Hallandale Beach's surreal skyline of residential skyscrapers begins to shrink as you drive away from the coast. Hallandale Beach Boulevard turns more mundane and suburban just before it crosses I-95 into a world of Scarlett's, Mattress Giant, and Circle K. It's the tiny, mobile-home ville of Pembroke Park. The drab, littered parking lot of another strip club, the Booby Trap, is slowly coming to life this afternoon. Then, somehow, Hallandale Beach Boulevard is Miramar Parkway. In the space of a few blocks, the terrain gradually shifts to include patty shops and a hair-braiding parlor or two. There're more tricked-out cars over here, more yellow-frilled green, gold, and black JA flags swinging from visors.
"Miramar is just about halfway between Lauderhill and Miami," guesses the ever-knowledgeable Bruce Britton, who runs Strictly the Best, the reggae record store that takes its name from the successful string of dancehall compilations proffered by VP Records. The Miramar branch of the reggae label is only a few blocks away (see "Chin Music," page 15). Next-door nightclub Stingerz and nearby Cool Runnings Cafe help set the Miramar tone, as do the frequent fliers (glossy, index-card sized party announcements) Strictly the Best always keeps in mass quantities next to the front door.
Even through the closed door of the store you can hear the bass-booming automobile come to a rest directly out front, its pounding riddim clashing with the Stevie & Cleevie single that Britton is playing inside. A young man pops in and regales Britton with the play-by-play from one recent reggae gathering: "Ya, Bruce, it were di wickedest t'ing eva -- it bad man! Di vibes was hard, hard like rock!" Then, grabbing a fistful of fliers, he's gone just as fast as he burst in.
Several shopper/selectors, headphones in place, are so immersed with looking for the latest singles to play that they barely glance up at the brief commotion. Strictly is where selectors come to check the newest or just hang back with Britton, shoot the shit, and groove to what he's blasting. Clutching a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup, Britton is naturally overjoyed to temporarily ignore his sister and her crying baby to discuss his store's ample stock of 45s. He's able to switch from puzzling patois to unaccented English -- he doesn't even pronounce ska as skee-yah -- in a second.
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"I don't know anyone else who sorts their records like this," he explains, scratching his thin whiskers while tenderly sorting through the divided bins of seven-inches arranged by "riddim," that is, by the original backing track the song is based on. Every reggae single from the 1970s and '80s came with a vocal A-side and a dub version on the flip. The practice led to the wholesale theft of that instrumental B-side by rappers and toasters, who'd lay their own lyrical eggs over the existing track.
Nowadays, Britton has discovered browsers prefer to refer to the riddim from the song originally pilfered. "Clappas," for instance, is a reference to the clapping sound producing the beat. "Star Wars," similarly, is named for its futuristic sound effects. "(Under Mi) Sling Teng" is a prime example of a riddim that's been co-opted so many times it's taken on a life of its own.
The sizable and comprehensive stock of seven-inch singles offers generally hard-to-find, yet inexpensive pleasures for the music-hungry. Bins of cherished AM radio oldies are a testament to this -- the old Latin standards and the '60s and '70s wave of American R&B hits. Records always outweigh CDs here, literally and figuratively; in fact, Strictly the Best is one of a few places that still actually carries needles and styli for record players and 45-rpm spindle adapters for turntables.
Not only can the vinyl loyalists indulge, but Britton -- a transplanted New Yorker -- feels a duty to address his brethren elsewhere in the Caribbean. Hence, sections devoted to Barbados or Trinidad subgenera like chutney, the stew created when sitar meets soca. Naturally, those who've proven they can go the distance, no matter what genre, get prominent placement in the front: J-Lo and Ras Shiloh and Snoop Dogg and Beenie Man and Bounty Killer and Cam'ron and Ludacris coexist side by side. And today, current VP star Sean Paul's "Shake That Thang," the dancehall smash based on the hip-hop-friendly "Surprize Riddim," shakes the store. But the small things, like that lonely seven-inch of Half Pint's "Boom Bye Bye," are important too, insists Britton. "These are an important commodity. We're offering a service that's very rare nowadays."