Thievery's Hilton: Home, Sweet Home

Friday, May 12, 2006

If you want to pinpoint the birth of D.C. lounge culture, look to April 1995, when Eric Hilton and Farid Ali opened the Eighteenth Street Lounge (1212 18th St. NW, 202-466-3922) in part of an old mansion on 18th Street NW. No sign, hip decor, plenty of couches and a curious door policy that turned people away for seemingly minor infractions made it the place to be.

More important, the lounge became closely identified with Thievery Corporation -- the DJ duo comprising Hilton and Rob Garza -- and their Eighteenth Street Lounge record label, which boasts an international roster of talent, including Thunderball, Ursula 1000 and Nicola Conte. As Thievery Corporation's mix of dub, Brazilian grooves and funky down-tempo electronica became popular around the world, the lounge became a tourist destination, as clued-in music lovers came from across the United States, Europe and Asia.

A few years ago, though, Thievery pulled out of the day-to-day running of the lounge to focus on its growing profile and the record label. So when Hilton put the word out that he was making a special return to the lounge's DJ booth in January, buzz quickly grew. Tour and recording commitments meant he hadn't been back to the lounge for more than a year.

That evening, 18th Street was a mob scene -- and I mean the thoroughfare, not the building. Before doors opened at 9:30, the line snaked down the block to M Street and around the corner. "It was pretty nuts," Hilton laughs. "The lounge is a small place, and I was pretty shocked [at the crowds]. I got there at 10, and there was already a long line. I expect this time to be pretty similar," he says of Saturday's repeat performance.

Once Hilton got going on that Saturday night, dropping bossa novas alongside '60s boogaloo tracks and Latin remixes, the darkened dance floor became one grooving mass of people. "It was one of the most fun times I've had DJ-ing," Hilton says. "I hadn't been back to the lounge for a while and forgot what a special place it is. When we DJ out of town, you feel pressure to rock the house. Here, it feels like a house party. You can play such a broad spectrum of music. You can play a Brazilian track whenever, and people appreciate the eclecticism. At festivals, you have to keep people dancing."

Keeping people dancing didn't seem like a problem in January, and I'm betting it won't be an issue when he returns Saturday, either. Here are a few things you'll find in Hilton's record bag at the moment: The Kronos Quartet performing hits from Bollywood soundtracks; Hammond-heavy floor-fillers from the British group Big Boss Man; and a mash-up that combines classic John Holt rock steady rhythms with a Tupac Shakur vocal ("People go ballistic," Hilton says).

Thievery Corporation is working on an album due out next year, but Saturday serves as a prerelease party for "Versions," a tightly curated collection of 18 remixes the duo has made for other artists.

Although Hilton wants to open the doors earlier Saturday, lines will be long no matter what. If you don't make it in -- remember, no athletic wear, no khakis, no attitude -- you'll have another chance. "I had so much fun last time that I want to at least do it every three months," Hilton says.

-- Fritz Hahn

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