The Death of Cool and Grand Royal
By Phil Wise
Why does everything suck? You may ask yourself that question as you stop into your local Starbucks and pick up a Grande Latte, but you know the answer. Because cool doesn’t sell and this is the United Statistics of Americorp. Last week’s closing of Grand Royal is the latest casualty in this corporate-dominated, zip-locked world where it’s hip to be square.
Founded in 1992 by arbiters of hip, The Beastie Boys, Grand Royal records set out to be the modern day equivalent of the Beatles’ Apple Records—a safe haven for artists to create and market their work. The B-Boys are insanely successful and have truly earned the crown of cool with their impact on music, fashion and progressive politics in the early- and mid-90s. The excitement surrounding 1992’s Check Your Head was genuine and deserved. It was a slight departure from their classic Paul’s Boutique, yet in line with their appreciation of old school hip-hop and funk, 80s hard rock and their burgeoning talents for “world music.” Released at the dawn of the alternative age, Check Your Head was the ever-present soundtrack for millions of B-Boy wannabes who would do almost anything to emulate their Brooklyn heroes.
Real B-Boy, Mike D., started out just designing some phat gear. His subsequent clothing line was an immediate sensation with skater kids and New York hipsters, but it was never gonna hit the malls. Combine that stunted promise with the creation of Grand Royal Magazine in 1993 and you’ve got the seeds sown for world domination.
Over the past nine years Grand Royal has grown to be a magazine, clothing designer and outlet and, of course, record label. As a label it stood out in its almost pathological sense of diversity among acts. Not to be pigeonholed, Grand Royal signed some of the 90s most unique, fresh and sometimes downright unmarketable bands around. Their roster posted such acts as Scapegoat Wax, Astounded, Nullset, Sean Lennon, Ben Lee and their top selling groups: Luscious Jackson and At the Drive-in. All but the last two groups were marginal sellers at best and that may be where the crack in the glass began.
The breakup of their two top selling acts (the latter, ATDI, on the eve of their tour to promote the million selling Relationship of Command) can’t have been good for business. As a label, I think Grand Royal was doomed from the get go. Why? Because cool doesn’t sell, dumbass. Niche groups are just that and appeal to select audiences, which despite the flood of alternia in the 90s, remains relatively small.
But I think Grand Royal could have been saved if, in the 90s when the Beasties and their Mothership were at their height, they could have established Grand Royal as a brand. A concerted effort to parlay the Beastie Boys authority on hipness to a full line of clothing and related accessories could have given Grand Royal a brand promise, to use marketing-speak, that would rival McDonalds or Coca-Cola. Then, those legions of B-Boys and B-Girls may have accepted these fringe groups that GR, the record label, was promoting. But that would have spoiled Grand Royal and reduced it to the same level of celebrity vanity labels as Bad Boy, Maverick, or Fred Durst’s new day job, Interscope (all relatively successful, by the way).
Grand Royal was original and promoted groups that displayed the same sense of originality and diversity that makes its founders’ music so influential and vital in this pop-washed world. The fate of its acts is yet to be determined but I would say there’s little chance of picking up the Buffalo Daughter or Sukpatch singles at your local Best Buy. Better get to Grand Royal now while you still can pick these gems up—Better late than never.