalls the customer who would go into a deep trance when being played a tune – and would react irritably if disturbed. Face still chuckles at the man who tried to return some 7s angrily after a party saying they were faulty because “They all had a hole in the middle!”

“In days when communication wasn’t as good as it is now” says John “People would listen to Tony Williams and Rodigan, write down the names of songs and sometimes the titles would get lost in translation. So you’d get people asking for ‘Trentus Garville’ and you’d suddenly realize they meant “Train To Skaville!”

In the eighties and nineties records sold in huge numbers (“The shop was rammed like a dance” recalls Frenchie). Yet as time has gone by the number of customers physically coming through the door has decreased. In 2008 John decided not to extend the lease on the Record Shack leaving the Junction shop as one of London’s only reggae specialist record stores. Face blames the extension of the city’s congestion charge zone. “Before you’d be driving, hear a record on the radio, ring and say ‘I’m coming to pick it up’. But you’re not going to spend £8 on the congestion charge to buy one or two records. That just cut the customers in half overnight”.

Frenchie sees the shift in young Londoners tastes as a factor. “From the late seventies to the mid nineties reggae was the music of the youths. Of course you’ve got the internet and people downloading but the main reason is there’s no new generation to take over”. “Before you’d have a kid aspiring to be the next Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Garnet Silk” says Face “Now the kids see videos with the half naked girls and the cars and they want to make songs like that so it can be put on YouTube. A lot of records you hear are like R&B-hip-hop-reggae all mashed together but not done very well”.

John went online early to supplement the mail order business he’d started out of his mum’s place in 1978. He’s not hugely into computers but has an instinct for when to adapt.”You can’t fight technology because technology will always beat you. I’ve seen the way the business has been going for a good five years at least, so shutting down Ladbroke Grove was a relatively easy decision to take. You form an emotional attachment to it but you’re running a business not a museum”.

So why has Dub Vendor lasted so long?

Face: “It’s because of our contacts over the years. The artist and producers like us because we’re good with payment.” Ox: “John’s always moved with the times. Some shops they’ve not decorated – lots of loitering in the shop. People need to feel comfortable, women especially. They don’t really like record shops but they’ve never had much problem going to Dub Vendor”.

“I think the secret’s been good people working for me who all enjoy what they do” says John, “My criteria for recruiting people has been I know you as a customer and you know about this stuff, so how about having a job?”

In  a way the store’s brush with destruction has been a convenient reminder of just how well loved Dub Vendor is – just as it is about to celebrate 35 years in existence. “We’ve had calls and messages from all over the world” states Face ” My phone did not stop ringing during that riot”.

“John  is a landmark” says Clive wistfully “There used to be stores in Queens Park, Harlesden, Walthamstow. He’s still going from the 70s when I used to come to London”.

One week after these interviews Dub Vendor announced the Junction shop would close on Saturday 10th September, “To concentrate completely on online and mail order sales”. At time of writing the All Stars are gearing up for their 35 year dance in Brixton. John and Chris Lane are working on plans to reissue the Fashion catalogue. One thing’s for sure: this isn’t the last that reggae music has heard from the Dub Vendor brand.

“I’ve always been happy to let people know the name Dub Vendor rather than John McGillivray” says John “If they know Dub Vendor that’s good enough for me”. Gussie P thinks John is being modest. “Dub Vendor is just John. He’s always had the ability to get good tunes. John’s a character who keeps the whole thing together”.

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