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. "But I don't want pressure from the city or SFPD."
"Pressure," of course, is a nebulous concept and hard to substantiate, but according to John Wood, political director of the SF Late Night Coalition, there are typical tactics. "If the police feel your venue is creating a nuisance, they show up every night, check your permits, walking into your venue, upsetting your customers," he said. "They do frequent inspections with the fire department and the building department, and get you for every little violation. Short of suspending permits and filing lawsuits, there's lots of ways city bureaucracy can make it difficult to do business."
But just how much of a "nuisance" do hip-hop shows create? Are they really that violent? No more than other genres, according to Robert Kowal, whose Sunset Promotions has brought everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Jurassic 5 to SF. "The city has safety as its primary concern," he acknowledged. "Occasionally some shows have problems the police have to deal with. Almost without exception that label gets thrown at hip-hop, when most events, including hip-hop, are very cool."
"Right now there's a gun problem in SF," Kowal continued. "Instead of addressing that, the city wants to blame entertainment and specifically hip-hop. But violence is rare inside the venue itself."
Wood concurred with this assessment. "There have been incidents where there were shootings," he said, "not in the clubs, but a block away, that may have possibly involved people who were at the club. Frequently police will blame the club for incidents in the neighborhood."
An SFPD spokesman, Sgt. Steven Mannina, wouldn't respond to this contention. It's worth noting that much of SoMa can get rough, even during the day. To the contrary, Kowal believes venues like Club Six have improved the tone of the neighborhood: "Angel Cruz deserves a lot of credit. That Club Six is open four nights a week has enabled other bars and restaurants to open around it. That area has been somewhat revitalized."
Wood suggests an influx of new neighbors may, in fact, be the main issue. "The city's changing," he explained. "It's older demographically, wealthier, more harried, and professional. Aside from hip-hop and violence, people are less tolerant about noise young people create." Yet that lack of tolerance among the condo crowd may also be rooted in fear. "Neighbors sometimes freak out when a club is bringing large groups of minorities into the neighborhood," Wood added, "whether they're behaving or not."
That assessment was echoed, mostly off the record, by many I interviewed. But veteran hip-hop commentator Davey D didn't pull punches. "They just don't want black people there," he said. "For a city that prides itself on being progressive, when it comes to nightlife, it has the most reactionary policies that seem based around race, using words like 'urban' as cover."
Regardless of hip-hop's alleged role in violence, this spring the city attempted to deal with the issue via two pieces of legislation: one required a hefty $400 permit per show, and the other was an anti-loitering law, empowering police to clear the area around a club. Both proposals were bad ideas: the former threatened to stifle local entertainment, and in an era of eroding civil liberties, the latter promised to give police discretion to arrest people just for being in the club's vicinity. Even more disturbing is Sgt. Mannina's assertion in April that "this is an enforcement strategy around clubs that field operations have already launched." How can this be, if it was not yet a law? "I thought it was already in place," he said.
Clearly the police act as though it is, given what I witnessed outside Club Six. In the meantime, it's tough to understand why SF hip-hop fans must, for instance, travel to Petaluma to see local acts like Andre Nickatina. "You want to know the solution?" a club owner asked, off the record and out of frustration. "There is no solution."