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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Mar 13 1996
"Will you unzip your jacket, please?" requests one of the three looming security guards posted outside Deco, a Tenderloin nightspot celebrating its 2-year anniversary. "I'm just going to pat down your pockets if that's OK," explains the doorman while giving my puffy flight jacket a cursory once over. Not an uncommon request on a Saturday night in the Big City, but despite, or because of, the uncommon courtesy shown by Deco's bouncers, it's clear that they are true professionals, in the best sense of the word. But what else would you expect from practically the only hip-hop joint in town?

"I've been really lucky," says 28-year-old Cleo Fishman, Deco's owner and booker. "The police have pretty much left me alone. Most places South of Market won't book hip hop anymore, but my security's really good and that makes a difference." Some of the Bay Area's finest DJs spin hip hop, dancehall, soul, and funk every night of the week, and Deco sometimes hosts live performances by both local and national artists. Although the occasional troublemaker has been known to cause a hassle, Deco is regarded by most as a hip and peaceful spot to get a groove on, toss back a few cold ones in the sharp art deco environs, and collect a few phone numbers.

"It's always very important to keep a good male/female balance at a hip-hop club," Fishman explains (it's a good draw for men but prevents the kind of competition for available women that can lead to fights when the clock starts ticking toward 2 a.m.). "I work really hard at that: Women are free before 11, we only flier women, and my mailing list is predominantly female." An effective marketing technique seeing as, early on in the evening, girls outnumber boys 3 to 1.

"The first time I came here," says Menne, a 30-year-old student at the San Francisco Art Institute, "I thought it was a gay club. There were so many women." "It's one of the few places that a woman can come and hear hip hop or dancehall without feeling threatened," agrees Shonette, a young woman with a headful of beautiful braids, "but these girls are definitely not gay."

Even so, when we first arrive, all the ladies are leaning against the bar picking at hors d'oeuvres and sipping white zinfandel while all the guys stand against a mirrored wall, chatting among themselves and only breaching the black-and-white-checked chasm between the genders when they have to order another pint of beer.

By 11:30, all that has changed. The entire building, including the pool room and the upstairs "chill lounge," is packed and smoky, and the gap between the bar and the wall has closed out of pure necessity. DJ Mind Motion makes room for Winnie B. and the dance floor is awash with flickering candlelight and gyrating honeys.

"People can really dance here," enthuses regular Kristin Schiltz. "It's not like other dance clubs." A large, fluffy "rap kitty" named Duffy slips unnoticed between Schiltz's feet and meanders nonchalantly across the dance floor. "The cat's a good sign," observes a man wearing shades and slouching against a wall. "If the cat's chill, so am I."

Outside, a line stretches clear up the block. Despite the fact that few additional guests will be allowed inside, the potential customers wait patiently, some of them already dancing. "It's Deco's 2-year anniversary, aahh-reet!" exclaim a drunken couple as they exit, making room for two more bodies. Two years is no small feat for any running hip-hop event in this town.

"The difference is that Deco is really real," says Jeanette Jacobucci, a creative consultant for M*A*C cosmetics. "People from all nationalities are able to come together without being harassed, but it doesn't have the drug vibe that 1015 has. It's real. You know, a lot of people like hip hop but don't want to go all the way to Oakland to hear it." Judging by the amount of people Fishman and company turn away, I'd say you could take that to the bank.

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By Silke Tudor

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