"This is the only place that gave us a shot, man," says Double Faces lead man Robert "Blacko Da Rapper" Douglas. "And they've backed us one hundred percent. We're just trying to be positive, and build something here."
"There's something very special happening there," says Annex Manager Jeyon Falsini. "It's a beautiful dynamic that I've never been a part of before."
Courtesy Jayon Falsini
The recent shooting outside the Elks Lodge on the Downtown Mall, which holds regular Friday night dance parties that cater to the African-American community, left two party goers wounded and a community wondering: can a club servicing a largely African-American clientele exist in town without violence?
The track record isn't good. In addition to a long history of disturbances outside the Elks Lodge, the now defunct Outback Lodge on Preston Avenue tried to have a weekly hip hop night, but a 2007 shooting in the parking lot put the kibosh on that. Later, when Deuce's Lounge opened in the Outback building and tried to feature hip hop shows, regular altercations ended up shutting it down. And when the now defunct IS Venue on West Main tried the same thing, well, you get the picture.
The Main Street Annex is trying to change that perception. While the year-old club is white-owned and managed, they are heavily promoting hip hop and go-go acts and providing one of the few, if only, public venues for the musical genre.
Indeed, on a recent Friday night, a reporter stopped by to check out the club, a small space located on Water Street right next to Escafé, and part of the Main Street Arena. While mostly white kids talked and tapped their toes at the Whiskey Jar, where a bluegrass band named the Green Boys were playing, and the crowd over at Escafé geared up for a night of pop dancing, the scene outside the Annex provided a sharp contrast. While thumping beats emanated from the stereo system inside, Robert "Blacko Da Rapper" Douglas, the lead man in a go-go group called Double Faces, took some time out to comment.
"This is the only place that gave us a shot, man," says Douglas, 31, a bear of a man who works at UVA in the athletics department and as a butcher at Food Lion. "And they've backed us one hundred percent. We're just trying to be positive and build something here."
Douglas heads an eight-piece go-go band, a musical genre born in D.C., which is heavy on street percussion and mixes R&B, funk, and hip hop in sometimes hours-long jam sessions. Indeed, go-go is so big in D.C. that when Chuck Brown, the so-called "Godfather of Go-Go" died last year, almost immediately the mayor proposed building a park in his name.
"The idea is to bring those D.C. go-go bands here," says Annex manager Jeyon Falsini, "and send acts from here there."
Indeed, at the Annex, there's a strong focus on the music, and the business of music, and on trying to keep things safe.
"It's pretty safe to say we service a primarily African-American clientele that's right off the Downtown Mall," says Falsini. "We've been hosting hip hop dance parties quite successfully without any drama, fights, or gunplay since last December." The club isn't exclusively hip hop acts, says Falsini, and they also try to cater to an older African-American crowd, featuring bands like Black Ice from Waynesboro, who cover Motown songs.
According to Terry Martin, who used to own the Outback Lodge and now does sound for the Annex, location and more police presence has been key.
"The location at the Outback was a killer," says Martin, "because we had that big, dark parking lot there. Here, there's less places to get in trouble when you leave the club. And we've built a good relationship with the police. We have off-duty police working the club instead of rent-a-cops. Any thugs here know they're gonna get arrested if they cause any trouble."
"I do think that they try to put their best foot forward in planning events and cooperating with stakeholders," says Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo. "The reality is that there is always the potential for a problem when you bring large numbers of people together in one place, but a measurement of success in my mind is how management reacts to a problem, takes immediate steps to correct, and ensures that the issue doesn’t resurface."
Moving forward, Falsini has an interesting theory about making hip hop shows and venues less troublesome: have more of them.
After a show at the Outback that turned ugly a few years back, a cop on the scene agreed with him. The idea is that having a number of venues hosting hip hop shows would be safer because less intensity from the crowd would be focused on one show, or one venue. If there were a number of "scenes" going on around town, Falsini says, the audience base would be dispersed. For instance, it's not hard to imagine what would likely happen if there were only one UVA student bar in town that hosted a rock show only once a week.
Longo says he took the time to ask his staff about this, and while he doesn't dismiss it, he says feelings were mixed.
"Most of it seems to focus on the potential for problems and the commitment of our resources during closing times," he says. "Our intent is to continue to monitor and provide whatever resources we can to ensure that patrons get out safely."
"If it became more regular and people could count on it more, after a long hard work week, then tempers wouldn't flair as much if something goes wrong like a fight breaks out and the place has to shut down for some stupid reason," says Falsini.
According to Falsini, it's all about "release."
"People work hard all week. They need a place to blow off some steam. That can't be ignored. They yearn for regular place to go," he says. "Fortunately, there are more options today, but it could still stand to be more mainstream."
"This is a fantastic place," says bartender Silversauce Annie D, a D.C. native. "I'm familiar with this kind of black culture from living in DC, and everyone comes here ready to dance. There's a city vibe going on that I haven't seen since I was in D.C."
Still, for some, it's only a start.
"The Annex was a great idea," says white rapper and producer Bo Littlejohn, a.k.a Bizeeee, "and they've showcased a lot of great local artists. But it's too small for an artist to flourish. We need bigger stages, bigger venues."
But it has also been about building bridges.
Falsini admits that some in the African-American community seemed to look at him, and his partners, including Main Street Arena owner Mark Brown, a bit "sideways" in the beginning, as they were these white boys working in concert with African-Americans to have safe hip hop parties. But over time, as they've built the club and been booking acts, people have been more accepting.
"There's something very special happening there," says Falsini. "It's a beautiful dynamic that I've never been a part of before. And I can say with all honesty that all of us involved actually feel very lucky to be a part of it."