Last Dance

Tears, hopes, and beats mark the end of Club Deco, ground zero for Bay Area underground hip hop

It's a rain-soaked line outside Club Deco on March 9, as a large and formidable security guard at the door casts a quick glance toward the end of the Tenderloin block. He smiles. "Damn, the line's around the corner," he says, pushing his hands deeper into the folds of his long coat.

Inside, the air fills with peals of laughter, rumbling bass, and billows of cigarette smoke. On the dance floor, a young girl's dark braids whirl around her body as she falls into time with DJ Pause's mix of A Tribe Called Quest's "Award Tour." And above all the friendly chaos, a small sign reads: "All of us from Deco thank you for making it happen for five strong years! Respect and one love."

But despite the cheery words and festive atmosphere, Deco owner Cleo Fishman is brushing away tears as she walks through the club. Tonight's celebration marks Deco's fifth anniversary as a home for San Francisco's extended hip-hop family -- as well as the end of an era: Four hours after Deco opened its doors on this dreary Tuesday night, the club was closed for good.

Fans of underground hip hop from all over the Bay Area gathered to show their respect for Fishman, who almost single-handedly created a home for Bay Area rappers and DJs, a place where graffiti artists could draw on wall-sized paper while world-class DJs rocked intimate gatherings. More important, Deco was a practice space, idea factory, and home away from home. Mixing skills were honed, MC trickery was refined, and turntablist routines were perfected. As the club's reputation grew, big-name stars from the Roots to DJ Premier would drop by for impromptu freestyle sessions with Deco's resident DJs -- Shortkut, Toph1, Wisdom (formerly Winnie B.), and Pause.

What Deco became was precisely what Fishman had envisioned when she bought the space in February of 1994. But ongoing battles with angry neighbors, landlords, and police over noise took their toll, and Fishman has finally closed the doors on a scene she struggled to keep alive, leaving most patrons wondering if there will ever again be a place quite like it.

1994 was the worst possible time to start a hip-hop club in San Francisco. Hip hop had created a bad name for itself, and after repeated violent episodes -- one involving a shooting outside a Biggie Smalls show -- SOMA clubs like DNA and the Sound Factory dropped the format, while the Police Department targeted hip-hop clubs citywide with raids and permit checks.

"With all the police crackdowns, even getting a club to have one night of hip hop was almost impossible, " says Wisdom, a host of KUSF's Beatsauce show and Deco resident.

"There were a lot more knuckleheads showing up to shows who only knew commercial acts and didn't have a lot of respect for the underground," concurs J. Boogie, another show host.

For Fishman, Deco meant an opportunity to get back to hip hop's positive roots. "With the underground scene effectively shut down, we needed a place to go," she says. "This was a chance to create a place where people respected the music."

DJ Toph 1, a resident DJ at Friday's "Funk Side Party," says Fishman's determination to bring everyone together for the sake of music went far beyond that of other club owners. "When she opened it," he says, "she immediately declared it as everyone's new home. She also brought together people from all corners of the hip-hop community, which allowed us to build relationships between groups who might not have met before."

That community-building at Deco meant a lot of up-and-coming DJs got their starts there. "It's been the foundation for a lot of DJs," says Wisdom. "Cleo gave a lot of us our start at a time when most clubs were turning their back to hip hop."

Back at the party, the line winds its way up from Deco's dark and dusty basement. Around 11:30 p.m., the entire room erupts in one loud cheer as DJ Shortkut, flanked on either side by two rolling cameras, drops a deep swaggering bass line over a smattering of funk horns. Behind him, DJ Q-Bert watches his fellow member in the Invisibl Skratch Piklz with a wide grin of approval, and takes a long pull off his plastic beer cup. This is their last performance at Club Deco's Tuesday-night "Beat Lounge," a showcase they helped start along with DJs Apollo and Derrick D three years ago.

Originally known as "Many Styles," the "Beat Lounge" came to encapsulate what Deco was about: providing an intimate setting for talented DJs performing underground hip hop. The DJs used the night as their practice space and think tank. "We take this night really serious," says Shortkut. "This is where we learn what works and doesn't work, fine-tune routines, and simply give exposure to independent hip hop that otherwise wouldn't get played."

Although the "Beat Lounge" used both the upstairs and basement for the party, it was the basement that was Deco's most respected center of creativity. No bigger than the average household garage and littered with small chairs, it was the most intimate spot for hip hop in the city, and as Wisdom points out, its rustic nature was a big part of its appeal. "It brings together the fantasy of the speak-easy with the smoky house party vibe," he says. "There's no other place like it in the city to chill with other heads."

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