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Hip-hop hubbub

As an Old Town club shuts, DJs and club owners accuse OLCC of trying to silence the music

It's a groove, a show and a culture, and the state hates it, says a hip-hop nightclub owner who claims liquor regulators are forcing him to close his doors.

Balzer's, a Portland hip-hop club, will shut down Sunday night, the result, says owner Ernie Bighaus, of discrimination by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

The fight over Balzer's has galvanized Portland's hip-hop disc jockeys, promoters and club owners, who say the OLCC keeps closer watch on hip-hop clubs than venues offering other types of music.

'I live hip-hop, it's my life, and if I think it's under attack, I'll defend it,' said Starchile, a popular area hip-hop DJ.

Balzer's, at 53 N.W. First Ave., has had several battles with the OLCC. The commission, in December, had proposed canceling Balzer's liquor license over what it says is a long list of problems, including fighting and illegal drug activity.

Bighaus said that rumors allegedly circulated by OLCC staff members that the club would eminently close 'killed my business. People stopped coming.'

'It's not in our best interest to circulate any rumors or talk about specific cases,' said the OLCC's Ken Palke in denying Bighaus' allegations. 'Our inspectors are trained to be professional, and that's not the type of thing a regulatory agency does.'

The Balzer's-OLCC feud, which Bighaus said will continue in the courts, exemplifies what the hip-hop community says is a major chasm between it and the agency that regulates the sale, distribution and use of alcoholic beverages.

The Rose City Roundtable, a group of DJs, promoters and club owners who advocate the 'hip-hop lifestyle,' already has started making plans to monitor how the OLCC treats venues where hip-hop music is played.

Hip-hop has enjoyed growing popularity since the mid-1980s. The hip-hop culture has four primary elements: MCs, who rap along with the music; DJs, who spin and mix records and host the shows; break dancers; and graffiti artists.

The roundtable maintains that the OLCC places more restrictions Ñ such as requiring more security and shortening operating hours Ñ on clubs that host hip-hop shows than other clubs.

The group says it will enlist the American Civil Liberties Union to examine how the OLCC treats clubs that host hip-hop events. The roundtable also wants to schedule a series of meetings with OLCC to clear the air.

'This is the biggest issue within the hip-hop entertainment community,' said Sugar Robinson, a local DJ and promoter. 'I've been doing this for 10 years, and it seems to be getting worse for hip-hop (performers and promoters).'

OLCC spokesman Jon Stubenvoll said the commission would gladly meet with hip-hop leaders to clarify the agency's rules.

Much of the conflict relates to whether OLCC agents recently told Portland club owners to stop holding hip-hop shows or face tougher hurdles when getting their liquor licenses renewed.

No club owners would corroborate the claims; roundtable members speculated that club owners fear OLCC retribution if they publicly criticize the agency.

Stubenvoll said the commission has not met with any club managers since a January meeting at which the agency suggested greater security measures for downtown clubs.

'For the most part, OLCC doesn't even know what type of music any given establishment plays,' he added. 'We have no list of clubs that play hip-hop, country or any other music format.'

Still, the OLCC, in placing restrictions on Balzer's license in 1998, suggested that Bighaus offer 'a different style of music.'

Bighaus has said repeatedly that the OLCC's actions against his club are racially motivated, because many of his customers are black. He's filing a First Amendment court case against the agency.

'The OLCC was telling other clubs they'd use Balzer's as an example to change the style of music they play,' Bighaus said.

In its final weekend, Balzer's will host three DJs Ñ Chill, Mellow and Kookie Mix Ñ who have played at the club since Bighaus bought it four years ago. Bighaus said he'll open another club once he's done fighting the OLCC in court.

Kevin Berry, who has promoted and worked at hip-hop and rhythm and blues shows since the early 1980s, said the OLCC 'has always scrutinized clubs with black clienteles. It's not just hip-hop: That wasn't around when I started. It was the same (level of scrutiny) with every one of those clubs.'

Paul Hammond, owner of Three 6 Oh Productions, said he believes the OLCC associates hip-hop with forms of rap that purportedly espouse violence.

'To me, there's a big difference between hip-hop and rap, and our goal is to educate people about it,' Hammond said. 'But if we can't educate them that we can (hold hip-hop shows) without the problems, then our doors will be shut.'