The first time hip-hop producer J57 visited Bagel Buffet, an old school 24-hour New York deli that used to be at 406 6th Avenue in the West Village in Manhattan, he was just 16 years old. "I remember living in Long Island being in high school and listening to this High & Mighty record and hearing the rapper say, "Throw they ass out of Fat Beats on the Bagel Buffet with no delay.” I was like, "What the hell's Bagel Buffet?" Then when I cut school and went to the Fat Beats record store for the first time and saw it I was like, “Ah…””
For 14 years, Bagel Buffet didn’t just serve up deli staples, it also just so happened to host what became the city’s hip-hop Mecca on the second floor above it. The name of this revered temple was Fat Beats, and the store’s credentials quickly became legendary: It stocked the first pre-fame independent releases by artists like Jay Z and Eminem, hosted in-store appearances by The Fugees and Gang Starr with lines that tailed around the block, and acted as an open mic incubator for future stars Mos Def, Talib Kweli and EL-P. By association, the Bagel Buffet—which served up the whole smorgasbord of deli foodstuffs and had a reputation for allowing patrons to customize their orders—fueled these artists and their fans while becoming an unlikely part of the fabric of the city's hip-hop history.
The owner of Fat Beats, Joseph Abajian, originally rented a spot on East 9th Street in 1994 to open his idea of a record store that would resemble a hip-hop junkie's bedroom. It was a success from the start. When he needed to expand the enterprise two years later, he went to view a space above "an old school New York style place that, I hate to say, was kinda like a run-down deli."
With Fat Beats gaining a reputation for specializing in blue collar, gritty underground hip-hop, the idea of entering the store by climbing up a rickety staircase to the side of a lovably worn bagel outlet seemed a smart fit. Abajian recalls signing a handwritten lease with the Greek landlord, handing over a check and securing the spot.
"When we first moved in, we had an opening day party," Abajian says. "If you look online you'll see all these artists there including Kanye West. But there were so many people there that the floor over the Bagel Buffet started caving in!"
Free of charge, the landlord added support beams under the floor and "bedazzled them with mirrors." So began the endearing relationship between a hip-hop record store and a bagel place.
As Fat Beats' reputation grew and it became a hub for hometown and passing artists, a Who's Who of hip-hop stars filled their chops with food from the Bagel Buffet. Abajian remembers Questlove from The Roots as one of the most iconic artists to chow down; the rapper Q-Unique, who worked in Fat Beats at one point, says, "Mostly everyone went to Bagel Buffet because it was so convenient, being right downstairs." (His own regular order was a bagel with butter and a Tropicana orange juice.)
Abajian recalls he’d often hear kids running up the stairs to Fat Beats and excitedly blabbing, "Hey, man, DJ Premier's downstairs eating a bagel!" He’d calmly respond, “Yeah, Premier’s coming up here later.”
As Fat Beats solidified its status, it spawned a subculture of artists who decided to stand outside the entrance to the store's staircase and attempt to hawk their music directly to fans and tourists. While the development irked some of the Fat Beats employees and customers—the gaggle of rappers hustling their wares could be enough to make you want to cross the block to avoid their sales patter—it ended up being a boon for the Bagel Buffet.
The cult golden age hip-hop artist Percee P was one of the originators of this hand-to-hand sales trend. "I used to stand right by the window of the Bagel Buffet," he says. "I put my radio up on the little balcony outside the store and had my knapsacks of CDs and tapes. The bagel people was cool with me 'cause every time I wanted to eat I would just go there. They always broke bread with me."
Abajian says the guys who worked at the Bagel Buffet were tolerant of the artists hanging around—largely because “those guys were outside for so long, they bought all their food from Bagel Buffet.”
It helped that Bagel Buffet’s namesake product was on point. J57, who worked at Fat Beats for a spell and usually plumped for a whole wheat bagel with “too much cream cheese in a good way,” lauds their wares: “The bagels had a great consistency to them. They weren’t too squishy and they weren’t too hard—they were a chewable bagel and when they were heated up it was just a perfect little thing going on.”
Fat Beats' Manhattan store officially closed its doors on September 4th, 2010, in the face of a changing music industry. The Bagel Buffet also shuttered up at 406 6th Avenue three months later. Over their years standing together, the two spots seemed to form a symbolic relationship. "Fat Beats and bagels go with New York City," says Abajian. Now that block of 6th Avenue is poorer for losing two of its local institutions.
"I loved Bagel Buffet, that was the spot," reminisces the rapper Ill Bill who toiled behind the counter at Fat Beats before his own career took off. "I'm almost as sad about them closing as Fat Beats closing. I mean, I'm a Brooklyn dude, but there was no place in Manhattan I'd fuck with for bagels but Bagel Buffet."