When DJ Lean Wit It throws his late-night party at Saint Lazarus Bar, the clientele at the neon-lit Fishtown dive gets a lot more melanated.
The typical scene at the tight, dark bar at the corner of Front and Girard tilts mostly white, a millennial crowd that’s dressed way down. But the spot has become one of a handful of go-tos in gentrified neighborhoods that cater to Black people.
It seems like an unlikely pair — popular POC parties at venues that look more likely to put on hardcore punk than rap. But there’s more than half a dozen examples of the phenomenon (see list below).
Uptown Philadelphia native Ciarra Lambert, an emcee and party host known among the circuit as Queen Jo, says it’s a matter of other bars not having the right vibes to host off-kilter shows.
“[Philadelphians] don’t really do the bottle service thing, especially not every weekend,” said Lambert, 32. “Even though there are a lot of new developments and new people coming in, the heart of the people is still blue collar.”
The Black-owned late-night spots that do exist around town are often more formal, with strict dress codes, or are community taverns that don’t stray from Top 40 standards.
“There aren’t many Black-owned venues to begin with,” DJ Lean, aka Robert Flores, told Billy Penn. “So when you put that into perspective it’s like where do Black people have a place to party that’s legit?”
The 28-year-old North Philly native is part of a thriving party scene dominated by people of color that’s a little more alternative than straight trap music and pop. Places like Dolphin Tavern in South Philly and Warehouse on Watts in North Philly become almost unrecognizable when artists like DJ HVNLEE or DJ Taaj are spinning throwback R&B samples over reggae beats against 90s hip hop mixed with Cardi B.
It’s not an entirely new scene, by any means.
Musician King Britt is a Philadelphia cultural pillar who became the first DJ at Silk in the 90s. Other notables like Rich Medina, Cosmo Baker and the Illvibe Collective have been creating events series around the city for more than a decade.
But Lean and Queen Jo both said pervasive discrimination still exists at multiple venues. Sometimes it’s impossible to even book, they said.
“A lot of venues don’t want to cater to a Black crowd,” Queen Jo told Billy Penn. “Doesn’t matter how much money you bring in, we’ll find venues who find creative ways to… push you out.”
Some of the ones that’ll host a turn-up of color will disrespect African American event planners, DJs and hosts, Lean alleged. “They don’t care for Black people but they love Black business.”
Nevertheless, the party persisted. People of color takeovers from South Philly to Fishtown happen just about every night of every week. Here are a few spots that pop.
Saint Lazarus Bar
102 W. Girard Ave., Fishtown
The Saint is a friend of Black DJs and event curators. “Brendan BringEm has been an ally amongst us for years,” Lean said of the Saint’s owner. Opened in 2013, it’s one of the newer spots on the scene. Wednesday Night KickBack starts at 8 p.m. and is DJed by It’s Sean Mc. DJ Lean Wit It hosts Just Vibes, a laid-back party whose theme is “No Dress codes… No Themes… Just Vibes!”
Warehouse on Watts
923 N Watts St., North Philly
At night, this co-working space near Broad and Girard transforms into a warehouse party venue. In another life, WOW operated as one of Philly’s only 18+ late night clubs, but recently the space has welcomed some of the city’s premier parties. Lean hosts HIPS, a dance party series highlighting Black women and music from around the African diaspora, every fifth Saturday. On the third Saturday of each month, popular DJ Matthew Law and friends hosts Friends & Fam, a laid back night of dancing “welcoming you to be yourself.”
435 Spring Garden St., Northern Liberties
King Britt started spinning at Silk City in the 90s. More than 20 years later, the bar/lounge/dinner houses a host of parties where Black and Brown people can show up and let loose. Fans of producer Pharrell et al can get their life every first Thursday at That Neptunes Sound, a party with live drumming from Joey Stix and featuring tracks produced by the Neptunes by King Spy and DJ Taaj. Lean takes over Silk each third Thursday for Issa Whine, a Carribbean, African and Latin music party.
700 N. 2nd St., Northern Liberties
New life was breathed into this neighborhood fave spot when it came under new ownership in July. Downstairs is a modest, traditional sports bar. Head upstairs through the floral-wallpapered staircase and you’ll find the wooden dance floor, surrounded by couches you could find in grandma’s house and almost creepy vintage family portraits. It’s a strange but intimate and familiar space frequented by acts like DJ SYLO and Matthew Law. One upcoming dance night that may find residence there is Interna$hional Bounce, a Carribbean-tinged party series on the fourth Saturday of November.
1539 S. Broad St., South Philly
DJHVNLEE hosts Honey, a woman-centered function every third Friday at Dolphin Tavern, a dive with colorful light-up walls a. A lot of times she’s joined by other women DJs like DJ Na$h and Yolo Ono. Sets always highlight music by women artists, and dancers groove to everything from throwback R&B to Baltimore club music.
1201 Frankford Ave., Fishtown
Legendary Philadelphia DJ Rich Medina literally travels the country DJing and hosting events. But twice a year, once in October and again during Black History Month in February, Medina returns to his hometown for Jump N Funk, a Fela Kuti celebration party at this pioneering multi-floor tavern. He’s been spinning hits from and inspired by the late Nigerian activist-artist for almost two decades.
951 Frankford Ave., Fishtown
This Is The Bounce takes over this Frankford Avenue mainstay every First Friday. DJs Emynd and Bo Bliz play traditional top 40s rap and trap like Da Baby, Megan Thee Stallion and Travis Scott mixed with East Coast club, Carribbean and Afrobeats.
Freelance journalist Michael Butler contributed to this report.