Kind Beats DJs fight to desegregate the dance music community
You've probably never heard of Kind Beats, one of the busiest party crews in Minneapolis, and the otherwise affable and lighthearted DJ Ville Thao is growing cynical as to why that is. Ville and his partner John Vang (who spins breakbeat for Sound in Motion as Johnny Plastik) promote parties together as Kind Beats, regularly selling out Minnesota's biggest dance venues. Most recently, the last weekend of November saw their eighth-anniversary party at Epic and their monthly event, Flirt, at Karma.
Fighting his way through jam-packed throngs of some 800 Hmong and a smattering of other races at Karma, Thao confesses his dilemma as he gestures to the crowd. "You see?" he asks, "Where's all the white guys at?" Turning to me, he jokes, "Where's all your people?"
Thao and Vang think of the Kind Beats fans as family. "A lot of the people that come out for us have been with us since day one, since back when we rented out the basement of the Stadium Sports Bar way out in White Bear Lake," Thao says. Still, they want to take it to the next level, to fill the clubs with more people and make their major events better known around the country, but it's proven challenging.
First, a little background: During the 1950s, Jesuit missionaries in Laos created the first written Hmong language to exist for centuries. There's an old Hmong saying that the book chronicling their history and language was eaten in an effort to preserve the remnants of their culture as they fled kingdoms that were being routed by pursuing Chinese armies. They became ostensibly nomadic, with no single country to call home. Working with the Jesuits, the CIA provided funding for training teachers and building schools, which stabilized the dispersed population and made for a grateful and fiercely loyal pool of clandestine soldiers.
Years later, during the Vietnam War, the immediate relatives of these two Hmong DJs were part of military operations lead by the CIA. Their parents' generation fought on behalf of the United States during America's secret war in the jungle along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, rescuing downed American pilots and disrupting supply lines for the Viet Cong. To be sure, the Hmong-American story is one of brave service and epic tragedy that deserves a prominent place in the annals of American folklore.
These days, Thao and Vang are fighting a different kind of battle, with different kinds of weapons. It's no longer a question of overthrowing communist dictatorships, but of selling bottles of Cîroc in VIP at Karma, and that percussive sound of battle has morphed from mortar shells exploding through the thicket to bomb-tracks blaring out of speaker towers at Epic Nightclub. But make no mistake, the nature of their struggle remains classically all-American.
It's because of the unique historic relationship that so many Hmong have immigrated to the United States, with the largest population—42,000 as of the last census—settling in Minnesota. The first wave came over in 1975 with the end of the Vietnam War, and when the first generation of Hmong kids came of age, there were problems that contributed to the stereotypes that many people have about the so-called "Asian" club scene. I asked Vang, who is small in stature but carries a big, easy smile, about it as we walked through an empty Karma Nightclub before the doors opened.
"We get a bad rap because back in the early '90s, there were fights all the time," Vang says. "It left a black mark on the whole thing. Those kids were like, 'Oh snap, we can get into clubs now!?' You know, it was all new to them, and they acted crazy." Along with Thao, Vang was among the first group of Hmong children born in the States. But times change, and with cultural assimilation, the scene has matured and predictably mellowed. "Those people are gone, that generation has moved on," he says. "These kids are mostly college graduates, or at least they will be."
The lingering association of Asian club kids with violence permeates the (arguably tight-knit) dance-club culture of Minneapolis. I asked several local working DJs what they thought of the Asian crowds, and without exception, they said that they stay away out of fear, that they're "too crazy." There are accusations and generalizations about gang activity and long, gruesome anecdotes about bouncers getting beat down "right inside the club!" However, after spending several nights at their parties, I can report unequivocally that if any gang activity is going on it is of the West Side Story, Sharks-versus-Jets variety (wherein the Hmong are the Sharks, and hipsters the Jets) rather than the Gran Torino sort; dance moves and Jäg bombs are the predominant mating calls here, not the strutting, gun-toting machismo that many presume.
Standing outside of Karma, where Chester Taylor, E.J. Henderson, and other Minnesota Vikings (under the guise of raising money for the Karl Paymah Foundation) threw a co-party with the Kind Beats crew, a grizzled, middle-aged cop and his equally annoyed partner eyeballed a petite young Hmong girl in a revealing pastel green dress who was screaming at her boyfriend. I asked what kind of problems cops saw at these sorts of parties, and he pointed to the drunk, now hoarse girl and stated bluntly: "Over-serving."
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.
"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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