Kind Beats DJs fight to desegregate the dance music community

Ville Thao and John Vang: Asians don't just want to party with Asians

But forget about cops; if you really want to know what a club scene is like, you talk to the bouncers. At the same monthly Karma event, I asked a tall, casual looking doorman named Brian what he thought about Kind Beats' parties. "Man," he said, "it's pretty chill. I mean, look around, everybody's laid-back."

I asked the owner of Karma, a blond, leather-skinned man with a very serious look about him, what he thought of it all. "Kind Beats? They're the best," he said. "Them and Sound in Motion—they know how to bring numbers." So, if the cops don't know, and neither do the bouncers or the owners, what is it, then, that keeps these parties so segregated?

It must be the music, right? I, for one, am not particularly partial to events billed as "Top 40" dance nights, and neither, truth be told, are Thao and Vang. Vang counts among his influences Lee Coombs and Richie Hawtin (a.k.a. Plastikman); Thao is a psytrance DJ who has spun with such names as Deep Dish and Dave Seaman. These days, they've taken on a producer role in the style of Diplo, discovering new talent and creating an overall vibe rather than throwing down individual tracks.

Kind Beats DJs Ville Thao (left) and John Vang
courtesy of the artists
Kind Beats DJs Ville Thao (left) and John Vang

"Its not about me and John, we like to give people what they want," Thao said, referring to his preference for more ethereal, European-style techno, which the younger kids don't appreciate. It's like they say in the corporate world, Thao tells me: Great leaders know how to delegate. The crew of DJs who spin under the aegis of Kind Beats bring a solid, driving hard-house sound to their Top 40 sets. The nights are made up of house-y, teched-out versions of N.O.R.E.'s "Nothin'" and Dirty Projectors' "Stillness Is the Move," and they're laden with favorites of the First Ave sound like Lady Gaga and MGMT. I can tell you, as someone hard to win over, that I became a head-bobbing fan. There's no hype man, no flashy, arrhythmic self-promotion over the microphone, just a bunch of young Hmong cats in nondescript T-shirts and crooked ball caps laying cut after cut with nimble skill.

The strangest thing about these parties is how they're talked about. Think about what kind of shows you've been to in the past year: rock, techno, hip-hop, comedy. As I stood outside of Epic next to a line wrapped seven people wide around the block, a gangly white guy with scruffy hair and fashionably secondhand clothes walked up to the doorman and asked, "What's going on here? Why are there so many Asians!?"

The bouncer responded, automatically, "Because it's an Asian party...."

I wondered to myself, what, exactly, an Asian party consisted of, and when it was that parties became identified by the race of people who attend. Steely Dan shows aside, I can't think of the last time I heard about a Caucasian party. If I had, I would have wondered aloud what it said about the music they were going to play (because not all white people listen to suburban jazz, just like not all Asian people listen to Yo-Yo Ma).

Joking aside, the Hmong community has made tremendous strides since the 1950s. Their young leaders, like Thao and Vang, are trying to keep that progress going, trying to fully integrate into American culture, but their parties just can't seem to break through to that watershed of mainstream. "It's hard to get out there to the white folks," Thao says. "It's like people don't see people of a different race as just being here to party; it's like people think Asians only want to party with Asians and whites only want to party with whites." He smiles and shakes his head. "We're all just here to party, baby, just dance and have a good time!"

Each year, Kind Beats pulls in a crowd equal to Minnesota's entire Hmong population. (Imagine two million Minnesotans going to see, well, anything—those are State Fair numbers.) But despite their relative success, Thao and Vang remain humble. Come Monday mornings, Thao goes back to his day job installing office furniture and Vang sits down to crank out flyers for the major acts that Sound in Motion brings to town.

"People think throwing parties is some sort of get-rich-quick scheme," Thao says, "but there's some nights when you walk out with $60. You can't get into this for the cash. We always tell the kids coming up: There's no easy money. You've got to stick with it, and try your best to give people what they want."

For a couple of guys whose competition for club space lists heavy hitters like Jack Trash and the almighty Clear Channel, life stays pretty normal. "Think about it: We move a lot of money through these clubs. And at the end of the day, I still drive a broke-ass Civic," Vang says, laughing. "You just gotta love doin' it." 

The next KIND BEATS party will take place on New Year's Eve, THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, at EPIC; 612.332.3742

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