Man of the House: For four decades Wayne Davis has shown that to build a club you start with the music

A day is coming sooner than any local house music fan wants to admit. Paradox, the city's dance music mecca, is living out its final days in the equivalent of building hospice care. We can still go visit it and experience everything that made it special for 25 years, but there's that rapidly approaching realization that every visit may be your last before a demolition ball arrives.

This end was announced last October when Paradox owner Wayne Davis posted on Facebook that the Paradox would close in 2016. About a month later, The Sun reported that the Hammerjacks Entertainment Group, a firm that bought the name and trademark rights to the 1980s hair-metal institution and early 2000s club music hotspot a few years back, would be demolishing buildings in the 1300 block of Russell Street, Paradox's home since 1991, to make way for an $8 million entertainment complex. By early 2016 a DJ lineup was circulating for a weekend finale at Paradox scheduled for April 29-31, the last hurrah. But on April 21, Davis shared a release on social media announcing a delay in the development's construction, giving the club a few more months of life. The big finale went on as planned, and now the club is living out its remaining days doing what it's always done: keeping people dancing.

When the demolition ball finally comes, however, Baltimore will be without a Davis-managed or -curated club dedicated explicitly to dance music for the first time since the mid 1970s. Let that sink in for a second. If you're under the age of 40, Wayne Davis has had a hand in keeping the party going in Baltimore for the entirety of your life. Paradox continued cultivating the house and hip-house community that Club Fantasy built, which laid the groundwork for club's creation in the early 1990s. Paradox was where DJs Scott Henry and Charles Feelgood built their Thursday night Fever parties into one of the Mid-Atlantic's biggest raves in the 1990s. Paradox was one of the many places in the 2000s where the late K-Swift led club's crossover locally just as the homegrown dance music started to break out internationally.

The prospect is hitting some local house music veterans pretty hard. "I don't know if I can even really put it into words what the impact is gong to be," says diva and DJ Ultra Naté. "As long as I can remember Wayne has had a venue—starting with Odell's, and then Fantasy and Paradox—and that whole history has always been a part of the fabric of Baltimore dance culture my entire adult life. I really don't know what this new world is supposed to be like and I'm having a hard time figuring out how to feel about it."

For DJs Oji Morris and Brian Pope—who met in the late 1980s as undergrads at Morgan State University, ran the "Underground Experience" house music show on WEAA from 1989-2002, and together run POJI Records—Paradox's closing represents the end of a local house music era.

"It's like somewhat of a nail in the coffin in my opinion," says Morris. "We hope that house music will continue to thrive and grow but Paradox's just been something that's been so everlasting that I think some [people] may have taken it for granted. I've been to many clubs throughout the east coast, it definitely has one of the best sound systems that I've ever played on outside of maybe Japan. So I don't know where else you will be able to go and experience the music like at Paradox."

The news of the closing "kind of hit everybody hard because it's been there for so long," Pope says. "People tend to take things that we have in this city for granted, so when the information came out, a lot of people were in shock. You're talking about 25 years—that's a lifetime for clubs. If you look at the legendary clubs, the lifespan of a club is anywhere from three to maybe 10 years, max."

Pope brings up an interesting point—think of the legendary clubs that have become synonymous with nightlife eras, DJs, genres of music, and entire fashion trends that people continue to emulate. They didn't last for a very long time: Paradise Garage (1977-1987), the Warehouse (1977-1982), Studio 54 (1977-80), Danceteria (1979-86), the Palladium (1985-97), Area (1983-1987). In Paradox, Davis kept a nightclub in operation for Baltimore's majority black dance music community for a quarter of a century, and did so without a liquor license (although it maintained a BYOB policy for patrons over 21 before 2 a.m.). Alcohol sales didn't pay the Paradox's bills. People coming to dance did.

That was the business model that powered Club Fantasy, the club at 600 N. Howard St. that Davis ran from the fall of 1988 to winter 1990. It was the model behind Odell's, Baltimore's original hot nightspot, which Davis helped sculpt through its dance floor (elevated seating on the sides), sound system (getting Richard Long, the engineer behind the sound systems at the Paradise Garage and Club Zanzibar, to design the club's system), and music selection.

Davis started DJing at Odell's when the club opened in 1976, when club owner Odell Brock recruited him from a place he co-ran called Carousel around the corner (in the 1800 block of North Charles Street which Gatsby's, and more recently Club Choices, once occupied). Davis cultivated a local dance and house music culture at Odell's up to 1988, when he started Fantasy in what was basically a typical rowhouse.

The party followed. "When word got out that Wayne was opening a new club, we just all kind of migrated quite quickly," Naté says. "When he opened Fantasy it really was just a three-story house. It was way far from being in any kind of real club shape. They built that club. The same thing happened when he got Paradox. They built the club around the kids as we danced week after week. Every week the club was open paid for some other thing that they needed and they spent the week building and adding and continually progressing around us as the party was going on. It wasn't like we had to wait for it to become this huge, amazing, pristine dance club. We just needed that sound system, baby."

Terry Thompson, a Chicago native who started spinning in house clubs in the mid '80s and brought his house experience with him when he moved to Baltimore in 1987, first fell in with Davis and the local house music community at Fantasy. And when Davis started Paradox in 1991, he and his crew had to build the club around the party once again. Thompson recalls going to Paradox when it first opened, and "It was just square box with concrete floors," he says. "The sound system was big but not to the state it is today. It's parts of that Rick Long system [from Odell's], and Dave Soto from New York built a lot of the stuff in there, too. They built it from the ground up. They put the floors in. They put everything in there. Wayne and his team have done a lot to give Baltimore the type of venue that could support the music."

And that's what Thompson, Naté, Morris, and Pope hope pops up in Paradox's wake—another club that caters to dance and dance alone. It doesn't have to be as big as Paradox's 13,000 square feet. The smaller house music parties, such as one at Club 347, will persist and probably get a bit more popular after Paradox closes, and Ultra Naté and Lisa Moody's Deep Sugar party will continue after its three more Paradox events. But as of right now, there isn't another dance music club on Paradox's level.

"We're going to have to find a venue to fill a void because certainly house music is not going to go anywhere," Thompson says. "Ideally that would mean we could support the artists and develop the music as the DJs around the world have developed the music. You can hear house music anywhere today versus 25 years ago when it was only in certain cities—Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, D.C. Now it's all over the world. At the same time the city has not filled a void in terms of making sure that the venues are there to support the music all the time."

What Thompson is touching on there is a common concern raised by house music fans, DJs, and club owners: as much as city and business leaders have championed arts and culture as being drivers of the city's renewal since the 1980s, an understanding or even recognition of the local house and dance music community remains overlooked. Dance parties are late night affairs, and throughout the 1990s clubs and local city officials disputed the standard 2 a.m. closing time, even for places that didn't serve alcohol.

In 1999, city council members joined the Downtown Partnership in asking the city's Board of Municipal and Zoning to freeze all proposals for nightclubs downtown until a task force could study the issue, including a request, made a few years earlier, for a possible permit for some places to stay open until 4 a.m. The reasons against extended club hours were familiar—noise complaints by neighborhood residents where clubs were located, fear of crime—but come 2000, when various developers were backing seven different nightclubs to open in and around downtown's central business district, the promise of more than 6,500 patrons going out and spending money had city leadership considering extending weekend operating hours.

But such downtown nightspots—such as Redwood Trust, Have a Nice Day Café, Power Plant Live (for which the Board of Estimates approved a 75-year lease to the Cordish Company), the China Room—were all primarily targeting the tourists on which the city's economic development plans have placed their bets for decades.

"The corner pub in the neighborhood is great for people who live in a neighborhood, but my sense is when people are at a convention or business meeting or taking a vacation, they want a little glitz and glamour," Michele L. Whelley, an executive vice president of the Downtown Partnership, told The Sun in 2000.

But dance clubs, particularly house music dance clubs, have never really been about bar sales and tourists. House music, especially, was cultivated and celebrated by Chicago's black, Latin, and gay communities, and radiated out from there, finding its way into dance clubs that drew people seeking out the music. And those clubs didn't start out in prefab tourists districts. They grew in spaces cities often ignored.

As researcher Giacomo Botta notes in "The Encyclopedia of Urban Studies": "Discotheques play an unusual role within the shift from industrial to postindustrial cities. On one hand, they foresaw the chances given by abandoned industrial architecture and usually pioneered dilapidated downtown (in the United States) or peripheral (in Europe) areas that would later regain real estate value. . . . On the other hand, discotheques were the first to be excluded, within the final accomplishments of the urban renewal process in the 1990s, because of the increasing value of the built properties and the retransformation of scene-related entertainment districts into residential ones."

Davis experienced this process firsthand. One of the reasons he had to close down Fantasy was because light rail construction was coming through Howard Street, and one of the reason's Paradox's south Baltimore location was chosen was because, in 1991, nothing was down there. Oriole Park at Camden Yards didn't open until spring 1992, the Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium in 1998.

"When the casino came in [in 2014], we knew it would only be another minute before they were knocking on the door," Naté says of encroaching development in the vicinity.

What was an undiscovered industrial area in 1991 is now prime real estate. "That potential money has something to do" with Paradox closing, Pope says. "With an entertainment complex people can come out of the football games, the baseball games, come out of the casino, and go right into this place where they're going to have different little clubs in this one big venue, bars, big TV screens—that kind of atmosphere."

He adds that a big club like Paradox is hard to maintain in 2016. "The mega clubs have been closing down, and this has been going on around the country," Pope says. "So I think the days of the big clubs are kind of dwindling down."

It's what we're seeing in the dance parties popular today. They don't take place at big or even mid-sized dance clubs—the Get Down closed last fall, Red Maple is closing this summer—they take place in bars/clubs that offer a more intimate affair.

"I think what the 4 Hours of Funk guys are doing is very good," Thompson says of the party that takes place at the Windup Space every third Friday of the month. "They are exposing a diverse group of kids to basically early stuff they were playing at Odell's, Fantasy, and Paradox—it's old disco stuff, and the kids are dancing like it's brand new. That's because the music is really good, and they've been going at it."

"I think a lot of younger people are looking for smaller, a little bit more intimate spots for those types of music," says DJ Fleg, who, along with Graham Hatke, started 4 Hours of Funk in 2009; they recently marked their seventh anniversary with a block party in Station North. "And I think that shows in the spaces. A lot of places doing the really cool nights have been multiuse spaces."

4 Hours of Funk incidentally planted its dance flag diagonally across the street from where Davis first started at Odell's, which was located in the unit block of East North Avenue that is now known as Wayne Davis Way. That honorific had to be approved by the city, but even to a younger party promoter like Fleg, he recognizes the uphill battle Davis and company had to fight for Paradox to last as long as it has.

"Not to be overly harsh but I feel like most American politicians have zero idea that dance music is a highly cultural thing that other countries really embrace and value so much so that a lot of house musicians and DJs get most of their work, or the highest paying gigs, in Europe or Japan," he says, adding that not valuing house music as a cultural force means politicians ignore it as an economic option when thinking about urban policies.

The city uses law enforcement to "shut down all these after parties in illegal spaces, offer no viable alternative, and make it very difficult to go through their avenues to get anything done," Fleg says. "And it's just like, look, this is stuff that both people in America and outside very much value as a cultural property and you have no idea that it's going on.

"Long-lasting American art forms—jazz, hip-hop, and house music and techno, all these cities that pay zero attention to them is part of a larger issue of all of this stuff culturally not being appreciated here," he continues. "And if it's not being appreciated, your ability to make headway into doing an event or making something really successful here becomes that much more difficult. You have to fight every way of it and you don't get any help."

Case in point: Local radio station WTMD's new Dig Baltimore app, which bills itself as an ostensible "Social Media Travel Guide to Baltimore's Musical Destinations & Historic Landmarks," doesn't include any current dance clubs, overlooks Hammerjack's role in club music, and doesn't mention Odell's, Fantasy, or Paradox at all in its locations list.

And excluding dance music from being part of a city's musical heritage is one way of discounting a significant body of creative work made by people of color.

Recognizing that fight might be one way to honor the house music community that has supported Paradox in these final months of the club's existence. Wayne Davis and his team have kept a nightclub in operation for Baltimore's primarily black dance music community for a quarter of a century powered on nothing but music.

Respect that—because the reason why house music will continue in Baltimore is because of the community Davis and Paradox built. Morris is also on the board of the Collective Minds house music festival, which takes place in Druid Hill Park over the Labor Day weekend. He says the festival drew about 500 people the first year; last year's attendance hit 10,000. Ultra Naté says her and Lisa Moody's Deep Sugar will of course continue. They only have three more parties at Paradox (the next one takes place on June 25), but she and other people are working behind the scenes to figure out what happens next.

"We have a lot of work to do, a lot of great music to play, there are a lot of people who have a great love for the scene, and it's been really instrumental in Wayne coming out of just being in a management capacity and finding his love for DJing and playing for the crowd again," she says, noting that Davis is playing at Pride this year along with Deep Sugar. "He's grown a whole new fanbase. That really makes me feel gratified, because he's done so much work and sacrificed so much for all of us. He helped us all grow. Paradox and Fantasy, that was the era when I first started making records, the Basement Boys first started testing their material on the Fantasy/Wayne Davis crowd. So he created that platform not only for us, but all of the other DJs and producers in this area to hone their skills and actually make careers out of this."

Paradox "was my training ground," Morris agrees. "And how blessed and fortunate was I to learn to DJ on a sound system like that?"

"So there's a real, tangible culture here that we're all connected to, so we have to keep that going," Naté adds. "That's our responsibility. It's just like church—church is not just the building, it's the people therein. It's the same thing with Paradox."

Copyright © 2017, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
57°