City Paper is not for tourists
The patrons at the Dupont Circle dance club Red look like your average partygoers—until you look down at their feet. On the women, stilettos, high-heeled boots, and any other footwear that might restrict movement are conspicuously absent. The guys favor sneakers over heavy boots or dress shoes. Red is dimly lit and lined with tables, chairs, and plush red couches that go mostly unused. Someone may plop down in one to catch his or her breath every once in a while, but just for a second. The dance floor is the club’s focal point.
Sunday’s Underground Soul Sensation is particularly intense. Local DJ and dance-music guru Sam “the Man” Burns spins for the diverse crowd every week, and his regulars don’t take kindly to strangers jumping on the wheels of steel. Although past guest DJs, including New York legend Raven Fox, have been well-received, each newcomer is met with suspicion.
On this Sunday night in November, a salt-and-pepper-haired man wearing a red shirt is in the booth. He fiddles around, checking the system and setting the needles—then completely shuts the music off. He doesn’t want to hint at what’s to come. Instead, he quietly waits for the doors to open.
One regular manages to enter before the club opens and asks the doorman the same questions he fields week after week: “Is Sam here yet? Well, when will he be here? Is he coming tonight?” The woman takes a seat at the bar and looks skeptically at the man, who is definitely not Sam, but only for a moment. At 10 o’clock sharp, the DJ throws on his first record—an old favorite that he has chosen to “center” himself. In seconds, the room vibrates to Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.”
“I can’t believe you’re playing this!” shrieks the woman as she bolts from the bar onto the dance floor.
DJ Hollywood has proved that he can move the crowd.
“A lot of cats that want to play here aren’t that good,” says Burns.
“It’s their funeral: I just let the crowd chew them up. But Hollywood did well. He had a good time, and the crowd enjoyed him.”
A well-known D.C. DJ in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Kenney Hart (aka DJ Hollywood) has been involved in the music industry for more than 27 years. He has held every industry-related job imaginable: promotions, equipment design and sales, club management, music reporting, and, of course, DJing for nightclubs, radio stations, and parties. He’s also taught the craft to younger DJs, including Burns, who is glad to provide a forum for the man he calls his “DJ dad.”
“I’m not your average DJ; I’m well rounded in this business,” Hart explains. “It’s not just about cutting and scratching—there is more to this game than that.”
Hart’s legacy is not linked to DJ and industry work alone, though: He’s also remembered by many as a street hustler who gained notoriety during the hedonistic disco decade.
“It was just madness at that time—regardless of the money,” Hart says. “The majority of people I know who were in the same game at the time that I was are either dead, in jail, or quite loopy. But I survived. I’m still here.”
Born Kenneth Everhart, the 45-year-old D.C. native was introduced to both of the elements that would eventually consume him—music and hustling—at a young age. After Hart’s mother died, when he was 9, he began playing the snare drum and joined the Salvation Army drum-and-bugle corps partially as a way to cope. By the time he was 14, a favorite aunt had bought him a Fender Stratocaster and a set of amps. “I wanted to be just like Jimi Hendrix, except I was right-handed,” Hart remembers.
Later that year, Hart’s grandmother, who had long been the primary caregiver for both him and his older sister, passed away. His sister, Regina, who was 18 at the time, was able to gain custody of the teenage Hart. Although he refers to her as “my angel” and says that she has always steered him toward “doing the right thing,” she couldn’t stop him when he began to associate with a bad element.
“I hit the streets very young: From 17 on, I was pretty much out there,” Hart says. “I was doing a little bit of what you see on TV and in videos now: how to be a hustler. Seeing people promoting that is funny to me. You have people like Snoop looking like a pimp and promoting drug use—that was me 20 years ago, and it does nothing but bring you down.
“There are 10,000 hustles out there—drugs and women are just two,” he continues. “I don’t want to divulge any tricks of the trade that could send someone else down that road. I will say that I’m an ex-everything. I’ve done it all, but I’m not rollin’ like that anymore.”
Throughout his days working the streets—and even during his long battle with cocaine addiction—Hart always kept one foot in the music world by continuing to play for himself and promoting small parties featuring local artists. His break into DJing came in 1977, when he met New York DJ Preston T. Powell III at the then-popular Chapter II nightclub on I Street SE.
“[Powell] was going to Howard University at the time. I was at a point where I wanted to change my life, so I asked him to show me how to play,” Hart recalls. “He showed me what to do—how to mix—and that was the beginning right there. Seven months later, I became the resident DJ of the club.”
At one point, Hart says, he was spinning “at least four nights a week,” starting at happy hour and usually wrapping up at about 3 a.m. He claims that although the music was a cover for other activities, it was at this point that he fell in love with DJing.
“I didn’t have to tree-box myself—I had other people handling business on the street,” he says. “Because of that, I was able to spin more, and it started becoming my life.”
Burns remembers well the double life that Hart led during this period. “The first time I saw Hollywood was when I was 19,” he recalls. “There was a club called Rand on I Street [NW], and I would see him outside doing business—talking to people and then getting into a car and riding off. Then, the next thing you know, he would be inside of the club DJing! He was like Clark Kent and Superman in those days.
“I was a doorman at Chapter II, and on my off days I would hang out in the DJ booth,” Burns continues. “[Hart] had style—an almost European flair. I admired that. He showed me a lot of the basics.”
Burns recalls Hart grooming him to play at Chapter II with a sense of urgency: “I remember him telling me, ‘You can’t be bullshitting. You have to mix clean, because I may not be around much longer.’ I didn’t think a lot about it at the time, but shortly after that conversation, I got a call to come down and DJ at the club because Hollywood got locked up.”
“I knew they were trumped-up charges, but I wasn’t going to run,” Hart says of the 1979 incident. “I didn’t want to leave my home, so I decided to turn myself in to the police.” Hart says that charges against him were later dismissed, but this incident was one of many that compelled him to re-examine his role in the club scene and its inextricably linked drug culture.
“Dance for Life is based on survival,” Hart says of the weekly parties he hopes to establish at both Water Street SW’s Zanzibar and U Street NW’s Bar Nun. “We all have stories: Everyone has been through something, but we’re all surviving. We want people to dance to release their tensions.”
It’s a philosophy that’s behind many of the projects undertaken by Hart’s thriving entertainment-promotions company, MUZ-ART Entertainment Inc., which has recently done artist promotions for local producer and video-production-company owner Vaughn Mason and installed a new sound system for the soon-to-open Mirror, Mirror nightclub in Oxon Hill, Md. Although Hart first wrote up a business plan for MUZ-ART in 1979, the venture didn’t really take off until several years later. Much of its success came after Hart saw his sister almost lose her life to a brain aneurysm in 1990; not long after, he finally found the strength to kick his decadeslong cocaine habit, channeling much of his energy into his company.
“It’s not just me,” he says. “A lot of cats out here have the same ideology about partying and about life—doing the right thing. We all have our own companies, but we can share the wealth.”
A lot of these same cats have been instrumental in putting Hollywood back in the DJ booth. Although familiar with Kenney Hart the businessman and entrepreneur, his music- and entertainment-industry contacts were eager to meet his long-silent alter ego, DJ Hollywood. In August, friend and Zanzibar co-owner Darren Greene gave Hart a guest DJ slot during a Venus Swimwear fashion show held at the club.
“It was like going home,” Hart says. “I realized that I miss it, no matter what else I’m doing.”
Spurred by the success of the Venus event, Hart’s next move was to contact the Hyattsville record pool Tables of Distinction, owned by Foreigner “Eardrum” Suite, a friend of Hart’s for more than 20 years. Suite receives promotional records from various labels and distributes them to DJs often before they even reach the radio.
“He’s a cool cat who is in every DJ’s corner,” Hart says. “He welcomed me with open arms to come back.”
Finally, Hart placed a call to Burns to arrange a guest spot at Red.
“All of these people have allowed me to feel good that I can come back and do this,” he says, “but I had to prove it to myself.”
It’s obvious from the scene at Red that Hart is back in his element. People walking in don’t even stop at the bar for a drink—they jump right on the dance floor. Several old friends, including local producer and sound engineer Melvin K. Prince and, of course, Burns, stop by to show Hart their love.
Three young men dressed in baggy clothes and carrying record cases stand in front of the DJ booth during Hart’s entire set. They want to see what he’s playing.
The consummate teacher, Hart is more than happy to show off what he’s spinning. With each new record, the three whisper to each other and make mental notes—St. Germain’s “Soul Flute,” Lisha’s “That’s Why I’m Here.”
“See this one?” Hart asks. “Mandrill, ‘Having a Love Attack.’ This is from 1979—before you were even conceived!”
Although known primarily as a funk/disco DJ in the ’70s, Hart now plays house, Latin music, and even hiphop. He credits his son, Joel, who is an up-and-coming songwriter, his daughter, Kyea, and his two young grandsons for keeping him in the loop.
“Ja Rule is killin’ right now, Ludacris is killin’ right now—I’m glad to see some hiphop artists introducing some vocals and some R&B flavor into their music.” Hart says. “Some are finally beginning to stop talking about how much money they’ve got and stop calling our sisters ‘bitches.’
“I have missed success 10 times over because of dwelling in the underworld of the club scene and being involved with cocaine,” he continues. “I have to admit it and tell my story. I wish more people could come forward and let others benefit from what they’ve been through.”
Hart says that he would even like to go into schools to tell his story to children in the hope of dissuading them from following the path of fast money and falling into drug use.
“I hope I can use the music industry to grab the attention of these kids,” he says. “It’s not smart to bet the recovery of your body’s faculties against a short-term high.
“It’s not about Hollywood the DJ making a comeback—it’s really about all of the things I’m doing. I’m letting those few people who’ve been wondering what’s up with me know: I’m out of the game. I’m living life.”
“See?” he says with a slight smile. “I told you I wasn’t your average DJ.”CP