KEXP is celebrating Independent Venue Week, a tribute to small, non-corporate-ran music venues around the country. As we raise a glass to these clubs, we're also taking a moment to pour one out for the venues that have closed down and are gone forever. We've teamed up with Ghosts of Seattle Past, an interactive art installation and anthology curated by author/editor Jaimee Garbacik, to look back and remember some of the first independent venues we may have attended shows at, like the club we're spotlighting today: RKCNDY.
The list of disappeared music venues over the years in Seattle is considerable, but unsurprising. Like many cities, while there are many longstanding larger capacity spaces, the smaller and midsize venues are in perpetual flux. As genre popularities shift and neighborhoods change, one venue shuts down, another springs up — often seemingly overnight. Every venue has devotees who find themselves displaced. But when you are twenty-one and younger, each lost venue represents a sudden lack of access; you’re left stranded on the outside of the arts, peering in through the cracks.
I am admittedly biased on this point. I was closely involved with all-ages music and arts space The Vera Project for many years, where I was once chair of the programming committee. I am engaged to one of its former managing directors; I dedicated my first book to its youth-led membership. I sign emails with Vera’s slogan, Veri et recti amici, “True and sincere friends.”
This kind of identity imprinting is not uncommon in the all-ages scene. For those lucky enough to have access to these communities — typically only within inner cities, though some of the Northwest’s suburbs like Redmond and Kirkland form exceptions with their progressive teen programming — the opportunity to work in the arts represents a rare occasion when, as a youth, somebody gives you the mic and tells you to use your voice. That is a moment of empowerment unlike any other. And so, it’s is all the more devastating when such an opportunity is stripped away — nothing else can come close to filling that gap.
The close of beloved dive venue RKCNDY in 1999 was a hard hit to the all-ages scene, especially with the Teen Dance Ordinance still firmly in place for another three years. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden played there, repeatedly. Radiohead graced their stage in ’94. Even a short list of their most notorious shows reads like a who’s who of 90s bands:
7Seconds, 7 Year Bitch, The Afghan Whigs, AFI, Anti-Flag, The Aquabats, Archers Of Loaf, Avail, Bad Brains, Bad Religion, Belly, Blind Melon, The Blood Brothers, Bloodhound Gang, The Blue Meanies, Blur, Bootsy Collins, Botch, Bouncing Souls, The Breeders, Built To Spill, Buried Alive, Converge, The Damned, Days of the New, Death Cab for Cutie, Deftones, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Descendents, Dinosaur Jr., DJ Spooky, The Donnas, Dropkick Murphys, Engine 54, Everclear, Far, The Fastbacks, The Flaming Lips, Flipper, George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars, The Get Up Kids, Gin Blossoms, The Gits, Goldfinger, Gravity Kills, GWAR, Gza, Harvey Danger, Hatebreed, Helmet, Hieroglyphics, Hum, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Incubus, Jamiroquai, The Jesus Lizard, Jets To Brazil, Jimmy Eat World, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Kid Dynamite, Kool Keith, Less Than Jake, Letters To Cleo, Local H, Mary Lou Lord, Meat Puppets, Melvins, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Mephiskapheles, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Misfits, Moby, Modest Mouse, the Murder City Devils, MxPx, Nerf Herder, NOFX, No Knife, Nomeansno, Pavement, Pedro The Lion, The Pietasters, PJ Harvey, Poe, The Posies, The Promise Ring, The Queers, Rage Against The Machine, Reel Big Fish, The Refreshments, Reverend Horton Heat, Rocket From The Crypt, Save Ferris, Screaming Trees, Sleater-Kinney, Soul Coughing, Stiff Little Fingers, Suicidal Tendencies, The Suicide Machines, Supersuckers, Swervedriver, Tad, ¡TchKung!, Tool, Treepeople, Trial, Type O Negative, The Vandals, Vitamin D, The Wedding Present, Youth Brigade
Although RKCNDY primarily booked punk and rock shows, its loss may have been felt even more prominently by hip-hop fans. In the 90s, RKCNDY was one of the few reliable venues for Seattle hip-hop fans, and when it was lost, so were its patrons. Funding for the five elements of hip-hop (MCing, DJing, B-boying, graffiti, and knowledge) tends to flow less freely, regardless of community support and commercial success. Despite its obvious cultural relevance, hip-hop shows remain harder to book.
Gaylon Henry (a.k.a. StreetNative) is an MC and a member of 206 Zulu, a non-profit community organization which uses hip-hop culture and arts as a platform for engagement, education, and community empowerment. He’s also a member of the Suquamish Indian Tribe, as well as a United States Postal Service mail carrier. Gaylon was still under twenty-one when RKCNDY was razed to make room for a SpringHill Suites Marriott hotel, and the memory remains seared into his mind. The Vera Project and 206 Zulu have been community partners for years, and while Gaylon and I had never met, we have many friends — and much music — in common. We sat down in the brightly lit Cupcake Royale on California Ave to talk about RKCNDY’s heyday and the hip-hop scene that emerged from Seattle Central College around the same time.
– Jaimee Garbacik
Macklemore’s so multimillion now.
But then, if you sold a thousand copies and your record was in New York,
that was doing something, the big thing.
GAYLON HENRY: Seattle Central College, when Seattle had that little boom of Macklemore and Blue Scholars and all that, everyone around that time, almost everyone was going to Seattle Central [around ’99–’01]. We used to have open mics, outside. It’d be like once a month during the daytime and I’d skip class — for an open mic. My priorities weren’t really up to par. [laughing] My friend Khingz, Gabriel Teodros, [Mike Murph, Wordsmith, Yirim Seck, myself (StreetNative), Beau (a.k.a. Njuguna Wa Gitau, RIP), Asun, Raijni, Jerm]. God, there were so many, I swear, it was like everyone there was rapping at that time. A lot of the guys are still making careers out of it now, which is crazy. But [Seattle Central], to me, was kind of a historic place at that time. You could walk down the hall in a college, and there’d be a freestyle site on your way to class. And it would be different types. There’d be guys from the CD that would rap about gangster stuff; there’d be people like me who were more into the music, just like the East Coast vs. West Coast–type stuff. ’Cause when I would rap, people’d be like, “Well, that’s East Coast.” I’d be like, “This is Seattle. People in LA are not rapping about Seattle.” I’m like, “Why are you so loyal to the West Coast sound, you know? I like everything.” But that was a historic time, it’s just crazy what it’s become since. I’ve seen these guys have big success and they all came from the same place, because everyone was good, so it was almost like you have to be better than the next person. But nobody thought... like, Macklemore’s so multimillion now. But then, if you sold a thousand [copies] and your record was in New York, that was doing something, the big thing. Like, if you could sell a thousand, then...
JAIMEE GARBACIK: Then you really count.
HENRY: Yeah. Or Blue Scholars. You know the Easy Street [Records] in Queen Anne?
GARBACIK: Oh yeah, I miss that place.
HENRY: You’d have your Top 20 records that are selling there, and Modest Mouse just came out, and Blue Scholars was number one and Modest Mouse was number two, and that was a crazy thing because no local [hip-hop] act ever sold a lot of records in Seattle, except Sir Mix-A-Lot, of course. You’d go to Seattle hip-hop events, and if there was a local person performing, it would never be packed ever. No one was really supporting. So it was a lot of people just doing it because they wanted to do it. So when we were doing these open mics at Seattle Central, it was just for fun because you didn’t think you were going to be famous or tour worldwide. I’ve got other friends who aren’t really that big, but they’ve been to Sweden and Japan, and it’s just like, who would’ve thought that you could do that from Seattle, at that time? ’Cause it was like that’s never going to happen.
GARBACIK: Totally outside the box. So do you still think that place would breed any of that now? Like, if you went back to Central, do you think any of that’s going on?
HENRY: I have no idea if anything’s still there. It was a big thing, it was just crazy, my friends from The Physics, they were part of that whole Macklemore [scene along with] Khingz. And Thig [from The Physics would rap], “Seattle Central was my hip-hop school!” And he would name off people, like all these guys, and they were all there. They were all at open mics all the time passing out flyers to their shows that nobody went to.
GARBACIK: I want to hear about places that you really miss that were of personal significance to you, or to 206 Zulu and to the hip-hop scene.
HENRY: Well, for me, it was especially RKCNDY.
GARBACIK: Will you tell me about it?
HENRY: It wasn’t that great looking of a place, it was more for punk and heavy metal bands, and once every two months or so, they’d have a hip-hop show, and my friend DJ B-Mello was in charge of most of that; it was a little after I came from LA. I used to do street team promotions when I was like eighteen, and that’s pretty much just vandalizing streets with stickers and posters. Or we would go in stores, and we’d do displays and stuff like that. We had accounts with record companies and we would just promote rap artists. And me, being a big hip-hop fan, I just wanted to be a part of everything. And when I came back to Seattle, B-Mello was like the main person who was doing it. He was in charge of Point Blank Promotions; they and Crazy Pinoy Promotions were basically the two “street teams” in Seattle at the time. [B-Mello] was familiar with my work; the way that I posted, I approached it like tagging. We would go out in the middle of the night in Delridge, we’d start in one part where you get off the exit and go all the way to the end of Delridge. I remember there was this one artist named Twista with giant stickers; [me and my cousin Isaac] put them on every single pole, every intersection. [Anyway], I linked up with B-Mello, and every time an artist came to town that I wanted to see it was at the Showbox or someplace that was twenty-one and up. So I could never go, and the RKCNDY was the only place that was starting to have all-ages, so it was a place I could actually go and see my favorite artists. That was a thing, to work there. B-Mello would be like, “Oh yeah, we have so-and-so coming to town, you want to help me set up?” and I’d be like, “Yeah!” I’d come and he’d give me all the posters and tell me to put them up everywhere during mic check, and then I’d put them up and then hang out and watch the artists do their mic checks and get set up.
HENRY: I brought some flyers from the RKCNDY [spreads them out on the table]. This is from Wu-Tang...I don’t know if you’ve heard of Kutfather, but this is an event we did. It was a DJ Icy Ice, I think, from the Beat Junkies. And this was my favorite crew at the time—I got kicked out of this show—The Alkaholiks.
GARBACIK: [giggling] Why’d you get kicked out?
HENRY: Well, The Alkaholiks. They left and went to Zumiez at Southcenter to do a signing, and I finished up with the posters, and I was like, “Oh, The Alkaholiks, I’m going to have my friend Kato go buy me some Mickey’s [malt liquor] or something.” So we’re sitting in the back, I’m eating a Subway sandwich and drinking a Mickey’s, and this guy who gave me and B-Mello a ride to the venue comes walking around, and I don’t know what happened, but he’s covered in blood, got beat up. And I’m like, “What the hell happened to you?” And he just looks over, and is like, “Tell B-Mello he’s got to get his own ride home.” And he gets into his Jeep! And I’m like, he didn’t explain anything. [Never caught his name, even.] So he drove off, and I gotta tell B-Mello when he comes back from Zumiez, ’cause he left with The Alkaholiks, so I went back and sat down with my Mickey’s, and all of a sudden, this bicycle cop comes around and starts asking questions. I didn’t think he could see me where I was sitting, so I continue on doing what I was doing. And right before he left, he zoomed up real fast to right where I was and was like, “Word up.” And he had me pour [the booze] out, and is like, “Is that all you have?” And I’m like [little kid voice] “Yeah.” And this woman who owns RKCNDY [Lori LeFavor] was right there, and she’s like, “It’s all-ages; that’s messed up, you could get my club closed down!” And she turns around to security, and she’s like, “See this guy? Don’t let him back in.” I was crushed, because this was my favorite group at the time, and I’m like, “What am I supposed to do?” B-Mello comes back, and he’s like, “Take off your hat; put on a coat or something,” and I was like, “That’s going to make it worse.”
GARBACIK: Oh yeah, then they’ll remember you if you try to get by them.
HENRY: You know how security guys can be, you try to outsmart them. So I was just like, “Naw, I’m going home.”
GARBACIK: Oh no! You didn’t get to see them?
HENRY: [laughing] No, and Khazm talks about that show too, he’ll be like “Remember? They had a giant 40 bottle blown up and they were bouncing it around the crowd!” And I’m like, “No, I got kicked out, I don’t even remember any of that.” And I’ve seen them after that, but I think that was the prime....I do have a recording of them rapping, but I got in trouble for that too, actually. They were doing mic check, and there’s this song they have with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and I put my tape recorder on the stage when they were doing mic check during that song, and all of a sudden you can hear Tash’s voice getting louder, ’cause he’s getting closer to the microphone, and then when he says this verse he goes, “Who’s recording my shit?!” And he turns it off, and he goes, “Man, whose tape recorder is this?” And I’m like “Me!”...So, I was just getting in trouble left and right that day. Their manager was like, “Don’t record my artists during their mic check,” and I was like, “Oh, sorry,” and he was like “Do it during the performance.” But I wanted to catch them just messing around! I have that tape somewhere, in this big box in storage.
HENRY: [points to a flyer] This is actually still my favorite group, Hieroglyphics.
GARBACIK: Oh my God, I love Hieroglyphics! This is so rad. How old is this?
HENRY: ’98? And right here, this is the infamous curtain that blocked you off from the crowd. [RKCNDY] was a small kind of shady place that just had a torn-up curtain that security would stand behind and these little beat-up stairs that went to the stage.
GARBACIK: Do you know what the capacity was, just roughly?
HENRY: Everything seemed so much bigger back then, but I’d say it wasn’t that big. Maybe five hundred.
GARBACIK: That’s pretty big for an all-ages venue.
HENRY: Showbox is what, like one thousand?
GARBACIK: Market or SODO?
GARBACIK: Yeah. It’s one thousand one hundred.
HENRY: Probably like four hundred [at RKCNDY].
GARBACIK: I was just thinking, The Vera Project is three hundred and sixty-two, and its showroom is huge, so, of course, I believe you...that’s just bigger than I pictured it. But that’s awesome.
HENRY: It had an upstairs railing, kind of how Neumos does, and goes all the way around, but [the whole space is] just really compact... I just remember it was this really dirty carpet and the cords were always in a knot. And [performers] would constantly have to make sure not to tangle cords as they walked around. It was pretty crappy. [laughs]... I think it was more of a big thing because a lot of us that got into rap were all around the same age...and this was where we got to go to see some of our favorite performers, because we couldn’t get in anywhere else. We would try to stand outside Showbox at the Market, but you’re not going to get in if you’re not twenty-one.
GARBACIK: Well, and that was during the TDO, too, right? So there weren’t really any all-ages venues in general. There were a couple, but that was it.
HENRY: Like DV8. DV8 was an all-ages club by the Space Needle. I didn’t really go there very often, but I can’t think of any other all-ages places at this time that did hip-hop shows. I don’t know, for me, it was kind of sentimental because it let me see the stuff I saw on TV.
GARBACIK: It gave you access.
HENRY: Yeah, and I got to meet a lot of them. Like with Hieroglyphics, I got to be backstage. Backstage wasn’t anything, though. They would have curtains on the ceilings, kind of flowing down all over the walls to make it look fancy to cover up the brick. The brick room that you’re in, like a dungeon? [both laugh] They just covered it up, and that was pretty much it, and some torn-up couches. And they would always have chips and salsa for the performers, and fruit flies would be flying around the salsa, and no one touched it. Then a couple water bottles sitting around, and you just sit in this little room, and the steps are like right there, and then you have this curtain, and that was it. It was a very small place, but it was cool because it fit. Like, back in the mid-90s, hip-hop was grimy. There were a lot of videos in abandoned warehouses and it gave you that feel.
GARBACIK: Like, “Oh, this is where that happens”? [laughing]
HENRY: [laughing] Yeah, this is where that happens, pretty much. Because that street it’s on, it was close to Re-bar.
GARBACIK: Its address [1812 Yale Ave] was right about where Yale crosses Denny, so kind of near Re-bar, kind of near the Lo-Fi. Near where [YouthCare’s James W. Ray] Orion Center is now.
HENRY: I just remember they turned it into a parking lot, and it was like, “OH MAN, that’s where the RKCNDY was, crazy!”
HENRY: Did anyone tell you about Tribal? In the mid-90s, Tribal was like [raises his hand to the ceiling]. Me as a teenager, being around here, there was this big group of Seattle artists, mainly in [Seattle Central College]. Vitamin D; DJ Topspin, [who] was in a group with H-Bomb called Sinsemilla — there was a bunch of them. Narcotik; The Ghetto Children. And they were the people we looked up to. They did two compilations, and they were probably only five years older than us, but that seemed like so much more at that time. We’d see them on public access shows; to us, they were celebrities, you know? Tribal was definitely a big influence on us growing up, because no one was really rapping around Seattle at that time, you know? At that time, they were the people. A super group, I guess. And then, Source of Labor [came along]. Johnathan Moore used to actually throw most of these shows, at the RKCNDY.
GARBACIK: I was just going to ask you, is if you knew who was organizing, who was putting on shows and where, besides RKCNDY at that time.
HENRY: Wordsayer, Johnathan Moore, he did it. He did like ninety percent of the shows everywhere; he was a busy guy. He did RKCNDY. He did Sit & Spin every Sunday; that was like three bucks. That was the greatest place. I remember, it was raining and I was going to a show, but I was an hour early and my clothes were just soaked, and I was like, “Oh, there’s a laundry place!”...So I put my coat and stuff in the dryer, and I’m sitting there just waiting for it, and there’s this hip-hop show going on in the background! And they have video games in the laundry room. Why don’t they have more places like that? Depressing, that going away.
GARBACIK: Do you know why RKCNDY closed?
HENRY: I don’t think it was anything big; they just got bought out like most stuff in Seattle, they were just one of the first. And I think that’s why most people remember it more, because it was like, everything else was still around then. One day you went by, and the RKCNDY was there; next thing you know, it was completely gone, and next thing you know, it was a parking lot, and I was like...
GARBACIK: “For what?”
HENRY: Yeah. I was like, that was my place! I had connections, B-Mello, and I was always able to get into shows, there were artists there I would get to meet them, so like, it was selfish on my part. All I thought about was me. “What am I supposed to do?”
GARBACIK: Well, if that’s your gathering place, and your introduction to the scene that has become a huge part of your life, it’s pretty understandable to be attached to it.
HENRY: That was pretty much it. It was just a place where all-ages could go. But now they got The Vera Project, so that’s a good thing. Back then, that was kind of our only place, in that shady location. But it was still pretty cool. And the tickets were always really cheap too. Del was like ten or twelve dollars. I remember, Gza, I think he was eighteen dollars, and we were like, “What the hell, does he think he’s a prince or something? Eighteen dollars for a show, he must be royalty.”
GARBACIK: That’s actually a lot; even now, eighteen dollars is a lot for an all-ages venue.
HENRY: Yeah, but this was Wu-Tang in their prime, too, so when he came to that little venue, I was like,
“What the hell are you doing here?”
GARBACIK: How did they even book him there?
HENRY: God only knows. Seattle magic.
For the US's Independent Venue Week, July 8-14th, KEXP is spotlighting the independent venues that help the Seattle music scene thrive