IT'S A DARK and stormy night as I pull into the parking lot of Jammin' Java (231 Maple Ave., Vienna; 703/255-1566). The little storefront is glowing, a bright spot amid the shopping center crassness of Route 123. Inside, I'm amazed at what's been done with the cinderblock rectangle that used to be a Rite-Aid. The walls are painted in autumn colors. The lighting is subtly fancy, warm without being too bright. There's coffee in the air. A nice smell, not mixed with cigarette smoke because it's non-smoking.
A line of people (teens to retirees) nearly a dozen deep waits to buy coffee, tea, soups, sandwiches (no alcohol). There are couches in front, filled with folks sipping mugs of stuff, talking or reading. Along the walls are CDs and magazines, but also something kind of weird: guitars and amplifiers. It turns out Jammin' Java is also a music store. Cool.
You don't just buy music and instruments here though, you also listen to it. Against the brick back wall there's a stage where a young band is rocking out, not too well, but not too loud either, so the people up front hardly notice. The sound is coming through very nice speakers hanging from the ceiling. They're wired to a superb 24-track soundboard with lots of effects. Wow. There's a bank of lights and a "follow spot" making the band look pretty sharp.
Heading to the restrooms, I pass a door marked "recording studio." I peek in. More wow. A complete recording studio is attached to this little box of a suburban hangout, and it looks pretty state of the art. I'm getting really curious here.
There's another seating area, a raised mezzanine of sorts, and more walls lined with CDs. A closer look reveals that many of the acts are of the "Contemporary Christian" variety--Nikki Leonti, Cheri Keaggy, Natalie Grant. Answers are forming to my as-yet unasked questions. To get the lowdown, I call the next day and chat with manager Matt Turner. "Yes, Jammin' Java is a faith-based coffeehouse, but we're absolutely non-denominational," Turner says. (There's no Christian iconography in sight. Clever marketing ploy or just a nice way of making everyone feel welcome? I couldn't make up my mind.) And it turns out that, yes, the Vienna shop is a spin-off of the one on Kent Island that I always notice when heading to the beach but never get around to visiting.
"The Kent Island Jammin' Java has been open for 2 1/2 years," Turner says. "It started out as something not much more than a hobby, really, for the owners, but it was working so well out there, we talked about bringing one into a more urban area." The "we" he's talking about turns out to be Paul and Terry Klaassen, the founders of the Sunrise Assisted Living Residential Communities. "Vienna seemed like the perfect place for the next Jammin' Java," Turner says. "It was close to D.C., and there's a great community already in place. We were excited when we signed the lease."
The Vienna Jammin' Java opened in November and has been drawing solid crowds. Given the relatively attractive architecture of the Sunrise homes that dot the area's landscape, it's no surprise that care was taken to make Jammin' Java a good-looking place.
"If you have familiarity with coffeehouses that are faith-based," says Turner, "you'll know they tend to be in not-great-caliber environments. Sometimes they're in church basements, or other places that just aren't very nice. We wanted to pursue excellence. We wanted to make this the coolest place to hang out in Northern Virginia, whether of faith or not. We just happen to be followers of Christ."
While the music store side of things is run as a for-profit business, the coffee shop and live music side is a non-profit, with subsidies from 25 Vienna churches. It's a curious business blend, but one that Turner says is all clear in the paperwork. And the idea is working so well they'd like to expand into downtown Washington and perhaps Baltimore and points West. "I wouldn't say we're on a mission, necessarily," says Turner, "but we're certainly of a mind to bring ministry back to where it should be, interacting with people and building relations."
The crowds in the store look happy, but not "shiny happy" in any scary way. Fellowship is happening in a lower-case kind of way. And with Turner booking live music six nights a week (and no, you don't have to be a faith-based band to perform or record at Jammin' Java) this little shop is playing a role in developing area bands as well. For that reason alone, I'd be saying more power to Jammin' Java, but this little coffeehouse deserves praise (no puns please) all around.
IN THE LOOP
Just before Infinite Loop performed at the Metro Cafe a few months ago, I thought they were kidding. Man after man had filed out onto the stage until there was absolutely no room to move. It looked like a rappers' convention, with nearly a dozen men each holding a microphone. There was some stand-around awkwardness while the DJ, the drum loops and the pre-recorded music got wired up properly into the club sound system, but then when it did, all those guys with microphones started rocking.
Once the groove was established, the MC-ing started, and each person in the Infinite Loop took turns, though not all of them on each song. Over the course of the band's set, the microphone time for each member was roughly equal. It was an impressive show, though marred by frequently unintelligible freestyling (more a problem with the sound mix than the MCs). The force of the music and the musicality of the rapping carried the day.
One of the Loop, Heady, is in the basement studio of his Capitol Hill house when I call. He's putting some finishing touches on a rhythm track that he'll use as the backdrop for some Infinite Loop raps. I ask Heady to name all the members of Infinite Loop, and he only has to check a written list once. "Well, there's me, One-Two, Face, Grizzly Bear, Platted Mind, D-Man, Theory, Los, RBI, DJ Infinite and Omega Red."
But wait. Aren't you and Face both in 3LG, one of Washington's best hip-hop crews? "Within the Infinite Loop there are groups," Heady explains. "So yeah, Face and I are in 3LG. And myself and DJ Infinite, we make up a group called Last Resort. Then One-Two and Face make up Organnic Symmetry. D-Man, Theory and Los make up a group called 13 East. And Omega Red, RBI, Grizz and Platted Mind are solo acts. RBI is an amazing DJ and producer." I'm really glad I'm taking notes.
"See, as far as hooking up goes, we were all doing our thing on the underground scene here, and we'd all see each other at the same events. We all admired each other's uniqueness, and we all just started putting things together amongst ourselves in ways that don't alter that uniqueness." That started happening around 1993, but it didn't really gel until 1998, Heady says. "We were all individually working on recording demos and trying to get record deals, and at shows we'd each give Infinite Loop a big shout out, but we finally figured we should really pool our talents and make an EP."
That EP, "First Contact," was available only on vinyl when it was released last year, and was one of the strongest hip-hop statements to come out of Washington. Clearly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. "But we're not just about hip-hop," insists Heady. "We roam in lots of circles in D.C. Hip-hop, jungle, dub, drum'n'bass. We're trying to entertain using all kinds of music."
To ensure that the music this collective creates has its own sound, nothing is recorded or performed that doesn't have the stamp of approval from every member. If someone doesn't like it, the main creator can take it to one of the other musical side projects. "I hope the main thing that is clear is that we're all friends," Heady says. "That's the tightest bond with Infinite Loop, and that's why we're going to make our mark. Because we're in this on every level."
If there is strength in numbers, members of Infinite Loop also hope there's success. "The goal is definitely to make some money," Heady admits. "We're grown men. I'm 29. Some of us are married, got kids, we're not young bucks. We've got people to take care of. Our thing isn't drugs and glamour. We address social issues, and you can even find some spiritual tone to what we do." He laughs and admits that it doesn't get too heavy for very long. "We all have to throw in the standard MC stuff, you know: 'I'm the best' 'cause that's hip-hop. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah! There's a lot of that, too. You get all them guys on stage, you know there's going to be some competition."
Hear Infinite Loop perform Friday at Metro Cafe (202/518-7900), along with Infectious Organisms and Jam Pain Society. Infinite Loop will also be at the Garage on Feb 3.
To hear a free Sound Bite from Infinite Loop, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8130. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)