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Arts & Entertainment

Why Is a Deep Ellum Club Owner Banning Genres of Music in the Name of Safety?

DJs Christy Ray and Ursa Minor refuse to change their formats after a crackdown on trap and turn-up, because it really isn't about that.
By Lyndsay Knecht |
Denzel Golatt, inset

When popular Dallas DJ Christy Ray took her first gig in this city three years ago, she knew just one spot where she and her friends could end the weekend how they wanted. DoubleWide hosted Blake Ward’s JAMZ on Sundays. The laid-back hip-hop weekly operated under the loose premise of party music. As a guest DJ behind the tables, Ray felt at home just as she had when Ward was playing the music she loves.

“I just liked how fun and almost carefree it was to be there,” Ray says. “I think it was being able to mix the old with the new.”

Ray eventually expanded to Deep Ellum venues, where she saw nights like this multiply to nurse a pretty healthy scene. Now as the crowds have increased, the owner of some of the most important venues in Deep Ellum is trying to ban the music that attracts hundreds of people every weekend. And DJs are leaving because of it.

Dallas club owner Josh Florence helms Independent Bar & Kitchen and Club Dada among others. He’s issued a moratorium on “trap and turn-up” to DJs like Ray in recent months, and has not responded to a request for comment on the rules. Ray ended her well-attended residency at Independent on April 1 after a year. And now Rachel Harvey, who performs as DJ Ursa Minor, is ending hers, after sitting out Friday to her own disappointment and that of regular patrons. Blue, The Misfit and DJ Sober have addressed this situation contextually on Twitter but did not respond to my questions for this piece.

As a DJ, Ray embodies the place where old-school hip-hop and new sounds meet. The samples and shared deep hooks are in her blood. Ray’s mom is Deidra “Dee Dee” Roper, known as DJ Spinderella of the way-making hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa.

“They (Independent) wanted to keep me, but they wanted me to reformat my night to make it ‘safer,’ not just for the patrons but for the bartenders and the security,” Ray says. “And they thought that the music was leading people to feel unsafe. And I thought about it. I thought: this is who I am, this is the music I play.This is who they come to see.”

Since Ray joined her mom in Dallas after graduating from Hoftstra University in New York, she’s developed her own following and an anecdotal understanding of how powerful hip-hop is within the larger pop music realm. It’s something she studied as a broadcast journalism student with interest in digital media. Hip-hop is mainstream pop, she emphasizes, pointing to Spotify’s numbers that rank the genre No. 1 for streaming in the world, up 74 percent from 2016 to 2017. The same songs heard floating from car radios on the street outside, the songs a largely black hip-community comes out to hear, seem to be a problem for Florence and his team.

“First they said ‘You know, we don’t want to do any turn-up. Stay away from Future, stay away  from (Crime Mob’s) “Knuck if You Buck,” but it’s OK if you play Chance the Rapper,’” Ray says. “It was clear that there were some blatant forms of discrimination happening. I DJ’d that last night and it was awful and I realized I can’t do that.”

Moody Fuqua is the employee charged with delivering these instructions to DJs.

“In the recent months, our establishments have been experiencing situations that have escalated to the point to where our staff and patrons have become at risk,” Fuqua wrote to me. “All of these situations have been a result of the music energy and volume in the room escalating to a boiling point where the aggression was dangerous, with violent and disrespectful acts occurring to staff and patrons. In order to run a safe and responsible establishment, after taking other additional measures, we are deciding to a change a music format when these aggressive events have occurred. This is not a drastic change in our music programming, we are just asking our deejays to respect the balance of energy in the room. We take pride in a wide variety of cultured music and diversity at our venues and providing safe and enjoyable experience for everyone.”

Is there a specific example of a connection between the music itself and a fight or a disturbance of some kind? I asked.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss specifics, but we have had enough examples that lead us to this decision,” Fuqua wrote.

Harvey, who as DJ Ursa Minor helps run the Femme Friday series that features women behind the decks, remembers just one time she or Ray saw a fight break out during their sets at Independent. The two DJs were behind the boards when seven people got into it. In the moment Harvey feared for her equipment, taken aback by the swerve in the energy. But it wasn’t the music. SZA’s juicy slow jam “The Weekend” was playing. By any definition, it lies well outside the circles of trap and turn-up.

“Maybe they’re really drunk, maybe your bartenders are over-serving,” Harvey says. “Maybe the security shouldn’t have let that man in. I’m not going to sit here and use music to explain something as finicky as human behavior.”

The decree to cut out trap music was confusing to Harvey, who hears elements of trap in electronic dance music, underground hip-hop, and radio hits that complicate the exclusion of certain trap artists by default. She plays BlocBoy JB, Rae Sremmurd, Pusha T, and Travis Scott. Those artists cling to slower tempos and deep bass that sometimes antagonize synths in a high register. Gucci Mane and Migos are squarely in that arena. Of course Harvey plays them too— the crowd who comes to hear her set, which is largely a black crowd, loves to hear those artists.

That’s what it’s about, Ray says.

“Anybody that has a brain cell can see what’s happening,” she says. “It’s really silly, I have never ever dealt with this in my career – it’s ridiculous that they could use a whole genre of music to push an agenda that you have you for your establishment … I’m not stupid, I know what they’re saying, but they don’t want to say it because you know you’re going to offend me. I’ve had white male DJ friends who the owner or somebody has come up to them and said [cautioning them to tone it down as more black patrons arrive], ‘Chill out. It’s getting dark in here.’”

To endure this now— three decades after her mom commanded the pop music realm via hip-hop, and as a black woman— seems backward, Ray says.

“I look at her and think, ‘Wow, she has been doing this for 30 years and she’s killing it still.’ It’s people like her that stand up for what they believe in … that’s why she’s been doing this for so long,” Ray says. “I feel weighted sometimes, I feel like I’m alone. But then I think of her, and other women in the same situation.”

Those women are often in the crowds at Ray and Harvey’s sets. Men, too, who feel seen and known when their songs come on. Nick Mcduffey almost never missed Ray’s set at Independent. The common thread of trap is the beat, he says, not a dangerous message or sinister energy.

“I tried to go [on off nights] after Christy stopped, but it was so bland,” he says.

Where the Femme Friday series will live now is up for discussion. Harvey hopes The Nines can host it— “from the security to the bartenders to the owners … that is my favorite place to play,” she says. This Thursday and Saturday, partiers can hear DJ Ursa Minor on the roof at The Nines.

Though Harvey’s been urged to not take Florence’s handed-down exclusions personally, it’s hard not to, she says.

“I play music for the people that didn’t want to go out anyway,” Harvey says. “I play the music I would want to hear at home. Which is why this hurts so much. I had so many people hit me up and then I have to tell them, ‘I’m not playing at Independent.’”

Ray holds court at the Statler these days, on Fridays at Scout and Sundays downstairs at Bourbon and Banter. At least, for now.

“I think my days are numbered in Dallas. I think it’s time for me to move on – stuff going on in the scene, I don’t like it,” Ray says, referencing also the rape culture music circles helped sustain with neglect. “As a woman, a black woman, I don’t feel like I’m making the strides I need to make here. I’m doing what I’m doing, but it feels like I’m curbed in every way.”

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