Urban Lights celebrates 20 years of record store madness in St. Paul

Photo by Lars Larson
If these walls could talk. Urban Lights is one of the longest-running -- and underrated -- music shops in the Twin Cities, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this Saturday at Nomad World Pub. That's a pretty big deal; anything lasting 20 years in these ADHD days is nothing short of a miracle, especially in the record-selling business. 

So how did a small record shop in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul last 20 years in one of the most fickle and shady of industries? Good stories and good people.

Behind the secret to its success is Tim Wilson. Much respect goes out to Travitron, Siddiq Sayers, Q-Bear, and so for helping to build the foundation of our urban music scene here in the city, but Tim Wilson should be on the top of the list. 

Wilson first got involved in the late '80s, skipping school and bolting to Ray Seville's house to watch him work the tables, talk music, and get personal DJ lessons from one of the Cities' best. By the end of the day, Seville would boot Tim out of his home to make way for his legendary adult basement parties, which were usually spun by a DJ named Jimmy Jam -- yes THAT Jimmy Jam -- Tim could only watch through the windows like some sort of musical peeping tom. 

Throughout the years, even though Tim worked random corporate gigs, he always kept music in his back pocket, sneaking off to New York City to work on records with Daddy-O of Stetsasonic and rubbing shoulders with longtime friend and collaborator Jam Master Jay. With his contacts and influence in local record pools, Tim purchased Northern Lights in St. Paul in 1993 and renamed it Urban Lights, the record store for everything hip-hop, R&B, soul, and gospel. 

As a member of the Black Music Coalitions at Sony/BMG, Warner, EMI/Capitol and Universal, major artists who wanted to get in good with the local DJs and programmers made it a point to stop by Urban Lights when in town and hang out and pay some respect. Artists such as Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Common, and RUN DMC have all stepped into the shop over the years. 

Photo by Lars Larson
One day as people milled around the shop, the then-unknown Will.I.Am stood in the corner, pop locking and gyrating to the overhead music. Customers became spooked and concerned and asked if the strange guy in the corner was having a seizure and needed assistance. Who knew years later that same guy would be getting paid millions to have seizures with the likes of Britney Spears, the Game, and Justin Timberlake. 

But that's what makes Urban Lights so special. You walk into Urban Lights today and it's a museum of music history. Platinum plaques hang on the back wall; framed autographed photos and posters fill every inch of wall space. It's so striking to record geeks that one St. Paul City Council member considered giving the store a landmark status for future protection after some recent light rail construction damaged the shop.

Sponsor Content

Now Trending

Minnesota Concert Tickets

From the Vault