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The Black Diamond Experience

[whitespace] Black Diamond

Construction of an underground club

Words by Amanda Nowinski
Photos by Greg Roden

Mu-usic, nonstop. Mu-usic, nonstop. I can't stand it anymore. It's 1am on a Wednesday night, Laron is on the decks mixing Kraftwerk over Prince, and I can no longer play the role of the wallflower journalist. Despite my wheezing, dripping case of laryngitis, I pop a Ludens and bum a ciggie from the guy who has just propositioned me into a three-way with his sullen blonde girlfriend.

I chug my second hot toddy but pass on the floating spliff. Happily wired on three tabs of nondrowsy Contac and two shots of Dayquil, I am more than ready to join the Black Diamond apostles on the dance floor. Yes, this party is really that good.

After an extended exhibition-style smooch with his wife, dmarie, from the edge of the stage, Felix the Dog grabs the mic and announces to the beat, "Welcome to Black Diamond, everybody! Thank you all for coming down to the Velvet Lounge tonight, on a fucking cold Wednesday night, that is ..."

With their trainer- and platform-clad feet not missing a step and slender hips not missing a grind, the crowd responds in ecstatic affirmation. As if pulled by an invisible string, all remaining stragglers at the bar wander toward the earth-rumbling bass; the dancing radius between me and three drum 'n' bass kids with septum piercings and LL Cool J-inspired hats all but diminishes within seconds. I close my eyes and can't think of a more appropriate way to exorcise the flu. Mu-usic, nonstop. Mu-usic, nonstop ...

The Players

Throwing an underground club is a bit like gambling; the main difference is when you win, you don't win any extra cash--you barely break even. "It's not about the money, at all," explains Black Diamond co-promoter Clare "Cool Lady C" Rhodes. "It's about creating a fucking incredible environment."

Beginning three years ago as a small one-off at the Oddball Lounge in San Francisco, Black Diamond was initially created as the antidote to the rise of dull, status-quo clubs in San Francisco. Clare and partner/ roommate Felix the Dog, both natives of England, spent much of their youth hanging out in underground London clubs, where electronic music was just beginning to take hold.

Always evoking the feel of a jamming house party, Black Diamond is a conscious return to their musical roots. "This is an old-school kind of party," says Felix, who is known throughout the club scene as an eclectic, innovative house and downtempo DJ. "At the old warehouse parties, people played whatever records they had; the DJ rocked it with all kinds of obscure stuff. But all that became lost when DJs became pigeonholed into particular kinds of music."

"People are losing their freedom to go totally off," continues Clare, who is the assistant fashion editor at surface magazine and a freelance stylist. "And that is where Black Diamond is coming from--we'll play almost everything."

Felix interrupts: "Yeah, but it's always grounded in a heavy hip-hop beat. It's got to be fluid. It's got to be danceable." But the DJ is not the only component to the Black Diamond experience. "It's also very much about film, art, live musicians and sometimes spoken," Clare explains. "We try to cover all aspects of the artistic community."

But what exactly happens before the night of the event? Aside from months of planning and organizing, promoting the club is a full-time affair: "That's why we only do it every few months or so," Felix says. Those who are considering a new career in club promotions or who have no idea what it takes to throw a club night, read on.

OCTOBER 2
Conception

It's 3am, and Felix is rummaging through the fridge, searching for the perfect assuagement for postclubbing munchies. Open can of tuna? No. Raw asparagus? Definitely not. Hummus and cold wheat bread? Maybe.

"Hand me the orange juice, please," directs a barely conscious Clare, who wanders into the kitchen in pajamas and messy hair. Felix hands her a bottle of Pepsi instead, pops the bread in the toaster and as if struck by the beam of a UFO, stops dead in his tracks. "Clare, I'm ready to do a new Black Diamond."

Hummus in hand, a maniacal grin spreads across his lips and his eyes widen with Christmas-morning excitement. Blinded by the light of Felix's otherworldly inspiration and the naked light bulb above, Clare squints and attempts to focus on the spike-haired figure before her. "Yeah, OK. Goodnight." She floats back to her bedroom with the liter of Pepsi tucked under one arm.

[line]

How Eklektic, the aboveground home for the evolving underground sounds of drum 'n' bass, came into being.

Promoters Martel Toler and Nabiel Musleh's night-life business puts San Francisco on the map.

[line]

OCTOBER 15
In Search of the Perfect Venue

Felix lights a smoke, starts the engine and pops a reggae tape in the stereo. No, no, no, you don't love me and I know now... Clare jumps in the passenger seat and off they go. "We're not doing this for the sake of just putting on a party," explains Clare. "So we've got to find the right space."

Felix concurs. "Yeah, and it's hard to find an unused space in the city. It's got to be exactly what we need."

Perfectionism is the key word with the Black Diamond crew, and in a city of few venues whose floors haven't already taken the beating of a million club-goers, uncovering a new spot is no easy task. They cruise through the South of Market: completely overused; the Mission: not this time; the Sunset: just kidding; North Beach: hmmm.

Clare and Felix park the car, wander down Columbus Avenue and make a left on Broadway. It's near 5pm, and the grade-B strip clubs are beginning to pulse; sad-eyed 18-year-old girls rock back and forth on stilettos behind velvet covered ropes, beckoning just about anyone.

Frat boys, Eurotrash and old winos fill the sidewalk; you can almost hear the disapproving chuckles of long-gone Beatnik ghosts. In all honesty, it's quite difficult to envision hip clubbers and a booming sound system in the midst of all this decaying fromage.

"Here it is--the Velvet Lounge." Clare opens the door, only to have her nostrils accosted by the remaining scent of a long night of hardcore boozing. The old location of the infamous Mabuhay Gardens (a punk club where Blondie and the Sex Pistols once played) strikes Clare and Felix--this is exactly the right spot. They make a fair deal with owner Matt Corvi, decide upon a date and suddenly the ball is rolling at high speed--inertia is not an option at this point.

OCTOBER 16
The Sonic Lineup

"Once the venue is determined, we start planning the party," Clare says. "The spot defines the feel of each Black Diamond," Felix explains. "We don't plan the music and the visuals until we know the environment."

Brainstorming ensues for the next few weeks. Keeping in mind the Velvet Lounge's sumptuous, old-jazz-club atmosphere, Clare and Felix decide upon a somewhat minimalist theme of elegance and sophistication. Hence the amazingly fitting name for this upcoming event: Black Velvet.

In addition to securing the other core Black Diamond DJs--Laron and Darkhorse--Clare begins to contact the live musicians who will play alongside the DJs. Sarah's Symphony--a solo flutist and Black Diamond regular--is currently in London, but Pstl Pete--master of the electric violin--is luckily available. "His music is so beautiful--it truly haunts me," Clare says. Trumpet player Fleur du Jon will also perform.

"Using classically trained musicians gives them a chance to rock out, and it also creates an incredible experience for the audience and the DJ," Felix explains. "We definitely aspire to put together the Black Diamond Orchestra someday."

OCTOBER 18
10,000 Bits of Important Cardstock

With fewer than four weeks to go, the creation of the flier is of central importance. Black Diamond posse designer Kevin Jenkins meets with Clare and Felix to reveal the flier graphics and the revised disco-millennium-inspired logo.

"This logo has been through a rebirth!" Felix exclaims. "It's as if the old logo was thrown in the Phoenix's fire and flew out looking like this--hey, that's just my poetic vision."

Clare is equally pleased. "This flier inspires me--now we need to print 10,000 of them and start promoting like hell." Spoken like a true promoter! Remember, if they don't meet the bar minimum at the Velvet Lounge, they will be held financially responsible: fliers are no joke.

No longer resorting to the photocopied rude-boy-style announcements of their past parties, Clare and Felix will dip into the Black Diamond bank account and fork over the cash for the more upscale, glossy flier. They hand the lino and the Mac disk over to Sean of Storm Printers, who cuts them a great deal for a double-sided, two-color run.

"These fliers will allow us to attract a broader audience," Clare says. "We've never had problems getting a crowd with the Kinko's fliers, but this will definitely give us greater exposure and more credibility to people who might not normally come."

Black Diamond

OCTOBER 23
Promoting Like Hell

It's a Friday afternoon, only 19 days to the event, and Clare and Felix are not messing around. Although they only need about 200 people to break even, 10,000 fliers are just barely enough to effectively get the word out. Almost every store and cafe in the Haight, the Castro, the Mission and Hayes Valley is targeted with stacks of Black Diamond fliers.

Along the drop-off points, Clare and Felix personally hand fliers to savvy pedestrians, hip shoppers and groovy shop girls and boys. "Putting fliers in stores is fine and all, but having an actual conversation with someone is much more effective," Clare explains. Friends offer assistance, distributing handbills along their daily stops. (Note: it's useless to promote if you don't have a handful of sociable friends to help you out--extra points for cute friends, too.) Clare and Felix's respective mates, Derek Duff and dmarie, provide particularly aggressive assistance--it's truly in their best interest to ensure the success of the tightly wound promoters.

But the daytime promotions are only the beginning and certainly not the most efficient mode of exposure; nightclubs and bars are where Clare and Felix will find their most likely Black Diamond candidates. From tonight until the eve before the event, they will be out almost every night with charming grins and, yes, handfuls of fliers.

With a limited budget and an even more restricted timeline, they will peruse the city separately, thereby doubling the distribution. An exhausting task indeed, promotion takes precedence over everything, including sleep and a well-balanced diet (loads of coffee and Top Ramen are essential fuel for the serious promoter).

OCTOBER 25
Ironing It All Out: Details and Pretty Pieces of Fabric

Resident Black Diamond artist Jem Fromant updates Clare and Felix on the status of his new painting, The Bowman--a hot-pink depiction of a character from 2001 that will hang behind the DJs onstage. "Exhibiting our friends' artwork makes the environment conducive to all forms of creativity," Felix explains. "Not only does it make everything more beautiful, but it also inspires the music and allows the audience to sit back and absorb everything."

Clare places a call to filmmaker/animator Collin Mannering, whose series of short films and collage slides will be screened throughout the night. Agreeing to bring along his 16mm film projector, Collin also reveals the themes of his Black Diamond films: "The basic process of life, rebirth, transformation of a human being." Heavy stuff. Although he has already laid down a soundtrack for each of the films, he realizes that he will face compromise: this is still a party, and no matter what you think, the DJ is still the king.

NOVEMBER 11, 7.30AM
Rise and Shine and Get Your Ass in Gear

The sun shines brightly through the kitchen window, and Clare is remarkably calm as she prepares a pot of tea--after all, it's early in the morning, and noon is the official designated hour at which she will allow feelings of anxiety to take hold. Still, a bowl of cereal may be too much for her stomach to handle. She grabs a pen and sheet of plain white paper from her printer and begins to compose a lengthy checklist: buy candles and incense at Cala, make sure the JK sound guys are at the club by 5, bring tacks for the fabric, complete the guest list ...

"Felix! It's already nine!" Clare gently pounds on Felix's door; a series of resistant groans follow. "All right, all right, all right." After copious amounts of Earl Grey tea, Clare is ready to go: "Felix, the party starts in nearly 12 hours!"

NOVEMBER 11, 3.14PM
The Big Setup

A warm autumn light spills forth from behind red felt curtains inside the Velvet Lounge. The disco ball hovers above from an impossibly thin string, splattering hundreds of tiny white squares about the dance floor and red brick walls. A few shot glasses containing gin-soaked cigarettes remain on the bar counter, but despite the thick scent of the previous night's merriment, the club is remarkably clean. The bartender hurriedly replenishes the liquor supply while the janitor vacuums the black-and-white checked carpet.

Clare and Felix suddenly burst through the front entrance. "Grab the box of fabrics, will you?" directs Clare, who is appropriately dressed in navy-blue coveralls and thick work boots. A burning cigarette dangles from Felix's mouth as he rushes back and forth, unloading elements of tonight's decor.

Hands on hips and lips pursed with serious determination, Clare walks about the club, her eyes absorbing the scope of the task before her. "That's it, it's all here," announces Felix, who is similarly attired in the style of the proletarian promoter--a cut-off Oscar the Grouch tank top and camouflage cargo pants. Clare pops Mark Farina's Mushroom Jazz CD on the stereo behind the stage. Moody house music fills the empty club, providing an aural glimpse into the night ahead.

Black Diamond NOVEMBER 11, 3.32PM
Visuals and the Creation of the Black Diamond Womb

Filmmaker/animator Mannering arrives on time with a carload of his own technical equipment. Clearly, the Black Diamond operation is built on a solid platform of trust and friendship--no artist in his right mind would allow his film and slide projectors to be subject to a night of dancing, drunken clubbers and other such hazardous folk.

Apparently, this thought doesn't even enter Collin's mind; he is just plain thrilled by the prospect of an audience of more than 200 people (there is but a margin of humble doubt that the club will not be filled to absolute capacity). Along with the artistic direction of Clare and Felix, Collin begins to position the projectors around the dance floor and rear bar.

Clare darts across the street to buy a pack of smokes, while Felix thoughtfully scours the dance floor, apparently checking for bits of inspiration left strewn about the hardwood floor. "We never know how we will organize the visuals until we arrive at the club for setup," Felix explains. "I'm thinking about it now ..."

Clare returns and starts to remove long rolls of fabric from a cardboard box. She decides to drape only the entrance. "The first step in the door is the most important. We try to create the feel of a womb or a cave," she explains.

"Enter the realm of Black Diamond!" laughs Felix, whose cheerful giddiness defuses Clare's quiet apprehension. As if preparing the set of a Middle Eastern-style photo shoot, Clare puts her stylist skills to work and begins to tack the billowing red-and-white gauze above the entrance with more decadence than the inside of a sexy harem.

NOVEMBER 11, 4.58PM
Repeat: Perfectionism Is the Key Word

"I'm super anal about the fabric, I know. It's ridiculous," admits Clare, who exhibits no signs of putting closure to the creation of the womb. Felix does as he is told, holding the ends of the gauze just so, placing tacks at only the most exact corners. Clare takes the art of hanging cloth to the intricate levels of advanced geometry.

Karl Hansen of JK Sound arrives through the front door, and a dangerous gust of wind ruffles the fabric, thus jeopardizing the toils of the past hour and a half. "Felix! Put the tack in quickly!" Now that the sound guys are here, the uterine cavity is complete.

Judging by the size of the JK Sound truck and the quantity of equipment being unloaded by Karl and Chris Luden, the Black Diamond sound system will probably outdo the decibel count at last year's Metallica concert.

"We call this system the 850-325, a.k.a. 'The Full Moon Rig,' " Karl explains. Named for the old-school renegade raves that are held on different beaches around Santa Cruz, the sound system consists of more oversized gadgets than a tech-head's wet dream: "Subs, tops, a coffin, a mixer."

Felix and the JK crew discuss knobs, levels and other such essential stuff while Clare stands quietly at the edge of the stage. She takes a quick peek at her watch and announces, "Oh, only four hours to go. I've got nervous tummy."

She downs a cup of espresso and returns to the womb.

NOVEMBER 11, 6.02PM
Up Until the Very Last Minute

The sun is quickly falling west, and the North Beach traffic is audibly condensing outside. It's time to go home and get some rest, but Felix and Clare first scour the club for obvious incompletions. The womb is more inviting than a baby's warm crib, the sound system is set tighter than the inside of a spaceship and the visuals are more ready to go than six tabs of acid set deep in the underside of a Deadhead's tongue. Silently, our promoters exit the club.

NOVEMBER 11, 10.40PM
The Usual Worrisome Start

A few lonesome guys in baggy pants and hopeful expressions linger at the bar. Felix mixes obscure down-tempo from behind the turntables while Clare darts about, checking on the door, the bar, the stage, the crowd, the womb and even the disco ball. No longer dressed as a stylish plumber, she now has donned a halter top and fatigue pants, which are neatly tucked into aviator boots--she is now a couture warrior.

I order a hot toddy from the bar, only to discover that no one, including me, knows the ingredients. The bartender returns with several concoctions: hot tea with two shots of whiskey and a cup of plain warm brandy. "It's probably one or the other," he insists.

I sip both drinks and wave to dmarie. "Do you think anyone will show up?" She adjusts her long blonde pigtails and responds, "Oh God, yes. The Black Diamond family is hardcore--and no one goes out before midnight anyway. This place will be jampacked in an hour and a half. Just you wait."

Sure enough, hipsters of all kinds are slowly entering the womb. As they arrive, they stop for a moment, check out the scene, approve and proceed to the bar. Felix drops an old-school acid-jazz track and a few brazen girls in tight black flares make their way to the dance floor. The party is just beginning to flow.

NOVEMBER 12, 12.01AM
dmarie's Prophecy Manifests

Laron has just arrived, and as he makes his way to the stage with a crate of records, I spot Clare on the dance floor. The club is nearly packed to capacity, and all worries have completely subsided. Felix juggles the task of mingling with everyone while intermittently checking the stage for technical consistency. Darkhorse makes way for Laron, who is ready to plunk a record on one of the three turntables. The mix is seamless, and the crowd can barely control its enthusiasm--smiles and unself-conscious dancing ensue. What else is there to say?

NOVEMBER 12, 2.04AM
The Crowd Begs For an Encore

Obvious to all, the party has been a great success, but the crowd is demanding and won't take no for an answer. "Thank you so much, guys, but we really, really can't keep the party going. The Velvet Lounge has been kind enough..."

Mic in one hand and cigarette in the other, Felix continues to thank the "family." Nonetheless, it's a few minutes past curfew and security is attempting to usher the crowd out the door. "It's over--everybody out NOW!"

Naturally, people are slow to exit; they all seem to know each other, and like a drunken family reunion, the event calls for extensive goodbyes. "C'mon, you guys!! This is your final warning!" The security borders on Gestapo-like intensity, and although I am waiting for a ride from Karl Hansen--who is quickly dismantling the sound system--I feel that I should get the hell out. Nahh, fuck it. I share a smoke with dmarie.

Hard at work again, Clare removes the cloth womb while Felix packs his records. Everyone is rather silent. The party was incredible, but exhaustion has taken over. Karl carries the remaining amp out the door. I hug Clare, wave to Felix and step out into the frigid San Francisco night air.

My throat is hoarse, my head aches, but I am content in the way only a long night of dancing can produce. I jump into the front seat of the JK Sound ship and off we go. We cruise up Broadway, and a particular chant repeats itself in my flu-ridden head: Mu-usic, nonstop. Mu-usic, nonstop. Indeed.

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From the December 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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