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Photo by Matt OttoAt10:38p.m.onaThursday,theCrazyHorse Steakhouse boasts little more than some autographed headshots of country music has-beens displayed in the foyer and a trio of doughy, Bud Light-swilling cowgirls getting loosey-goosey on the dance floor. It resembles more a skewed scene from some Christopher Hitchens-narrated documentary—Americans: StillFat,Obnoxious—thanthe home of one of Orange County's newest hip-hop clubs. Although considering the troubled past of hip-hop and its so-called "element" at the Irvine Spectrum—most notoriously in the summer of 2003, when a hip-hop night was shut down for no apparent reason at the since-closed Rock Bottom Brewery—this doesn't come as too much of a surprise.
For Brian Chung and Steve Kim of NEX Level Productions, even getting flyers designed for Eazy, their new weekly Thursday night club at the Crazy Horse, proved somewhat of a problem. "At first, we were told we couldn't have 'hip-hop' anywhere on the flier," says Brian. Too bad because by midnight, resident turntablist PJ Dan—who wears, duh, PJs while spinning everything from the latest from Eve and 50-Cent to the oldest old-school cuts—had packed Crazy Horse's sprawling dance floor with a 300-plus crowd of gorgeous women in glittery halters, every third or fourth one accompanied by an equally well-dressed man. It was the most action the Crazy Horse had seen on a Thursday in years, and it was all because, as anyone who has been to an OC nightclub—much less tried to launch one; hi, Vegas!—in the past, oh, millennium knows, the county's house-music hangover has finally worn off. Which means hip-hop clubs—even at the Irvine Spectrum—are, as Brian observes, "the only way to stay afloat."
Still, in early June of last year, Brian and Steve noticed that despite the introduction of hip-hop nights at larger, upscale OC clubs, their friends—a mix of predominately young, professional, Asian-American clubbers—would regularly wind up at hip-hop clubs in Hollywood on the weekends. It's a trend that first started two to three years ago, Steve explains, when "Hollywood opened its doors to the Asian audience. . . . Once Asian promoters got involved with the A-list clubs, the owners realized they could consistently draw crowds of 1,000-plus. Bar revenues skyrocketed."
And, Steve claims, it's the sheer ability of this "Asian audience" to generate bar sales of $20,000 to $30,000—in a single night—that first gave them the idea, over drinks in an LA club, to begin launching clubs in their own back yard.
"We had never promoted nightclubs before," admits Brian, although Steve had previous experience promoting events such as last year's Rock the Bells festival and Cypress Hill's Smoke Out tour. "But we researched, asked around the promoters in LA, and then from there created a business model." In the following months, the pair, along with a third partner, Gene Ku, launched NEX Level Productions, throwing their first club at the Lodge in Costa Mesa in early August.
Not that it was easy at first to convince club and bar owners to host a hip-hop night that would mainly court Asian-Americans. "We would say, 'We want to offer a new audience to your venue,'" says Brian, but many owners complained of having tried "Asian parties" in the past.
"It wasn't until we approached [owners] from a fiscal standpoint and said, 'Look, our crowd will pound your bar' that they started to listen," Steve says.
Since then, NEX Level has thrown one-off nights at spots such as the Lodge and Bellagio, in addition to a regular monthly night, Release, at Detroit Bar. As Steve notes, "We've had a number of venues tell us we gave them their highest-grossing bar sales ever."
With Eazy, Brian and Steve hope not only to continue building NEX Level's reputation as the go-to purveyor of profitable—not to mention drama-free; "We've never had any fights," says Brian—hip-hop clubs, but also to nail down a weekly weekend-night club and establish Asian-Americans as a force to be recognized by currently elusive venues such as Sutra and Vegas.
"OC is still OC," acknowledges Brian. "It's going to take a while to change."
But not too long: on the way out of the Crazy Horse on a recent Thursday, fliers for Eazy were handed out at the door. In the top-left corner, heralded in six-point font, was a two-word victory cry: "hip-hop."
EAZY AT THE CRAZY HORSE, IRVINE SPEcTRUM, 71 FORTUNE DR., Ste. 864, IRVINE, (949) 585-9000; WWW.NEXLEVELPRODUCTIONS.COM. EVERY THURS., 8:30 P.M. FREE IF YOU E-MAIL GUESTLIST@NEXLEVELPRODUCTIONS.COM; $5 FOR THE LAZY ONES. 21+; RELEASE AT DETROIT BAR, 843 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 642-0600; WWW.DETROITBAR.COM . SAT., 9 P.M. LADIES, FREE; GUYS, DISCOUNTED COVER UNTIL 10:30 P.M. WITH GUEST LIST RSVP; OTHERWISE, $10. 21+.