The War on Hip-Hop

After 1 in the morning on May 1, as the off-duty police officers moonlighting as security guards cleared the parking lot of the Roxy, as 100 or so mostly black youths filed out of the club, there was a fluttering of automatic gunfire and a squeal of tires. When the screaming stopped, a 19-year-old black man lay dying on the pavement.

Police reports on the shooting suggest that the young man had not actually gone into the Roxy that night, but had most likely been attracted by the scene there--a Sunday "Teen Night" that offered underage revelers the chance to dance to hip-hop music.

"Hip-hop" is a cooler, more Californian name for rap music, and though its performers are predominantly African American, it may well be the musical currency of an entire generation regardless of race. White 10-year-olds in Paradise Valley play hip-hop on their bedroom CD players, the way their parents played rock 'n' roll 45s on record players.

But a hefty portion of the hip-hop message and the outlaw posturing of its performers glamorizes the street-gangster lifestyle. In these violent 1990s, hip-hop performances can attract a gangster element, so many clubs frisk members of their hip-hop clientele or run them through metal detectors. Frequently, the clubs hire off-duty law enforcement officers to watch the grounds outside and to keep the crowds from lingering--or mixing it up--at closing time.

The Roxy, a club on Highland Avenue, just south of Camelback and east of 20th Street, had just that kind of security in place on the night of the shooting. And, though there had been no trouble inside the club, trouble had managed to slip past the off-duty police officers in the parking lot.

Seven weeks later, there was another shooting after another Teen Night at the Roxy. An hour after the club closed, and perhaps 30 minutes after off-duty police had cleared the parking lot and gone home, a white man, a black man and an Asian Indian--a racial sampler--quarreled near the entrance of a Smitty's supermarket a couple hundred yards from the Roxy.

They pulled out guns and had at each other. The black man died in the parking lot; the other two quite coincidentally made their way to the home of Howard Adams, director of the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. One died clawing at Adams' front door, the other in a car out front.

The Roxy died with them. The altercation took place more than a block from the club, and after closing, but at least two of the men had been in the Roxy. The media assumed the Roxy was somehow to blame. It took one more incident--a questionable fight in which no one was seriously injured--before Adams swooped down on the club and took its liquor license.

Though club management felt it had grounds for appeal, the ownership decided it was not worth the fight and closed down. The city Planning Department was trying to lift the club's use permit for dancing. The police were demanding that the club hire more police officers than the club could afford. The neighbors, unable to distinguish between law-abiding club patrons and the punks in the parking lot, were barraging city planners and the state liquor department with letters of complaint.

The commercial neighbors were complaining, as well: In a letter to the Planning Department, the management of Ed Debevic's restaurant wrote, "There must be reasons why the Roxy is attracting the dark elements of our community."

Anonymous letters to the club were more direct. "Dear nigger manager," one began. "After the shooting last week, I am convinced you should move your club to South Phoenix. I live in the neighborhood, and the violence that niggers bring to this nice white area is unacceptable."

Ironically, only a portion of the Roxy's clientele was black, and a fraction of those came for hip-hop. The Roxy catered to Hispanics on some nights and to mainstream audiences on others. The Hispanics moved on to other venues. But when the Roxy closed down, so, effectively, did African-American entertainment in Phoenix.

The venerable Jockey Club at Central and Camelback closed in November. A bar that catered to upscale black professionals at happy hour and to well-dressed black partyers later at night, the Jockey had been plagued by the same guilt-by-association problems--and, consequently, by the same neighborhood and enforcement pressures--as the Roxy.

With the demise of the Roxy, the hip-hop crowd, the younger half of the African-American market, moved to Tempe clubs, which moved them out at the first sign of trouble--or the first visit from liquor department investigators.

"Don't let this place turn into the Roxy" became a catch phrase of clubs and law enforcement agencies.

And, when the young black and Hispanic crowds began moving to clubs in white parts of Phoenix, local police commanders, with a zeal that bordered on coercion, demanded that the clubs beef up security--not just by hiring more security guards, not even by asking the clubs to hire off-duty law enforcement officers. Phoenix police insisted that the clubs hire off-duty Phoenix police officers, in the numbers police demanded. And if the clubs refused, there would be hell to pay.

Those demands had been a major factor in the decision to close the Jockey Club. And the demands have continued.

In November, for example, Dave Thomas, a Phoenix police precinct commander, met with managers from Zazoo, a club on Camelback that caters mostly to Hispanics. Thomas insisted the club hire no fewer than ten officers on Saturday nights--at a cost of more than $1,000 cash.

"At the conclusion of the meeting," Thomas wrote to the liquor department, "Mr. [Doug] Smith [the club manager] told me that he understood that noncompliance with these procedures would result in the Phoenix Police Department pursuing legal action by the State Liquor Board, City of Phoenix Planning Department, as well as immediate enforcement action by my department."

Smith says he did not even attend the meeting. But, he says, he agrees wholeheartedly with the commander's decision.

By and large, club owners are not eager to discuss, or criticize, the police or other regulators who have the power to close drinking establishments for any number of technical reasons, pulling authority from the morass of state and city regulations governing establishments that sell liquor.

But a search of public records shows that the Arizona Center, a downtown Phoenix mall, received a letter in late September from Phoenix precinct commander Michael Frazier demanding that it hire 15 officers because of the Hispanic clientele at the Cheyenne Cattle Co.

And Jackson Hole, a small club at Central and Jackson, was asked recently to hire four or five officers for its Saturday-night hip-hop crowd. Saturday was the only night of the week that the bar catered to black patrons.

The Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the Arizona chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, looks at it this way: "My son who just got out of the Navy goes there, and I told him, 'You won't be going there for long, because as soon as the crowds start to swell with more blacks, you can rest assured they'll find some reason to pull them out of there.'"

And, indeed, Tillman's prediction has already come to pass. Jackson Hole has stopped its black hip-hop nights.

The police department claims that its authority to require bar owners to hire off-duty police officers rests on agreements that clubs make with city governments--agreements known, in bureaucrat lingo, as use permits.

Depending on the neighborhood zoning designations, in addition to a state-issued liquor license, a club may need these special permits from the city government to stay open after certain hours, or to allow dancing or live entertainment on the premises.

Ted Brookhart, a zoning administrator in the Phoenix Planning Department, says that, as part of the permitting process, he allows police precinct commanders to make judgments on the hiring of off-duty officers, based on the size of the crowds and the traffic a club is expected to attract.

But the available public record makes it clear that these judgments are not made uniformly. For one thing, there seems to be no written policy on how the judgments are made. And Phoenix police seem to judge that clubs catering to blacks and Hispanics often need to hire off-duty police--and white-clientele bars don't.

The Empire, an upscale white club at 24th Street and Camelback--that is, right in the middle of Commander Thomas' precinct--voluntarily hires two police officers a night, but it is not required to. There is no such requirement even though, in the first three months of its existence, the club has already appeared seven times in the liquor-report ledgers of the Phoenix Police Department's organized-crime unit. These ledgers log all police visits to liquor establishments resulting from violence, underage drinking, or other violations of liquor laws.

The hazardous Roxy appeared on that list 18 times in 18 months; even America West Arena turned up 12 times during that same period.

Brookhart denies that race is a factor in the bar-permitting process.
"Frankly, when I grant a use permit, I don't know what color or sexual orientation we're getting in the clubs," says Brookhart. "I base it on the size of the expected crowds."

But the use permits can be written to allow precinct commanders to dictate that the clubs hire not just security guards, but the police department's very own off-duty officers--creating at least the appearance of a flagrant conflict of interest.

Commander Thomas refused to discuss the matter with New Times. Representatives of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office would not comment on the record.

"Is it legal?" muses attorney Harvey Yee, who handles the lawyering for a number of Valley nightclubs. "The bottom line is, it's within the stipulations of a use permit, which presumably is a contract between you and the city. If the city says do it, and you want the permit, and you're willing to agree to it, then I guess it's legal."

On reflection, he adds, "It's a law that's never been tested."
And it's a law whose scope is difficult to pin down.
Brookhart could not name a single white club that is required to hire police officers as a term of its use permit.

But the Valley's minority clubs are not necessarily more violent than its white clubs.

The Hi-Liter, a topless bar just blocks from Zazoo that is frequented mostly by white men, had a fatal gang shooting on November 24; as of this writing, police had not yet asked the bar to hire off-duty officers.

Graham Central Station, a country bar on the west side with a largely white clientele, has had its share of trouble, too. In the past 18 months, 63 liquor-violation reports at Graham Central have been filed with the organized-crime section of the Phoenix Police Department. Five thick files' worth of reports at the state liquor department detail acts of violence at the club.

Brookhart claims that both the Hi-Liter and Graham Central began operating before Phoenix instituted use permits as a way of regulating drinking establishments. Therefore, Brookhart claims, there is no way for the city to force the bars to hire off-duty officers.

The state liquor department also has authority to close "lawless" clubs, and that agency closed the Roxy.

But consider Jetz, a fashionable Scottsdale watering hole that has had 119 visits from Scottsdale police in the past 18 months. Those visits were prompted by, among other things, 13 assaults, two sexual assaults and three aggravated assaults. The Jetz files at the liquor department describe patrons hitting each other over the head with bottles. Apparently, only trying to kill someone is entirely different from succeeding, as far as alcohol-regulation efforts are concerned.

Is it a coincidence that only minority clubs in white neighborhoods must contend with the hire-a-cop requirements?

El Capri, a Hispanic bar in a Hispanic neighborhood in Phoenix, has knifing and shooting reports in its files, but the club has never been required to hire police officers.

"As long as you're in your territory, it's all right," says Tillman of the NAACP. "Down on Buckeye, you can have shootings every night."

George Foster, an African-American attorney who represented the Roxy, comments on what he sees as a double standard: "I believe there's a darn good cause for any of these clubs to fight this thing, because I believe that what they're trying to do is censure certain types of music and certain types of people from participating."

A year ago, there were plenty of places for blacks to party in Phoenix.
"Monday nights, it was 411 [a Tempe club]," says Danielle Hollomon, a black journalist who writes about music and the club scene. "Tuesday was ladies night at the Jockey Club, and that would be the one time you could put on your long dress and your heels and feel good. Wednesdays you took off; Thursdays and Fridays were the Jockey Club, and Saturday was the Roxy."

All of those clubs either have closed or changed formats.
The oldest and most established of African-American nightclubs in Phoenix was the Jockey Club, which was owned by a tough-talking Chicago septuagenarian named Herb Lieb. It was Lieb's second such club.

In 1971, Lieb opened a jazz joint in the former Greyhound Tower, at Second Avenue and Clarendon in Phoenix. He called it Herb's Underground.

"When I first came to Phoenix, Herb's Underground was the only place where people of color could go and not feel threatened or get thrown out," says Marcus Wright, a Phoenix radio personality. "I spent a lot of time at Herb's Underground."

Four years later, Greyhound bought out Lieb's lease. A year after that, Lieb built a new club in the 2100 block of Highland. He called it the Jockey Club and sold private memberships. And, although the majority of the clientele was white, it was not a segregated club.

When Lieb retired in 1985, he sold the building to a man named Vincent Leparulo, who first operated it as Vinnie's nightclub, and later as the Roxy.

Lieb did not stay retired for long. In 1989, a business associate talked him into reopening the Jockey Club, this time in a shopping center at Central and Camelback. He dropped the members-only requirement, and after a year or so he brought in a young black banker named Mark Chambers, who thought he could increase business by catering to the upscale black population.

The Jockey Club was an elegant place with a strict dress code, and the clients generally came dressed to the hilt: women in gowns, men in suits. There were doctors, lawyers and community leaders--and most of them were black. Part of the movie Waiting to Exhale was filmed there.

Lieb had always voluntarily hired off-duty police officers to provide security outside the club, and, though he claims to be the first club owner to do so, it became a standard practice. Police officers, he reasoned, were more experienced in crowd control than private security guards, they were armed and their uniforms proved a deterrent to those thugs who would prey on the club members.

In 1990, then-chief of police Ruben Ortega forbade Phoenix police officers to work at liquor establishments because of lawsuits filed against the city by bar patrons who had tangled with off-duty cops.

The Jockey Club's problems increased. Lack of off-duty police meant lack of security, and street gangs started gathering in the parking lot of the shopping center, getting into trouble and sometimes harassing club patrons. The police took note of the crime increase and blamed it on the Jockey Club.

"All you had to do was read the reports," says Brian Goodwin, an attorney for the Jockey Club, "and they [the criminal suspects in the reports] were Hispanic surnames. And the ages--no one was accusing us of letting minors into the Jockey Club.

"What had happened is, police were getting tough about the McDonald's parking lot at 16th Street and Camelback. Now all the kids were hanging out in the Uptown Plaza because it was so dark back there, and they could rummage around.

"And all of a sudden, there'd be shootings in the parking lot. They just lumped all that shit against the Jockey Club."

In June 1992, while Lieb was negotiating with the police to get his officers back, there were two shootings in the shopping center's parking lot. Although the shootings were not adjacent to the club, and although Lieb did file the requisite reports, he was called before the liquor department and accused of not filing an act-of-violence report in a timely manner. The liquor department yanked his license.

Lieb successfully appealed the suspension, but then-superintendent Mark Mazzie imposed a peculiar caveat to the restored license: Whereas Lieb had been prohibited from hiring off-duty police, he now had to hire them to provide security on Fridays and Saturdays--six of them, including a police sergeant.

To this day, the Jockey Club is the only establishment that has had its state liquor license specifically tied to hiring off-duty police officers. Lieb's use permit to allow dancing, which was issued by the city Planning Department, was also made contingent on his hiring police officers.

At first, Lieb did not find the police security to be a strangling expense. The precinct commander with jurisdiction over the Jockey Club, Bradley Thiss, was willing to let Lieb hire varying numbers of officers, depending on how much business his bar was doing.

In July 1994, Dave Thomas replaced Thiss as precinct commander. Lieb says Thomas insisted that Lieb have six officers on duty two nights a week.

"He didn't care if we took in $1,000 on a Tuesday," says Lieb. "We had to pay the officers $480, cash.

"It's a violation of my constitutional rights," he continues. "It's harassment. I don't need them to tell me how many officers I need. I've gotten along for 25 years."

Lieb's relationship with the police became increasingly antagonistic. He complained that the white cops on duty would follow his patrons in squad cars, "herding them like cattle" and insulting them over bullhorns. He began to request black police officers.

Lieb claims liquor department officials told him the only way to test Thomas' authority in the matter was to violate the terms of his liquor license and force a hearing. And so, in the fall of 1994, Lieb hired only five off-duty officers for two weekends in a row.

In January 1995, Thomas dragged the Jockey Club into hearings before the state liquor department, claiming that the club was the seed of major crime in the neighborhood. The board's hearing officer found otherwise:

"The testimony of Thomas regarding the alleged criminal activity referenced in exhibit 3 was too general and vague to be given significant weight with respect to its relationship to the licensed business."

The hearing officer also noted that Lieb had met frequently and worked cooperatively with the former commander, Thiss.

Lieb kept his license, but was fined $500 for not hiring the specified number of police officers.

Then, in late April, the Phoenix Police Department moved its enforcement activities to the municipal level and asked the Phoenix Planning Department to revoke the club's use permit for dancing--an action that effectively would put Lieb out of business.

Lieb likened the use-permit hearings to a kangaroo court.
"One woman from the neighborhood said that her 14-year-old daughter was walking down in front of the Jockey Club, and she saw this black guy, and she thought she was going to get raped," Lieb recalls. "I told this woman that was a sick remark."

Lieb lost his special use permit anyway. He says he spent $50,000 in legal fees over three years and paid more than $200,000 in cash to the police officers working security.

"It's coercion," says his attorney, Brian Goodwin. "It just put us out of business."

Lieb filed an appeal of the permit revocation, but closed the club before he went before the Board of Adjustments. In early November, he sold the business to a company that intends to open a Sweet Tomatoes chain restaurant.

If Commander Thomas and the Jockey's neighbors wanted white bread, they are going to get it.

Mark Chambers, who had worked for Herb Lieb at the Jockey Club, took over as manager of the Roxy in 1993, and his vision for the club included more than members of the Valley's black establishment. The Roxy's crowd might be integrated one night, Hispanic the next, black the night after. But, as at the Jockey Club, there was a strict dress policy. Customers went through a metal detector at the door to make sure they were not carrying weapons.

"There was never any feeling at the Roxy that something bad was going to happen," says journalist Danielle Hollomon. "The only time you'd have that gangster element was during the hip-hop shows. But the Roxy didn't just cater to the hip-hop crowd."

Chambers brought in Branford Marsalis, then director of the Tonight Show band, for an evening of jazz. He staged the alternative-rock group Nine Inch Nails. He had ladies nights that featured male strippers and were frequented mostly by white women. He hired Hispanic bands for Friday nights, and on Saturdays he attracted an urban black crowd.

Like the Jockey Club, the Roxy suffered from a human form of urban blight. Riffraff would gather in the parking lot near closing time to see who was at the club--and not always with the best of intentions.

But, for the Roxy, the kiss of death was Teen Night.
Chambers originally thought that Teen Night not only would be lucrative, but also would provide an entertainment opportunity for young people. He hadn't anticipated what they might find entertaining.

After the shootings, Chambers discontinued Teen Night, and he and his lawyers met with Howard Adams of the liquor department to tell him so.

Police reports that were written after the second shooting near the Roxy--the one that ended on Adams' doorstep--specifically stated that the gunfight occurred after the club was closed: "All six [security] officers made sure the entire parking grounds were cleared without anyone loitering, after the Roxy establishment was closed ... the officers for the Roxy secured before 0130 hrs and left the premises."

According to Chambers and his attorney, after the second shooting incident, all Adams requested was that the Roxy discontinue Teen Night, a move that had already been made. Adams even wrote a number of editorials in the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette exonerating the Roxy of poor security practices. (Adams did not return phone calls from New Times.)

"While some people involved in the altercation may have been at Roxy's earlier," he wrote on June 21, "there is still no indication that any of those involved in a shooting or gang activity were there. Certainly it's known that the altercation took place quite a distance from there.

"Our records indicate that it is the general policy of Roxy's to have off-duty Phoenix police officers working for it, and these same officers completely clear the Roxy's exterior premises at closing."

But letters poured in to the city Planning Department and the state liquor department. The nearby restaurants--some of which opened after the Roxy had been operating for years, and which on most nights were closed before the Roxy crowd started arriving--complained of the threat of Roxy patrons. Personnel from one of those restaurants told TV reporters that there had been a Roxy-related shooting right in the lobby of the restaurant; it never happened.

The management of Town & Country Shopping Center, which twice had sued the Roxy over the use of parking spaces at the mall by the bar's patrons, wrote to club owner Vincent Leparulo of safety concerns. Town & Country sent copies of the letterto the mayor, the city Planning Department and the state liquor department.

Leparulo wrote back answering each point, and then added a point of his own.
"In closing," he wrote, "we have a question for you and would appreciate your specific response. Is it your standard practice to copy government officials on all letters to tenants, or is your practice only to copy government officials on letters to lessees that you have taken to court to vacate a million dollar investment over ten or so valet parking spaces during off peak hours?"

Chambers then began negotiating with Commander Thomas. Until the shootings, Chambers had voluntarily hired off-duty officers to provide security at the Roxy. In fact, he claims that, on the night of the second shooting, he had asked for more officers than the police were willing to give him.

Thomas now wanted to impose higher numbers.
"They wanted me to put seven officers at the club at all times," Chambers says. "I said, 'Fine, we can live with that on the weekends, when we're running 1,000 people through the club. But I'm not going to put seven officers with 100 people out here. It's unreasonable.'"

On June 13, Thomas yanked the work permits for the off-duty officers--meaning the Roxy could not hire them. Then, one month later, the city moved to suspend the club's use permit.

After midnight on July 19, two groups of Hispanics drinking at the club started flashing gang signs at each other. Chambers claims that he was able to get one of the groups out the door before trouble started.

When he came back inside, he found a man he did not know talking on one of the club's business phones, and he claims that he took the phone away and hung it up.

The man was James Meeks, a Maricopa County probation officer. Meeks acknowledges that he did not immediately identify himself to Chambers.

When the other club patrons saw Chambers struggling with Meeks, they ran to Chambers' assistance. A free-for-all broke out.

Meeks claimed he was trying to call 911 to report a fight, and Chambers assaulted him to keep him from doing so. He filed charges against Chambers.

Witnesses--and police reports--indicate that Meeks, who had been drinking in the club, did some of the pushing involved in the alleged assault.

Chambers says he just saw a drunk using a phone he wasn't supposed to be using.

The next day, Howard Adams did an about-face: He declared the Roxy a hazard and shut it down.

Rather than appeal the ruling, Leparulo decided to throw in the bar towel.

A week later, concert promoters Ty Carter and Pat "P-Body" Scott were setting up for an event at Club Rio that they called "HipHop Summer Fest '95." The concert featured five live groups.

At 5:30 p.m., an hour and a half before the concert was to begin, two investigators from the state liquor department materialized and had a talk with the club manager, Mike Anderson.

The concert was an "all-ages show," meaning that underage and drinking-age patrons alike would be admitted; Anderson intended to have separate areas for the youth and adult concertgoers. The practice, called "split premises," is illegal, but club owners--Anderson included--frequently look for ways to get around the law prohibiting bars from serving alcohol when minors are present.

"They [the investigators] came down here and said the split premises was illegal," Anderson recalls, "and I thought it would be in the best interest of Club Rio not to serve alcohol."

So he cut off all alcohol sales.
Anderson says the investigators "told me they didn't want a situation coming up similar to the Roxy."

He was already prepared: He had hired Maricopa County Sheriff's Office K9 units to police the hip-hop event. The show went off without incident. But he had come to some business conclusions.

"We're not going to do any more rap shows, because it's not worth it," he says. "Everybody from the liquor board to the Tempe Police Department was eyeballing us, because they thought we were going to have a gangsta-rap group in. I can't afford to get anyone pissed at me."

Curiously, the next night, Anderson threw another all-ages show, this time for a white alternative-rock audience. He sold liquor in a split-premises arrangement; there was no visit from the liquor department.

The hip-hop scene moved down to Mill Avenue and Club 411, until September,when a 27-year-old man exchanged gunshots with a bouncer. Club 411 promptly closed down hip-hop night. Theclub owner was quoted in the press assaying, "We don't want to see it get outofhand, like what happened at theRoxy."

The hip-hop crowd migrated to Jackson Hole in downtown Phoenix until that bar, too, came to the attention of the Phoenix Police Department, which suggested the bar hire police officers. Jackson Hole canceled its hip-hop night.

The crowd moved on, looking for a new place to party. There wasn't much of a choice anymore. All of the African Americans who didn't want to go to allwhite clubs and dance to all-white music ... well, they just stayed home.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >