It's getting kind of hectic. In the early morning of Sunday, January 4, a man knocked on a side door at Chop Suey and, when the door was opened, shot three people in the club's backstage area, killing local MC 29-E and wounding Trama and 1st Black Prez.
DeVon Manier, owner of Sportn' Life Records, whose rapper Fatal Lucciauno was performing that night, was backstage when the shooting occurred. "If you've been backstage at Chop Suey," says Manier, "you know people are always knocking on the door to get backstage, and you think it's one of the artists who needs to get in. Well, 1st Black Prez—the guy in the hospital—after hosting the show, goes backstage, hears a knock on the door, opens it up, and there it is. Next thing, my girlfriend says there's shooting. Instead of running to the front, we ran to the back and got behind some furniture. We didn't know where the trouble was coming from. It happened quickly."
Where is this trouble coming from? In the past six months, Seattle has seen an escalation of gang-related shootings. On August 5, Pierre Lapoint was fatally shot while walking down Rainier Avenue South. On October 31, Quincy S. Coleman, a 15-year-old rapper, was shot and killed not far from where, a month later, Donnie P. Cheatham, a high-school basketball star, was shot in the face after an argument that erupted in front of the Garfield Community Center. And on November 23, Nathaniel Lee Thomas was shot dead inside of Vito's Madison Grill, which had become a popular spot for rap/R&B nights.
The incident at Vito's was not only a part of the recent wave of gang-related shootings but also the long, long history of violent disruptions within or outside clubs that regularly host rap/R&B nights. There was the shooting at Sugar nightclub in November 2007, the shooting outside of Tabella Restaurant & Lounge in July 2007, the shooting outside of Tommy's on the Ave in June 2007, the stabbings and shootings inside and outside of Larry's Nightclub in December 2005, the shooting outside Mr. Lucky's in April 2004, the shootings outside of I-Spy in 2002, and so on and so on.
Some of these clubs were closed, and with good reason. As one who lived a block from the Mantra Lounge in Pioneer Square, a club that had several shootings, stabbings, and fights in 2006 and 2007, I know very well that guns are not the only problem generated by the booze and beat-heat of R&B/rap nights. After Mantra closed its doors at 2:00 a.m., shouting and fistfights broke out on the sidewalk and in the parking lots. Sometimes the disturbance would end with a car angrily burning rubber (a good night); on other occasions it would end with the pop, pop, pop of a pistol (a bad night). And then came the sirens—then silence and sleep. The only solution was to shut down Mantra (it's now a quiet furniture store).
Because the shooting at Chop Suey happened during a hiphop show, it will be impossible for the public to separate the music from the murder. Yes, so far it seems that the rappers performing that night (Young Soprano, Fatal Lucciauno, No Clue, Dividenz, and Anonimous) had no direct connection with the killer and the killed (a rapper who was not performing that night). Nevertheless, hiphop has a real history of violence—to say there is no such connection between the two is to talk crazy. If this were not the fact, if hiphop and violence were totally unrelated, then why is it if I go to a show featuring Too $hort, I'm patted down for weapons, and if I go to a show featuring Neil Young, I only need to show my ticket? Indeed, it is rumored that the man shot dead at Vito's was there to attend Too $hort's afterparty, following a performance by $hort and the Pack at Studio Seven, a new trouble hot spot for hiphop-related disturbances.
But hiphop is still just music; a rapper does not go onstage and start shooting people (a Schooly D fantasy). He may rap about smoking a nigga, but that is not the same as doing it. In fact, the last thing a gangster rapper wants is a real gangster disrupting his show, his career, his mic dreams. The gangster rapper wants none of it. Indeed, the incident at Chop Suey is extraordinary in the sense that—unlike rap/R&B club nights (which feature only DJs)—rap shows (which feature live performers) rarely end in bullets.
"Before the shooting started, Fatal was off the stage and done," explains Manier. "I don't know all the facts, but it was an altercation from outside [the club], and it spilled inside.... This rarely happens, and I'm just hoping there is no backlash. I'm hoping that people recognize the success hiphop has had over the last few years, and that the club owners and bookers keep it going. I'm hoping that people see it is an isolated incident. Let's tighten up things. It was a gangster-rap lineup that night, and when you see shows like that, it doesn't hurt to have a cop car up front."
Now it is time to make two important distinctions that will guide us out of this mess: There is a difference between club nights and rap or hiphop shows, and there is a difference between rap shows and hiphop shows. The first distinction is explained in the above paragraphs (club nights are almost always bad; live rap/hiphop shows are usually not so bad). As for the second distinction, rap is one thing (gangster or crunk or pop); hiphop is another (it involves all of the elements of the music—political, serious, silly, underground, gangster, and so on). So, it's not a matter of hiphop as a whole, but a matter of what type of crowd a particular type of hiphop attracts. Mass Line's Gabriel Teodros, for example, is scheduled to perform at Chop Suey this Friday, January 9. Because Teodros's hiphop is all about love, unity, the socialization of health care, and the empowerment of women, we can expect that the type of people who exploded into violence during Young Soprano's show will not be in attendance. Gangland beef will not spill into the club during or after Teodros's performance. Gangs have no heart to hear about why it is important to respect black women, to spend time with your kids, or to purchase fair-trade coffee. Thugs go where thug life is celebrated.
This is why it is important not to close Chop Suey. Chop Suey is a venue for different types of music, and, specifically, different types of hiphop. Hiphop in essence is about diversity—it has its dusty philosophers, dirty jokers, dreamy lovers, mad riddlers, sensitive hippies, and even intelligent hoodlums. When all is going well, hiphop is one big and lively family, and a venue that can one weekend host Fatal Lucciauno and the next Gabriel Teodros captures the spirit of this diversity—a spirit, furthermore, that has been displaced from hiphop by a commercial monster resulting from the cancerous growth of thug hop (rap) and the diminution of all other forms. In fact, on February 1, 2008, Sportn' Life had a show at Chop Suey that featured D.Black, Grayskul, the Physics, Action Buddie, and Bean One (street hop, geek hop, gothic hop, and black rock). Any space that supports that kind of diversity should keep its doors wide open.
"Closing seems a little bit drastic," says Chop Suey booker Pete Greenberg. "At this point, we want to look at what happened and see how we can prevent it from happening again. But in my memory, this is the first time this kind of thing has happened here, and, God willing, we hope it is the last."
Asked if the incident will affect how he books hiphop shows in the future, Greenberg answers: "You know, I'm not even sure it had anything to do with the genre of music. It is awful, but we do not know the way it went down. For the near future, we are going to be discerning [about acts] across the board. But I don't think it is fair to blame the genre. I'm not quick to say, 'Oh, it's hardcore hiphop, so fuck hardcore hiphop.'"
Still, hosting gangster-rap shows means one must increase security. There is no way around that. And the incident that happened at Chop Suey will impact the number of venues and concert lineups that feature gangster rap. There is no way around that. In the light of this reality, Chop Suey should continue to open its doors to both the hard and soft sides of hiphop—only we all must make sure that those doors are secure.