by Eric Tullis
Chico Scott doesn't remember the exact date, but sometime back in the early '90s, his then-girlfriend returned from an errand at a nearby Eckerd photo lab with some developed prints and a guy named Shaun.
"I don't know why," says Scott of the invitation. "I guess to smoke some pot or something. He probably gave her some free prints. I didn't like it at all. And the top of his hair was blonde, so he looked like a freak. Then he started talking about how he loved the Spice Girls, and I was like, ‘Oh hell no, this dude is a fuckin' clown.' But then we became best friends."
Aside from his affection for British pop, Shaun Smith—commonly known among Raleigh nightlifers as DJ Castro—and his new friend Scott, or DJ Madcow, eventually discovered a shared and profound love for underground, house-oriented dance music—especially the mid-to-uptempo electronic stuff that local jockeys were playing at the time on 88.1 WKNC's late-night programs.
"They were playing stuff like Thievery Corporation, Cinematic Orchestra, Zero7, Groove Armada, the Verve remixes," says Scott. "They were playing all of this hot shit, and I'd never heard this stuff before, so I'm getting turned on."
At the same time, Scott—a fourth-generation Raleigh native—noticed that none of this music was being played in downtown Raleigh's clubs and bars, like the now-closed Stingray Lounge.
"I had a general social dissatisfaction going on with my city," he says. "I had issues with the music. I don't know if it was because I'm from Raleigh or if it's because I'm a black man. It's just that I noticed that there was very little funk, very little soul. I'd have a good time, but it was all generic background rock 'n' roll."
Three years before Kings Barcade settled in its current location on West Martin Street, the Raleigh music venue sat just a few blocks away on South McDowell Street, next to Poole's Diner. Every Sunday night, Scott worked as the bartender at Kings. He approached the owners about possibly bringing a bunch of his trip-hop CDs and DJ equipment with him to work: "How about if I bring my gear down here, put it on the bar, I'll bartend, do it for free, and we'll see what happens?" he asked.
Scott's home had just been burglarized, and his new friend, DJ Castro, strongly urged him to use the insurance money to buy a DJing setup—specifically, a pair of Pioneer CDJ 700S CD turntables and a Pioneer DJM 500 mixer. He had new gear, and now, he had his own night—Neu Romance, he called it.
But that first night went much differently than Scott planned. "I had the CD players facing into the bar and I was DJing and bartending," says Scott. "I was playing that trip-hop shit and Drew Davidson said, ‘Man, I love this music, but you don't wanna put these people to sleep. It's Sunday night. You gotta turn it up a little bit.' So, it went from a down-tempo vibe to a house party. We were playing house music."
The night took off: "Next thing you know, everybody is coming out, and we're playing all this music: drum-and-bass, house, old school hip-hop and jazz. Todd Morman from Monkeytime was down there playing Nina Simone and fuckin' melting brie and walking around with a tray of brie cheese," Scott recalls. "Back in the day we'd go and we'd spend 15 or 20 bucks on strawberries, grapes, cheese and stone-ground wheat thins. We put all this stuff on the bar and that was one of our mottos—‘You know who loves you by who feeds you.'"
In 2006, Scott took a trip to New York for the 10-year reunion of the famed dance party Body & Soul. He called Smith three times during that trip because, according to Scott, "They were playing our shit—the shit that we were playing in raggedy-ass Kings in raggedy-ass Raleigh."
That's where DJ Castro butts in. "Correction: the shit that I was playing," he explains. "I grew up with disco, and I was lucky enough to find a bunch of disco 12"s for cheap before disco was trendy and the Brooklyn people were up on it. People around here were playing some house, but they weren't really playing disco."
Both DJ Castro and DJ Madcow's high-brow taste for classic disco and house music by artists including Nuyorican Soul, The Bucketheads, Ian Pooley and Jazzanova became to be a defining characteristic of Neu Romance's appeal.
"We were trying to do something that everybody was ambivalent toward and opposed to," says Scott. "The rock 'n' roll crowd was opposed to dancing. When we first started, the rock 'n' roll cats hated the DJs, and the DJs hated them. But they're both valuable, and we like to take the credit for bridging that gap, at least at Kings."
Six months before the original Kings closed, Neu Romance took its "culture war" to a different front-line location—Five Star Restaurant in Raleigh's Warehouse District. After a decade of weekly dance parties and guest acts such as Maceo Parker, Sharon Jones and DJ Rasoul, Neu Romance is ending its 10-year relationship with the city.
Scott's involvement with Neu Romance ended two years ago when he got married and had a baby. He's not necessarily satisfied with the way Neu Romance has developed since his departure. "Integrating into the community was an important part of Neu Romance, which is one of the reasons why it's ending. As much as I love these fellas, these fellas have not done that," he explains. "They haven't done anything but DJ. They just show up and play records. That's not how a show happens. A show happens by creating events, promoting those events, engaging with other people and piggybacking on other issues."
DJ Castro agrees: "Yeah, we did drop the ball a little bit," he says. "But not on the music."
The two also concur that, while this might be the last Neu Romance party, there are now other Neu Romance-affiliated DJs and music options for Triangle groove junkies. Mosaic's Steve Feinberg and Keith Ward, DJ FM of Raleigh Revolution, and Discovery's Nixxxed are just a few of the new leaders of Raleigh's unheralded board of dance arbiters, DJs and tastemakers. That didn't exist when Neu Romance started.
"We refacilitated being ambassadors for downtown," Scott says on the crowded back porch area of Raleigh's Landmark Tavern. "Even though we're not musicians, DJs do more than just play records. We're amateur psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists."
Moments later, a slender, clean-cut white guy in his mid-30s, dressed in loafers, shorts and a soccer jersey, walks by and asks Scott, "Can you get in there and get a handle on the sound system?"
"What you wanna hear?" replies Scott. He answers Teddy Pendergrass, and Scott allows a smile of approval. "I can do that for you."