Is RBC Deep Ellum's Cursed Venue?
RBC is back with a new look and a new fan base, but have the same old troubles come along with?
If you didn't know to look for it, you'd never know RBC was there. The club is tucked away at the end of a long walkway behind Twisted Root Burger Co. on Commerce Street, in Deep Ellum. But the unobtrusive location belies this venue's backstory, one full of ambition, failure, infighting and even violence.
The latest drama came this April, when talent buyer Moody Fuqua abruptly walked away from the club.
Fuqua's arrival in December seemed to herald a renaissance at RBC, since he brought much of his programming over from the popular Lower Greenville bar Crown & Harp. RBC kept its initials but abandoned Red Blood Club for Rhythm Beats Culture. The venue became a hot spot for hip-hop, DJs, punk bands, open mics and experimental music. In its first month under Fuqua, bar sales increased five-fold from the month prior, turning the best business RBC had seen in its 15-year history.
But four months into his tenure, he walked away to join Club Dada. To some, it was a bizarre change of events, but for others it seemed inevitable, given RBC's troubled past. The trouble stretches back much further than when current owner, Tammy Moss, took over in 2014. The question now is whether Moss and RBC can shake the bad luck that has seemed to plague it from its start.
Michael Whittington opened the Red Blood Club in 1999. He had been part owner of the now-defunct Sol’s Taco Lounge, where The Free Man is now, across the street from RBC. He saw an opportunity to open his own joint and took over the location from Doug Henry, who owned Blue Cat Blues and was moving his club to a new location.
By 2001, Whittington realized Deep Ellum was not as hospitable a place for his club as it first appeared. Business declined as violence crept into the neighborhood. “A lot of hip-hop clubs moved in, people started getting beat up, and it got violent, so people quit coming to Deep Ellum,” says Whittington. “It got so bad, the pizza guys were getting beat up.”
His dive bar, once stocked with fans watching football and drinking cheap beer, wasn’t bringing in the customers. He wasn't alone; attendance declined across the board in Deep Ellum. “It went from traffic in the streets to no traffic in the streets anymore, and people started shutting down left and right,” says Whittington.
Red Blood Club had to reinvent itself to stay afloat, so it morphed into a regular music venue with the help of punk musician and talent buyer Sean Cameron. Cameron brought RBC its first punk shows and the theme stuck. Whittington says it worked because “those guys [in the punk crowd] weren't scared of anybody. They weren't scared to come to Deep Ellum.”
Red Blood Club enjoyed a famed and successful run as a hardcore and punk venue throughout much of the early 2000s. “We were the punk club that was known very well. Bands from all over the U.S. and some from other countries wanted to play the RBC when they came to Dallas,” says Mike Rios, the doorman and talent buyer from Red Blood Club.
Moody Fuqua (right) joined owner Tammy Moss (left) at RBC in December. By April, he was already gone.
The club’s odd location, with its hidden entrance, actually worked in Whittington’s favor. He was able to fly mostly under the radar and hold rowdy music shows without being hassled by police. “Deep Ellum was pretty much deserted, and you could get away with a lot of stuff,” says Whittington. “You could do bigger shows. I was more worried about paying rent than I was about the fire cap.”
According to Whittington, in 2006 the city started coming down on him and were going to require businesses in Deep Ellum to have a special use permit, or SUP, for holding music shows. Whittington had previously enjoyed the hassle-free ownership that came with a hidden hole-in-the-wall in a part of the city no one wanted to go to.
“The city started saying I needed a bigger sign, and I was getting some hassle from the fire marshal,” says Whittington. “I was on the map finally. It used to be a little hidden club back there."
Whittington says after the city started leaving notices on the door he had had enough. He had only been breaking even on the club, and the increased pressure from the city convinced him to shut down in December of 2006.
“I just saw the writing on the wall," he says. "I went inside and looked around and was like, fuck this, I haven't done anything wrong. We didn’t have any police problems. This ain’t no picnic down here and if I'm the bad guy in the neighborhood, I'm done with it. This club ain't gonna work if someone's on you all the time. And I just closed it."
It didn't take long for the Red Blood Club to come back, but when it did, trouble wasn't far behind. Brad Garrett, a musician from a punk band who played regular gigs at the club, wanted to keep it going, so he reopened it in March of 2007. Then the violence hit.
At one of the punk shows, two guys who had been thrown out for being drunk and disorderly went to their cars and came back with knives and stabbed several people who had to be taken to the hospital, Rios says. The city cracked down on the club and demanded that two off-duty police officers be on the premises for shows on Friday and Saturday nights to keep the crowd in check. Garrett couldn’t shoulder the cost of the extra security — Rios estimates it would have cost $1,000 weekly — so he shut down.
The club then morphed into Tucker’s Blues, and was open for less than a year from December 2011 to September 2012. TABC records show that Tucker’s Blues was averaging monthly alcohol sales of only $3,000, which is almost half of RBC’s worst month since it reopened in 2014 and 10 times less than its best month under Fuqua.
In the meantime Rios continued booking shows around Deep Ellum with Mel Stock, his partner in a company they formed called iRock Entertainment. In 2013, Stock suggested the pair open their own venue and after doing some scouting, Rios says he suggested opening at the old RBC. He had a soft spot for the venue, having worked there for so many years.
RBC has enjoyed its largest crowds in years since the start of 2016.
“I spent the last 20 years of my life at this club. My buddy built the club, and I used to go there all the time and hang out," says Rios. "I started working there, so from the year 2000 to 2006, I spent five days a week in that club. There were times we'd have 14 shows in a row, and I'd spend 14 days there without a day off. Every time those doors were open, we were there. It was a big part of my life. Then having the opportunity to open it again, I felt like I was back home.”
Rios said he had an overwhelming response when he posted the plans to reopen RBC on Facebook, garnering over 1,000 likes in the first week. The pair just needed an investor. Stock approached Tammy Moss, formerly part-owner of Reno’s Chop Shop, to front the money. Rios says the partners worked out a sweat-equity deal and some other particulars on payment with Moss.
They rebranded the venue with just the initials “RBC” and said it stood for “Rock, Country and Blues” to appeal to the city at the suggestion of their building’s landlord, who also sits on the SUP panel. The city would be unlikely to let the “Red Blood Club” open again with its violent past. They opened in March of 2014, yet trouble soon followed.
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“Once Tammy put her name on the lease and liquor license, everything changed,” says Rios. “All of a sudden it was her club and everything was going to be her way, even if we didn't like it. It was like, this is not what we agreed on.”
Stock, who was supposed to be the general manager, dropped out before the opening. Rios says he stuck it out until July of that year because he had already booked shows through June and wanted to be paid for his work.
“We were told initially we would be stockholders in the company. She was going to put the money up and me and Mel would get work equity out of it to help her build this place, and we took her word for it. It was a handshake type of deal,” says Rios. “It was me being stupid that I took somebody's word for it.”
Moss refutes Rios and Stock's version of what happened.
“They had no ownership of the venue whatsoever,” she insists. “I hired Mel to come in and be my talent buyer and he was an employee temporarily until we had a falling out. Mel hired Mike Rios to come in and help him. They had their own company, just like all these other outside promoters [in Dallas]. I allowed them to rent my venue at a house cost and then they could come in and put on a show."
Moss maintains that she found the location herself working with landlord Jon Hetzel of Madison Partners. Hetzel agrees that Moss was the one he dealt with in opening RBC, and her name has been on the lease since it opened in 2014.
She says Rios brought his own host of issues into the club as a talent buyer. On several occasions, Rios wasn’t able to pay headlining bands their promised rates and had to ask Moss for money at the end of the night because there weren’t enough ticket sales. She claims he still owes her money for this.
The alleged owed money led to a falling out between her and Rios. Moss adds that the night Rios quit, he didn’t return a laptop that she loaned to him to use while working for RBC, and he wouldn’t give her the password for RBC’s Facebook account and began promoting shows for other clubs on RBC’s page. Moss says she had to get an attorney involved to recover the laptop and Facebook page.
In the months that Rios was at RBC, it enjoyed its highest bar sales (until Fuqua’s arrival more than a year and half later). “We were supposed to get bonuses based on the bar sales. Unfortunately, that never came about. No matter what we did, there was never any bonus,” says Rios.
He says that complaints started mounting from musicians and other talent buyers. Rios rattled off the names of nearly 10 local talent buyers who booked shows for RBC that he claims won’t book there anymore. Most didn’t respond to a request for comment, one couldn’t talk for "legal reasons," but Brian Idell, a talent buyer who booked shows first at Reno’s and then at RBC, listed some complaints.
He says Moss overcharged him for shows he brought into her venue, didn’t provide the promised staff for the agreed price, and booked acts on nights he’d already scheduled musicians. He claims Moss revoked his access to RBC’s shared talent buyer calendar for a period of time while he was working on booking shows, and that after all of the trouble, he took his shows to other venues. Moss says that she had a positive working relationship with Idell, and that they parted ways because Fuqua took over booking most of the shows.
Fuqua declined to comment for this story, but had previously said he was part owner of RBC. Moss says that after one year of employment, Fuqua would have been eligible to buy a 10 percent stake in the company, but he wasn’t around long enough to see that happen. Moss says misunderstandings about Fuqua’s role and the fact that he was allegedly spending more money than RBC was bringing in ultimately led to him leaving the club.
Complaints about difficulties extend beyond Dallas. Father, a rapper and producer from Atlanta, tweeted to his 84,000 followers, “Blonde lady at RBC real abrasive fam” after his May 8 show there.
Moss’ current creative director, Anton Schlesinger, who took over talent buying after Fuqua’s departure, acknowledges that Moss can be “abrasive at times." "She can get worked up fast," he says. "She’s been pushed around a lot and got tired of it.”
He points to instances where she’s kicked people out of RBC for smoking pot, and that they were upset about it, yet it’s illegal and within Moss’ rights ask them to leave. “Not everyone gets along with her, but I think she’s largely misunderstood,” says Schlesinger.
“I commend Tammy for flying through it all. It's tough being a female independent woman in the music business, and I respect it,” he adds. “I think a lot of people try to take advantage of her.”
Long known as a punk and hardcore venue, RBC has brought in more hip-hop and DJs in recent months.
RBC is now under a microscope as Dallas music lovers wonder what happens next. Schlesinger now has to take on the curse of RBC. He admits he also has yet to put a contract with Moss on paper — he’s operating under a "retainer."
Some of the series Fuqua concocted with local talent — including the RBC Underground, headed by bassist Nigel Rivers — have discontinued their relationship with the club. Rivers wouldn’t say why, but Schlesinger points to miscommunication between him and Rivers on the direction of the series as a potential reason for his departure after Fuqua left.
Many of the staff and recurring music series moved with Fuqua to his new venue, but some artists are still playing. Stefan González heads up the Monday night Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions, an open-mic showcase of experimental and lesser-known acts that he started with Fuqua at Crown & Harp more than a year and a half before they moved to RBC.
“After Moody left, I felt a little bit apprehensive at first, but Tammy came to me and said I’m not going to take this night away from you. This night is yours. And she made me feel very welcome,” says González “As far as I’m concerned, there’s always a lot of drama in show biz, especially with the people who book things, but I’m in it just to present quality music and try to be cool with everybody. ”
Despite grumblings within the Dallas music community about what goes on behind the scenes at RBC, the club is on the map thanks in part to Moss’ ability to bring in top-notch creative direction. What remains to be seen is whether the curse of RBC’s past will catch up in its latest incarnation, or whether Moss can lay those demons to rest and make her club stick as one of the prime spots in Dallas.
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