Promoters like Robert ‘Blacko’ Douglas find a new place for local black music

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Photo: Jackson Smith Photo: Jackson Smith

Jeyon Falsini wades through a crowd in front of his club, the Ante Room (at the time, the Main Street Annex), on the night of a big hip-hop show—Project Pat. He starts pointing out the players on the scene.

Seems like just about everyone is a party promoter.

There’s Streetz Blonko, rapper first, promoter second. He’s big, outspoken. He’s got an edge.

There’s David Wayne, owner/operator of SB Entertainment and the official host of the night’s event. He’s polished—a chef by day, scenester by night—and as active in Richmond as he is in Charlottesville.

Then there’s Robert Douglas, aka Blacko, aka Blacko da Rappa. Douglas has the outsized presence of Blonko—although maybe not as loud or edgy—and the regional ambitions of Wayne. He runs Wild Boyz Entertainment. He’s also the agency’s chief talent.

Douglas isn’t “da Rappa” all that often these days, he says. His performances are mostly as a deejay or vocalist for Double Faces Gogo Band. Performing isn’t even necessarily his focus anymore. He’s finishing up a business management degree at PVCC, and he’s looking to push Wild Boyz to ever greater heights.

Blacko, along with that throng of promoters, emcees, singers, deejays, videographers and producers milling around outside the Ante Room, is also looking to grow the scene for African-American music in Charlottesville and Central Virginia. He wants to push urban music—not just hip-hop—in an area where it’s scarcely given media attention, an area where it operates underneath the notice of the workaday crowds going about their business.

“It’s a few people that appreciate it,” Douglas says. “I have a following because of my background, because of the rap background and nightlife and doing the promotions. I have a good group of people in support, that’s what’s kind of keeping it going. We’re keeping it going.”

Blacko vs. Douglas

Why are there so many promoters on the C’ville hip-hop and R&B scene? Basically, you have to be a promoter to make it as a performer, according to Falsini.

The scene isn’t all that large, so if you’re a deejay or an emcee and you want to fill the Ante Room or the M&M Lounge for a hip-hop dance party, you have to promise the venue a full house. You have to share the risk.

“Robert and I got to a point where we liked working together, so we started hosting parties,” Falsini says. “He would get a deejay, put it all together, and those parties were successful.”

Photo: Jackson Smith
Photo: Jackson Smith

From there, Douglas launched Wild Boyz, a one-stop shop for nightclub parties. He still throws down at the Annex, but he’s also taken his act—both the parties and Double Faces Gogo Band, which he manages—to other venues like the M&M Lounge and Restaurant on Preston Avenue and the recently closed Fusion’s Restaurant and Lounge in Culpeper. Douglas says his goal is to keep pushing beyond C’ville’s borders.

“I’m trying to get us further and further up north, and to Richmond,” he says. “Wherever I deejay, I try to spread the word about the band, and I deejay every weekend.”

Falsini says Douglas sets himself apart from the sea of local promoters by working the scene like a job. He hosts parties on a regular basis, and he adds value in multiple ways. On top of promoting shows and booking the entertainment, he offers security, professional photography and videography and a photo booth for some events.

“Me and Jeyon, we go back,” Douglas says. “He did a lot of what helped me get started. I called him one day; he had an empty building. I said, ‘Can I throw a party?’ I never really tried it, but I said, ‘I got a band, you got a building,’ and it’s been going ever since. Look what he got, and look what we got.”

Douglas still considers the Ante Room home. Double Faces was the headliner at the grand reopening on February 27, when the venue rebranded from the Main Street Annex. And he says he’ll drop whatever he’s doing to be there when Falsini asks him to deejay an event. That’s saying something—when he’s not promoting parties, Douglas works in facilities management for UVA, and he expects to finish his business degree next year.

While he’s not sure where the degree will take him in terms of his next career move, he’s certain it can only help his efforts with Wild Boyz, which he says has taken on a number of new acts in the past several years and worked with other players in the promotions game.

But there’s more than a hint of competition on the scene. Streetz Blonko says his outfit, 700 Block Entertainment, has been more successful at pushing beyond Charlottesville than Wild Boyz.

“The difference is we do party promotions everywhere,” he says. “I’m from Charlottesville, but I’m trying to get major, go to New York, North Carolina, everywhere.”

Hip-hop in the ’ville

Nowhere in C’ville’s urban music scene is competition more alive and well than among local rappers. Douglas says that on top of losing some of his passion for rhyming, he gets turned off by the sheer number of people who think they can make it big as an emcee without putting in the work.

And those numbers are indeed large, according to Streetz.

“There’s a lot, yo,” he says. “I’ve been rapping since I was 9 years old. I went to prison for like nine years. When I came home in 2012, there were a handful of rappers. Now every other week I see another rapper, dozens more rappers.”

Streetz, whose biggest break was opening for Waka Flocka Flame in D.C. on September 14, 2013, says there’s definitely talent in town. The problem is the good emcees haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. That, plus the fact that the crowds are often small, drives some of them to larger markets.

Plus, there’s that whole competition thing.

“In the black community, there is a lot of jealousy,” he says. “Nobody wants to see the next person make it. Even if you hot, they aren’t going to share your shit on Facebook. It’s a hatred thing; it’s a jealousy thing. It hurts me real bad.”

Damani Harrison, formerly of hip-hop group The Beetnix and recently departed artistic and education director at the Music Resource Center, sees the opposite. He sees a unified hip-hop scene. He reckons if he got all the rappers in town together who support each other, it would shock most locals.

“I don’t think there is media coverage about it,” he says. “But I want to show the community how many active rappers there are in the area, the amount of unity and love there is among them.”

Harrison says it would be difficult to ballpark the number of hip-hop acts in and around Charlottesville, but in his decade and a half at the MRC he says the number of local rappers he saw “was tremendous.”

“There is this massive hip-hop scene, and anyone that is in it knows about it through social media,” he says. “Every single day, I am seeing a high-quality video of someone from Charlottesville. I can’t keep up with the amount of people doing quality work. I am talking about legit, go to the studio, cameras and lighting videos.”

Harrison points to MRC alums C-Ryan and William “Chaos Chytist” Rhodes as examples of locals making nationally recognized hip-hop. “They just moved to Atlanta,” he says. “They make a lot of money now.”

Douglas himself has plenty of songs and videos floating around on the Internet, and he has a studio where he still records and produces for other hip-hop artists. But he says the main thing that has pushed him beyond hip-hop to music like go-go is the fact rap isn’t what it used to be.

“I think it’s because everybody just follows a trend,” he says. “Hip-hop isn’t original anymore. Everybody used to put their heart into it. …We used to stand in a circle and battle, and people used to show up to the showcases. The rappers don’t have that support no more.”

Ready to go-go

Jeyon Falsini, founder of the Main Street Annex—now the Ante Room—where Blacko deejays and where Double Faces Gogo Band performs, says to make it in the local hip-hop and R&B scene you have to be a promoter and rapper. Photo: Eze Amos
Jeyon Falsini, founder of the Main Street Annex—now the Ante Room—where Blacko deejays and where Double Faces Gogo Band performs, says to make it in the local hip-hop and R&B scene you have to be a promoter and rapper. Photo: Eze Amos

Charlottesville is relatively unique in having a go-go scene. The genre, which places heavy, layered percussion underneath R&B, hip-hop and other musical forms, was born in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s under the direction of the likes of Chuck Brown, the Young Senators and Black Heat. It’s never really taken off in other areas of the country. Arguably the biggest national hit a go-go band ever had was DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat.”

Donnell Floyd, founder of D.C.-based Familiar Faces, is one of the performers currently carrying the go-go torch. He says there are three or four bands in the district, like Backyard and Rare Essence in addition to Familiar Faces, that can bring 300 to 400 people out to a show three times a week.

The topflight go-go bands play about 50 percent originals in addition to the covers, according to Floyd. Other bands, Double Faces included, stick to the crowd-pleasing covers. Floyd says go-go bands often get a bad rap because they rely so heavily on covers, but that’s the way it’s been back to the early Chuck Brown days.

Indeed, when Blacko talks about Double Faces’ music, there’s an edge of defensiveness.

“We cover everything—a lot of people don’t know that,” he says. “It’s really a lot bigger than what people think is just a go-go band. We’re go-go, but we’re bigger than that.”

Floyd, on the other hand, says there’s nothing wrong with being “just a go-go band.”

“I say the opposite. Go-go is like steroids for any music,” he says. “What makes go-go is what you put underneath, the percussion you put underneath the foundation. Chuck Brown put go-go underneath jazz and blues. Backyard puts it underneath rap and hip-hop, Rare Essence is under R&B. I wouldn’t say we are ‘not just a go-go band.’ We absolutely are. I sent my kids to college on go-go.”

For what it’s worth, Double Faces has had its share of success as well. An offshoot of the now defunct The X Band, the band’s been shifting between eight and 10 members for the last three and a half years. Dean “Phace” Smith is the frontman and constant, and Blacko’s been onboard as vocalist, deejay and manager since the beginning, transitioning from his role as keyboard player in The X Band. Some of Double Faces’ musicians come from gospel backgrounds, where Harrison says you often find the best players in town.

Blacko says he can book Double Faces for two or three nights a week during the summer, but it’s sporadic. Sometimes one gig a week is all he can ask for. The high point of the Double Faces run was probably playing the Tom Tom Founders Festival two years ago. But Blacko has hope the band can keep moving up.

“A lot of people that have checked us out are pleased, but a lot of clubs and venues haven’t gave us the shot yet,” he says. “A lot of people haven’t gave us that voice and let us be heard.”

The voice you will hear if you get the pleasure of seeing Double Faces is loud, party-driven and highly sexual. Indeed, a sub-genre that’s often tied to the likes of Floyd’s Familiar Faces is “Grown & Sexy” go-go, and Double Faces falls pretty firmly in that camp.

Jeyon Falsini says Double Faces is “really amazing” at taking contemporary songs and filtering them through its percussion section, which includes a drum kit, cymbals, cowbells and wood blocks.

“It’s percussion on top of percussion,” Falsini says. “I like to call it ‘black jam-band music.’ They jam out and do solos. It’s a great party sound, and I can always count on Double Faces bringing out a crowd. Always.”

Sometimes there are horns in go-go, but not in Double Faces. Guitars aren’t featured; keyboards provide much of the instrumentation.

In addition to the Ante Room, Falsini says go-go bands are finding a place at Rapture and the M&M Lounge. While the hip-hop scene in Charlottesville has had trouble maintaining consistent venues due to occasional outbreaks of violence, Falsini says the go-go crowds are more mature and easygoing—everyone’s just there to enjoy the music and dance.

Harrison says the go-go scene has value for black music fans in general.

“I see the stuff [Blacko] promotes, and I love what he’s doing out there; that is, actively attempting to keep live music in the urban community alive,” he says.

The next stage

DJ Blacko (aka Robert Douglas) performed July 8 at Fusion's Restaurant and Lounge in Culpeper with The Double Faces Gogo Band. Photo: Ron Paris
DJ Blacko (aka Robert Douglas) performed July 8 at Fusion’s Restaurant and Lounge in Culpeper with The Double Faces Gogo Band. Photo: Ron Paris

When he started Wild Boyz Entertainment, Douglas says all he had “was a laptop and a dream.”

“Now I have a couple thousand followers,” he says. “When I first started, I had a couple hundred. I am running close to 20 grand a year off of entertainment, and I put myself through college.”

Which side of the business will flourish—hip-hop, R&B, deejaying or go-go—is anybody’s guess, but go-go seems to have as good a chance as any. Floyd figures the genre is still strong around D.C. Is it where it was at its height two decades ago? No. But in the last five years, he says, it’s done well.

As for Charlottesville’s scene, Douglas is likewise optimistic. He says Double Faces is taking more and more phone calls from people outside of Charlottesville, and more local doors are opening. “What the business degree has taught me is how to talk to the people we haven’t opened doors with,” he says.

But it takes hard work, Douglas continues. You have to work it like a job. You can’t run up a bar tab that’s bigger than your paycheck. And you can’t allow yourself to get paid in “beer and wingdings.”

Perhaps most importantly, you have to remember the crowds don’t just show up. You have to get out there and spread the word. You have to promote.

“I don’t want to speak ill, but everybody comes up and automatically wants to be in competition,” Douglas says. “It took years to get where we are, and we’re still not accepted everywhere around here. No one’s knocking down our doors. I booked these shows myself.”

GAGA for go-go

Go-go is a musical genre that places heavy, layered percussion underneath R&B, hip-hop and other musical forms.

  • Originated in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s
  • Dance music that emphasizes audience call-and-response
  • Go-go pioneers include Chuck Brown, the Young Senators and Black Heat
  • In the mid-1960s, “go-go” was the word for a music club in the D.C. African-American community

BLACKO’S PLAYLIST

DJ Khaled and Jay Z, “I Got the Keys”

Blacko’s take: “Jay Z’s latest track has been on repeat. It’s pretty dope.”

Fat Joe and Remy Ma, “All the Way Up”

Blacko’s take: “I like all kinds of music, though. My playlist consists of stuff from Lil Wayne to Hall & Oates.”

Backyard Band, Street Antidote

Blacko: “My Backyard repeat is the whole new Antidote CD. I listen to the whole CD…no favorites.”

Northeast Groovers, Any Track

Blacko’s take: “I just like when NEG let they beats ride and bring in the crank and 808s.”

Suttle Thoughts, “Love Is Stronger Than Pride”

Blacko’s take: “I listen to my man Steve Roy and Suttle Thoughts almost every day. This is a real laid-back joint. They’re my highway band.”

Double Faces Gogo Band, “We Do It”

Blacko’s take: “I wrote that one myself.”

You’ve heard it before

Photo: File photo
Photo: File photo

You may be more familiar with go-go style than you think. Here are some artists who have sampled Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers’ percussion-heavy tracks.

Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” sampled “Bustin’ Loose”

Wreckx-N-Effect’s “I Need Money” sampled “We Need Some Money”

Run DMC’s “Run’s House” and Duran Duran’s “Come Undone” both nod to “Ashley’s Roachclip”

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