Hip hop haven

The Ave Live
Say hello to The Ave Live, an 1800-person venue for hip hop and R&B on the corner of Spring Garden and Delaware Avenue. | Image: Benni Black

“What I am fearful for is the next generation,” said Philadelphia rapper, craft brew entrepreneur and local hip-hop ambassador Chill Moody. 

Packing his bags, readying for travel to South By Southwest’s music fest, and making plans for the March 6 drop of his newest single, “Jawn to the Left,” with fellow Philly MCs Peedi Crakk and Hank McCoy, Moody is considering how his career – and that of his collaborators – started a decade ago with the benefit of live venues whose focus was hip-hop, musically and culturally. 

“We haven’t had that for a minute, haven’t felt represented by or with a home base for live performance.” 

Live hip-hop in Philadelphia, live R&B in Philadelphia, live African-Americans’ music in Philadelphia beyond jazz hasn’t really had a home base in some time. 

I’m not talking about Live Nation’s commitment to The Roots’ annual picnic, Made in America, or any of its bookings at The Met, The Fillmore and Theatre of Living Arts. Or Bowery Presents/AEG to Franklin Hall, or Union Transfer or Ardmore Music Hall. Those venues are dedicated to bringing in name hip-hop and R&B acts on occasion, and that’s great. 

Rather, a venue focused on hip-hop and R&B, national and local – something geared to the music and culture –  is a must, yet one with a surprising void in this town considering that:

a) The African-American population of Philadelphia and its surrounding areas such as Yeadon, Darby and Chester make up around 45 percent of the city

b) The entire roster of Philadelphia International Records and its famed Sound of Philadelphia, the Ruffhouse label, Schoolly D, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Lil Uzi Vert, Bilal,  John Legend, Jill Scott, Meek Mill, Bahamadia, Musiq Soulchild, Boys II Men, Res. Kindred and The family Soul, Jazzyfatnastees, Ursula Rucker, Ryva, Lady Alma.

I can do this all day.

The Blockley in West Philadelphia, the space that Moody is referring to, ended in 2013 after a four-year run. Eighth Street Lounge has been gone for years. Sigma Sound Studios’ live loft sessions disappeared when the historic venue was sold for condo rights. What was last Reserve at 724 Arch, an address that housed several live hip-hop venues in its time, now doesn’t. The incubator that was the Five Spot with its Black Lily events died when the famed Old City venue burned. Warmdaddy’s on Columbus Blvd picks up some old-school slack in the soul and blues department, and Silk City still hosts the occasional MC.

Still, when all is said and done, who and where is the local space to represent hip-hop and R&B music and culture, more than a little?

“I was conscious of that void, you know, and thought that maybe I could help close that gap.”

Hip-hop and R&B arguably have lacked a true scene for a long time in Philadelphia. Creators of The Ave Live hope their venue can change all that. | Image: Benni Black

That’s Derek Davis, talking about booking and managing The Ave Live, a new large, 1,800-person venue at the corner of Spring Garden Street and Delaware/Christopher Columbus Boulevard that, since its opening date – Thanksgiving Eve, 2019 – has booked the legendary hip-hop likes of Wu Tang Clan’s Method Man and Redman, reggae rap dancehall giant Movado, up-and-coming Philly rapper and producer Joie Kathos, and a slew of DJs.

Starting in March, The Ave Live’s hip-hop and R&B focus will truly commence with singer k. Michelle (March 8), the rescheduled Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) show with Talib Kweli, Slick Rick, M.O.P. and Pharoahe Monch (March 20), Dave East with Styles P (March 28), Jay Electronica on the heels of his long-awaited debut album, with Smiff N’ Wessun (April 3), a Capone and Noriega show with possible Philly guests Beanie Segal and Freeway (April 10), Jeezy (April 17), the 80s rap Alumni Tour featuring Special Ed, Chubb Rock, Monie Love, Kwame, Dan D, and Nice & Smooth (April 18), Busta Rhymes (April 24), The Wailers (April 25), Rich da Kid (May 1), Marsh Ambrosius and Mumu Fresh (May 2), an old school disco soul showcase with Wardell Piper, the Ritchie Family and Denise Montana (May 9), Raheem Devaughn’s Mothers’ Day show (May 10), the avant-funk of the Robert Glasper Trio (May 16), a reunion of the Juice Crew featuring all original members (May 22) a DJ Steve Aioki  live presentation with several rappers in tow (May 23), and tentative dates with Snoop Dogg, Trey Songz, Eryka Badu (AKA Loretta Brown), Joey Badass, Meghan Thee Stallion, India.Arie and Stephan Marley on hold, or under serious contention.

“If Derek had his way, there’d be a few more Dead bands in that schedule,” said Joe Grasso, the venue’s co-owner and one-time operator (when it was Egypt, during the ‘90s club heyday of Delaware Avenue), with a laugh. To that end, yes, there are several jam bands slipped into The Ave Live’s mix such as May 8’s Box of Rain show with Panama Dead. Dorsey, a one-time booker at Electric Factory and Underground Arts, also stated that there is EDM in his roots, and to that end, will welcome the Philly electro-dance DJ contingent, Making Time, who will, in turn, welcome the moody and angular singer and electro-tinged producer Arca to the venue on May 2. 

The plan, where Dorsey is concerned, has always been to make each night an event, “from the front door to when you leave The Ave Live,” with the venue featuring everything from DJs between sets, motion graphics, and full multi-act bills rather than one-act nights. Thinking back to his time running The Fire on Girard Avenue – an intimate hole-in-the-wall he booked from like the 1700s onto the mid-2000s, Dorsey was the type of guy who would cram each night and stage with punk bands, roots bands, rappers with live musicians, an acoustic singer-songwriter or two, and whoever else could fit into an 8pm to 2am slot. 

If I called Derek Dorsey Philly’s African-American answer to Ed Sullivan, the variety show television host famed for cramming jugglers, fire-eaters, ventriloquists and opera singers next to giants such as The Beatles, I wouldn’t be off the mark.

“I don’t want you or any audience to ever be bored, “ said Dorsey. 

With that, he looked back to November and the intended big name opening of The Ave Live – the Yasiin Bey/Talib Kweli show that was cancelled by Bey at the last minute. The literal last minute. As in hours before the show.

“At  the time, it made us look shaky – you know, big name act not showing up,” said the booker with a laugh. “A cancelation at a big established venue would have been of no consequence. But, for a young independent venue? We got questioned as to our validity. It wasn’t a good look.”

All this, mind you, after Dorsey and &Co. had to wait through the complications of getting a liquor license, only to have L&I finally give it to The Ave Live on Thanksgiving Eve at 4 pm. “We then had to go out and buy booze for 1,800 people – a sold out show – on the busiest booze-buying night of the year,” said Dorsey.

Still, one of the best things about Yasiin Bey cancelling the show then, and rescheduling for March, is that it allowed Dorsey and his crew the time and momentum to book something of a “Black Woodstock,” a bill featuring fellow rap giants such as Slick Rick, M.O.P. and Pharoahe Monch.

“That’s my philosophy … make it big … make a show out of it,” said Dorsey. “Talib Kweli and Mos Def will do individual sets as well as a Black Star reunion. The rest of the bill is huge. This became my dream show. I’ve been doing this my whole life, and this is the best show I have ever booked. Ever.”

Derek Dorsey, manager at The Ave Live notes the “there is an incredible void for an urban space with live entertainment” for the hip-hop community. | Image: Benni Black

That statement is quite something considering Dorsey’s pedigree, and even that of Grasso, the family real estate owner and developer who helped put Delaware Avenue on the map with Egypt, and giant glittering multi-media/multiracial/all sexualities welcome nightclubs on the city’s horizon with Shampoo. 

Oddly enough, for two men in the small town/big city Philadelphia music business since the 1990s, neither man knew each other, or had ever even met.

After having run The Fire until 2015, then working for Electric Factory and Underground Arts – all for somebody else – Dorsey wanted something of his own. He could’ve stayed an independent booking agent, getting his cut off the top, but, that gets old as we get older and there‘s little that stays fun about the freelance hustle after 30 years.

“I looked at the 700 Club in Northern Liberties, and put in a bid as their upstairs was just the right Tin Angel size that I thought I could manage,” said Dorsey who also eyeballed Fishtown’s The Barbary and the shuttered J.C. Dobbs/Pontiac Grill/Dobbs space on South Street. 

At this same time, Dorsey’s friend and real estate developer Sam Stanford – the younger brother of Town Hall’s George Stanford, a roots rocking pop stalwart of The Fire’s stages – had made a new neighbor in Joe Grasso, the legendary one-time owner of everything from the Curtis Center to properties along Spring Garden such as the abused Egypt address. Since its closing in 2002, 520 N. Christopher Columbus Blvd. has gone through several leasees, such as Soundgarden Hall and Indie; “venues that used the space, and had to cut and run because they were over their heads,” said Dorsey in defense of the then-unoccupied address.

Grasso too wanted to see his disco ball hall with a loving new tenant, someone as dedicated to multi-racial, multi-sexuality based entertainment as he had been at Egypt and Shampoo. Yes, Grasso’s real estate development company is now more famous for shopping centers and office buildings in the suburbs, as well as senior housing/age restricted apartment properties in Downingtown, Doylestown, and soon, on Spring Garden Street, right across from The Ave Live (which actually has the potential of Grasso becoming his own nuisance bar – ha ha), but he still likes to breath in the smoke machine air of a nightclub. 

“I’m a fool … a damned fool,” exclaimed Grasso with a loud laugh about coming back to the Philadelphia club business after being away for nearly 20 years.

What brought these two together, beyond business, was the idea that the African-American market (or at least its music, let’s not pretend that Caucasian, Asian and Latin markets don’t love hip-hop), in Philadelphia was being woefully underserved. 

“There is an incredible void here … no room for hip-hop or R&B and such emerging music, so, we went into The Ave Live with the philosophy of this being urban, an urban venue, with live entertainment,” said Dorsey. “Urban pop, R&B and hip-hop – even comedy – we’re embracing all of that, and making it the largest part of our schedule.” 

Dorsey goes on to mention Philadelphia being home to the Gamble/Huff/Bell legacy in the past, and Meek Mill and Tierra Whack in the present, and that there is no steady space in their hometown to hear that classic music, new or old. 

“There is no place to hear hip-hop and R&B on the regular, national or local, or to develop acts,” noted Dorsey. The Ave Live is going to push for national acts, to make sure there is local talent on every national bill, and to give locals such as the aforementioned Joie Kathos (of “Gone” and “Faded” fame) their own nights. “I don’t want locals to feel like icing on a cake … I’d like us to help build careers,” he said. 

Remembering that Dorsey’s The Fire promoted and played host to early shows from Philadelphia soul men such as Amos Lee and John Stephens – who would go on to become John Legend – and I’d say making room for emerging artists is his bag.

Those behind The Ave Live are using New York’s famed Apollo Theater and its 105-year success as the model for this new venue in near the Delaware River waterfront. | Image: Benni Black

“We’re courting hip-hop and R&B acts, new and old, as I have had relationships with managers and artists around the country since The Fire.  From New York City to down South, a lot of people want to be a part of what we’re doing here because hip-hop and R&B hasn’t had a steady home in this city for a while.” 

Grasso goes on to note that his history and his venues are tools in place for all levels of diversification.

“Egypt and Shampoo was black, gay, straight, Asian and Latin,” he said. “So is The Ave Live. We even like the whites too,” he laughed. “The Ave Live is multi-racial by design. We’re not NOTO, all high-end, and bottle service-focused (Grasso noted that many of Shampoo’s old floor guys are managers at NOTO). We’re for everybody. If The Ave Live becomes THE African American club in Philly I’m happy. The shows so far have been great. That community is supporting us, and we love that.”

Grasso lived through the messiness that was Delaware Avenue – fights and all-around club stupidity – Dorsey knew going in to The Ave Live that Philadelphia youth have a violence rate that is nearly second to none. Knowing that you can’t patrol the planet like it’s a police state, the booker stated that he’s proactively looking to keep a cool headed atmosphere at all costs. 

“No matter if we’re hosting the Lil Babys of the world or the older hip-hop acts like Busta Rhymes, we’re presenting artists where their culture is cool, mature. Plus, we’re actually taking precautions and talking to the artists in advance, and having conversations with management about all issues. We’re sensitive of artists’ creativity, but, we want to eliminate risk, as much as possible. We want to eliminate any negativity, be mad chill and cool. You’d be a real asshole to disturb that, to fuck up a safe space such as this. You can keep riff raff out. We’re not NOTO.”

Two NOTO disses in one story. Dag.

So The Ave Live will be the first Philly live club, in a minute, that will represent hip-hop music and hip-hop culture, along with R&B, more than a little. It’s a room for urban Philadelphia, geared toward some of this city’s most historically innovative and inventive black music. 

“The Ave Live is a safe space and a full entertainment experience that embraces the rich history of African American music,” said Dorsey. “Seriously, I’m using the Apollo Theater and its 105 years in the business as a model.”

Chill Moody puts that model into a more modern, local perspective as to where hip-hop could and should stand in this city. 

Ask Philly’s rap emissary about when he last felt represented by a home base, and said, “There was a good time for Philly hip-hop when The Blockley was up, a breeding ground for a lot of MCs currently making music,” he said of the West Philly space that lasted between 2009 and 2013. “Tierra Whack got her feet wet there when she was writing under a different name (A.D. note: the moniker was “Dizzle Dizz”), Shawn Smith, back when he was Young Savage, was ripping it up down there.”  

Along with bringing up the Blockley and the Sigma Sound lounge series’ devotion of new voices, Moody recalls that mid-2000s time as being one where “I felt not just representation, but, as if the whole of the city was behind what we were creating. It shows too because so many of those people who came out of that scene are doing it successfully now.”

Going back to our cover’s start, what Moody fears going forward is the lack of nurturing spaces for hip-hop’s culturalism. 

“It’s been spotty since then,” said Moody. “The Blockley was a statement. I don’t mean disrespect to anyone else who is trying, but, maybe they weren’t part of the culture.”

For Moody, the promise of what The Ave Live can bring is empowering. And hopeful. 

“It’s a dope space – was always a dope space, even when its venues came and went. That might have been its problem it had before it became The Ave Live – those who came and went didn’t give it an identity. One night they were live, and the next they were pushing people to buy sections and bottles. What is the identity beyond bottles? What’s there for the culture.”

Though Moody won’t announce plans or dates for The Ave Live, the rapper has met with The Ave Live’s crew, and knows what they have in store is promising. 

“They are people of the culture. They understand what we need to make a new scene,” said Moody.

And what does The Ave Live need to do next to make it happen for real?

“They need to listen,” said Moody. “They need to read this article. They need to seek out more people within the culture, and pick their brain. Have the conversations. Then they need to implement all that.”

  • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

    A.D. Amorosi is an award-winning journalist who, along with working for the Philadelphia Weekly, writes regularly for Variety, Jazz Times, Flood and Wax Poetics, and hosts and co-produces his own SoundCloud-charting radio show, Theater in the Round for Pacifica National Public Radio station WPPM 106.5 FM and WPPM.org.

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