Hip-hop’s bad rap

Are Old Sac’s nightlife concerns based on race, youth or just “mean-spirited” people?

Photo By Larry Dalton

Hip-hop music helped make Café New Orleans’ Hot and Spicy one of the hottest Old Sacramento nightclubs in 2000, drawing a young crowd made up of mostly African-Americans and Hispanics. Yet the club’s success has triggered a backlash from its neighbors and police.

Owner Susan Cronenwett said she was dismayed when concerns about the crowd being drawn by her club and nearby Tabloid 95 transformed Old Sacramento into a virtual police state on the weekends, and triggered the threat of a lawsuit if she continued catering to “the hip-hop crowd.”

That threat came in September in a letter from the Old Sacramento Citizens and Merchants Association (OSCMA), whose mission is to promote the interests of Old Sacramento businesses like Cronenwett’s.

Sent to Cronenwett and Tabloid 95 club owners Len and Chris Giordano, the letter said that “the night club owners, who foster and/or attract unreasonably loud music, roving gangs, and unruly street scenes are generating a nuisance which must be abated.”

The letter specifically cited “loitering and cruising” as primary problems, adding that “numerous merchants are considering an orchestrated plan of seeking redress through small claims court.” The letter closed by stating “the hip-hop crowd that you cater to on some nights is not conducive to creating the atmosphere that we all want.”

Although the words in the OSCMA letter never specifically mention any particular ethnic group, Cronenwett and her attorney Richard Burton believe that OSCMA’s terminology “hip-hop crowd” is aimed at her predominantly African-American and Hispanic customers.

“They may not like the fact that I have a black clientele, but I have not had any troubles (inside the club). That’s not a reason for me to discontinue, and it offends me, actually,” Cronenwett said. “How can they tell us not to play hip-hop music when the whole 20s/30s set listens to it? All I have an obligation to do is follow the law and try to keep my standards high on who comes in here.”

“Either way, she loses,” said Burton, whom Cronenwett hired after receiving the letter. “If she doesn’t stop catering to the alleged ‘hip-hop’ crowd, whoever they may be—which I believe is blacks and other minorities—then it’s, ‘We’re going to get you.’ And if she does fall for what OSCMA wants, then she could be sued by minorities. Whoever she refuses to serve can sue her if it’s solely based on their minority status, whether they’re black, white or Latino.”

A race issue?

OSCMA Town Manager Ed Astone said the group’s opposition to the “hip-hop crowd” is not based on their race, although he understands how some people could get that impression from the letter.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the phrase ‘hip-hop’ was used in there because I think it clearly identifies African-Americans,” Astone said.

Even though Astone admitted that the words “hip-hop crowd” in OSCMA’s letter should not have been used, he does believe that some of the individuals who attend Tabloid 95 and Cafe New Orleans are nonetheless “mean-spirited.”

“What was clear was that both of those operations, principally Tabloid’s, were going out of their way to attract a crowd, notwithstanding their race, that was a mean-spirited crowd,” Astone said. “That’s not opinion; that’s fact, supported by a number of arrests.”

Sacramento Police Captain Jim Hyde, who oversees the police operations in Old Sacramento, noted that while law enforcement has been scrutinizing Tabloid 95, most of the incidents do not occur inside the clubs. Instead, most incidents of crime occur in the neighboring parking garage, which was the site of a shooting last summer, and in the street, often around 1 a.m., when most of the bars and nightclubs in Old Sac close down.

“The problem that we’ve had is with folks in the garage and in the streets,” said Hyde, who added that some of the major problems with crime extended as far back as the late spring of 2000 and continued through the summer months, ranging from vandalism to fist fights to gunfire.

“Most of the people who go to the clubs in Old Sac are good people … “ Hyde said. “It’s the knuckle-heads that ruin it for everybody else.”

Complicating the issue further, said Hyde, were people cruising in cars through Old Sacramento, resulting in gridlock traffic and sometimes raucous behavior. “It got to the point where we were averaging a shooting every weekend,” said Hyde, who added that a police officer was injured by a car spinning doughnuts.

“It was very alarming at one point,” said Charlie Coyne, vice president of the Old Sacramento hotel Delta King, and a member of the OSCMA board. “If you don’t address it, more and more people come on board that think that type of behavior is okay.”

Police state

When the situation peaked last summer, Sacramento police put stricter measures into effect around the area. They barricaded all entrances to Old Sacramento after 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights and beefed up their force significantly.

An abatement notice was filed by the city against Tabloid 95 owner Len Giordano in September, resulting in a settlement requiring Giordano to increase his security.

Although Giordano said that he has abided by the settlement, as is clear by the five armed guards and about a dozen bouncers present on Friday and Saturday nights, he believes that most of the individuals who cause problems do not even come inside his club, alluding that “some people” have assumed that those individuals are his customers.

“They don’t come to any of the clubs. They just hang out across the street in the parking lot,” said Giordano, who has operated the club for 25 years. “They’ve been having problems for years with the cruisers. They blocked off all the streets, and the cruisers went in the garage.”

“I don’t know why we have to be responsible for a city parking lot. It’s not our responsibility to police a city parking lot,” said Gilbert Valencia, manager of Tabloid 95. “When all of that stuff went down, half of the people they were arresting were wearing jerseys and sweats. We have a strict dress code. When something happens, we get blamed for it.”

Cronenwett added that the police barricades have a negative effect on her business, estimating that the loss of customer parking on the weekends may cost her $30,000 to $40,000 annually in profits.

“What we’ve asked for is more (police) walking patrols. I don’t think any establishment here is responsible for what’s going on in the parking lot, or what’s going on in the street,” said Cronenwett.

Hyde also acknowledged that while Tabloid 95 has been under law enforcement’s looking glass, there have been relatively few incidents at Cafe New Orleans. “They had some episodes in the early spring, but we haven’t had any problems since then. The focus is really on Tabloid 95,” said Hyde.

Seeking solutions

To search for a solution to the perceived problem of “mean-spirited people,” members of law enforcement, the Sacramento City Council, Black Chamber of Commerce, NAACP and other community representatives met in September.

“The conclusion was to maybe convene some follow-up meetings to talk about finding some responsible entrepreneurs that can run clubs that can play the popular type of music that not only African-Americans want to got to, but that other people want to go to, that will do whatever is necessary to keep the mean-spirited people away,” Astone said.

Yet there has been no follow-up to the meeting. Further meetings, according to Velma Sykes, a representative for the Black Chamber of Commerce who was present at the meeting, never occurred.

Astone believes that the situation in Old Sacramento is not an isolated one and noted that other area clubs have had similar problems in the past: “At the same time that it was going on here, it was going on elsewhere.

“While all this was going on, you had the problem at Ricci’s, Harlow’s, and the YWCA. Those three (venues), by my understanding of the circumstances, were clubs that were turned over to promoters, that promoted music that attracted not only African-Americans, but attracted a mean-spirited crowd,” Astone said.

It’s not the first time that the hip-hop/race connections has been made locally. In July, a hip-hop concert held near Lake Comanche caused an uproar among the local townspeople, resulting in local shops closing for the day and prompting a phalanx of law enforcement officers to monitor the scene. In early September, law enforcement officers shut down a hip-hop event at the YWCA, triggering a near-riot.

The scene

Many of the regulars at Cafe New Orleans say that while they are aware that bad behavior occurs in Old Sacramento, like they do in other parts of the city, the hip-hop clubs and their patrons are often seen as easy scapegoats.

Yet these patrons are like hip-hop music itself: their diversity makes them difficult to stereotype. On Thursday or Saturday nights, the primarily African-American and Hispanic 20- and early-30-somethings who agree to pay the Cafe New Orleans’ $10 cover charge (which Tabloid 95 also charges) are a virtual cornucopia of styles.

On the kaleidoscope dance floor, the highlight of the club, modern-day braided Nefertitis let their hair down, several dressed in flashy evening dresses, while others settle for a comfortable pair of Levi’s.

Many of the men are meticulously groomed: cool Casanovas with neatly trimmed haircuts, some wearing Dockers slacks, Timberland shoes and Hilfiger dress shirts. For others, baggy denims, corn-rows and casual Lugz sports shoes are the call of the day. And, as with any night club, hip-hop or otherwise, there are always at least a few women clad in revealing short skirts, quasi-bikini-tops that pass as shirts and little else.

Most of the “hip-hop” that gets rotation at Café New Orleans is the same commercial fodder repeatedly cast over the airwaves on FM stations such as 102.5 and 103.5. Jay Z, Nelly, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, and Lil’ Kim are popular along with the occasional old school anthem “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton and maybe some dance hall reggae.

The dress code at both clubs is similar: no hats, gang colors or paraphernalia, athletic gear or jerseys. A collared shirt, depending on which bouncer is at the door, is also a requirement, albeit a loosely enforced one at Tabloid 95.

“Most of the people that are here work 40 hours a week and just want to go to the club and have fun,” said Richard Nuintore, 30, a local commodities trader who goes to Cafe New Orleans and Tabloid 95 at least two to three times per month.

The patrons know about the problems that have occurred in Old Sacramento, but they say that they’re not to blame.

“Basically it’s not the whole night scene. It’s a few people that might come here. You might have three people out of 150 who mess it up for everybody else,” said Raymond Singleton, 26, a recreation supervisor who has attended local clubs in Old Sac since he was of legal age. He added, “Most of the guys are here for the same reason: to have a good time and meet women.”


Others who patronize a variety of clubs in Sacramento say that while incidents of violence and fighting are commonplace at a large percentage of local clubs, it’s only the clubs with predominantly African-American and Hispanic customers that retain a negative stigma as being dangerous places.

“I’ve been to clubs with mostly white people, like Harlow’s, and they always have fights. But you don’t hear anyone talk about closing it down. It has nothing to do with hip-hop. It has everything to do with the issue of race,” said T.J. Belay, a CSUS student.

Currently, members of OSCMA and the Sacramento Police Department are in the preliminary stages of working on a 2001 security plan for Old Sacramento that may include officers in parking garages and on motorcycles and horses. If the plan is successful, Hyde said, the Second Street traffic barricade may not be necessary. He added that many of the problems in Old Sacramento are simply a side effect of a growing city.

“It’s always a balancing act with growth,” said Hyde. “The issue for us is we need to look at the safety needs for that environment.”

“We want clubs that cater to a variety of people and a variety of tastes,” said Astone. He mentioned Jazzmen’s Art of Pasta, an African-American-owned live jazz restaurant/night club, as the type of club he would like to see more of in Old Sacramento.

“The crowd is a nice crowd, and police calls for service are non-existent,” Astone said. “They’ve been here serving a multi-racial clientele for about 12 years without incident. So how can Old Sacramento be chastised for having a target on African-Americans? I don’t buy that at all.”

Yet Cronenwett said it’s clear that the age and race of her patrons is what’s driving the concerns. She plans to fight the OSCMA’s demands and has no plans to change her music format. She says that she will continue to do “the best she can” to run a successful, safe business.

“I think she needs to be able to conduct her business just like everybody else without any restriction. It’s unheard of to say that you can’t play certain music in your restaurant,” said Burton.

“The demographics in our county is not (all) white," said Cronenwett. "To come across with the old-boy network message that your club is to be patronized by a clientele that doesn’t look like the clientele that lives in Sacramento, to me, is sick, and is really short-sighted."