The Bed-Stuy record store that shaped Brooklyn’s music scene

November 20, 2019 Nick Gallagher
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Nestled between a Sprint store and a McDonald’s in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant sits Charlie’s Calypso City — once the center of Brooklyn’s music scene. At the helm is Rawlston Charles, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who helped bring about a resurgence of calypso music that stretched from Bed-Stuy to cities across the world.

The store has been a neighborhood staple since 1972, but like most record shops, it has felt the effects of digital downloads and streaming services. “We don’t have a whole lot of walking traffic anymore, because of these new ways that people can buy music,” Charles said in a recent phone interview.

Despite the quiet atmosphere, Charles himself is as lively as ever. Most days, he wears a colorful three-piece suit, pork pie hat and shimmering bowtie. His eyes flicker with confidence and gusto.

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Among the memorabilia and record sleeves lining the walls of the store are posters of Charles’ daughter, Tina Charles — a WNBA star on the New York Liberty and a two-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA. She recently took on a new challenge: directing a documentary about her father’s influence on New York’s calypso music scene.

With Spike Lee’s blessing, “Charlie’s Records” was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. Earlier this month, it was shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Downtown Brooklyn to a packed crowd, in partnership with the Caribbean Film Academy.

Rawlston Charles first established his record store in 1972 on Fulton Street. In 1976, he moved next door, and renamed his store to Charlie’s Calypso City. The shop still bears that name today. Photo: Nick Gallagher/Brooklyn Eagle

Curtis John coordinated with BAM to host the screening. As the executive director of the Luminal Theater, which supports the work of black filmmakers in the area, John said he was drawn to the film because of its local resonance.

It showcases “one of Bed-Stuy’s most generous and long-standing citizens and entrepreneurs,” John said. “You might even kind of want to call it a rags-to-riches story, where this gentleman just had this love for this music and really helped propel it to international status.”

Charles moved to the USA in his early 20s and took up jobs repairing cars and driving taxis until he came upon an opportunity that felt more fulfilling: opening a record store.

Despite the relatively large Trinidadian and Tobagonian populations in Brooklyn, Charles became frustrated that records from his homeland were difficult to find, both in stores and in the nightclubs and venues across New York.

“So, when I made a transition, opened up a record shop, it gave me the opportunity to get involved in music from the Caribbean, and Trinidad and Tobago particularly,” Charles said.

Charles’ store has been a neighborhood staple since 1972. Photo: Nick Gallagher/Brooklyn Eagle

He soon became a liaison between New York and Caribbean calypso artists and created an international network to make calypso music more accessible to other regions of the world. He also became an early supporter of soca — a fusion between calypso and soul music.

In 1984, with the help of prominent figures in the New York music scene, Charles turned to producing. He built a recording studio above his shop. It was designed to cater to calypso and soca musicians⁠, equipped with steel drums, a state-of-the-art mixer and wood-paneled walls, ideal for creating warm, rich tones, said Charles’ long-time sound engineer Franklyn Grant.

But as Charles’ reputation grew, the shop quickly became a hub for acts from other emerging genres, especially early hip-hop pioneers like the Fat Boys and Kurtis Blow. Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, whose music was hugely influential to future hip-hop stars, also recorded there.

The studio remains active today. A recent music video for “The Road” featuring Machel Montana, a leading musician in the Caribbean soca scene, and Ashanti, a Grammy-winning R&B artist, was filmed in the studio earlier this year. So far, it has over 3.5 million views on YouTube.

When Charles opened his store, many Americans were already familiar with calypso music through pop hits like Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song.” Those hits, however, have little in common with the songs that Charles grew up listening to in Tobago.

Calypso was originally closely associated with Carnival, the Christian celebration leading up to Lent. But the genre also became a tool for plantation workers to communicate with each other in an otherwise oppressive colonial society, said Dr. Shane Vogel, whose book, “Stolen Time: Black Fad Performance and the Calypso Craze,” chronicles the early history of calypso and its subsequent appropriation.

According to Vogel, calypso began showing up in mainstream American culture when American performers visited Trinidadian nightclubs to entertain troops stationed there during World War II.

In many cases, pop artists brought back a simplistic depiction of calypso that conjured up ideas of a tropical paradise, said Vogel. “Artists sometimes used the word ‘calypso’ even if they weren’t actually performing calypso music,” he said. “Calypso sometimes became a stand-in for an image of the Caribbean that a middle-class mass consumer might have.”

Franklyn Grant, a long-time sound engineer at Rawlston Recording Studio, sits beside a state-of-the-art Neve mixer. Photo: Nick Gallagher/Brooklyn Eagle

World War II would not be the last time that mainstream acts borrowed from traditional calypso music. The style of calypso and soca can still be heard in the driving rhythms and booming bass lines of modern pop and reggaeton, which “should really be called ‘socaton,’” according to Grant, the sound engineer.

“You have it in all of the dance remixes, and now you have it in the Afro-beat and in pop records. And Charlie should have gotten credit for all of that,” Grant said.

Much has changed since Charles arrived at Kennedy Airport in the Winter of 1967, with only a small briefcase and a record from the calypso legend Lord Kitchener, as he recounts in the documentary. In Bed-Stuy, independent stores have given way to ubiquitous chains. Elements of calypso are now folded into modern genres that bear little resemblance to its original sound.

And yet, if one visits Charlie’s Calypso City on a given day, she’s likely to find a man sitting at the far end of the room in a dazzling suit, chatting with long-time friends and reflecting on the music that changed his life.

Nick Gallagher is Brooklyn-based art and culture reporter. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

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