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Last Dance 

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

Wednesday, Mar 31 1999
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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."

Shortkut agrees. "The basement is like one big bedroom where we felt comfortable just chilling and spinning records." And for fans, it was a chance to hang out with the resident DJs. "Where else can you catch Shortkut and sometimes Q-Bert in a place so small?" asks Derrick Cho, a longtime patron from Richmond. "You could watch their set from a foot away and chill with them later. It was that underground."

But it wasn't just the "Beat Lounge" that held patrons' affections. Deco's other longtime weekly parties -- Friday's "Honey and Spice" and Saturday's "The Funk Side" -- created unique scenes and brands of hip hop. For "The Funk Side," resident DJs Wisdom and Toph 1, along with rotating DJs Roman, the Baroness, and Jamalski, pushed the boundaries of your average mix by layering a multitude of styles, from drum 'n' bass to salsa, on a solid hip-hop foundation. "Hip hop in itself is all about mixing different shit," says Wisdom. "So what we did on Saturdays was push that idea to new levels."

As word-of-mouth spread, "The Funk Side" became known nationally as well as locally for its strong mixes and positive vibe. Wisdom recalls Philadelphia's Roots dropping in -- unannounced -- for a freestyle session. "I was spinning when Positively Red walks up and joins me at the turntable. Then Black Thought starts freestyling and it was so tight that the crowd didn't even realize it was live. But when they did, the house blew up." DJ Toph 1 says that the night's laid-back atmosphere allowed many big-name acts a chance to spin in a club setting again. "Cut Chemist spun for 12 people unannounced one night," Toph says, "and he truly appreciated the small intimate basement."

For Friday's "Honey and Spice," formerly known as "Represent," Wisdom, Polo, Toks, Jamo, and Jah Yzer pulled together a scene that exposed the latest singles from both the underground and commercial acts upstairs, while creating a unique microcosm of dancehall-infused hip hop in the basement. "This was our night to break out the latest tracks and create a full-blown dance party," says Wisdom. "And downstairs was completely a dancehall vibe." This successful mixture made it Deco's longest-running night.

But it was also a source of problems. For a six-month period in 1995, a thuggish element descended on "Represent," driving away crowds and nearly ending hip hop there for good. "Thuggish types started to show and the ladies didn't," says Fishman. "There were times when I didn't even feel safe as a woman in my own club." Sales dropped, and Fishman faced bankruptcy. Torn between the loss of her club and supporting hip hop, Fishman dropped the night for six months. When it reopened as "Honey and Spice," Fishman instituted a dress code and tightened security.

The rules worked, but Deco's problems didn't end. Noise complaints from neighbors brought pressure from police, which left Fishman exasperated and wanting out. "Deco was always about the music," she says. "But there is only so much that a club with a liquor license controlled by the police and located in an apartment building can [do]." For the past two years, numerous complaints from the landlord led police to threaten the club with closure.

"They said if we have one more [complaint] that they would shut the place down," says Fishman. The constant stress left Fishman no other choice but to sell. "Most of my energy went to struggling to keep the place open. I love Deco, but that was the beginning of the end."

On April 1 the club will assume new ownership. Fishman plans to return to New York.

Although the home is gone, the family members remain optimistic. "Beat Lounge" has relocated to Storyville on Tuesday nights, though the other nights haven't yet found venues. DJ Toph 1 says the "The Funk Side" is looking for a monthly space, but it won't be the same. "Deco was it for hip-hop DJ culture, and nothing will replace it," he says. "But at least the club nights will spread a bit of that positive vibe.

About The Author

Robert Arriaga

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