At the previously troubled corner of 11th and Folsom streets on a recent Sunday night, Baki Lepolo, patriarch of San Francisco nightclub security, marvels at the difference a remodel makes. "Wowww," he rumbles in his bass voice that lays down sentences with all the speed of a steamroller. "It's the rich gettin' richer."
Tonight is a sneak preview party for a new club called Mist, and the hype is hot. Promotion cards read "Rising up from the heart of the SoMa district comes a new beginning in nightclub culture ... sexy & stunning." The cocktail menu lists the Mist Mai Tai and White Mist Cosmo (if you need to see prices, you need not be in Mist). The promoter is Donovan (if that name means nothing, honey, you really need not be in Mist). The state-of-the-art liquid CO2 jet system is spewing white fog onto the dancefloor with the force and decibel level of a space shuttle ready for blastoff.
Just shy of 10 p.m., the guests start to arrive and are directed into their respective places in the velvet rope caste system by Lepolo's crew of security personnel. The club promoter stepping from a white limo with a five-person entourage: Straight through the door. The dandy with a scarf tucked around neck: RSVP line. Three working-class Latino men: Sorry, private party tonight.
A year ago, Mist was Loft 11, one of those problem clubs that catered to a rowdy hip-hop crowd, the kind of folks who needed to be told to take out their gold grills before they could go in — known in the security business as "knuckleheads." Things officially got out of hand in June 2007 when a fight that spilled out into the street ended in two men getting stabbed. The building's landlord finally evicted the management last spring and shut the disaster down.
In short, it was the type of club Baki Lepolo had worked for years.
Among the loose-knit ranks of guys posted on nightclub doors across the city, Lepolo is something of a legend. While his father nags him to return to their 4,000-person Samoan village in the South Pacific to inherit the title of chief, Lepolo, as humble as he is, boasts he commands an equal amount of respect from Samoans here.
Lepolo has long been the go-to guy for fellow Samoans looking for some extra dough, including a few parolees who needed a job where the boss doesn't ask questions as long as you're big. Lepolo's mostly Samoan and African-American nightclub security posse was known as the Madd Pac, named after a Samoan street gang in Seattle, and worked the toughest crowds in town in a largely unregulated, cash-under-the-table trade.
But after two decades in the industry, Lepolo wants to move beyond providing the muscle for parties to actually throwing them — with his own guys working the door, naturally. That's where the real money is: in "concert producing" and "party promoting," vague job titles that have a sexy ring to those who've spent their careers standing out on the pavement.
Which is why Lepolo finds himself at Mist, making his way through the crowd like a docking sailboat as part of a security team in his new event production company.
But Lepolo doesn't seem entirely at home in his new upscale environs. It isn't easy to repackage a 360-pound Polynesian dude in size 13 shoes from the 'hood. To a crowd like those dancing under the mist to the lyrics I've got a little too much over a house beat, Lepolo felt the beautiful people just saw him as a beefy guy getting in their way. "I didn't feel uncomfortable," he says, "but people are like, 'Okay, you're security, you're a host.' ... People don't know that most of us got degrees. They got conceptions of us, thinking he's probably a badass."
In a world where your rep is everything, it's hard for Lepolo to shake the one he's built over his 20 years in club security. "The first thing they always say is 'Baki from Madd Pac,'" he says. "I don't know if that's a curse." But there's nothing clubbers like more than a good reinvention, so if Loft 11 can turn into Mist in a matter of months, maybe a bouncer with a hard-core rep can get a makeover, too.
Samoans began to arrive in San Francisco after World War Two, when the U.S. Navy pulled out of the American territory and transferred its manpower to mainland bases. With some 10,000 Samoans living in the Bay Area by 1985 as families followed the first wave of immigrants, it was only a matter of time until a few discovered their hulking build made them a shoo-in for bouncing at clubs.
Along with their sheer size, Samoans like Lepolo have a measure of street cred that has helped them at the clubs. Lepolo immigrated with his father at age 5 to live with his grandparents in the Sunnydale projects (the Samoan Community Development Center estimates 90 percent of Samoans in the city live in public housing). By his teenage years in what he calls the "shady '80s," Lepolo started dealing dope with his cousins, which he claims could bring in as much as $4,000 in a matter of a few days.
But when some of Lepolo's extended family ended up serving time, some of the older cousins decided they'd better get out of the drug game. In 1986, one cousin, Rasta Sam, hooked up the then-16-year-old Lepolo with a security gig at City Nights on Third and Harrison streets. Still working there while playing linebacker for City College, Lepolo joined forces with Samoans and African-Americans and even a tough Italian, many of them community college athletes, who were the go-to guys for running troublemakers out of the clubs as gangsta rap hit the scene. As Lepolo explains it, he thought that since they were "mad-packing" knuckleheads out of clubs, the name of a Samoan gang he'd run with during summers in the now-defunct High Point projects of Seattle could be transferred to his new crew.