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Well-known Landing clubs such as Mississippi Nights aren't interested in shows that end up at J's. "Rap doesn't sell tickets," says Tim Weber, manager of Mississippi Nights. "Finding a profitable rap act is very, very difficult because rap acts will sell a million albums and think that they're worth $25 a ticket in St. Louis, and they're just not, because the kids that are buying albums are afraid to go to their shows. There are inherent problems with rap in the live-music industry right now as far as a concertgoing situation. We did Eminem four or five months ago, and he came on and played for 45 minutes and charged $20, and nobody's going to feel like they're getting their money's worth there. He's a perfect example of a guy who sold 3 million records and only sold 300 tickets."
Rap promoters who have managed to earn a living say they can sell plenty of tickets, but their choices boil down to five or six clubs in the metropolitan area, with J's being the largest. Kamau Whitfield of Ballout Entertainment, who promoted the Juvenile show last month, says he'd like to do a 10-concert series at J's during the summer. "The factor is that people need to have room, and at J's that's one of the factors," Whitfield says. "They have the space at the venue, and just the atmosphere that the facility has, it makes you want to come out."
But Whitfield and other promoters say the police have done their best to discourage rap shows at J's and elsewhere by scrutinizing various licenses and permits. A car and rap show held in May 1998 is one example. Before that event, police had noted no problems or incidents at J's, according to Capt. Beverly Noble-Barnes and city excise-commission files, which show that the police had had no problems at J's when the bar applied for a liquor license in 1997.
Originally scheduled for Club Utopia near Union Station, the show featuring Eightball was switched to J's at the last minute after police said a special-event permit was required for Club Utopia. There wasn't time to get the permit. "OK, fine, we call J's and say we have to push the event to his place because they're telling us we can't do it here, blah, blah, blah," recalls promoter Reginald Greene of No Doubt Productions. "Of course, the place we were going to use charges $800 and J's charges $5,000. So we have a tremendous expense increase in the last week."
Greene, who lives in New York, has stopped promoting shows in St. Louis. "I just don't want to deal with it," he says. "It was crazy. What they would always do is, within days of the event, like the night before, the police would go to the owner of the venue: If you have this event tomorrow, all hell's going to break loose. We'll take your licenses; we'll make your life hell from this day forward. All the advertising money's spent, and then 24 hours before the event we get a call from the owner saying, "Sorry, we can't do it because the police came in here and they're threatening to shut us down and if all our licenses are in order they're just going to harass us. There was just a general climate of sabotage."
Noble-Barnes says her troops treat everyone equally. When Mississippi Nights holds an all-ages event, for example, she says officers make sure patrons under 18 go home before the city's curfew. She says she questioned whether J's had a valid occupancy permit for the Eightball event in May 1998, but the show was allowed to go on. Problems with police persisted as summer neared and the concert season heated up.
The day before a Too Short show that was expected to draw as many as 3,000 people on June 13, 1998, police said the bar's occupancy permit wasn't valid. But building-division officials agreed to let the show go on after Eilers argued he wasn't given sufficient notice. There were no problems at the show, but the building division pulled the bar's occupancy permit the next day. The permit had been issued six months after Eilers promised to fix building-code violations within 60 days. The violations included defective exit signs and emergency lighting, obstructions in doorways, failure to provide inspectors with a floor plan and working on the indoor stage area without a building permit. The partners say they didn't have the money to fix the violations. The lack of funds isn't their fault, they say. If the city would just leave them alone and let them hold concerts, they'd have the money to finish construction and correct violations.
Eilers and Tennant didn't consider the violations serious enough to keep them closed, and the city eventually agreed. After meeting with building-division officials, they applied for building permits and appealed the revocation of their occupancy permit. The city gave them 60 days to fix the violations and allowed them to remain open. The deadline was later extended by another 30 days when the work still wasn't done.
Occupancy permits weren't the only thing that concerned the police, who have shown up before each rap concert looking for problems. They've issued parking tickets to club employees for parking on an unimproved parking lot. They've blocked streets leading to the bar. They've told the partners that security guards can't conduct patdown searches as patrons enter, although this rule wasn't enforced at last month's Juvenile show. And off-duty county police officers who work security have regularly violated city regulations governing private watchmen, says Noble-Barnes. The violations have ranged from improper uniforms to mounted off-duty officers patrolling public right-of-ways outside the bar. "They can't do that," Noble-Barnes says. "There's a liability issue there."