Tony iLL stands mostly still, hands at his side. His head is tilted slightly back and to the left as he watches a man rap. He listens closely, nodding with the beat when the emcee hits a groove and smirking when he delivers a clever punch line.
When the rapper is finished, iLL walks over and shakes his hand. Someone else takes the microphone and says, "Before we move on, I wanna introduce you to the man that owns this place."
"This place" is Club Sugarhill (3337-A FM 1960 W.), a nightclub in far, far north Houston that opened in November 2011 and is slowly building a fervent fan base.
iLL takes the microphone.
"First, let me say thank you all for coming out tonight," he says. "When I was rapping, I remember doing a lot of things similar to this."
iLL was born in New York and grew up in Louisiana, attending the same high school as Master P, then known as Percy Miller. Eventually, in 1986, iLL settled in Houston.
He was a renowned battle rapper, competing with P back in New Orleans and some early Rap-A-Lot stars here, but never could cross over into radio play like he'd hoped. He's older now, and rounder than he was as a budding rapper, but his eyes are still young. They scan the room as he talks.
iLL tried running a record label after his rap career faltered, but that didn't work out either. He did other jobs but never cared about any. He had to move in with his mother for two years when some other business ventures failed, but he got everything back together before opening the club, putting up $20,000 of his own money to get Sugarhill up to fire code.
He knew he wanted to contribute to hip-hop culture. Club Sugarhill is how he feels he can.
The night we visited was only Sugarhill's second Sunday-evening underground-rap showcase. So far that crowd has been predominantly under 25, but the rest of the time the club's entire business model is structured around classic hip-hop. Saturday nights, it offers live music with an assortment of groups re-creating the New Jack '90s.
"That was the golden age of R&B," iLL says.
Whether rap or R&B, Sugarhill is 100 percent dedicated to a bygone era of music. It's certainly the only place of its kind in Houston and, according to one rap legend, possibly the country.
"We had Kool Moe Dee come perform," says iLL. "He told me it was the only place he knew of in the United States that only played that kind of hip-hop all the time."
Sugarhill is a split-level space carved out of an existing shopping strip center. Aesthetically, it's a little rudimentary, but so was early hip-hop.
It is roomy, with a capacity of upward of 260. The DJ overlooks the dance floor from a second-story DJ booth near the upstairs bar. Otherwise the space is empty except for a flatscreen TV, two upstairs pool tables and a downstairs bar.
The only real decorations are framed posters and album-cover prints from people like MC Shan, Salt-n-Pepa and Run-DMC. Sugarhill's logo is stylized after the Queens trio's.
There's even a poster celebrating the 1991 movie New Jack City, one of Chris Rock's two movie roles that don't make you want to drive into a brick wall. (The other is his brilliant cameo in 1988's I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.)
Sugarhill's playlist has strict boundaries set in place. DJs are allowed to craft mixes from songs that came out between the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 single "Rapper's Delight," which many consider the song that put hip-hop in the nation's consciousness, and 50 Cent's classic 2003 album Get Rich or Die Tryin'.
"What I like about Sugarhill is that they're so genuine in their appreciation of the legends in hip-hop," says Willie D of Houston's Geto Boys, one of the most important groups in rap history.
Willie D is definitely impressed. "You can tell [iLL] ain't a chump," the rapper says. "He knows the history. He has his money and his heart invested, and that says a lot."
More is planned for the future. iLL wants graffiti artists to come in and decorate the place, and to bring in more legendary acts. iLL is waiting to finalize some last details before announcing any names, he says.
The place is a rapper's delight, for sure.
But a rap fan's delight, too.
If we can switch gears entirely: Practically ageless Houston stoner-rockers The Linus Pauling Quartet perform Saturday at Rudyard's (2010 Waugh) to start warming up for a busy summer. In another couple of months or so, they'll put out their first album of new material in five years, Bag of Hammers, as well as a compilation dating back to their origins in 1994. Both albums will be released on Houston's Home Skool Recordz, and LP4 will play a few more shows around Texas leading up to their proper Bag of Hammers release June 22 at Fitzgerald's (2706 White Oak). Check them out online at www.worshipguitars.org/LP4/ if you're nervous, curious or both.
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