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David Rubin, a popular local promoter who died of an apparent suicide on May 9 in Cecil County, Md., at the age of 42, will long be remembered for a host of professional accomplishments that influenced the Washington entertainment scene. He brought black stage shows to both local and national audiences through his IAG Theater Group, opened one of D.C.’s first hiphop clubs more than 20 years ago, and was responsible for putting on some of the most memorable concerts the District has seen.
But aside from those formal credits, Rubin holds a distinction that is just as important as his 20 years of business success: By all accounts, he will be fondly remembered as the coolest white man to ever set foot in a go-go.
“I call him D.C.’s Kid Rock,” says Darryll Brooks, co-owner of the promotions company CD Entertainment. “He was about it.”
When Rubin began working on the go-go circuit in the early ’80s, he was an anomaly in concert promotions: neither a connected D.C. native born into the scene nor a bottom-line-focused outsider trying to profit from the city’s sound.
“There’s this whole stereotype of the white Jewish guy exploiting the black musician—that was not David,” says Alona Wartofsky, who was married to Rubin during his early days as a go-go promoter. “He was able to do what he did because people loved him.”
The New York native became consumed by the music while studying at George Washington University and working with its campus radio station, WRGW. One of his missions was to create hybrid shows that would bring different sorts of music fans to one venue. He created a concert series that paired Dischord Records artists with early go-go superstars, and he is credited with being one of the first promoters to book go-go bands for area private-school dances.
“Getting involved in the music at the point in time that he did was fantastic,” says Charles Stephenson, co-author of The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop and the original manager of go-go band Experience Unlimited. “Here’s this young white guy—from New York, a student—and he just became intrigued by music.”
Although Rubin was always enthusiastic and ambitious, Brooks didn’t realize Rubin was a force to be reckoned with until learning that he’d successfully charmed the no-nonsense matriarch of Rare Essence. “Annie Mack, mother of James Funk, manager of Rare Essence, told me, ‘Dave Rubin’s over here eating crabs.’ I fell out laughing,” Brooks says, recalling a conversation with Annie Thomas, or “Ms. Mack,” who passed away in 2003. “I said, ‘This boy is serious—this boy is eating crabs at Annie Mack’s house.’ He’s either trying to be in the game or he is in the game. He wasn’t just playing the outside.”
But gaining the respect of go-go’s most important gatekeepers was more difficult than sitting down and talking shop over a plate of seafood. Rubin worked overtime, in all corners of the city, to gain attention for his shows and the groups he showcased.
“He would go anywhere—he was so dedicated,” says Wartofsky. “He used to have this beat-up old white Firebird, and he and I used to drive around—we’d start late to avoid the police—and hang up those Globe posters….He’d drive all over the city putting those up, in the craziest neighborhoods. Everybody knew him, and everybody gave him respect.”
Stephenson says that hard-earned respect is what enabled Rubin to become an insider in one of D.C.’s most insular music scenes. “If these guys don’t feel you, you can forget it—they don’t care how much money you’re paying,” he says. “You have to form partnerships, trust. He was able to do that. He was real. He got ‘the card,’ so to speak.”
“He was a hardworking promoter who liked the music and tried to break barriers with it around the metropolitan area,” says Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliot of Experience Unlimited. “He had love for it—definitely.” —Sarah Godfrey