Downtown Durham is gradually reinventing itself, from new restaurants and bars that serve specialty panini and dozens of different whiskeys to theaters that host living legends and tiny theatrical productions. But one thing that's long been missing is a consistent place to move feet and hips—you know, a really good nightclub.
Attempts to address this void have been few and far between, but every few months, two Bull City natives throw parties that suggest there might just be a diverse audience for dancing in Durham.
Jeff Johnson and King Kenney met in 2007. Their friendship quickly evolved into a business relationship that has made them two of the Triangle's most reliable party-throwers and tastemakers. Seated next to each other at a patio table outside of Offbeat Music, the bearded Johnson (who manages the store between a regular bartending gig at the bar Whiskey) and Kenney, whose bald head is covered in a white, knotted towel, are humble about their functions.
"I wouldn't even think that we were tastemakers," says Johnson. "I would think that we were two dudes that like parties. Since we couldn't naturally find the parties we liked, we had to make them ourselves."
Over the years, the entrepreneurial and promotional efforts of Jeff and King (the simple name the two have given their partnership) have led to many memorable occasions. They've hosted tributes to Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin, as well as various costume-themed dance parties. Their trademark, though, is a party they've dubbed Prince Vs. Michael Jackson. Just imagine a bunch of sweaty pop-music enthusiasts on a crowded dance floor shaking every bone in their body to Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover" before being gleefully bounced by Jackson's "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." Both kings of pop win; those who leave the dance floor early lose.
"We could kill everything else and just do this party," says Kenney. "This is the only one that really matters as far as making sense for the area."
Continues Johnson, "This party speaks to a bigger volume of people. Prince and Michael are two of the biggest iconic people other than the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and James Brown. They deserve their own party, too."
Although Jeff and King's formula of using music as a reliable unifier has gained them a considerable following, there's a racial element that has served as a petty, but distinct problem that they haven't been able to avoid. As two black promoters who don't only cater to an all-black crowd, the two have come under some unwarranted scrutiny.
"Honestly, we got pissed off about it for a little while," explains Kenney. "It seemed like we were being looked at as tokens by the people that we grew up with, as two black promoters who were throwing parties for white people. But Prince and Michael are black, so this product is actually for whoever grew up in the MTV era and listens to that music. It's a sensitive issue, because, for example, some of the parties that we threw, we wanted to see a 60-40 mix, but then it ended up being a majority-white crowd or vice-versa. We didn't really want that."
They're not apologetic; rather than hedge bets or make their event more monotype, they've added an "undercard" to this year's battle, featuring the title for the Queen of Pop. Janet Jackson will battle Madonna.
"We wanted to go to parties where people are dancing," says Johnson. "It wasn't black or white, it was just people having fun."