From 2006 to 2010, Washington, DC's underground dance scene was without a home. Iconic clubs like Red - a tiny, but globally renowned house and techno bandbox - and Nation, the massive three-story space that hosted the world-renowned Buzz rave, were razed and turned into office buildings and parking for the Washington Nationals baseball stadium. In response, DC clublife shifted from southeast and downtown DC to Northwest's U Street corridor and the one-time "Black Broadway," home to Duke Ellington and America's jazz movement, began swinging to a much different beat.
U Street Music Hall turns five years old this week and has been at the center of this sea change. The club has hosted everyone from Disclosure to Skrillex and Richie Hawtin in its short life, in addition to being the home of the groundbreaking and homegrown Moombahton Massive series.
The black-box basement at 1115 U Street Northwest emerged from DC DJs Will Eastman and Jesse Tittsworth looking to better serve the city's "homeless" underground dance scene. "I grew up in DC in an era where there were a lot of crazy warehouse parties," says Tittsworth "When that stuff went away, the vibe wasn't quite there for me. I wanted to have that, to have a club that I could be proud of that pushed underground dance music in a proper vibe and context in Washington, DC."
"DC was just following what was going on in New York, LA and Europe," explains U Street manager Scott "Buster" Herman. "The city needed a place where there was no dress code and no photography, where you didn't need to buy a bottle if you were eight guys trying to go to a club. If you weren't cool or weren't accepted, U Hall needed to be a place that you could come and have a good time."
Tittsworth further explains the U Street aesthetic: "Brian Miller [club designer] and Will Eastman were looking for a Berlin industrial vibe. We all wanted a dark black box with a great sound system. People talk about our sound system all of the time, and we actually just upgraded it for the fifth year anniversary" says Eastman about the club's vaunted ITI Audio-installed Martin Audio sound. The club's initial calling card, the system still provides bass that is heavy enough to feel, and higher levels delivered quiet enough to have a conversation."
Above all U Hall has has always been a DJ-centric club. There's a notion of "putting the talent before the patrons" as Eastman states, that gives it a unique reputation amongst artists. That's not meant as a sleight the club's patrons, but rather, as Eastman says, ""It's about making sure the artist needs are always met - from being picked up at the airport to making sure there are enough power inputs on the decks - in order to ensure patrons have a great experience "
There's one other progressive business practice that has earned the club attention. Until 2013, U Hall, the little black box dance pit, served pho-soaked hot dogs. "We thought it would be fun, and it was fun," Tittsworth laughs about the surprisingly successful three-year experiment. "[Toki Underground] chef Erik [Bruner-Yang] and I are both food nerds with Taiwanese backgrounds, so street food and bar food comes naturally to us. We put our heads together and came up with the pho dog. The response exceeded the expectation."
U Hall vibes are now evident at newer Brooklyn hotspots Output and Verboten. Tittsworth reckons there's an affinity between the cities that's influenced this relativity. "There's this big city/little city thing with DC and New York," he explains. "Many people thought we couldn't get the same crowds or lineups as clubs in New York, and it feels good to see that we've proved them wrong. The crowds, sound system and lineups are all world class."
Back home, U Hall now shares a Northwest corridor with the similarly-styled Flash, a nightclub opened in 2012 that provides high-level sound with top-tier bookings that bear a striking similarity to the offerings just three blocks away. "Flash has opened and are offering competitive bookings, which is great. More people being out and experiencing dance music is always a good thing," Will Eastman says.
"Five years in, [U Hall has] a partnership with the 9:30 Club, the U Street Music Hall Foundation and we did the Union BBQ Festival [at Union Market] last year. We will continue to deliver quality. We want to continue to bring the good vibes that U Street Music Hall has been bringing."
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