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.

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Michael Kiefer