ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

When a nightclub switched to hip-hop, Laclede's Landing and the city clamped down. The fans don't fit in with the plans.

Perhaps 2,000 people are crowded into J's on the Landing to see hip-hop chart-toppers the Hot Boys. The four members prance the stage, barking out hard street- life rhymes while a DJ behind them spins window-rattling beats. They press their microphones tight against their mouths, swapping rhymes with each other as they bounce to the rhythms. The Hot Boys, along with leader Juvenile, who will soon perform solo, are part of New Orleans' Cash Money Records, one of the hottest- selling rap labels on the planet. Outside the bar at the northern edge of Laclede's Landing, hundreds of people gather -- some on sidewalks, some on vacant lots near the bar, some in bumper-to-bumper cars on Biddle and Carr streets, some on the balcony of the neighboring Super Inn, which affords an unobstructed view of the bar's outdoor stage and monstrous patio. Tickets cost $35, but the music doesn't stop at the bar's boundary. It boom-booms into the warm September night, drawing hundreds if not thousands of young people.

At the entrance to J's, everyone is frisked and IDs are checked. Many never go inside the bar, where handwritten signs advertise Moët White Star Champagne, cheese fries, hamburgers and hot wings. A glass of ice water costs a buck. The bar does a decent, but not booming, business. The line is short enough that you can get a Bud in less than a minute. Bar co-owner Jeff Eilers appears casual as he roams the premises in jeans and a forest-green sportcoat with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, a glass of Sprite in hand, a slight smile on his face. He's looking over the crowd, showing soundmen where to set up their equipment and making sure the opening acts get on- and offstage smoothly. The crowd applauds when he's introduced as the man who has provided a place for music that has a hard time getting booked in other clubs. Everything seems orderly.

There are no obvious drunks, but some folks are smoking pot and making little attempt to hide it. Three or four groups precede the main acts but don't inspire much excitement among the crowd, which gathers slowly in front of the stage as the evening progresses.

When the music's over: the scene after the Hot Boys show on Sept. 11 at J's on the Landing
Jennifer Silverberg
When the music's over: the scene after the Hot Boys show on Sept. 11 at J's on the Landing

The gathering attracts police as well as hip-hop fans. The cops show up early, just as the crowd starts arriving. They've come to inspect the bar's private security staff, composed mostly of off-duty police officers from departments in St. Louis County.

The scene is somewhat surreal as a dozen or so off-duty cops line up to have their security-guard licenses and uniforms checked by city cops. The inspection is being videorecorded by Sgt. Byron Pargo, an off-duty officer for a small city in the county who coordinates security for J's and who wants to make sure the city cops don't overstep their bounds. Eilers saunters over to watch. Pargo has a copy of city regulations governing private security guards in his hip pocket for quick reference. The procedure has every appearance of the police hassling the police.

"That's exactly what it is," says Pargo. On this night, the city cops send one off-duty county officer home because he doesn't have his city security license with him. Then they retreat to the parking-lot entrance, keeping a watchful eye as traffic crawls in front of them. At least two officers will remain there for most of the night.

Inside, the mood changes instantly when Juvenile, the headline act, takes the stage around midnight. The concert now has an element of controlled mayhem not uncommon when young people -- be they punk rockers, metal heads or rap fans -- get together for a night of cutting-edge music. Dozens jump onto plastic tables and chairs, swaying and stomping until the furniture buckles. Juvenile is accompanied by the audience, which shouts the words of their favorite songs so that the fans are nearly as loud as the performer himself.

The show briefly stops when a fight breaks out in front of the stage. While security guards hustle the combatants out, Eilers jumps to centerstage, picks up a microphone and helps restore order by yelling, "Shut the fuck up!"

The show ends 20 minutes later, after less than an hour of music by the headliner. It's as if someone threw the proverbial light switch. No one seems upset by the short performance. There are no raised voices, no pushing or shoving, no sign of trouble as the audience makes its way to the parking lot. Suddenly a beer bottle falls from the sky and shatters on a woman's head just as she leaves the gate separating the patio from the parking lot. She doesn't appear seriously injured, but paramedics take her to a hospital as a precaution. This show was better than the one held the previous weekend, when two people were shot -- one fatally -- in separate cars stuck in traffic on Collins Street minutes after a concert. Police believe the killing may have been a case of retaliation: the dead man had been acquitted of a gang-related shooting a couple of years earlier. Eilers cradled the wounded man until an ambulance arrived.

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