A League of Its Own

The Justice League built its reputation by booking local hip hop acts -- now, in the face of an increasingly white-bread city, can the club survive?

Justice League owner Michael O'Connor is sitting down to a glass of hot cider at a local cafe when he receives the call he's been waiting for. "Did we get it?" he asks. "No? OK, well, thanks anyway." He hangs up, disappointed. "The Coup's recording a live album," he explains. "The band was choosing between the Justice League and Slim's. They just decided on Slim's." Moments later O'Connor seems to have forgotten his disappointment. He runs into a member of Third Eye Blind's road crew and asks him to spread the word that he's looking for top-of-the-line speakers for a new sound system. During lunch he also cuts a check for a promoter and answers several more phone calls. His is the kind of hectic schedule that comes with running a small, successful nightclub.

When the Justice League, which is co-owned by O'Connor and his wife Lisa, first opened its doors three years ago, it was anything but a sure thing. Two other clubs had failed in the same location, and O'Connor's idea for the space -- to provide a platform for hip hop, reggae, and electronic music -- was commercially unproven. Over time, however, O'Connor carved out a niche for the club -- not an easy prospect in a city where venues open and close as frequently as restaurants. Now, however, the Justice League faces a new question: With rising rents forcing old customers out of town and new residents arriving with little interest in hip hop, how will the club stay relevant?

The Justice League isn't the first club O'Connor has operated. In the early '90s, when he was still in his teens, O'Connor ran Mr. Five's Club, a jazz/hip hop place on Market Street. "Broun Fellinis, Charlie Hunter Quartet, and Alphabet Soup all played a lot of their first gigs at Mr. Five's," O'Connor says. "[It] was devoted to live jazz when literally nobody was playing live jazz. Plus, the first bona fide dancehall night in San Francisco was at Mr. Five's." Unfortunately, the club was located in a non-seismically retrofitted building and had a short lease. After the venue closed, O'Connor took a break from live music, spending time building handmade furniture and studying architecture at Cal.

O'Connor always knew he wanted to open another club, and when the space at 628 Divisadero became available, he jumped at the chance. Previously the Western Addition building had housed the Kennel Club, a well-respected venue offering reggae, hip hop, and indie rock. In 1994 the Kennel Club's owners grew tired of the grind of running the venue, and the Crash Palace moved into the space. Unfortunately, the Crash Palace never established much of an identity or customer base, and the dance club quickly went under. "I don't know if they were even open a year," O'Connor says. "They just came and went like that."

With the venue's jinxed history, most entrepreneurs would have avoided the location like the Bates Motel; O'Connor, however, figured it would be easier to renew a defunct club than to find another space, since live music permits are given to a site -- not the club in the site -- and can be transferred from owner to owner. Unfortunately, O'Connor became mired in permit appeals court and entangled in neighborhood planning disputes. It took another 18 months before the Justice League finally opened.

Another problem was the live music network, which is comprised of older, more established venues that are notoriously insular. O'Connor explains the dilemma: "If somebody new comes along, everybody sits on the sidelines and waits to see his head get chopped off. I think that's what the other clubs were expecting to see -- what would happen to me. Nobody's going to be supportive; it's up to you to sink or swim."

While venues like the Elbo Room, the Up & down Club, Cafe Du Nord, and Club Deco booked hip hop-flavored acts in the early '90s, those clubs focused primarily on jazz and funk bands. After the Kennel Club closed, the straight-ahead hip hop scene flourished everywhere in the Bay Area except San Francisco. OZE, a longtime San Francisco MC and DJ, explains, "[Hip hop groups] got so desperate that they used to play at raves. Not because they wanted to play raves, but simply because there was no place else to play."

"Other clubs didn't go out of their way to cater to people of color," O'Connor says. "I grew up in San Francisco, and I've been here my whole life. I book the music that I know." The Justice League was one of the first large venues to showcase emerging acts such as Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, QBert, ShortKut, and DJ Shadow. O'Connor explains, "Now [other venues] have realized, "Look how well the Justice League has done with underground hip hop. Why don't we do it now?' Before the Justice League, people thought, "Hell no, we don't want people of color in our club.' The Justice League has proven to people that you can have hip hop without a lot of drama."

O'Connor books many shows guerrilla style, bypassing agents and appealing directly to the artists. It's a difficult, time-consuming process that has rewarded the club with performers who usually play in much bigger arenas -- people like the Jungle Brothers, Me'shell NdegéOcello, De La Soul, and Fatboy Slim. "The larger acts can't make as much at the Justice League as they would at larger venues," O'Connor says. "But they play here because they like the vibe and they like the people. So instead of playing one night, they play two. They'd rather do that and play at a place they enjoy than make a lot of cash quickly at a place that isn't as fun."

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