Back in October, one house music promoter told me that the opening of the U Street Music Hall posed a risk to the District’s off-the-beaten-path venues. Four months later, one of those venues sealed its own fate, and the other is more active than ever.
For the last two years, D.C. has only had two consistent “underground” dance music venues: the Trinidad & Tobago Association in Brightwood and the Warehouse on New York Ave. NE. The advantages to booking nontraditional venues are clear: many of them don’t have set hours, they’re often cheaper to book, and they appeal to a savvier crowd. But few rental venues have a long lifespan in Washington.
Between 2008 and 2010, the T&T Association, a small private club on Georgia Avenue NW, hosted at least two regular parties (watch video from a 2008 party), an early D.C. appearance by wunderkind Nicolas Jaar, and some of electronic music’s hugest producers, including Theo Parrish and Derrick May. But these days, dance music promoters don’t mess with T&T. “There was some organizational shifting… and the old people who used to book the space and run the bar were turned over,” says Chris Burns, the D.C. promoter who originally told me that U Hall’s success could stomp smaller venues. After several successful parties, management renovated the once-dingy club, and “started requiring all promoters/organizers to pay a huge, substantial, nonrefundable rental fee that really deterred everyone.” Two sources told me the fee nearly doubled. Management at the Trinidad & Tobago Association could not be reached for comment.
Now the most active “underground” space in D.C. is the Warehouse in Northeast D.C. Warehouse continues to be the go-to venue for promoters, music fans, and media hungry for that “raw” flavor so coveted in the dance music scene. In an article published last year, Washington Post nightclub reviewer Fritz Hahn said that “parties at the Warehouse take me back to the days of underground raves… Being there feels like you’re in on an amazing secret.”
But the Warehouse is not a secret. Not anymore, anyway. For about two years, owner Sammy Steward ran the space without a liquor license, and the city shut it down in late 2009. Several months later, Steward reopened with a license, and for the last year it has been an active, all-purpose venue with paid security, bartenders, and multiple events per week, from Haiti benefits to masquerade balls. Promoters have booked dozens of well-known electronic music producers and DJs at the venue, including Dam-Funk, the duo Soul Clap, and Isolée.
When asked why people would go to his venue instead of a traditional nightclub, owner Sammy Steward says, “It’s kind of like the underground but not quite the underground,” he says. “It’s in Northeast, but it’s not deep in Northeast… I don’t have a sign, and I don’t have a website. You have to be kind of tuned in to know where it is.”
That aura of secrecy is appealing enough for promoters and audiences to overlook a few significant disadvantages. First, the location, while desirably remote to some, is a hassle for others, especially when events end at 4 or 5 a.m. Second, drinks at the venue are unusually expensive – $7-8 for bottled beer and $10-13 for rail mixed drinks. (Though I am told they are strong.) Finally, for promoters, booking the Warehouse is more work. If the promoter brings a sound system — and the discerning ones do — that means packing up and carrying gear down multiple flights of stairs at 5 or 6 a.m.
But Graham Jackson, who books the venue with his promotion group EightyEight, says it’s all worth it. The venue has two parts: an intimate loft side, which has an outdoor patio, furniture, and a bar area, and a bigger, rawer side, ideal for large parties. On the weekend of the Stewart/Colbert rally, EightyEight co-hosted a party at Warehouse with a group of Burning Man lovers called District Burners. “The Warehouse was a good fit for that party because we were given so much freedom in planning,” says District Burners founder Ian Kreer. “We were able to bring all of our own lighting and decorations, including a giant outdoor dome where fire spinners could perform. Finding a venue in D.C. that will even allow you to have fire spinners is tricky enough.”
Jackson doesn’t think the U Street Music Hall is capable of killing off the Warehouse — if anything, he says, U Hall helps Warehouse by getting younger kids into decent dance music, as opposed to what he calls the “really bad electronic music” booming out of clubs like Fur and Ibiza. Also, the two venues offer different pluses and minuses for audiences and promoters. U Hall boasts a formidable sound system and promotional prowess, but it can be less profitable for independent promoters, and the weekend crowd is skewed toward college students and “drunk white kids acting stupid.” (In an effort to cut back on silliness, the club announced today that it’s changing its ticketing policy for 18-20-year old patrons on weekends.) Meanwhile, both Jackson and a former Warehouse security staffer, Kokayi Walker, agree that the typical Warehouse crowd is mature and respectful. “The aura that was around the warehouse was not like you’re expecting people to bring guns and stuff like that,” says Walker. “Everybody was grown and chill.”
-Long lines and fire spinning: A scene from a Halloween weekend party at D.C.’s only ‘underground’ venue, The Warehouse. (Courtesy Ian Kreer/District Burners)