Last month when Axel F, the popular monthly Saturday night dance party, at Liv nightclub, took an abrupt hiatus after an astounding two-year run, hard-core fans greeted the Axel F creators with some disappointed tweets and emails. “Folks said, ‘Oh, you ruined my Saturday night!’ or ‘I even had a babysitter for tonight,’” jokes Risikat Okedeyi, one of the five Axel F architects, which also includes DJs Adrian Loving, Jamil “Jahsonic” Hamilton, and Rhome “DJ Stylus” Anderson along with video artist, Eddie Smith.
This month Axel F, which celebrates Jheri-curl funk and hip between the late-’70s to the mid-’80s, returns, bigger and better at a new venue, the Howard Theatre, with a prom theme. Instead of the usual fourth Saturday of each month, this special edition occurs on Sunday, May 26, optimizing the Memorial Day weekend as well as ending of the academic year for many surrounding high schools. Given the general age range of the Axel-F creators – between the late-’30s and mid-’40s – which mostly mirror that age brackets of its loyal following, why host a prom, a coming-of-age event that’s for better or worse, not really geared toward today’s high-school seniors? “The idea of being older and recapturing one of those earlier moments of a formal event is exciting for me,” answers Loving.
But prom doesn’t always bring fond memories for all adults. People who were outcasts often harbor darker memories. Or, as in the case of Loving, their recollections are characterized by ennui. “It was just a bunch of people standing around; no one really had a good time,” remembers Loving, who graduated from high school in 1988. Nevertheless, Loving does love the notion of prom being one of his and many of his peers’ first formal events in which people dressed up in tuxedos and ballroom gowns, drank champagne, and had a night on the town without too much parental supervision.
When the Axel F crew got a chance to host a night at Howard Theatre, it seized upon the opportunity to think bigger and bolder, hence the prom theme. Okedeyi sees the new location as playing perfectly into the overall concept. “Prom is something that usually happens outside the general school setting,” she explains, “The Howard Theatre just has that ‘we’re doing something special’ type of thing about it. [This edition] is a special occasion, so it took a shift in venue to cement that.”
With tons of balloons, vintage videos, and other scholastic props, Axel F will transform the posh Howard Theatre into a prom ballroom circa 1986. Mr. G., the legendary photographer, who captured many of the District’s go-go music social events, will be there taking throwback photos of partygoers. Axel F encourages many of its loyal fans to dress up in their finest prom outfits. Musically, the evening promises to be the consistent high-caliber mélange of old-school joints from the likes of Evelyn “Champagne” King, Kashif, Rebbie Jackson, the Jets, Midnight Star, Klymaxx, Shalamar, DeBarge, and other acts whose tunes had heavy rotation on early-’80s videos shows like BET’s “Video Soul” and TBS’s “Night Tracks.” “We like kitsch and nostalgia and not taking ourselves too seriously,” says Anderson when taking stock of all the elements of the party, “We take the music seriously. But we also like all the pageantry and fun too.”
Indeed so. For all the whimsy that marks all of Axel F’s soirees, they distance themselves from many other retro parties in that it lacks the snarky irony and ultimate corniness that typifies mainstream dance parties. “Mockery is the last thing that I would do with music from that era, because, to me, it’s so special and cherished,” says Hamilton, “The quality of that music surpasses most of the music that’s made now.”
Also, the designers of Axel F are far from just enthusiastic DJs and event producers, they are some of the city’s finest cultural curators of black American music and culture. Their DJs skills are buttressed by insistent erudition that includes serious crate digging, reading magazines like “WaxPoetics,” and watching documentaries like TV ONE’s popular show, “Unsung.” It also helps that the music they focus on provided the soundtrack for their teen years and early childhood. It all plays into Axel F’s success.
“One of our motivating principles has been that people here are always thirsty for something that’s authentic,” Hamilton says, “In a scene of so much artifice, with Axel F, you have people who grew up in that era, playing music from that era in a way that’s not often presented. I think that resonated with so many folks.”
Another main ingredient to Axel F’s popularity is its multimedia facet, particularly Smith’s captivating video vignettes, which centers on each monthly theme. His reels of rare TV commercials, TV show opening credits, movie trailers, and snippets of music videos, television shows and movies, hook the audience so much that, at times, they rival the DJs’ music sets. “I can spend hours and days digging up things related to a theme,” Smith says, comparing his process as going down a rabbit hole of information. When we did the ‘Glow’ [theme] last August, we started thinking of things that glow. That took me everywhere from [the movie] ‘The Last Dragon’ to the original ‘Superman’ movie to Jackson’s video for ‘Can You Feel It’ to the Transformers cartoon.”
Axel F’s Facebook page also fueled much of the party’s excitement. It’s a place where serious music nerds get to post some of their favorite jams from that era, which, in turn, informs the DJ’s playlist. “I definitely pull a lot of information from that, because it’s like a hive mind of curators, who are always surfacing up jams that I’ve forgotten or didn’t know about at all,” says Anderson, “I learn a lot from the Axel F fans.”
Considering that the Howard Theatre regularly present artists, who fall in the Axel F’s repertoire, the creators hope that the new partnership will yield something more than a one off. “Our original idea for Axel F was to grow to the point where we could pair our visions as DJs with live performances,” Loving explains, “So we would pair our shows with people like Sheila E., Jody Watley, or Alexander O’Neal. We’re closer to fulfilling that vision. The Howard Theatre gives us an opportunity to step up our production values and grow.”