It's an early Saturday evening and a crowd is lined up outside the Five Star in Raleigh, waiting to get inside. A combination Chinese Restaurant and nightclub, the Five Star is one of the best-kept secrets in the Triangle. Saturday night is "blue light basement night," which means the music played will be mostly old-school soul and R&B with a little hip hop to add flavor.
Inside, the club DJs, Mixmaster Mooney and DJ Merlin, are getting the party krunked up by mixing some soul and R&B cuts that are seriously old school, but are still heard today in the samples and loops of hip-hop songs. Some in the mostly college-graduate crowd recognize the samples, but most really don't care. They just know the vibe and the music are good, and that's what keeps them coming back every week. "I think we've established ourselves now," says Robert Mooney, AKA Mixmaster Mooney. "The crowd knows we're gonna keep everything smooth and just play some good music."
"We were already doing parties and events, and [Five Star Manager] Chris Fender found us, and we started doing parties there," says Mooney, 24, who, along with Geraghty, also owns Four Four Records, a music shop that specializes in selling CDs by local artists as well as hard-to-find vinyl releases.
Mooney and his partner, Jason Geraghty, 26, better known as DJ Merlin in local music circles, have been spinning records at the club for about two years. They started when the venue was called the WickedSmile, a restaurant that threw parties on occasion. Geraghty had gone down to audio school in Florida when Mooney began to DJ at the Smile. "It was mostly a jazz audience, so I had to play a lot of jazz music to please the crowd," Mooney says.
These days, however, both DJs play pretty much whatever they like. The duo plays soul and jazz (with a local guest DJ) on Wednesday nights and spin "U.K. and instrumental" on Thursdays, while Friday is straight-up hip-hop night. There's always a good crowd for each night of the week, and it's not uncommon for other local DJs to stop by the club to check out Mooney and Geraghty and give them props. "It's nice to get love from the other DJs who stop by and visit," Mooney says. "It tells me we must be doing something right."
Hip hop and R&B are both major forces in the music industry and have been for some time. Soul and R&B made a splash on the popular music scene in the late 1950s and have long dominated the charts, while hip hop has evolved from the days in the late '70s and early '80s when rap artists recorded 12-inch singles (instead of albums) to take a firm hold of today's R&B and pop charts. So, while the club music scene may be a new phenomenon to some, the fact is that it's been around a long time, even here in the Triangle. And the scene is growing.
The genre has become so popular that clubs like Raleigh's Bowtie's and the Berkeley Cafe have Ja Rule and Sunshine Anderson thumping from their speakers instead of the Top-40 format they used to play. The Southend Brewery in Raleigh is also one of those clubs--sort of. Actually, the Southend did play hip hop and R&B on Friday nights a while back, but General Manager Troy Bartee said the club had to switch its format due to frequent fights among the clientele.
"The fighting was getting out of control," he says. "It didn't fit the image of our club, so we had to shut it down."
But canceling Hip-Hop Fridays meant turning away the large crowds that came to get their groove on. The Southend tried other formats to fill the void (and the club), but Bartee said that nothing worked. So after nearly a year, the club now has its own version of a "blue light party" on Saturday nights. While the crowds still aren't nearly as large as they once were, Bartee is confident that will change--just through word of mouth, more people have been coming in each week.
"We have such a nice club, we just couldn't keep it empty," he says.
In early August, the Southend hosted First Fridays, a popular upscale African-American event that occurs on the first Friday of every month, usually at a different location in the Triangle. Sponsored by the Dynasty 5, a collective of young black professionals, the event was designed as a way of bringing African Americans together to socialize in an upscale setting, while getting their party on in the process. The turnout was so successful that the Southend will host First Friday events in October and December.
As for the live R&B and hip-hop scene, there are quite a few clubs that have the capability to host a recording artist or local talent, but too few artists perform in the area, much to the disappointment of Triangle fans.
But the area is beginning to attract some of the genre's major musical performers: In just the past week, Miami bass rapper Trick Daddy and his sex-kitten partner Trina performed at the Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena, while the self-professed "Honey Loverman" himself, R. Kelly, touched down at Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek with his TP-2 tour. Kelly, who headlined the show, brought with him his latest protege, Syleena Johnson. And this weekend, Aug. 25, soul goddess Sade will grace the Alltel Pavilion with her Lover's Rock tour with neo-soul new jack India.Arie as her opening act.
Clubs such as the The Edge in Durham, the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill and The Ritz, Raleigh Live and the Berkeley Caf&233; in Raleigh all book both local and major R&B and hip-hop recording acts, just not frequently enough.
Many in the area, however, feel that change is coming. YahZarah, a neo-soul diva on the verge of stardom, believes it's just a matter of time before the Triangle will be mentioned in the same breath as mid-level cities like Oakland, Calif., and Atlanta as a place for harvesting and nurturing musical talent.
"Actually, it's already happening with Petey Pablo," YahZarah adds, referring to the Jive Records rap artist who's a Greenville, N.C. native and part-time Raleigh resident. "You have to give him his props, because he's holding North Carolina down and he's doing on a national stage. There are quite a few groups that have a following of their own and all they need is an opportunity to show their talent."
"I'm excited about this area, I really am," says YahZarah, a former N.C. Central Univerity music student who still lives in Durham and who--along with Pablo, rap impresario Big Daddy Kane and former Public Enemy DJ Terminator X--is one of a few nationally known entertainers who actually live in the Triangle. YahZarah has certainly done her part: The Raleigh-based Keo Music Recording artist created a buzz with her debut CD, Hear Me, and has put it down at The Edge, Raleigh Live and The Berkeley Cafe, as well as Yancey's Jazz & Blues Caf&233;. And just this past Sunday, on August 19, the petite woman with the big voice opened up for R. Kelly's tour at the Alltel Pavilion. "I'm not the only talented individual in the Triangle. There are a lot of people here who haven't gotten a chance but I believe they will in time. I think it's inevitable," she says.
One of those groups is Ebonique, out of Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Formed in 1995, the all-female group has developed an intense core following. The trio--made up of lead singer/keyboardist Tanya Ross, bass guitar player Robin Johnson and drummer Robbin Taylor--regularly plays to packed houses in the Triangle, blending an eclectic mix of acid jazz, soul and R&B. They'll be playing in Raleigh at Yancey's Jazz & Blues Caf&233; on Aug. 31.
"People are still surprised to see an all-girl band," says Adrian MacMillan, the group's manager, "but we always win them over in the end." Indeed, there hasn't been a popular all-female R&B band since Klymaxx burned up the charts in the mid-'80s. But while Klymaxx's sound was more straight-ahead R&B, Ebonique's sound is both funky and jazzy smooth, reminding many of A Taste of Honey, a female soul band that jammed in the late '70s and early '80s.
Six years of doing gigs without getting a chance at a record deal can be disheartening for most groups, but MacMillan says Ebonique isn't discouraged. "I think the opportunity just hasn't presented itself yet." It's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In the meantime, we're still doing our groundwork so when the opportunity comes, we'll be ready."
With all that's going on in the area, YahZarah believes the day will come when both the club and live music scene will combine and become one.
"I feel like I've been blessed to be in the Triangle at this time," she says. "I've had some serious growth here and I've seen other acts that are really ready to shine. I've been out at the clubs and I've noticed how the audience yearns to see some good live music on a regular basis. It's just a matter of time before it all comes together."