On the Town
After-Hours Red Fading to Black
Friday, October 21, 2005
LAST CALL, for most of Washington, means it's time to grab a jumbo slice and call it a night. For the house-music heads who flock to Red, though, the party is just beginning.
Red, a basement-level club in an unmarked, glass-fronted building on a side street south of Dupont Circle, has the look of a speakeasy and made its name as the District's premiere after-hours dance spot, offering a mix of deep, soulful and thumping beats late into the night -- until 5 a.m. or later on weekends, and even regularly drawing crowds that stay until 2 or 3 on school nights. The influential Urb Magazine named Red the "best intimate club" in America in 2003.
Despite a top-flight reputation and loyal crowd, Red (1802 Jefferson Pl. NW; 202-466-3475) is shutting its doors after this weekend. The closure, explains Red's Farid Ali, is a matter of economics. The club's lease was up for renewal, and "we got an increase in our rent, based on the market price," he says. "We've been there for 10 years, so there's a big difference in rates now, obviously. They wanted to double [the rent]. We weren't expecting that."
Ali, who also operates the nearby legendary Eighteenth Street Lounge, sleek minimalist sushi lounge Dragonfly and U Street's trendy Local 16, says he couldn't double cover charges and drink prices to make up the shortfall, "so we decided to go the way we have to go. It was kind of a shock."
His other nightspots, he adds, "have much longer leases."
Red has been a player on the scene for a decade because of its back-to-basics approach. "When we first opened up in '96, the whole idea was based on a sound system with four walls, with avant-garde dance music that's ahead of the curve," Ali says. "It's not like reinventing the wheel, but we were becoming a cosmopolitan area, so we had the need. I always had the idea of having a booming sound system, four walls, a little small bar and music, you know?"
That's Red in a nutshell: Red walls lit by a number of flickering candles, which drip wax onto the speaker cabinets and bricks below. A few sofas and chairs serve as the only furniture in the darkened room, with the prize spot an L-shaped couch next to a DJ booth. Red's sound system is one of the best around, with warm, rich bass that would shame a club three times its size.
When Kara Moller moved to Washington after college 10 years ago, she wandered into Red one night and soon found herself drawn back week after week to catch DJs Doug Smith or Sam "the Man" Burns. "It was the first place I felt connected to or comfortable with," she says. "I didn't know many people personally, but always seeing the same faces, I was always greeted with smiles and hellos from regulars. Soon I was greeted with hugs from people whose names I sometimes didn't even know."
"Red has a different vibe than you'd catch anywhere else," says Thomas Blondet (DJ Tom B), who has spun at places such as Five and Chloe but held down a Thursday night slot at Red for years. "The crowd seems more knowledgeable and appreciative. People really come there for the music and the dancing. You don't see that kind of involvement in other places."
Regulars prized Red's consistency, which included a number of DJs who speak of their residencies in years, not weeks or months: Tom B on Thursdays, Doug Smith (95 North) on Saturdays, Sam Burns's Underground Soul Solution on Sunday nights. Mustafa Akbar, the dreadlocked doorman known for the burning stick of incense as well as his role singing with such groups as Thunderball and Thievery Corporation, has served as "head babysitter" for eight years. For Burns, the loyalty the club showed the DJs was reflected in the patrons. They knew what to expect, and they gave as much as they got.
"People feed off the energy," Burns says. "It's like a basement house party. I give credit to the people who've been coming to that place for years. So many people became friends. You come here every week, and you become family."
For my money, there are few DJs that can work a crowd as well as Burns. It's after 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and a packed dance floor has managed to convince itself that a few extra hours of sleep is no match for a few extra hours of the Man. On Sunday night, his soulful disco thump pulled dozens of folks onto the floor: black and white, gay and straight. Guys dance salsa with other men, some women twirl, eyes closed, lost in the music, while others strut, rubber limbed, to Willie Hutch's "Brothers Gonna Work it Out." Everybody is smiling and having the time of their lives -- no wonder the regulars call it going to church.