Pairing wine and vinyl with Cinderblock People, part I


by Matt Caprioli

A Harlem store pairs wine with records, creating realness in an age of political disconnect and tyrannical clouds.

Cinderblock People, a record store in northwest Harlem, is wedged between Chanel Beauty Salon and public housing towers to the east; Manhattanville Coffee, CUNY City College, and a “juicery” make up its western border.

For the store’s first wine-record pairing party in late September, a dozen people of varying races, ages, and frequented subway lines fit comfortably in the U-Haul sized space. They were gathered to hear a 1976 record by Iceberg Slim, the intellectual pimp turned bestselling author, born Robert Lee Moppins Jr. (become Robert Beck).

“It’s a very conceptual thing and requires a bit of imagination,” said sommelier Jonathan Charnay, standing near a table of cinder blocks that holds the store’s prized record player. “Please enjoy, and see if you can relate to this idea of pairing wine to music.”

Charnay, a beverage director at the Japanese restaurants Masa and Tetsu, is a Cinderblock regular. From his apartment in Harlem, he’s been pairing wine and records since the early 2010s. His Instagram features David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” paired with a 2011 pinot noir by Clos de Tart; the “Strangers Things” soundtrack with a blended 1983 red from Bordeaux; Metallica’s “Metal Up Your Ass” with a 2013 Schrader cabernet sauvignon.

Patrick Lombardo, co-owner of Cinderblock People, has been scrounging up stray dollar bills to visit record stores since he was a teen on Long Island. After the election of Donald Trump, he and his partner, Emily Weill, needed to do something that bred community and goodwill, even as the larger world seemed set on ravenous disconnect.

“This album is wild,” Lombardo said, introducing the record. There’s definitely an unvarnished truth to it.” He read from Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life, his 1967 account of his 25 years as a pimp around Chicago:

“The account of my brutality and cunning as a pimp will fill many of you with revulsion, however, if one intelligent, valuable young man or woman can be saved from the destructive slime; then the displeasure I have given will have been outweighed by that individual’s use of his potential in a socially constructive manner.”

Throughout the 70s, Pimp was found in black-owned barbershops and gas stations. Bookstores (mostly white-owned) thought the material was too smutty. But the lack of reviews and mainstream (i.e. white) attention didn’t impede the book’s success. Pimp and future fiction (Mama Black Widow: a Story of the South’s Black Underworld; Airtight Willie & Me) would sell six million copies by the time Iceberg Slim died in 1992. The likes of Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle grew up devouring his work. In his recent Netflix show “The Bird Situation,” Chappelle used Pimp to explain his standing with Comedy Central, a move that sent publishers scrambling to print fresh copies, and launched Pimp to #15 on Amazon.

In the mid-70s, Iceberg Slim worked with the Red Holloway Jazz Quartet to produce Reflections, a spoken word funk album that serves as an abridged version of Pimp.

Charnay chose two Syrahs to accompany the A and B track.

“Syrah as a grape produces wines that are really elegant and at the same time very savage,” he explained, filling up clear plastic cups. “On the attack, you’re going to find something that is very compelling and very smooth, but on the finish, you’re going to find more spiciness, a little earthiness.”

Side A of Reflections is titled “The Fall (The Game).” Charnay paired it with Syrah, Alain Voge Cotes du Rhone, 2016. Blazed jazz-filled Cinderblock People, and everyone, Syrah in hand, bowed their heads. Iceberg Slim’s voice rolled out like a stretch limo: nonchalant, crafted, luxurious, tawdry. His insight is caustic and careening, filtered as it is through profanity.

“I’d like to tell; of how I fell; and the trick fate played on me./ So gather round; and I’ll run it down; and unravel my pedigree.”

Right out of the gate, he establishes a mythical setting. One Saturday night, the abstracted “game” stalks its prey, and “The weak were doom to pay.” The prose is delicious. Dwight Garner for The New York Times rightfully called the writings of Iceberg Slim “Mark Twain meets Malcolm X.” There’s a distinct literary quality that’s easy to forget once Pimp modifies its author. But his talent springs up in front of a microphone. With rhyme – couplets, slant, and internal – it’s the sort of control you’d find in Alexander Pope or Molière. But the setting, of course, is totally alien to the Canon.

The omnipotent “Game” has drawn his dad into jail; his mom can’t sleep as their house is foreclosing. People kill for bread; “drunks rolled for their poke.” Even as a boy, he was encouraged toward misogyny. For him, “that sidewalk Jezebel” is the only way a black boy in the 30s could pay rent: “I was branded a beast; and I sat at the feast…. I made my play for female prey; at the time I was just a boy.”