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In June 2006, Dem Franchize Boyz, a group from Atlanta that had been signed to Jermaine Dupri's So So Def record label, was scheduled to perform there.
The show would be huge — everyone knew the words to the group's song "Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It" and had its snap-dance moves down as soon as the video hit YouTube.
Vell Williams, a 26-year-old member of AllInOne, was looking for a way to get his group heard. So far, they'd printed water-bottle labels with their logo and rapped for a Mr. Goodcents ad (which still hasn't made it to the airwaves). Getting out in front of 2,000 people at Club Kandi seemed like the promotional break his crew was looking for.
"People have heard us perform before, so we have a reputation of doing good shows — remembering our lyrics and not having our hands on our crotches the whole time," Williams says.
He approached Club Kandi owner Chad Waldrop about opening for Dem Franchize Boyz. Williams says the two of them drew up the standard Club Kandi contract: $500 would pay for AllInOne to perform a few songs before the headliners took the stage. Williams says Waldrop never asked to hear his music.
The show was unforgettable for Williams and his trio — people in the crowd tried to slap their hands and nearly drowned out the music with their approving shouts.
"I was getting pulled off the stage. That was exciting like hell," Williams says. "The amount of respect we got from that — it was real."
Williams vacillates between thinking it was worth $500 and thinking that paying to play is wrong. He acknowledges that club owners who spend thousands of dollars to bring in a national touring act want to recoup their investment. And Williams admits that nobody twisted his arm to pay for the chance to play. But he wishes that club owners would give artists a break. "Charging us to perform — that's not even an even trade," he says. After all, it costs money to record with top-of-the-line equipment, buy beats from producers, print T-shirts and press CDs. "It's hard out here for a rapper. Easy for a pimp."
Waldrop now runs the Hurricane in Westport and has changed Club Kandi to a nonhip-hop format. He says he never kept the $500 fees he charged artists to open at Club Kandi.
"A lot of the promoters are from out of town, so we collect money for the promoters, and when they get in town to do their event, we give them the money when they get here. That's how it goes. The club doesn't get that money. Wish we did."
But Waldrop acknowledges that the Hurricane doesn't charge rock and punk bands to play. "Not at all," he says. "Rock bands ain't got no money. They're barely alive, living day to day, where most of these rappers are funded by drugs."
"He ain't talking about me and AllInOne," Williams counters. "That didn't ever fund my music, and it don't fund my music now. I know my people in my crew. Anything we get, we earned, and we work hard."
Akbar Akram — DJ Ak — gazes out at a gyrating cauldron of arms and legs and shaking booties. He's making a November guest appearance in the basement of Skybox, a smoky den where the walls are painted with half-finished graffiti murals.