The first thing I noticed when I moved to Hawaii was that it was a land of conformity, one that disliked change, but this didn’t matter very much to me. Back then, I was determined to make things happen—making things happen (preferably with cinder blocks and buckets of white paint) was the only way I could justify my continued existence.
Velvet: Art + Music
I got involved in the art scene, began to exhibit my artwork, and made a bunch of friends in the exceedingly tiny art world of Honolulu, circa 1995-1998. Little by little, my path intertwined with that of the party crowds and one thing led to another. I realized the party people and the art people needed to meet up and be creative together. This was around 1999, back when DJ’s were just starting to have an officially sanctioned existence in New York City museums and underground art events. I worked with my (then boy) friend, Mark Chittom, who was a party promoter, on a new kind of event we called Velvet: Art & Music. I worked with an artist’s collective I spearheaded—Special Prescription—and we did site specific, themed art exhibitions in conjunction with out of town guest DJ’s. We would mount an exhibition and offer a variety of art-related interactive events at the art opening to keep people deeply engaged. Later, around nine, we’d turn the lights down and the DJ’s would play more sophisticated music than was customary in Honolulu back then. Mark had heard about Wax Records on Melrose Avenue in LA and he called them up one day and asked if one of their DJ's wanted to come out and play in Hawaii. It was our great good fortune that the altogether amazing Juan Nunez said yes. Because of our friendship with Juan, we eventually met Chris Pocino, another co-owner of Wax, and that led us to meeting DJ Harvey. They helped teach and influence our taste in music, lessons Mark and I enthusiastically embraced. Altogether, Velvet fostered community and helped facilitate the cross-pollination of subcultures who were sort of hostile to each other. The overall goal was to raise the bar since Honolulu was a pre-internet-era tourist trap and we wanted to make things cooler.
It was during the year and a half of doing Velvet that I met DJ Harvey, a visiting DJ from England who was in a whole other league from us in terms of his experience and sophistication in music. Harvey was interested in learning how to surf and I was really interested in what all this disco stuff was about. Over the course of several visits he and I struck up a close friendship and this friendship, which lasted about ten years, resulted in the creation of thirtyninehotel. Harvey and I were avid surfers and we enjoyed some remarkably magical times as we worked to realize a Hawaiian disco paradise.
For me, the real spell was cast when I went to LA to see Harvey DJ there. Up until then, I had only seen him DJ for our innocent goofy little parties. In LA, at a party called Headroom put on by Paul Takahashi of Sarcastic Disco fame, I was confronted with a spectacular vision and some heavy religious undertones. This party was on a whole other cosmic level, it was serious business. This was a creative musical performance, a religious ritual, and a collective psychospiritual journey, and Harvey was clearly the shaman and spiritual guide. The room itself was large and sparse with white walls. A magnificent disco ball hanging from the center of the ceiling radiated and refracted millions of tiny suns which beautifully illuminated the undulating cosmology unfolding there on the dance floor. For me, this was the equivalent of finding God—I became a true convert that night and I never stopped worshipping at the altar of disco.
When I returned to Hawaii, I was obsessed with doing whatever THAT was in the islands. I wanted to show everyone what I had seen. Harvey decided to stay in Hawaii for a two month stretch, and he and a friend of his, Tim Easton, a.k.a. Tim Dogg, stayed with me over the Christmas holidays. During that time the two of them conducted me through daily lectures, workshops, film screenings, and music listening sessions, teaching me all about the history of disco, about its founder, David Mancuso, and about the beautiful evolution of this creative music phenomenon which is the very birthplace of DJ culture and all of popular dance music. All dance music, including house, hip hop, and rap, came into the world because of disco. In all these moments of learning about the many figures who fostered the evolution of American dance music, I immediately honed in on David Mancuso because like him, I’m an unapologetic purist.
Like a true disciple, I got rid of everything in my life but my new vision of a disco God. I literally threw away all my art supplies and Harvey and I converted my little painting studio loft on Nu'uanu Avenue in Chinatown into a tiny little discothéque. I asked Harvey, “If I can put it all together in time, will you DJ at the opening?" He said yes. By this time, Harvey had discovered a set of vintage JBL studio monitors at my boss's house, and we had already been talking about what it might look like to have a little dance club, so when I was at the Headroom party in LA, I bought a used Bozak mixer from a guy someone knew, and I brought it back to Hawaii with me. I still have it today, it will be the centerpiece of my next dance effort. Hawaii’s Quiet Storm kicked off on a balmy night on February 4, 2001 and ran about eight months. It was free to get in, and you could bring your own beer. I had a cooler with free Budweisers and a tip jar. My mom would pick flowers from the garden for me each week and we’d put them on the DJ booth, which was suspended from the ceiling. We had a blast but “they” found out about it and shut us down, eventually. After that, I was devastated and went underground for about three years, and Harvey disappeared for a while, too.
I searched high and low in Chinatown for another space and so had seen the empty space at 39 North Hotel Street and I loved it SO much, but what could I do? I had no money. One day, out of the blue, my mom came to me and said she could loan me 10K from her 401K account if I was really serious about opening my own space—she knew about my obsession to get “my own space.” It’s all I ever talked about.
Ten Thousand Dollars!!! It was more money than I could even dream of.
Suddenly, right around this time, Mark Chittom said he was starting a new party and that Harvey was coming out to DJ. He’d moved to LA by then and was around more. When he arrived, we went surfing together and I told him I wanted to open the club again and I’ll never forget his eyes: they got really big and excited. The next day, I took him to Chinatown and Christy the landlady showed us the space. She was real worried about Harvey’s looks because he generally looked like a hobo, with a big beard and old vintage faded board-shorts. I told Christy he was a world-famous DJ and that important music people always looked like hobos. This was April, 2004.
It had to be done. There was no way around it. This was the deepest wish of my soul—I had to fulfill the call of destiny.
I quit my job (working for something like $3 an hour at the Hawaii International Film Festival) and started conducting research. There was a place called the Small Business Resource Center on the corner of Nu’uanu and Hotel and I started hanging around in there, studying and learning about all the things I had to do to get a new business off the ground. I asked Harvey if he could help come up with some cash and two of his great friends, Michael Kopelman and Hugh Herrera, were amazingly kind and gave us some money. My mother gave us the money she promised and a bit later on, my best friend, Pam Zam, gave the project a cash boost. All in all though, we had virtually no money and no bank loans. We bought some used sound equipment from other party people in town, and ordered a new 16” disco ball and four pinspots. I negotiated three months of free rent, and discounted monthly rent for one year—Christy needed to see if we could actually pay the rent and if we did, she said she would renew the lease for two more years. I finally signed the lease and got the key from Christy on July 1st, 2004. Eight days later, after Harvey played a set at Mark’s party a block away at Indigo, we had an after party at the still unborn thirtyninehotel. Some people speak of humble beginnings, but when we say humble, we mean it. For our first party people had to sit on the floor if they wanted to sit down, and of course the bathroom is a story all its own. I remembered from the Quiet Storm days that people were always asking me where the bathroom was and it dawned on me that no one would stay very long if they had nowhere to go. I was lying in bed a couple of nights before the party when it hit me: I could set up a makeshift toilet with buckets and Christmas lights in that little closet out on the patio! From then on and until the day we closed, our storage room was called the Shit Shack. Behold: the birthing ceremony, July 9, 2004.
Grand Opening Night
Back then in 2004, Hotel Street was super scary. All of Chinatown was. Drug dealers, prostitutes, and crackheads ruled the streets. I had been hanging around there for years by then so I was used to it. I felt at home among these “alternative” people. But when I told people what I was doing everyone warned me against it. “This isn’t the mainland, Gelareh. NO ONE will EVER come to Hotel Street! You’ll lose all your money. It’ll never work.” We’ll see about that, was my unruffled response. That’s the thing about being under the power of a religious calling. No one can talk you out of your madness. I had seen God and I had to share my vision with everyone. It had to be done and failure was not an option.
By this time, I had already broken the middle finger of my right hand, and the big toe of my left foot. I had to wear one of those boot things at the grand opening. These injuries served to remind me that I was taking on too much on my own and that I needed to ask for help. Once I swallowed my pride and my naiveté, the troops started to pour in and a most excellent, widely extensive family of new and old friends—all co-founders and co-builders and co-managers and co-artists of thirtyninehotel—formed around the young project. My best friends at the time, Selena Makaena and Mark Chittom, were the first ones on board. All of us had already been working together on Velvet and Quiet Storm and generally spending every waking moment together as friends and creative collaborators in life.
Another main player to come around was Richard Ralya. Richard and I attended the San Francisco Art Institute and I first ran into him at Queens, a surf spot in Waikiki. A highly advanced and talented artist and graphic designer, Richard helped create the first cards and posters and he designed our logo. Indeed, his sophisticated visual language helped define the entire branding posture of our space, although none of us knew at the time how far all this would be going. I often compare it to playing "house" like I did when I was a kid, only this time I was playing "business." I had never owned a business before. The entire thing unfolded organically with a maximum of joy, excitement, and fun.
Like other impressive renaissance men, Richard was also an accomplished builder and he helped design and build a beautifully weird bar (it was super low and wide, unlike most bars which are tall and skinny) and some benches for the grand opening. I painted everything white. We went and bought a bunch of umbrellas and plastic lawn furniture and people donated some couches and plants and once we put up some Christmas lights in the patio and Christy’s husband put in the bathroom (and a shower!), we launched the first opening night, on August 7, 2004, with my own paintings decorating the walls. It was a fun night, but people weren’t sure what to do. No one could figure out yet what this place was supposed to be. Was it an art gallery or were they supposed to get up and dance? It was both, of course, as everyone would come to discover in time.
First First Friday
After the grand opening it was time to install some proper track lights for the artwork. thirtyninehotel’s mission was to exhibit a new show every month and the next artist was Richard Ralya. Since we were so poor, we had to do everything ourselves. I went and bought the lighting gear and Richard’s father came by and he and I installed the lights, which was such a huge job because the ceilings were made of concrete and each track needed about seven screw holes drilled. And we were on ladders. Pushing up with drills. But we got it done. Right around this time, Derek Paiva from the Honolulu Advertiser (now merged together with the Star Bulletin becoming the Star Advertiser) came to do an interview with me about thirtyninehotel. After the interview, he called me and said it would be the cover article for Friday’s TGIF section in the newspaper. The cover article came out the day of Richard’s opening which was a First Friday, Chinatown’s relatively new attempt at revitalizing the downtown arts district, and it was our first art opening as part of the First Friday gallery walk.
Four hundred people came!
I’ll never forget it. People would walk up the narrow stairwell and I would watch as their jaws hit the floor. Mouths gaping, eyes wide, they would marvel at the site greeting them: huge white walls, tall ceilings, big modern paintings, lots of space between each painting. Great music, a giant rooftop patio. This was something no one had seen yet in Honolulu.
It was a huge success.
And we were off.
One day, I was sitting on the big grey couches during our “normal business hours,” reading. Our downstairs doors were quite creaky and normally I would hear when someone opened the door and came up. But on this day, I looked up from my book to see a young Chinese man standing there, looking around the space and back at me. His quiet appearance was so spooky that we just looked at each other. It was as though he appeared out of thin air, like a fairy. This smallish man sat at the farthest edge of the couch and pulled A People’s History of the United States out of his bag and began to read. It was love at first sight. For this was none other than Chris Lam, a.k.a Little Lam, a.k.a. The Laminator, a.k.a. my right hand man, my most trusted confidante, my best friend and collaborator. I swear God sent him to me and he became literally indispensable to the work I had set out to do. No one was more gung ho about thirtyninehotel, the music, the DJs and all the people who worked there. I could not have asked for a better friend. He threw himself into helping us run the day to day and he grew and grew and grew into a DJ a light-tech for the likes for Nicky Siano, Harvey, and Francois K, and an all around ladies man. I haven’t spoken to the Laminator in ages. Hey Lammie, if you end up reading this, I miss you. Thank you for being such a terrific friend.
The Original Crew
Basically, it was me, Chris, Selena, Richard, Malia, and eventually, Melissa. We ran the space on Tuesday nights for Jazz night and on Saturdays for Quiet Storm. This crew also ran the operations when we had special events with outside promoters and on First Fridays.
Once the space had been officially opened as an art gallery, it was time to focus on next steps. This meant showing the work of other artists, getting the Saturday night disco going, and broadening our scope to include live music. For the first year, we had a new art exhibition every month, but this was so much work that in the second year and onward from there, we mounted a new exhibit every two months. In October 2004 we kicked off our popular jazz nights which featured the effervescent Newjass Quartet headed by all-around artistic genius and devoted malcontent, Ryan Kunimura and rhythm master, Justin James. The jazz night was a massive success and sealed our status as über-cool music and art space where artists, writers, poets, and musicians hung out. We didn’t have a liquor license yet, so people would bring their own and we would take it from them, put it in the fridge or on the shelf, and then we’d serve their own booze to them for a tip. We would offer cups, ice, and mixers. It was like playing house, only I was playing bar, or playing “business.”
The Saturday Night Disco Jihad
The Saturday night disco began with Hawaii’s Quiet Storm, a carry over from the old loft. In time, it was replaced by Lucky Tiger, then it became Double Joy Disco, and finally it evolved into Space Truckin’. We also held a few special events with Harvey called Night Fever. It took FOREVER to get Honolulu people to love the music we loved, and to actually dance, since most people immediately congregated on our incredible rooftop patio. I used to believe that even if Jesus himself came down from heaven and started to play records, people would still stay on the patio. Today, people in HNL are a bit more hip (one presumes), but back when we started, most (including yours truly, I was a relatively new disco convert after all) were rather undereducated when it came to the more sophisticated underground disco scene, its historical legacy, and the new music it was actively producing. We had countless parties with Harvey in the first five years with just the diehard fans, about ten or twenty of us, dancing the night away and bringing up the sun. I bet today’s residents are kicking themselves for missing out on those truly remarkable, irreplaceable moments! In the end, we had Daniele Baldelli, Francois K (that has its own amazing story, see below!), Nicky Siano, Bonobo, James Murphy, Justin Vandervolgen, Kool Herc (he was in town for a party at Next Door but DJ’ed for a bit at my birthday party in the very early days) Thomas Bullock, Eric Duncan, Garth, Christine Renee, and so many more. This was a song Harvey made for thirtyninehotel around that time.
I want to tell you an amazing story about Francois K. We had been open less than a year when I dared to contact him and invite him to Hawaii for a gig. He said yes, amazingly. Most big name DJs used coming to Hawaii as an opportunity to have a nice vacation with their families. His fee though was so outside of my range of possibilities but I agreed anyway. It took me four years to pay it down. Money was never my strong suit, I believed in spiritual possibilities and the glories of art and music, I never made decisions based on sound reasoning. So, in comes Francois, and the first thing he says, very irritated, is that his family is still with him, he had thought they would fly directly home but they had to stick around for another night. So Chris and I picked them up from the airport and dropped his lovely wife and his son at the hotel. Francois said he wanted to immediately go to the space to set up the sound system and do a sound check. At this point, he is still treating us like professional party promoters, he still has an expectation of finding a club with a big ugly ear-pounding sound system waiting for him in Chinatown. And because of this, he is still being kind of bitchy with us. I had called Mrak Chittom ahead of time and he met us there. As per Francois’s instructions, I had picked up a Yamaha SPX 9000 and borrowed a Urei mixer from my neighbor. When we finally got there, we went upstairs and I think it suddenly dawned on Francois what amatuers he was really dealing with. Excited and passionate amateurs. He immediately set to work wiring everything up for us. At this point, he discovered that the SPX 9000 was half an inch too wide for the piece of plywood where the mixer was so he grabbed his Swiss Army knife and started to saw away at the plywood DJ booth while Mark Chittom, Chris Lam and I stood watching him, awestruck and meek. He played the whole night and was so sweet to us. He could see we were just getting started. This being Honolulu, circa 2005, everyone sat on the edges of the room like this was a high school dance and they were afraid to be laughed at. In the end, it was my mother together with my friend Anné’s mother and aunt who got the dance floor going. They showed the kids how it was done. Epic night.
I think it’s time for some crowd shots of our amazing staff and patrons and all the fun we all kept having together.
I had never owned a business before. I never ran an art gallery nor did I know how to operate a restaurant or a bar. I just learned as I went. Failure was not an option so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Along the way, friends and collaborators popped up at opportune moments and helped steer the ship. One such friend was Trisha Lagaso Goldberg, a fellow SFAI alum who happened to move back to Hawaii after years in the S.F. bay area around the time thirtyninehotel had been open about a year. Our art shows were good but Trisha brought a level of professional curatorial skills to the table that I had not acquired yet. She took over the gallery side of the space and orchestrated a series of art exhibitions that were really quite spectacular not to mention more developed, conceptually. Together, we also collaborated on a program called 39 CARP—thirtynine Chambers Artists Residency Program. We flew internationally recognized artists to Hawaii, paid for their materials, found them assistants, put them up in my house, drove them around, fed them and gave them a bit of cash, and they in turn created amazing, site-specific multi-media installations that took over the entire space and transformed it into a living visual experience. We had a ton of art exhibitions over the course of ten years. Here are the exhibit flyers from some of them.
First Fridays were MASSIVE. We regularly had about 5,000 people come through in one night. We would begin with a four hour art opening, then we’d turn the lights down and the DJ’s would make everyone dance. Sometimes we had live music and dance performances. It was great because promoters, musicians, and DJ’s were always presenting us with ideas for exciting events and we would just add new events and new art and new music to our ongoing weekly and monthly line-up. The place was always jumping and when it wasn’t it was a peaceful and lovely spot to have a beer and chat with friends. Our music was (almost!) always perfect, easy going when it was mellow, exciting and jumping when it was late and the place was packed. Here are some photos from a First Friday in 2007 which included a beautiful dance performance by Shakti Dance Group.
Liquor License & Mixology
We finally got our liquor license in February of 2005 and proceeded to do what we thought we should, which was to wing it—not necessarily the best approach to bar management. We didn’t even have an ice machine until we were five years old. We used to haul bags of ice upstairs every night and later, we needed so much ice that Hawaiian Ice would deliver what felt like millions of bags of ice every weekend. I can still hear the anguished groan of our amazing barbacks and bartenders when the ice arrived. Anyway, after about three years of throwing money away like a crazy person, it finally dawned on me to hire professional bartenders. I put an ad on Craigslist and that’s when Christian Self came on board. He helped get us off the ground, starting with insisting that we needed to build better bathrooms, which we did. He became the bar manager and little by little we started getting a ton of attention for our cocktails, which were truly delicious. It was a win win because no one had really given Christina full reign yet and at thirtyninehotel he was given space and support so he could show everyone his considerable mixology talents. There wasn’t really any mixology per se in Honolulu—Christian more or less kicked it off, or at the very least, brought it to the forefront of everyone’s attention, and then it became a mania. This was yet another pioneering moment for thirtyninehotel.
OK, this is as far as I can get today. I still have Anne Alves to tell about, and our entire staff to introduce. Plus, there are a ton more parties, like Soulgasm, Shake ‘n Pop, Kaleidoscope, Sean’s Bandana, Soul Clap, and so many more. Lots more photos, party flyers, and press as well. And lots of photos of friends and party people. Until next time.