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.
A tap on the shoulder is followed by a friendly but stern warning: "You best step aside. They're coming this way."
For the past 30-plus years, entertainment has been the East Side's most bankable -- and very nearly only -- commodity, be it in the form of gambling, sex or music. If you want to get dirty in St. Louis, if you want to lose control for a while, if you want to take a chance, head to the area's debauched zone, St. Vegas.
These days, the sex industry gets the most attention, but the music has created the myths. Chuck Berry played his first gigs with Johnnie Johnson here; Miles Davis unveiled his horn; Ike rode his horse, Tina, into the history books. In the '70s, downtown East St. Louis was still hopping; in their heyday, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins of Parliament used to fly in to party on weekends -- even as the city's finances were collapsing. Radio station WESL-AM, the voice of the East Side, was the first in the country to play the Sugarhill Gang's seminal jam "Rapper's Delight."
And now, nearly a quarter-century later, East St. Louis is once again a musical center, this time for crunk, the lowdown Southern-flavored brand of rap that's moving the crowd tonight -- and every Friday and Saturday night -- down here. Crunk is slow but the hi-hat's fast, which gets the dancers going hard.
Crunk is a rough-and-ready subgenre of rap, and it rules the East Side. It's party music, made for dancing, designed not so much for profound lyrical expression as for barking and hollering. Since its rise as a distinct subgenre in the late '90s, it has been dismissed as second-class by rap snobs, who claim it conveys a bleak, aggressive message. The lyrics are filled with "bitches," "niggas," "motherfuckers" and "hoes" -- so many epithets that the words end up losing at least some of their literal meaning. But, says bouncer Debo, "That's the true nature of crunk: getting wild and taking your shirt off and running around screaming, acting crazy, spitting water." Over the course of an evening, Debo will be seen engaging in each of these activities, living it up, working.
"When we talk crunk music," says Kaos, "it's usually a slow beat. But with the hi-hat speed played the way that it is over a track, it makes it seem faster than it really is." Because of this rhythmic tension, crunk seems simultaneously slow and syrupy, manic and relentless; the sibilant hi-hat adds a freneticism to the music, and the bass rumbles the rump. Add a bunch of dudes chanting, barking orders in harmony, calling and responding, marching to a very deep drum, and you've got some hard, solid dance music that, though created for partying, is also pretty pissed off. It's music made by men, and the guys here respond to it with all of their energy.
The ladies here dance -- and they can dance. The men here dance -- and wrestle and push and shove and fall. And then get helped up by the dudes who just pushed them down.
From his DJ booth, Kaos can see them all, a restless ocean of thugs and honeys; arms are up in the air, fingers are signing: North Side! South Side! East Side! (You won't see many "West Side" signs; Ladue's not too well represented at the Monastery.) Within this sea, a tiny pocket emerges, a little hole in the humans, and then another. Inside, guys -- shirtless and tight -- start pushing one another, but they're still bouncing to the song, Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz's "I Don't Give a Fuck," the song that rules this club right now.
It's what they're screaming that adds tension to the party. It's late. You're in East St. Louis at a crowded, drunken club, and everyone is chanting, "I don't give a fuck." When Kaos kicks it, the crowd goes nuts:
I got that North Side wit me, I don't give a fuck!
I got that South Side wit me, I don't give a fuck!
We rollin' deep in this bitch so fuck y'all niggas,
We rollin' deep in this bitch so fuck y'all niggas,
I got that dirty South wit me, I don't give a fuck!
I got that Midwest wit me, I don't give a fuck!
If security step up we'll crush dem niggas
If security step up we'll crush dem niggas
Say you're a bouncer at the Monastery. Patrons outnumber you at least 75-1, and you're responsible for maintaining control. OK, fine. That's your job. You've accepted it. But then Lil Jon's voice erupts from the sound system, preaching to his people: "If security step up we'll crush dem niggas!" And they're screaming it in your club.
Good luck. Welcome to the party. Now get to work and control this motherfucker.
Terrence walks through a Wednesday-afternoon version of the Monastery, one that more closely resembles a monk's home. It's quiet here, and dark, and what sunlight there is shines through plate-glass front doors. Three or four people lounge on couches and comfy chairs around a pool table. Four televisions dangle from the ceiling, broadcasting some daytime nonsense. As he tours the club, Terrence points out improvements he's made, walls he's constructed, layout changes.
The Monastery building has housed dance clubs for close to 30 years. One of its first incarnations was a place called Coleman's Plaza, recalls Jim Gates, who, along with the legendary Dr. Jockenstein, used to broadcast live on WESL from the joint in the mid-'70s. (Gates is also the father of one of the best hip-hop DJs in the city, Q95.5's DJ Nappy Needles, and one of the best break-dancers in the city, Nicholas Gates.) "There'd be people there until 10, 11 a.m." he says. "They'd go and eat breakfast -- and then come back and dance some more."
And, unlike today, the club wasn't alone. A scene centered on downtown East St. Louis, on Collinsville Avenue. "Up and down the streets and around the city, there were just so many nice clubs," says Gates, "but after 3 o'clock, people were generally intoxicated, and the fools started running things. All the good people left, and you're left with all the fools, and boy, you're talking about police, shootings -- they'd actually be chasing each other down the street in cars, shooting. It was nerve-wracking."
Dilapidated signs are the only remnants of the clubs; wig shops, wing joints and clothing stores now occupy the strip. The centerpiece of the area, the glorious Murphy Building, with its carved gray marble façade, is slowly collapsing. Weeds grow on its roof.
Terrence started working at the Monastery as the manager when the club opened on April Fool's Day 1997 and eventually bought out the owners. Within a few years, he had a solid crew in place: Mississippi, Debo, Tossin' Ted, Dave, Big Sexy Kooool DJ Kaos, Ed Lover, Decarlo, Pretty Boy and a few others. Some members of this crew have alienated and infuriated clubgoers in their time; as a result, all refuse to provide last names, citing concerns for their safety.
As with any upstart enterprise, the first six months were up-and-down. Then, in the summer of '98, everything changed with a single event -- a car show in the club's parking lot, organized by an outside promoter. Terrence wasn't expecting that many people, but by the time the show got going, cars were backed up onto the highway and blocking the MetroLink tracks 100 yards north of the club. Trains ground to a standstill. Four Bi-State buses were trapped in the jam, which lasted all afternoon. The police, who weren't given advance warning, had to abandon their cars and walk to the scene. When they arrived, they shut the car show down. "They told us we couldn't even open that night," says Terrence. "I understood that, and I left it alone."
Even though the event was shuttered, it put the Monastery on the map. But the next week, continues Terrence, "the mayor comes in. She didn't like what she saw, so she decides, OK, you gotta close until I see some changes."
The most pressing concern was the lack of physical separation between drinkers and minors. The Monastery was an eighteen-and-over club serving booze to the elders with no barrier between them and the minors. And that, as anyone who's ever been young knows, is a recipe for stealth swigging. So Terrence built a club within the club: On one side, 21 and over. On the other, no booze permitted.
"With that other wall there now," says Kaos, "it's kind of hard to tell, but when it wasn't there, [the room] would go all the way across, and it was crazy back then. So being understaffed, security-wise, and us playing the music we were playing, violence was all the time. We had a lot of fighting going on, people getting high, intoxicated, drinking liquor, whatever, and that affects you. When you're in the club and somebody steps on your new tennis shoes, you didn't mean to see it the way you did, but you did. The smallest thing would trigger something terribly big."
Terrence explains it more concisely: "You know what the wild, wild West used to be like? OK."
Dances emerge from music, a tiny miracle of sorts: They seep from an ephemeral, abstract plane and enter the physical one.
A dimension leap: In the head of a producer, a stirring of synapses. A muscle murmur.
A receptor twitch that somehow creates an internal sound -- a specific beat, a sample, a melody, a song -- that works its way from the bean by way of electrical current through the fingers that tap the buttons that zips the current onto the hard drive that processes all of that mess into some sort of logic -- glues it together and locks it in place. Once locked, the song's burned onto a disc that is sent to the pressing plant that presses the twelve-inch that makes its way to Big Sexy Kooool DJ Kaos, who places the needle on the record, which amplifies that same electrical inspiration from the brain back into a beat, melody, a rhythm -- song -- that enters the world by way of big booming speakers and into the heads of those amazing dancers over there, who feel it, who work it, who understand it instinctively and who move their muscles accordingly.
A pop, a sway, a sway and a pop, and now a little robot and a funky arm-flap.
Specific patterns, of course, move the body in specific ways. At the Monastery, these patterns, coupled with the buzz of adrenaline that comes with the sneaking suspicion that this is special, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that all will recall fondly to their grandkids, have created a few specific dances. One, the Left Right, is celebrated at the same time every week, 2:30 a.m., and is song-specific: When Big Sexy Kooool DJ Kaos drops Drama's "Left Right," the crowd gets organized and does the dance, which consumes much of the space and entails massive shifts to the left and right.
The other, the Mono (a.k.a. the Monastery, a.k.a. the Nina Pop, a.k.a. the Back-Back, a.k.a. the Chickenhead), started here and has evolved into a dance that's swept the club and hit the radio as lyrics to songs and is gradually moving its way from the heart of East St. Louis into clubs all over the country.
Ali of the St. Lunatics sings its praises in his hit "Breathe In, Breath Out," as do Da Hol' 9 in their new single, "Nina Pop" (and their regional smash "Urbody N Da Club Up" was a Mono anthem). Like the Twist, the Hustle and the Electric Slide before it, the Mono has exploded into bona fide dance craze.
The Mono started back in 1998 with a couple of guys. Others say it was a couple of girls. Mississippi is the final authority, though, because he was there: "The rumor is that a couple of girls started the dance, but for me and my experience, it was a couple of guys. It was, like, two or three guys that was doing that dance, but they knew the girls, so the girls would always do it with them."
One was Kevin Henderson, who, after five years, still goes to the Monastery every Saturday night. ("It's live, man," he says, "I love going there.")
"My cousin came to me one day," he says. "We were at the club, and he just started doing this little crazy thing -- it looked crazy to me -- and I noticed all the people were watching, watching how we started doing it. We had girls watching us -- we were called the 'little hot boys' of the club at that time -- and the girls started picking up on how to do the dance, like, 'Oooh, show me how you do it!' And they started doing it. As the dance evolved, people started different little moves and steps, but it was basically the same thing. We started that the summer of '98."
At this point, the dance is so ubiquitous at the club that it's sort of hard for an outsider to spot; everybody's adding his or her own accent. To describe it is nearly impossible, but it's a pop, and it's a sway, with a funny little arm thing going on, and it's goddamn sexy.
"It's a bunch of popping," explains Kaos. "It's like you're stomping your feet together, and then you're stomping away. You stomp in, you stomp out with your right foot, you stomp in, stomp out with your left foot, all in different motions to the beat. At the same time, you're working your back forward and backward, and you're pushing your arms. It's nothing but what we used to call in the '80s the Fag Pop."
Henderson has another comparison: "You know what? You remember the Funky Chicken? It's not much different than that."
The girls, he continues, sparked the Mono's evolution at the Monastery. "They twist their little behinds, and the men don't really do it like that."
When Henderson speaks about the Mono, there's a tone of wonder in his voice. He and his cousins -- Jason Brownlee and Wendell, Keith and Shawn Leachman -- were just doing their thing, just letting loose on the dance floor, just playing. And then a little echo over there. A few others sneaking peeks from across the way. Another girl spying from behind, trying to learn a funny little dance move to show her friends. A few months later, more copycats, more inspiration and variation. As in a game of telephone, in each translation a little variation.
And now, says Kaos, the dance is spreading farther. He travels a lot, he says, "and I also see what everybody else is on, and being from St. Louis, it's the first thing they say: 'Hey, show me how to Nina Pop. I've been at different people's video shoots, and they say, 'Man, we gotta have somebody in the video Nina Pop.'"
The first time it hit Henderson that the Mono was turning into a craze was about a year later. He started noticing it at other clubs, and it was evolving even more. "I was like, what in the world have we started? I used to talk to my cousins before they got locked up -- they're all incarcerated now -- 'Man, we got everybody doing this dance.' We used to say, 'If we could get a dollar for everybody we've seen doing our dance, we'd be rich.'
Eventually Terrence and his crew started to figure out how to sheriff their wild, wild West. They had no choice; it was as much survival instinct as business decision. "I've been shot at more than once," says Terrence. "We've all been shot at. Some of the incidents over nothing, some people had too much alcohol in their system, some people just say, 'Fuck security, fuck the Monastery.' They might not like the way they were treated, and they get to shooting."
The decision to create two rooms, to physically separate the drinkers from the nondrinkers, made the situation easier to control. The bigger of the two rooms is for the youngsters; those over the legal age are welcome to go where the main action is but can't carry their drinks. The smaller room contains a bar (where the lovely Yodi serves up drinks), a pool table and a big dance floor that holds maybe 500 people.
As Terrence hired more security, he began to understand the psychology of his crowd. One of the first things he learned was how to spot the ringleaders. "You have to be able to stand back," he says, "before a fight even starts, and observe. Let's say it's twenty people. Observe the group leader and the group agitator. You get one of those people, and, guess what? You just controlled twenty people with one person. And you don't need to put airs on -- just say, 'Excuse me, let me talk to you for a second,' and you'll notice, everybody will start to follow you. The first thing you do is say, 'Stop. One second. All we are going to do is talk. I'm not going to do anything to him. I'll bring him right back.'
If that doesn't work, the staff relies on a solution that's worked well throughout the history of man and his booze: Grab 'em, pick 'em up and throw 'em out.
Terrence also started cracking down on parking-lot loitering and figured out specific strategies for dealing with trouble, one of which is an alarm system involving panic lights: "We see the red lights going on," says Terrence, "that means that we've got a situation that's about to get out of hand -- we need everybody here."
In addition to increasing the number of bouncers, he created a plan for protecting them: "If you got four out there, you gotta have four watching. You got four on the floor, four behind them, because you don't have eyes in the back of your head, and you will, every now and again, have that one individual that's not feeling what's going on. It's no different than anywhere else. That person is over 21 and has alcohol in his system, so they don't understand. They're not comprehending as they would if they were sober, so you have to go to that next level, and you have to have patience."
The first time you visit the Monastery -- if this isn't your particular scene -- chances are you'll get a jolt of new. The emotion and energy roar into your reality, a heavenly sensory overload: the fury of the dancing, the vision of passion and celebration -- the sheer happiness you're witnessing on the dance floor.
This is the biggest weekly party in St. Louis. "Hands down," says Staci Static, on-air personality for The Beat and a club MC, "the biggest party, where you see people sweating their hair out dancing. They don't care about hair, they don't care about outfits. You get some people that come there who try and wear stiletto boots or whatever, but for the most part everybody's dressed comfortably, they're laid-back and they are strictly coming to party."
Before 2 a.m., there's as much standing around as there is dancing, at least in the big room, where the party is simulcast on The Beat every Saturday. People nod their heads with the rhythms, do a little shuffle-shake to get the juices flowing, to get the knees, knuckles and neck rubbery enough to move the way they need to move.
Before 2, people are hooking up, flirting, gossiping, arguing, getting their pictures taken in one of two makeshift photo studios at opposite ends of the club. Backdrops hang, and for a fee, you and your lady or your posse can mug for a portraitist.
On one backdrop, a huge golden cross is airbrushed on a blue background -- a medallion, a shining royal beacon. Above it, in blue, Old English script reads, "Monastery." Stretching down one side of the cross is the word "Thug"; down the other, "Style."
A guy in his mid-twenties, clad in a deep-blue velour sweatsuit, glares at the camera, tough and cool and sexy, his arm around his girl. She doesn't smile, either, but her expression is much softer and her eyes twinkle more brightly than her diamond necklace.
As you walk into the packed 21-and-over room, the joy is evident, but the vibe is nothing compared to that of the big room. It's no fault of DJ Voodoo's, who plays some killer bounce -- E-40, Petey Pablo (who's got a growl to rival Howlin' Wolf's), Goodie Mob, 8-Ball and MJG, the great Three-6 Mafia out of Memphis.
There's a constant back-and-forth between the main room and where the drinks are served, a human tributary that floods the space. Follow the current, and it'll send you straight into the ocean, the eighteen-and-over room. It's 2 a.m., and the lights have come up a bit during a break. You can see what the club looks like.
"There's not really much you could fuck up in that place," says Wes Allmond (a.k.a. DJ Solo), who runs the St. Louis office of Ch'rewd Marketing, a promotions company that pushes rap and R&B. "Everything's made out of steel or brick or plywood. And I think it's the griminess -- it's like you're going to a house party when you go to the Mono. There's this rawness, not a lot of fancy stuff. You're in the club, there's a concrete floor.... If you drop a crunk record in a nice club and you start getting crunk at a nice club, someone's going to come and tell you, 'Hey, you can't be doing that in here. You might break the lights or fuck the carpet up.' But at a crunk club, you can get as crazy as you want to and jump around, and nothing's going to get fucked up. With that feeling, you can just let it all out."
When Kaos plays "Left Right," the transformation takes place. It's as though the first bell has rung in a championship bout: The crowd pushes out of the front third of the room -- about 50 yards of emptiness where, moments before, were a few hundred people -- and fills with dancers.
Voodoo's onstage, his shoulder-length dreadlocks waving every which way. He hunches over, stomps one foot and then the other, and draws the mic to his mouth. "Ahh," he breaths, then pauses. He then stands straight up, his eyes staring into space. He looks at the crowd and screams, "Here we go!" just as the chorus kicks in, a military march barked by what sounds like the angriest drill sergeant in the army: "Left, left, left, left, left, right, left. Get on up, get on up, get on up, right, left. Left, left, left, left, left, right, left. Get on up, get on up, get on up."
And when that chorus arrives, the crowd moves all the way to the left of the club -- not a few steps, but all the way, and it's as though the Monastery is a ship listing in a ferocious storm, throwing the crew all the way right, then left, then right, then left for the duration of the chorus. People push; a few people fall to the floor as they trip over their neighbor -- they're quickly helped to their feet by whomever's closest -- and the whole group is bouncing as they're slamming. A big guy -- orange hoodie, orange knit cap, a little Band-Aid on his cheek, Nelly-style -- is stomping the floor like Yosemite Sam. Then the chorus ends, and everybody stops and does a little touchdown move, a stationary wobble-crouch that lasts the entire verse. Sipp's in the middle with the mic. He's wearing a Duke Blue Devils jersey -- number one, of course -- and he, too, is going low, chanting and chatting while the rhymes flow:
1 up and 2 my troops listen
3 grenade my .45 still a bustin'
6 rounds cause I'm trill with this
7 more for the busta in the blue suit
Sipp's screaming into the mic: "To the girls' bathroom! We're going to the girls' bathroom!" and immediately anyone near the bathroom scurries for cover. The rhyming continues:
8 choppers in the field with troops
9 seconds before you lose ya life
10 automatic firing weapons
Now get on up get on up get on up!
And then, once again, the chorus, and Sipp screams, "To the girls' bathroom!" and the dancers bounce their way to the bathroom door -- everybody's laughing; a few people hop on one foot while moving left. Then the room tips to the right, and everyone bounces back into the center. The people are going crazy, and the room is on fire.
"We had to stop doing the Left Right for a while because people were getting hurt," says Mississippi. "We had one of our own security guys slip and fall and hurt his leg from getting crunk. One time, some girls wanted to get involved, and a girl got a gash across her eye. But she still kept on jumping; no harm done." He laughs: "Get some ice and some napkins and keep the party going -- and to me, that's what crunk is, just nonstop, keep on jumping until you can't jump no more."
Kaos -- red skull cap on his head, which, unlike everyone else's, is motionless with concentration -- is clearly in control. To his left, a section of chain-link fence separates him from an elevated dance floor. This is every DJ's dream: He's surrounded by 1,500. A few fans stand on the other side of the fence, their fingers weaving through its wire diamonds. They're getting schooled by St. Louis' king of crunk. In front, huge pockets of the crowd explode like a crazy Roman candle, popping off in beat -- jumping to the left, bouncing to the right, an organism that morphs into something new with every track he plays.
When he drops "Do That," by Baby (a.k.a. the Birdman), on Cash Money Records out of New Orleans, everybody starts chirping like birds along with the chorus. These pitched coos and warbles erupt from the mouths of dancers throughout the night.
"I took a Haitian-voodoo class at Webster [University]," says Staci Static, "and we were watching tapes of the ceremonies -- and it reminds me of a ceremony, a ritual, because they really get into it, and it's really emotional. I love it, for real."
In the back, a hole opens in the crowd. Shirts fly off backs and, from afar, you can swear you just saw a pair of legs sprout where heads are supposed to be.
At most clubs, the bouncers are easy to spot. They're the guys standing on the periphery, big and bold, arms crossed, glaring, eyes scanning, at the edge of the action, looking like lifeguards at a swimming pool.
But at the Monastery, Terrence has learned to protect his crowd by putting his crew in the thick of it. They're in there bouncing, dancing, patrolling, mediating.
"That's what I like about us being involved," says Debo. "When everybody else sees us relaxing and having a good time, they're, like, 'Ah, these guys are cool. They ain't here to beat us up or throw us out.' So they party with us, and it helps us keep a basic grasp on what's going on in this side of the club. If we standing all the way up here and they down there, it's hard for us to say, 'Don't knock her over.' But when we're down there with them, we push them away from the girls. It makes it easier to control. It's like a little riot, and you gotta be able to ride it."
Watch Debo -- six-foot-five and 380 pounds -- at 3 a.m., and you'll see his adrenaline start to rise as he's standing and watching, water bottle in hand, Sideshow Bob hair jetting out all over the place. You'll see his torso move front to back with the beat. You'll see him start leaning, as though he's on a precipice, getting ready to jump. And then, when the moment's right and the floor is moving hard, Debo will make the leap, and the crowd shifts as if he's Moses parting the Red Sea.
This is Debo, after all. You'd best get out of the way. He struts straight to the middle of the floor, where the thugs are the thickest, and starts dancing, howling. He takes a huge swig of water, cocks his head back and sprays a fountain straight into the air, then pours the rest on his head. He's gone, but he's wide-awake, and the people surrounding him are fully aware of his place in this system. Others must squeeze through the crowds to walk from one spot to another. Debo walks unimpeded.
"Terrence used to let us have what we called the 'bullring,'" says Debo, smiling as he recalls the experience. "That's when we make a big circle and we let the customers wrestle -- Greco-Roman-style wrestling. I started the wrestling thing because I'm a state-champion wrestler. I just love wrestling, and one day someone pushed me just a little too much, and I knew I couldn't beat on them, because that'd be wrong. So I was, like, 'You wanna get crunk? OK, c'mon.' I just grabbed him and slammed him -- and it just blew way up from there."
"Whoever gets slammed first loses," adds Mississippi. He's got solid, square cheekbones and chin, coupled with a sly smile that could charm a rattlesnake.
Terrence has mixed feelings about the wrestling -- "I don't condone it," he says sharply -- but he understands its role here, which is why he allows it at some times and prohibits it at others. It's an integral part of the celebration now -- although at any time Terrence could order his people to stop it. He and everyone else see its benefit, though, as a pressure valve, a way to channel some of the crazy energy that teen and twentysomething guys have on a Saturday night.
"When I see people come here and they let their hair down, they do it with the pushing and the shoving. Sometimes you can come here and you've got a lot of shit on your mind, a lot of animosity and anger. But if you can go over there and push and shove and jump around and scream and shout in somebody's face, when you're done, you feel a lot better. I think a lot of people need that, just to maintain for the week. If they can maintain for five or six days, it's OK: 'Saturday's coming, and I know where to go, I know what to do, I know where to get that pressure off my chest.'"
Some nights here are more furious than others. Tonight is insane. Every step toward the dance floor is a push, a squeeze, an occasional 'excuse me' when you draw an icy glare. On the other side of the club -- good luck getting there -- over the heads, the headbands, the hats and the hair sculptures, a half-dozen silver and red Mylar heart balloons float over the crowd, carried by a vender. The sweet sentiment is swallowed up, once again, by Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz.
When Kaos drops the needle on "I Don't Give a Fuck," the shirts start flying -- it's time to work it out -- the fingers waving, the girls popping and rolling and shaking, eyes staring at everything, wild smiles shining. The dance floor's a trampoline, and, out of the blue, a line of dancers begin flopping through the middle of the crowd, pushing, squeezing, making their way to the other end of the club. Over there, a hole, a vacuum, as a space opens up and guys start shoving and pushing, harder and harder, until the circle starts stretching into an oval, then a little rectangle, then into a circle again, bigger. Inside, Debo's rolling and controlling. MC Dwight Stone lords it over the crowd on the lip of a pool table, mic in hand.
You can hear every single person in here because the crowd is chanting the chorus -- "I don't give a fuck!" -- over and over again. But the strength of the collective chant negates its message. If nothing else, the mass of dancers at the Monastery sure as hell gives a fuck about something, even if it's a denial: I don't give a fuck!
The fashion stretches from one extreme to the other: the ghetto-fabulous wrestle with the Swoosh patrol. Over there, a fancy girl in floppy beige felt hat and Naugahyde-and-fake-fur coat slides through the crowd. Over there are shining blue velour sweats. Two girls, dressed as twins in yellow midriff-baring shirts, do a riff on the Mono that they've obviously worked out in advance, then try teaching it to some token white people (to no avail). Chirps are coming from the other side of the room -- the birds are back -- and they gradually float across the room as people join in. Three other girls -- and three pair of huge gold hoop earrings -- walk in a row, each mimicking the other, each a little reflection. Onstage, a girl all in red, with a tiny birthday hat on her head, loses it, goes beat-crazy, her arms flailing to the side, the hat poking up and down.
"Put your middle finger in the air," shouts Stone from atop the pool table. Over in the far corner, a disco ball the size of an ATV wobbles from the sheer force of the energy.
It's 4:30 a.m. -- it's starting to feel like Sunday morning -- and the early service is in session. The Monastery's worshiping hard. "At 5 a.m.," says Tossin' Ted, "it's the same -- crazy. They party like it's twelve noon. It's nonstop partying."
On one level, what's happening here tonight is no different than at any moment in history, anywhere in the world: People are dancing all night long. It used to be the jitterbug, or a jig, or a waltz, or a Mashed Potato or a Pogo or a Robot. But in 2003, it's the Mono, and it was born, this special little thing, here, at the Monastery, in East St. Louis.
And the crowd, this special huge thing, is alive in East St. Louis and loving every minute. They don't party like this in Ladue or LA or London.
"The crowd going at the Monastery is just so ... crunk," says Staci Static. "That's the only word to describe it, is 'crunk.'"
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.