Last Dance

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

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.

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