"This must be the tiniest nightclub in Houston," Conchita whispers to me as we step into The Flat (1701 Commonwealth, 713-521-3528). True enough, it is pretty small. The room is long and narrow, with lots of artwork hanging on the painted cinderblock walls. Most of the paintings are from the John Biggers school of art; they're of black people with exaggerated hands and feet, primitive yet profound. A guitar covered in what seems to be gold bottle caps hangs near the door. Long, low plush couches and chairs line the room. There's a bar in one corner, and two men are setting up a DJ turntable rig in another. Everything is in dark, muted tones. Somehow the paintings are all very well lit while the rest of the room stays nightclub dim.
We walk over to the bar and order our drinks.
"You have any music tonight?" I ask the bartender.
"We have DJs starting at 10 o'clock."
Conchita elbows me in the ribs, "Why'd you ask him if there was going to be any music. Ain't that why we're here? 'Cause they got music?"
"Yes," I tell her, trying to casually sneak my reporter's notebook and camera out of my purse. "I'm just trying to act dumb, you know, so he won't think we're spies or anything."
She rolls her eyes and laughs. "Girl, you ain't got to act too much, do you?"
"Oh, look, here's a menu," I shove a card touting the Flat's appetizers at her, knowing the mere thought of food will keep Conchita busy for at least half an hour, leaving me free to chat up some customers. I spot a couple of guys sitting on a sofa. One is on the phone and looking stern. The other is sitting, smiling at no one in particular. I head for the smiling one. "Hi, how you doing?"
"Pretty good. You?" he answers, oozing sweet Southern charm.
"I'm Damien," he tells me.
"Nice to meet you."
"We're having a newly-single party," he says, motioning to his stern-looking friend.
"Great!" (Awkward moment of silence.) "Hey, do you come here a lot?" I say, hoping he doesn't think that was abrupt. It was, I just don't want him to think so.
"Yeah, at least a couple times a week."
"Well," he starts, "for one, I come here because of the quality of the musicianship. People think that just because you can hit 'play' on a turntable it means that you're a DJ. That is not true -- at all. I like the DJ [here] on Mondays, DJ Sun. Plus he brings in outside artists and stuff, like Chicken George, who is here tonight. I think it's really cool."
DJ Sun is a name most Houston clubhounds know well. He won the Houston Press Music Award for Best DJ seven years in a row, from 1999 to 2005. DJ Chicken George is also a familiar name, since he used to call Houston home before he moved to Austin a while back.
A few more people have come in; we're up to 12 customers now. The two DJs are still fiddling with cords and setting up equipment. When one of them opens up his laptop, a bitten apple logo glows on its lid.
"Is it always pretty laid back here?" I ask him.
"Pretty much. It's not one of those trendy bars where you get a lot of people just trying to get laid. With this kind of laid-back, lounge-type feel, you don't get those big muscle-bound guys looking to score with those breast-implant girls," he answers.
I can see Conchita waving her menu at a waitress, trying to get some attention. I ignore her.
"They have stuff here pretty much every night of the week," Damien goes on. "And it's a nice little venue; it's kind of tucked away."
A few more people walk in. We're just under two dozen now. So far Damien has been right; there aren't any muscle-bound men or breast-implanted women. The crowd looks mixed, with people from each of the three main food groups, ranging from college age to decidedly 40+.
"Is the crowd always like this?"
Damien raises an eyebrow, which I take to mean, "What do you mean?"
"I mean, some bars I go to, there are 19-year-olds everywhere, or else everybody is over 40. It's nice and mixed here."
"Well, some of the people who follow DJ Sun have been fans for ten years, so no, they're not going to be in their early twenties," Damien says. "And since the legal age for drinking is 21, there better not be any 19-year-olds in here (laughs). That would not be good."
Duh. Conchita's "You don't have to act too hard" rings in my ears.
The bar is up to 30 people strong now, and the waitress is delivering a plate of chicken wings to Conchita. A few more people walk in, and now we're over the 40 mark. They're standing between us and the DJ table, so I can't tell if it's DJ Sun or DJ Chicken George who starts spinning in a perfectly seamless transition from the piped-in house music.
The crowd is creeping up to 60 people. I see the waitress taking Conchita a plate of hummus. Conchita waves at me, smiling.
"That's interesting, isn't it, that DJ Sun would have a guest DJ? Most guys would be like, 'This is my gig, get out,' wouldn't they?" I ask Damien. I get another raised eyebrow.
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"Those guys started spinning together at Café Brazil, at least as far as I know. They've been friends for probably over ten years, and I think that shows in the musicianship." Damien frowns at me.
"Musicianship?" I play dumb again. "Is there musicianship in DJing?"
"These aren't some flash-in-the-pan DJs just trying to dazzle the crowd. They're adding their own mix to a certain song, not just playing prerecorded stuff and trying to get the crowd to dance. They are adding special effects, really putting in their own sound. Just like with a musician, anybody can do a cover. The point is to do it your own way, to add you to it. 'This is how I interpret that song,' is basically what they're saying.
"I've followed DJ Sun for a few years now, and I've actually carved out my week around this. Every Monday I know I'm going to be at the Flat."