Soul scene is on the rise at D.C. clubs

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

Step into any hot Washington club these days, and you'll notice it: Throngs breaking it down not to top 40 club jams, but to Otis Redding, Tina Turner, even funky foot-stompers by such long-forgotten groups as the Marlboro Men and the Trinikas.

There is a soul-music revival underway -- not neo-soul, but the real, dusty-record variety -- spawned by hip-hop albums that carved old Motown and Stax tracks into hit samples, and by the popularity of such singers as Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones and Mayer Hawthorne. Only now, it's DJs digging through crates of vintage vinyl to keep the crowds moving.

"The thing about classic soul and the resurgence of soul as an art form -- it's the counterbalance to Auto-Tune," speculates Jamil Hamilton, who is perhaps better known as DJ Jahsonic. "T-Pain, that's cool, but where's Sam Cooke? The more digital and impersonal things become, the more there's a counterforce of soul."

Old soul, the kind that hails from the '60s and '70s, is raw. Primal. It can seduce you onto the dance floor then somehow make you clap your hands in time with the drums. And thanks to the resurgence of soul parties in a city with its own rich history of the music, this is what just one recent week looks like:

It's 2 a.m. before the block-long line to get into the monthly soul/funk party Fatback at Liv finally dissipates; inside, sweaty, frenetic dancing ensues whether it's Bill Withers, the Tams or the Rolling Stones coming through the speakers. At Marvin, the floor heaves under the weight of the swaying crowd for DJ Jahsonic's soul-meets-hip-hop night, the Main Ingredient. At Science Club, Brownrice Collective punctuates chilled-out Latin soul with funk for a sophisticated happy hour. And at Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights, baby-faced hipsters sing along at the top of their lungs when DJ Nitekrawler and his guest, DJ Lunch Money, drop the Jackson 5 and James Brown, back-to-back.

For Steven Swann, who was dancing into the wee hours at a recent Fatback, soul is both a chance to connect with the music of struggle and a reason just to let loose. "There's a deep appreciation of the music with the DJs," he says of the Fatback parties. "When I see the reaction they get when they're putting that music on, it's the same reaction inside of me when I'm dancing."

At Marvin, Yancey Hrobowski was bopping his head appreciatively to Brownrice on a recent Thursday night. The one-time DJ has seen interest in the music explode in other cities he has lived in, including Chicago and Atlanta. "It's like a rediscovery," he says.

So what are the best soul parties in the city?

Moneytown DJ Nitekrawler, Kevin Coombe, is known among the DJs for his vast catalogue of rare 45s and albums by local funk-soul acts. Hear it at his monthly party, Moneytown, at Dahlak. But at Wonderland, where his monthly party is a more hip-hop-inspired night called Breakin' Glass, he's still likely to toss on a funk record or two for the crowd, which is thick with 20-somethings. "The research and the records are my thing," says Coombe, "but when I'm DJing parties, I don't stick to that unless it's the theme. When I'm DJing, it's anything that rocks the party."

21 and older. 10 p.m.-3 a.m. Friday night and the first Friday of each month. Dahlak, 1771 U St. NW. 202-332-2110 or Free.

Big Bad City Paul Vivari, who goes by the name Soul Call Paul, is the purist, the go-to guy for chugging '60s sounds. "A lot of nights also do soul, or they do disco, or they do Afrobeat, which I hate," says Vivari. "Very strictly, I don't do any funk. There's so much good soul."

His own oeuvre stops around 1973. "After that you get, like, funky slap bass," he says. In addition to songs you've never heard, expect Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)," Gladys Knight and the Pips's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and the Jackson 5. "A lot of the songs that are hits, they're hits for a reason," he says.

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