By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
It's 1:30 a.m., and Saturday night has slid into Sunday morning on Broadway in East St. Louis, late 2002. Just off the Fourth Street exit ramp from the Poplar Street Bridge, three police cars, lights cascading a red-blue-red-blue strobe across the grassy brown nothingness to the right, guide exiting traffic. Neon cones narrow the ramp to one skinny lane; checkpoints are set to the left. Three cops draw orange circles with their glowing batons, inviting cars, many headed to Club Monastery, into the gantlet.
A few seconds earlier on the radio, Tossin' Ted, a DJ and on-air personality for 100.3 FM The Beat, issued a cop-stop advisory even as he beckoned listeners to the club, where he's an MC: "So if you're coming," he warned, "you best be straight."
You can see the Monastery from the exit ramp. A six-foot wrought-iron fence surrounds it, and cars line the parking lot. Those not headed there are cruising late-night to the swank Club Illusion, across the street; the Casino Queen, due left about a mile; or to Faces, a popular gay club just around the corner.
It's a slow crawl. Because of the traffic, it takes more time to get from the ramp to the club -- 300 yards -- than it does to get from the Arch to East St. Louis. And the people keep coming, itching to dance -- to do the Mono, to do a little bangin' to "Left Right."
The Monastery is a single-story expanse of brick that was originally part of a Holiday Inn, long since gone. On Saturday nights and into the wee hours of Sunday morning, the nightclub is the most exhilarating in the St. Louis area -- some say the country. At its peak, between 2 and 5 a.m., around 1,500 people will be bouncing simultaneously, slow but steady, dirty as hell and letting it loose, up and down with the bass and the hi-hat. Two o'clock is the time, the magical moment when the lights go down, the bass digs its claws into the concrete and the people lose control.
At 2 a.m. here, Saturday night is just getting started.
"The buzz of the Monastery is everywhere," says Big Sexy Kooool DJ Kaos, the club's Friday- and Saturday-night DJ (as well as evening DJ on The Beat and one-half of the duo Da Hol' 9). "Some of the rowdiest artists out today that represent the streets, they love the Monastery. That's their home. When they come here, they gotta go to the Monastery. That's for the real thugs."
But the real thugs make it all crazy. Testosterone is thick inside -- even if there are as many ladies here as men. On the dance floor, shirtless guys, all muscle and adrenaline, slam and bounce and roll and wrestle. At times, the vibe teeters on the edge of trouble; at any moment, a wash of chaos can swell from within the mass and the good times can flip on their ass with the scuff of a shoe.
"They had big-time problems at first," says Jim Gates, a veteran St. Louis DJ and radio personality and weekend DJ at Club Illusion. "There were shootings, and the police were getting ready to close them up."
And the Monastery did get shut down a few years back. East St. Louis Mayor Debra Powell came in a couple of times to witness the goings-on, and she didn't like what she saw. It was overcrowded, dangerously so. Ostensibly sober eighteen-year-olds were mingling with 21-year-old drinkers. Raw wires were exposed. The atmosphere was loose, the crowd raucous. And with the Casino Queen in the club's shadow -- and a vast chunk of the city's revenue tied to the riverboat's success -- the Monastery had to be cleaned up or get shut down.
Casino Queen? Crunk? No contest, and everyone knew it.
"You can't do that," says Gates emphatically. "You got the Casino Queen, with millions of dollars down there, and you got these idiots out in the street every night going down and interrupting that flow? You ain't going to interrupt the Casino Queen's flow, believe me, not in this town. It's got two-thirds of the damn money that we need for a tax base."
So the challenge was to create a club that encouraged chaos without relinquishing control, a place where you could party without having to look over your shoulder.
At 2:30 a.m., things are rolling; to an outsider, the party couldn't get any rowdier. But a moment later -- kaboom! Big Sexy Kooool DJ Kaos kicks out the first four notes of "Left Right," by Drama, and the people rise up, bellow from deep within and start bouncing -- all of them. It's as if they're dancing on a rolling floor that moves in waves, up, down, left, right. You ain't seen nothing yet.
Quickly, the front third of the big room -- the eighteen-and-over space -- clears, then fills with Left Righters. Mississippi -- MC, bouncer, ringleader, jack-of-all-trades, also known as Missippi ("Who needs that extra iss? It's useless," he says, laughing), also known as Sipp, also known as Sipp Dog -- steps down from the stage and pushes through the crowd, cordless mic in his fist. Three-hundred-eighty-pound Debo, a security mainstay, heads into the middle of the pack, water bottle in hand. He's supposed to ride this beast, and you can't do it from the sidelines.