[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
One man's purity is another man's segregation. You don't expect to encounter those ideas in Hollywood in 2013, but they creep in through coding and innuendo.
Public racial slurs are rare, but people casually mention frequenting a club until it became overtaken by “the…well, you know.” The doorman in Knocked Up was only half joking when he expressed his hopes for a black midget in the crowd, because the club promoters only permitted one and a quarter blacks for every 25 whites.
Music should be the exception. The best '60s L.A. band (Love) was a rainbow coalition. “To Live & Die in L.A.” is a municipal anthem. Kendrick Lamar, the new rap regent, chants “fuck your ethnicity.”
But there's a thin line between what's prejudiced and what's precious. Take a show that I co-curated at Harvard & Stone, a steam punk bunker in east Hollywood, where Jack Daniels is barred for being too plebe, and “mixologists” reproach you for incorrectly recounting the Moscow Mule's origins. Sometimes, they book good bands.
So when psychedelic fusionists Chicano Batman asked to partner for the first night of their May residency, I agreed. No money was involved. The event was free. Neither of the acts that I booked, art-rapper Open Mike Eagle and Ariel Pink (for a DJ set), stood to make more than a nominal fee — a “for the love” gesture in an industry whose tab is often footed via sneaker or soda company.
But on the eve of the show, Chicano Batman's manager texted word from Harvard & Stone that they forbid hip-hop.
A follow-up text from the venue's General Manager, Steven Sue read: “Open Mike Eagle can't perform [because] we only do analog rock'n'roll, rhythm & blues-based stuff. I've never wavered from this policy and I never make exceptions.”
So I bowed out. The next morning, Eagle wrote a poignant letter that you should read in full. It expresses anger and disappointment with the eloquence you'd expect from an artist who claims to be haunted by the “gay ghost of James Baldwin.”
That's partially why his exclusion felt so unsettling. Eagle is more DIY and punk than 95 percent of the “rock and roll” bands out. He boasts about rolling down Slauson bumping '97 Weezer. He sings as much as he raps, and samples Pavement and They Might Be Giants. He's been embraced by the stand-up comedy world too — with humorist Paul F. Tompkins reblogging Eagle's Tumblr article and adding, “I look forward to having the great Mike Eagle on one of my shows again.”
When I called Leon Jenkins, the president of the L.A. NAACP, he said that the rule felt “discriminatory and racist. It attempts to exclude a certain crowd from the venue by coding it in language about a ban of rap.”
If you combine the no-rap rule with Harvard & Stone's door policy banning “sports gear, logos, flip flops, most hats and loud colors,” it reads like a sixth grade anti-gang manual passed out to petrified suburban moms.
When I spoke to Sue last night, he attributed the last minute cancellation to a miscommunication. He seemed sincere when he said there was no “sinister” or racist plot to ban rap from the venue, but added the “venue stands by its decision to not proceed with the show as previously scheduled…We believe in doing one thing well…it's like booking a heavy metal act in a jazz club.”
Of course, Harvard & Stone has every right to book whomever they want. But one “rock and roll”-influenced rapper won't stop people from ordering $10 “Baby's First Bourbons.” Insisting on such rigid ideas about music seems ignorant at best — separatist at worst. It's always been about cross-genre exchanges of ideas. It always will be.
Boundaries between rock, electronic and hip-hop have never been blurrier than right now. Obsolete stereotypes and totalitarian bans deserve no quarter in modern life. How many times can you hear the same old song?