One night around 11 this spring, I stepped out of a cab at Sixth and Mission streets, only to enter a chaotic scene. Enhancing the block's usual charms destitute dudes in wheelchairs, crack enthusiasts, an old man in a denim skirt clutching a baguette was a row of police cruisers parked in the street. Officers roamed the block, herding people around.
Had I stumbled onto a grim tragedy? Nope. I was just trying to catch a hip-hop show. Like the other 150 people waiting outside Club Six, I was hoping to get into KUSH, a party hosted by the Demolition Men. My chances seemed slim. I was on the guest list, but the list was "closed." So I stood in the long but well-behaved line. Security yelled at us to keep on the sidewalk, though the sidewalk ended well before the line did. Finally a guard bellowed at us to leave.
Half the line drifted away. The rest remained, texting friends inside the club and trying to devise a way in. Soon, with a combination of threats and cajolery, police and security began clearing the sidewalk around the club. A short, powerfully built man pleaded with stragglers, the way tough guys plead with you not to force them to kick your ass. Someone addressed him. He was Angel Cruz, Club Six's owner, whom I'd interviewed for this story by phone. I introduced myself. He signaled a guard, and suddenly I was inside.
If this was New York City or Los Angeles, I might have felt the smugness engendered by such special treatment. But this was San Francisco, and all I felt was weariness. The club had devoted two rooms to the party, yet only one was full. Still, the vibe was friendly, and Jacka tore it up with his radio smash, "All Over Me." Although I heard some dudes got salty over the guest list, there were no arrests.
Sadly, such scenes are typical. Actually, we were lucky: I've seen cops shut down shows entirely over trifling incidents, usually ones occurring outside the club. This state of affairs affects more than the club-goers. Owners make less at the bar, promoters make less at the gate, and performers have fewer places to perform. Hip-hop, in its myriad forms, is one of the most popular genres on earth, and San Francisco is a world-class city. Yet this town seems hostile toward this musical nightlife with such revenue-generating potential. Why?
Naturally there's no simple answer, and even investigating is difficult. Owners don't want to alienate the police, promoters don't want to alienate owners, and the San Francisco Entertainment Commission wants cooperation among all concerned. Few people I interviewed would name names or particular events, and some would only speak off the record, due to the delicate web of professional relationships involved. Even so, common issues emerge.
"Hip-hop is synonymous with fights and shootings, to authority figures," said Desi Danganan, whose Poleng Lounge is one of the few venues committed to the music. "The police are very hesitant about any club that plays hip-hop. That was one of the first things that came up, 'Are you playing hip-hop?'<0x2009>"
The association between hip-hop and violence is nothing new: violence is the theme of many raps. Yet this is hardly the case with all hip-hop. The Bay Area in particular has produced an abundance of progressive, nonviolent lyricists, from veterans Hieroglyphics to up-and-comer Trackademicks. Yet the distinction is lost on the city and the police, according to Fat City general manager Hiroshi Naruta. "They don't know the difference between hyphy and backpacker," he said.
Unlike the Panhandle-based Polang, Fat City is in the SoMa District, a longtime site of contention between police and clubs. As a result, the venue is shying away from booking hip-hop. "I want to," Naruta said.