AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the history of gangster rap, several names loom large: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Quik. But here's a name that's less well known: Wan Joon Kim also played a big role in the early years of Los Angeles hip-hop. He opened a swap meet stall in the now-famous suburb of Compton in the mid-1980s, and he sold some of the earliest work of those stars at a time when few knew them and fewer stores would sell their music. And many never forgot him. Wan Joon Kim died yesterday at the age of 79. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Wan Joon Kim didn't intend to become the godfather of gangster rap in the beginning, his son Kirk says. He just wanted to support his family. Kim escaped North Korea on a fishing boat and the family eventually wound up in the U.S. in 1976. Kirk Kim says at first his parents sold a random assortment of stuff at swap meets to make ends meet. Then...

KIRK KIM: Somebody was selling hip-hop CDs in one of these swap meets. So my dad saw, you know, he just saw an opportunity. He saw the big lines in front of there, so he said I'm going to try this.

BATES: The Kims rented a stall in Compton's first indoor swap meet. The nascent artists they carried included Ice Cube and singles Eazy-E put out on his fledgling label. Those two would go on to become part of N.W.A., a legendary group whose "Straight Outta Compton" album put Compton and gangster rap on the global map.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Straight outta Compton, crazy (bleep) named Ice Cube from the gang called (bleep) with Attitudes. When I'm called off, I got a sawed off. Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off.

BATES: Cycadelic Music Corner became a pilgrimage for anyone wanting the latest in gangster rap. Because Wan Joon Kim and his wife Boo Ja had a close relationship with local musicians, they often got the hottest music first. Kirk Kim says his dad didn't always understand the language of the rhymes so Kirk's sisters would translate.

KIM: So he would always ask them, what are these guys talking about? Why are they so mad? Why are they so angry? And they would pretty much interpret songs, and it catches to him and he'll be like, oh, I like this.

BATES: He understood the emotion, if not the words. Over the past few years, despite the rise of digital music, fans continue to come to Compton to visit the Kims, whom many called Pops and Mama. Kirk Kim says his mother treated customers like they were her own children, including critiquing their style.

KIM: Some of these people, they come back, now they have kids, and they always ask me about my parents. How's your mom doing? You know, she used to make me pull up my pants.

BATES: Wan Joon Kim died yesterday after a three-year battle with cancer. But this quiet man's legacy lives on in the many friendships he formed and the hometown music he helped make famous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")

CUBE: I'm comin' straight outta Compton.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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