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Skip Groff was best known as the owner of Yesterday and Today Records, the shop that, despite its location in a suburban Rockville strip mall it shared with an Entenmann’s outlet and a coin store, served as a crucial hub of the D.C. punk scene.
Groff, who died last week at the age of 70, was also a DJ and programmer at several area radio stations, avid record collector, record producer, and label owner. He was, by all accounts, remarkably knowledgeable about the music he loved. Groff mentored the area’s punk and alternative underground, releasing records by The Slickee Boys, The Velvet Monkeys, The Razz, and Black Market Baby as well as guiding Dischord Records with its earliest releases, records by Teen Idles, SOA, and Minor Threat.
The news of his death last week was widely reported, with stories appearing locally and on Brooklyn Vegan, Punknews, and Deadspin. The Washington Post, whose coverage of local music has grown scant, ran not one but two stories exploring Groff’s impact. Rolling Stone’s story extensively quoted an affectionate statement by Dischord Records’ Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson that began “To say that Dischord Records wouldn’t exist had it not been for Skip Groff isn’t really a stretch.” (Friends say that recognition from Rolling Stone would have been particularly gratifying for Groff.)
Groff taught people how to consider music, to understand it deeply, and he encouraged them in their own musical forays by providing financial and other support. “It’s impossible to underestimate how much Skip contributed to the D.C. music scene,” says photographer and Dischord alum Bert Queiroz. “His production and support, from Pentagram, to Slickee Boys, to Bad Brains, Manifesto, to the entire Dischord scene… His support of the bands—producing and releasing their records, advertising their shows, hiring musicians at Yesterday and Today—was massive.”
Perhaps most importantly, Groff gave the young musicians who surrounded him a kind of validation.
MacKaye describes the 1978 compilation :30 Over D.C.~~Here Comes The New Wave! on Groff’s Limp Records as “an extremely important record for me” and says that Groff had an enormous impact on him and his friends. “When you’re a kid growing up in a town where music culture isn’t taken seriously by the power structure, you’re just this little punk and even ridiculed by some of the older punk rockers, there’s a sense of dismissiveness,” he says. “Skip actually took us seriously. He encouraged us. He was older and somebody in a position of authority who didn’t laugh at us.”
Groff enjoyed his role as educator, and friends say he was only occasionally curmudgeonly. He possessed a sharp sense of humor—an early radio alias was Captain Applesauce, and the name of his short-lived record label, Limp, was a riff on Britain’s Stiff.
Many of the kids who were drawn to him pushed back against the conformity of the ’70s and ’80s.
Shirley Sexton was 14 when she met Groff; he had recently opened his first music shop in Kensington. Seeking refuge from a home environment she now describes as severely abusive, Sexton discovered Hit and Run Records, where records were stacked floor to ceiling. In a Facebook post, Sexton described her introduction to the store: “Going through the door that first time was my entrance into my own rock and roll Narnia… I spent hours flipping through the racks, examining album covers and listening to Skip talk about music. I never told Skip about my troubles at home. I don’t know if he had an inkling of how scared I was. He sent me on sandwich runs and let me write up a few sales. Hit and Run was my haven.”
Groff sold his share in that store, and in 1977 he opened Yesterday and Today in Rockville’s Sunshine Square. Sexton, who later married Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns, one of the bands whose records Groff sold, came to work there. So did MacKaye, Queiroz, Brendan Canty, Guy Picciotto, Sharon Cheslow, Tommy Keene, Ted Niceley, Danny Ingram, and dozens of other local musicians. Some spent so many hours hanging around the store that Groff eventually offered them jobs. In between buying trips to England, after which he would lug home suitcases crammed with hundreds of records, he schooled both customers and staff about various music genres.
It is entirely possible that MacKaye and others would have figured out ways to record their music and start their own labels without Groff. “The movement was bigger than him, and if he hadn’t been there, probably someone else would have played that role. But he was the one who was there, and he did play that significant role,” says Mark Jenkins, longtime local music writer and co-author of Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital.
Jenkins notes that Groff was intent on boosting local music. “His own personal taste was very much British power-pop,” he says. Groff released music “that he probably wouldn’t have been interested in if it came from Cleveland or London.”
It wasn’t long before Yesterday and Today’s reputation extended far beyond the D.C. area. “The fact that a store—or two stores once he opened the 45 shop—in a strip mall in the far suburbs became a must-visit destination for any music fan or band coming into D.C. shows the import of what Skip had put together with Yesterday and Today,” notes Queiroz.
For so many area musicians, Groff was a friend, a producer, a boss, and more. When he married his wife Kelly in 1988, Nicely and several members of Fugazi were included in the wedding party, donning matching tuxes for the occasion.
Moments after his family announced his passing on social media, the tributes began to appear as a community of musicians and music fans, once tightly knit but scattered over the decades, sought to reconnect in a rush of grief.
Since then, folks who loved Groff have been exchanging condolences and stories. There was the time that he wrote a negative review of a set by Boyd Farrell’s first band, The Snitch. In retribution, Farrell and bandmate Paul Cleary decided to pay a menacing visit to Yesterday and Today. “We drove up there and marched in like we’re gonna be all badass,” recalls Farrell. “There were all these people buying records. We were standing there with our arms folded trying to intimidate him, but he was so busy he didn’t even notice we were there.” Later, after Groff had released music by Farrell’s band, Black Market Baby, they laughed about that episode, which Groff found hilarious.
Ted Niceley recalls the day he almost incinerated the store with a heater during one of Groff’s buying trips. “There was all this smoke in the store,” says Niceley. “We called Skip in England to tell him that the store almost went up in flames.” Groff thought that was really funny, too, though he might have felt differently if his thousands of records had melted.
MacKaye remembers a conversation they had when Groff’s health began to fail: “He said, ‘I think I’m falling apart.’ So I asked him ‘What’s the B side of such and such?’ and he immediately told me everything imaginable about the record. I said, ‘Well, something’s still in there.’”
Groff’s friend, longtime employee, and fellow record obsessive Steve Lorber recalls that he and Groff often mocked their own music mania. “We used to joke that we were like Rain Man characters, because we could talk for hours about things that were of no interest to anyone in the world except for one or two guys,” says Lorber. They would debate arcane issues such as whether the D.C. hardcore punk movement took attention away from other worthy styles. (For the record, Groff insisted it did not).
“I think there’s a certain kind of person—not glamorous, who loves music and has zero musical talent, who gets invested in the fantasy of the music, and they get close to the music by acquiring it,” says Lorber. “Skip was totally focused on records. It was fun for him, and he could make a living at it.”
If Groff’s exhaustive music knowledge suggests an asocial nerd, he was in fact thoroughly committed to helping young musicians find their way and fostering a music scene with his generosity and guidance.
Long before the advent of the internet, he taught his acolytes to discover music that’s far better than what’s being mainlined into your brain by commercial radio. To find musicians whose worldview resembles your own, whose music helps you define yourself or maybe just feel a little better.
“Skip was a role model for us, and like him, we were not listening to what was being spoon-fed to us,” says Sexton. “I think that idea is instilled in hundreds and hundreds of people at least, if not thousands, that Skip touched in some way.”
A celebration of the life of Skip Groff takes place on March 24 at 1 p.m. at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center in Rockville. Memorial contributions can be made to the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library Fund or the WMUC Legacy Fund at giving.umd.edu. On Sunday morning from 9 a.m. to noon, Takoma Park’s WOWD airs a tribute to Groff.