Discovering Old D.C. Soul
By Fritz Hahn
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, May 1, 2008
The buzz: DJ Nitekrawler has getting crowds to dance down to a science: wickedly funky drums. Deep, rubbery bass. Punching horns. Shaking tambourine. The unmistakable chicka-chicka shuffle of wah-wah guitar.
As he and his fellow DJs dig vintage 45-rpm singles from the boxes lining the bay window at Dahlak and slide them onto the turntables, the groove never stops, and neither does the crowd -- executing tight spins like ice skaters, wiggling around like backup dancers on an old episode of "American Bandstand," throwing their hands in the air and shuffling around with groups of girlfriends.
It doesn't matter that 90 percent of the audience has no idea what song is playing or who the artist is, because the DJs at Moneytown, which takes over this little Eritrean restaurant on the first Friday of the month, specialize in the exotic and esoteric -- little-known bands that may have released a few singles on a tiny D.C. label in the late '60s and then disappeared. You'll hear a little bit of Motown here and there, some James Brown and tracks from the Stax label. (Rufus Thomas is a particular favorite.) But for the most part, the 45s -- and these are only original 45s -- are songs that you'll hear almost nowhere else.
Nitekrawler (real name Kevin Coombe) knows that getting people to dance to music they've never heard isn't the easiest thing in the world, but he pulls it off. "Some songs we play have been sampled in hip-hop songs, so people might recognize them, or they just have really heavy bass and drums that you can feel in your chest," he explains. "They just seem like you have to dance to them."
The scene: Moneytown made its debut at Dahlak last summer, and crowds have been growing steadily. "I'd never really seen a party like that in D.C., and eventually I got to a point where I could do it myself," Coombe says.
Coombe got his start as a hip-hop DJ, but as time went on, he found himself getting more interested in the older songs that artists were sampling. "Often it was James Brown, but sometimes it was bands that weren't well known. That really opened my mind to all the soul that was out there."
He began digging through old record stores and thrift stores in Maryland and the District, finding lots of old soul and funk 45s from regional artists, but had trouble finding more information about (or more recordings by) some of the bands he really liked. That led to the birth of D.C. Soul Recordings (http://www.dcsoulrecordings.com), a Web site that is a treasure trove of information about local records from the '60s and '70s, and a time capsule full of old publicity photos and fliers. Coombe began tracking down the original artists, most of whom still lived in the area, and learning more about the history of the city's rich and varied soul scene. This summer, he'll begin rereleasing music on his new Hometown Soul record label.
All of this means that Coombe's record selection is one of the deepest around, but part of Moneytown's appeal lies in the rotating guest DJs who join him on the turntables. Recent months have included Mr. Fine Wine, longtime host of the "Downtown Soulville" show on the New York area's WFMU, and Larry Grogan, the author of the widely read Funky16Corners funk and soul music blog.
Tonight, it's Brian "Midnite Cowboy" Harris from North Carolina, who has spun at soul nights and scooter rallies across the country, and next month brings Georgia's Brian Poust, an expert who has compiled rare tracks from Atlanta musicians of the '60s and '70s for the popular "Eccentric Soul" CD series.
Getting in: No dress code or hassles, but you need to be 21. The DJs start at 10 p.m.
Price points: There's no cover charge, and beers average $3 to $5. Mixed drinks start at $6.
On your plate: If you want to eat, get there early because they clear away the tables by 10 p.m. to make room for the dance floor. A full, reasonably priced Eritrean menu is available.
What people are saying: Compared with New Orleans, where she attended school at Tulane, "it's hard to find good funk in D.C.," says Deanie Griffin, the deputy director of member services for a D.C. nonprofit group. "This is just a cool, laid-back party that's full of people who are dancing and who dig the music."
"It's good music to move to," said Rachel Hardesty, a green building consultant. "It has a great vibe. Everybody's here to have a good time."