Walking out of a dance club into the morning sunlight is one of the best-worst feelings a city rat can have. It's the sense of subversive decadence--you shouldn't be allowed to have this much fun for so long, dance this hard, turn down the outside world this low. In the square world, people get up before 3 in the afternoon, eat a well-balanced breakfast that doesn't include half a bottle of Advil (for the sore legs), and, you know, are productive.
So it's somewhat of a secret society that Baltimore's after-hours clubs host every weekend. It isn't a large society, but it's one that is always in flux and, depending on whom you ask, on the wane. None of the three clubs highlighted below is experiencing anything like salad days. Despite the opening of a Lunar, new 9,000-square-foot club in South Baltimore, Paradox, 1722, and Club Choices--which boast the deepest local roots, with nearly 50 years in Baltimore between them--are all struggling to maintain their identity as the crowds that filled them at their births give in to a good night's sleep and a younger and, some would say, unruly crowd of partiers moves in.
And that crowd can get very young. While Paradox allows BYOB on some nights until 2 a.m. (yes, with ID checks) and Club Choices has its booze-serving sister club, Trip's Place (1722 is entirely alcohol free), all three allow in the 18 and over contingent, and Paradox and Choices go as young as high-school age on some nights. It's an odd combination: after-hours clubs are able to be after-hours because they don't serve booze, but that also means it's the least-mature crowds staying up all night. Maybe that's just how it's supposed to be.
The three men speaking below can be considered elder statesmen of this nightlife, and you hear in their voices some disappointment in the state of things: Baltimore club music isn't the sound of Baltimore, clubs are unfairly blamed for violence happening far away from their dance floors or for their patrons' drug use, older generations of partiers are afraid of the new ones, and nothing feels as right as it used to be after 2 a.m. We didn't ask about drugs. We didn't ask about violence. Hell, we didn't even ask about house music (initially). The questions leading to these histories were essentially "dumb," leading to, hopefully, one of the most honest snapshots of after-hours Baltimore you're going to get--outside of the club, that is.
Wayne Davis, 55, started DJing in 1968. After some two and a half decades working in the nightclub industry, in 1991 he opened Paradox, a cavernous dance club underneath a freeway overpass south of downtown Baltimore. He to speaks to a reporter is his office and, later, by phone.
Before Paradox, I had a club on North Howard Street called Fantasy. They started developing the properties surrounding it into residential [buildings]--they turned an old school into condos, a union hall into condos. The residential tenants started complaining about the noise at night. The Baltimore Development Corp. suggested we look down in this area [for a new club] because it was industrial. It was just empty warehouse. Nothing was in it. Roll-up doors, concrete floors--that type of situation. We had some sound and lighting from Fantasy and basically started it with those items. Not much décor.
Paradox was somewhat the same concept as Fantasy. Fantasy was an after-hours, nonalcohol club, but on a smaller scale, basically. I used to DJ back in late '60s, and my exposure to the whole scene was mainly New York and Philly, and they were mainly clubs like that, mainly juice bars--like the Garage, the Loft, places like that. That's where I got my exposure, so I guess that's why I kept it that same way.
When we initially opened [Paradox] the format for our music was predominantly house music. That's where I came from. We had a pretty diverse crowd at that time--the numbers probably started out in the lower hundreds and they grew. We had a promoter that did a party called Orbit, which was a very diverse party--gay, white, straight. The largest crowd we ever had was one of the Fever parties, which Orbit evolved into. It was a large crowd--I won't give away any occupancy. Exceeded 1,000. Saturday was our diverse gay and straight night. It was a melting pot at that point.
Then the Saturday crowd evolved into being predominantly gay. That's when the whole thing evolved. The crowd that supported the house music scene started dwindling, and the hip-hop started building. As the older house scene patrons stopped partying, there was no new ones to replace them. As you get older, you stop hanging, and there's a newer, younger person coming in to replace. There were no replacements for the house music scene. All the kids were into hip-hop music, and the underground music became Baltimore club music.
Also, the gay crowd, who were the main supporters of house music back when I was DJing and back in the early days of the club, started bouncin' to the hip-hop music because, I think, they thought it was more appealing sexually--made them more attractive based on the artist that did the music. Mimicking them--the dress and all that. It changed. Hip-hop music started to dominate the scene and house music became the music we played once a month in the main room and hip-hop was played all the other times. I don't think [the club's original identity] is lost; it's just evolving with the times. In order to stay alive and afloat, we have to.
As far as the house scene reviving itself, I don't think that will happen until the kids start partying to that music and acknowledging it, until we can start bringing them back into it. It's basically done through exposure. They tend to mimic what they think is popular. I've started to notice that on Friday, our college straight night, one of our DJs, Big L, has started integrating some of the samples from house music, and that's the initial exposure. He tends to take a chance, where a lot of DJs play one type of music. He'll mix in some house, some old-school R&B--very diverse. I admire him for that, being that courageous.
Back in the early '90s, all we were really required was in-house security. As time has evolved we started using off-duty officers. And time evolved more, we had to add Baltimore City overtime police officers, uniformed officers, to control and keep the perimeters in order. The more violence we have in the city--some people tend to bring those problems to those clubs. So, yeah, [heavier security] came as a necessity. I can't pinpoint why. My personal opinion is that the violence increased as the breakdown of the family structure did, and the wrong role models are being emulated.
I like when the crowds come together for just the party--the music, the party itself--when they don't bring in any of their hang-ups or their baggage or anything. Everybody enjoys the party. Those are the ones that I enjoy the most. Now, when I have my birthday parties, those are the ones that I enjoy. That brings out the old crowd. They kind of think of it as a reunion.
Michael Kohl, 43, has managed several clubs in Baltimore, including the mammoth and now defunct Redwood Trust. In 1993, he took over operations at 1722, a somewhat hidden after-hours club on Charles Street one block north of Penn Station. Laid up with a back injury, he speaks by phone from his home.
The original manager was [Larry] O'Day and he died of HIV two years after 1722 opened [in 1991]. I used to manage a bar called Numbers, which became the Spot down on Boston Street. [Owner] Paul [Chrzanowski] asked me if I would be interested in taking  over and do whatever I could to make it busier. It was kind of dirty then, kind of run down--a little behind-the-scenes place with one level with a back room, and the back room had a wooden floor that was falling apart and a sofa that had been there way too long. We cleaned the place up, knocked out some walls, and put in the catwalk. Paul thought we were crazy.
We tried being [not an after-hours club] once or twice. We used to do this thing called Vibe at 11 o'clock on Friday nights. It used to be BYOB until Mayor [Kurt] Schmoke founded the "milk bar law," so you're no longer able to bring your own liquor [into clubs]. And when people couldn't bring their own liquor, people started coming later--after 2. The bars closed at 1:45, and people would just start heading up and getting in line. We used to have lines 200-300 people deep--'96, '97, '98, '99, the best era of music for the club. They used to call me the Steve Rubell of Baltimore. I would pick and choose who came in and who didn't come in. We were pretty selective at one time. Everybody had to be good looking and everybody had to be open minded. If you couldn't handle the fact that there were gay people in the world, then you couldn't come in the front door. All the pretty people come here and mix in with the gay clientele--all the muscle boys and the girls with the big breasts. "The Herd," as I also refer to them. Every time a new club opens up they disappear to that club. But they've stayed loyal to 1722 for many, many years.
We've had very little fights there, very little violence. There's a place up the street, Choices, that's all black and straight, and they have fights all the time. We don't have that problem one bit. Of course we did have a raid on Oct. 19, 2001. Just the one time in all the years it's been open. They arrested 25 [people]; 23 of us were dismissed [of the charges]. There are no more drugs in 1722 than there are in any other bar before they come to 1722. That's a stereotype that I really hate about the club--that it's a drug haven. We have zero tolerance for drug use.
The raid deterred people for a while--we had to build it back. We used to go all out on our theme parties. We'd convert the club to, like, the inside of a pyramid. All the walls had hieroglyphics on it and we had a big sarcophagus in the middle of the room and people would come dressed in costumes. We did a Wizard of Oz party where there was a tornado dancing around in the middle of the floor. We did the wishing well that Mickey Mouse went to in Fantasia. There were dancing broom sticks all across the wall on top of the mirrors. This was during the '96 through 2000 time.
We just did an underwear party. We do an underwear party every Labor and Memorial Day Sundays. People come dressed in their underwear and dance all night. And people would ask when the next one is coming, so we started doing one on my birthday in January. And that's when people come dressed in long pajamas. We have some die-hard fans.
Once in a while you'll see some white drunk straight girl walk out and say, "This place sucks," but it's, like, Sorry you couldn't score a drink, babe. I want the club to prosper and live for a long time. It will just keep going and going and going, and sometime I will retire and be able to walk in as a client and have just as much fun. This place keeps me young.
Reggie Reg has hosted and DJed parties and dance nights in Baltimore starting in the mid-1980s, ending with a recent move to Atlanta. For a bulk of that time, he was regularly featured at Club Choices, a three-story nightspot on Charles Street just down from North Avenue that opened under the Choices name in 1995. Back in the area recovering from a recent heart attack, he speaks by phone from his home in Owings Mills.
When I started [at the space], back in the early '90s, it was when DJs never used to talk on the mic or anything else to entertain the crowd. They had a light-up floor, and older people used to come out--people that were 25 or 30 or older--and they would come from all over. It wasn't a lot of money, but I did it to get the name out there to network.
I was on 92Q and did a live broadcast [at Club Choices] every Saturday night--around 2001--and while we was playin' music and entertaining, we used to pick people out of the crowd, focusing on people we could laugh with, joke with, and have some fun.
There was one particular guy that everyone knew at the club, and we started calling him "Turbo: the sexiest man alive." He'd be in the club every week and he'd have these thick glasses on and a mohawk haircut, and his clothes looked like a tablecloth outfit. And the ladies would ask, "Who's the sexy guy? Who's the sexy guy?" And we would call Turbo on the mic. Turbo would come up to the stage and do a flip. He'd smile and dude would have aluminum foil on his teeth. You know, he was player. He would give his phone number to all the ladies in the club and be like, "Gimme a call." It was something that people would just come and trip off of. Nowadays the club's not like that. People don't know how to entertain in clubs, don't try to find things to have fun about.
[Club owner] Tony [Triplin] basically handled his business back then for dealing with an adult crowd. As a generation went on and the generation has changed to the crowd it is today, a lot of older people don't like going out now because of, well, the way the world is today. Younger people--older people are scared to be around them. But Tony has security down there. And club owners can't control what people do. What people do in the street--the kids--all you can do is do what you can do in the guidelines and try and protect what you can. Outside of that, all you can do is run a business.
The music's changed, too. I played everything: reggae, R&B, old-school. Now, the music is all Dirty South, hip-hop. It's gotten away from the old house music--not like the deep house music, but the house music folks love to hear, like the Follow Mes, Doo Doo Brown, "Percolator." You don't hear music like that nowadays. People want to hear what they hear on the radio. But Tony has tried to be positive, really done what he has to do to keep it going. The next generation that comes in, he has to cater to that generation, or he won't be in business.