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‘After Ray Lewis, Buckhead was on fire’

The story of Buckhead Village, Ray Lewis, and an exuberant nightlife that vanished from Atlanta.

Jazze Pha, the Atlanta record producer, was at Cobalt in Atlanta’s Buckhead Village during the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2000 — the same place and time Ray Lewis was partying when two men were stabbed outside.

“It’s the end of the night, so it was after the club when it happened,” Pha says. “So we out there just trying to get at a chick, you know what I’m saying? Trying to find out what the flavor was.”

That’s when the commotion started. Pha, like everybody else, tried to get away as quickly as he could. He and his friends escaped in a green Bentley GT, sitting on 22-inch rims.

Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, died that night as the result of an altercation that began when somebody who was with Lewis was struck in the head with a bottle of champagne. Lewis’ role in that fight is still a question after he pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge and offered testimony against the two other men who were indicted for murder. He claims to have tried to stop the fight, while witnesses said he threw punches but didn’t have a knife on him.

That night, Lewis was wearing a full-length white mink coat and being chauffeured in a Lincoln Navigator limousine that seated 14. Lewis and 10 others drove off in the limo, where blood stains were later discovered. He would go on to settle civil suits with the families of both victims.

To the people who frequented Buckhead nightlife, the murders were clearly a one-off occurrence — an altercation that escalated out of control among an NFL superstar, the people he was with, and locals. But Buckhead’s scene had a reputation at the time. To Buckhead’s affluent residents, the murders were a culmination of too-little regulation for too long of a party that would extend deep into the nights.

After the Lewis incident, one of Atlanta’s most vibrant neighborhoods would change forever.

“A lot of us say it was kind of the beginning of the end,” says Michael Krohngold, owner of Tongue & Groove, one of Buckhead’s original clubs. “Because it brought notoriety — good and bad.”

Jermaine Dupri, the rapper and prolific record producer, asks me if I’ve ever seen the show The Snorks, a late-80s cartoon about underwater creatures.

I answer him honestly, and say I haven’t. He uses the cartoon as a metaphor to describe Buckhead as a place that nobody knew except the people in it.

“You come to Atlanta for Southern hospitality, you come to Atlanta for history, and all these other things,” Dupri, now 46, says. “But it’s never been mentioned how impactful the nightlife and how impactful the culture was. So people would discover this hidden world that was happening in Buckhead.”

Pha puts Buckhead in simpler terms. “Buckhead was like a derivative of Bourbon Street,” he says, “minus the walking and legal drinking in the streets.”

Atlanta is a commuter’s city, and many residents will say they’re from Atlanta if they live within an hour’s drive of downtown. Buckhead is accessible from anywhere — via Buford Highway, I-75, I-85, GA 400, Piedmont, and more. You just had to deal with traffic, of course.

Mark Barnes — or as everybody knows him: Biddy — was one of the people who helped make the nightlife possible. He moved to Atlanta in 1992 from the Bronx, and became a party promoter for fun. He met Alex Gidewon, another promoter, and it became a lucrative business for them. “We were promoters when no one else were promoters,” Barnes says.

He can recite his weekly lineup of Buckhead clubs as if the scene still exists — venues like Chaos, Chili Pepper, Havana, Shadows, Fuel — before ultimately declaring that each week ended at a club called 112 just outside of Buckhead Village.

Barnes brought home between $15,000 and $20,000 a week, he says, because people had to get their fix of the neighborhood, no matter the hour. “It would be nights at Fuel on a Saturday night, and people would be paying until 3:30-3:45,” he says. “We like, ‘We’re getting ready to close at 4.’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t care,’ and they’d pay $20 for 30 minutes, 20 minutes.”

Those I talked to say there was a sense of lawlessness at Buckhead’s peak. Seeing people urinate in the street was a part of the experience. Cocaine and prostitutes were readily available. Witnessing sex in the club wasn’t uncommon.

Sprinkle a little bit of segregation in there, and you had the full Buckhead experience. Dupri’s favorite spot in Buckhead, and many others’, was Otto’s, which later became Cobalt. Otto’s was known for being the spot for white people and professional athletes. His night would start anywhere between 12:30 and 1 a.m., and go until 4 a.m. From there, the party moved to 112, which was a white-owned business with predominantly black customers.

Dupri never hit up Buckhead without a destination. His final verse on “Welcome to Atlanta” was his actual party schedule:

Monday night, Gentlemen’s Club

Tuesday night, I’m up in the Velvet Room, gettin fucked up

Wednesday, I’m at Strokers on lean

Thursday, Jump Clean, then I fall up in Kream

Friday, Shark Bar, Kaya with Frank Ski

Right on the flo’ is where you can find me

Saturday, is off the heezy fo’ sheezy

You can find me up in One-Tweezy

Sunday, is when I get my sleep in

Cause on Monday we be at it again, holla!

Dupri never missed a big night at Otto’s. Atlanta Falcons players were regulars there, so when Dupri flew to California the day of the 1998 NFC Championship Game when the Falcons beat the Vikings, he quickly went home.

”That ball went through that field goal, and I found me a private plane,” Dupri says. “When I landed in Atlanta I went straight to Otto’s, this place was crazy. I called Jamal Anderson to make sure that they was going.”

After the Falcons clinched their first Super Bowl berth in history, they partied like it. People were standing on the tables, booths, and bar at Otto’s. Champagne showered everybody who was in the building.

“It was the most magical moment in Atlanta nightclub history that I remember,” Dupri says.

Jermaine Dupri with a mic performing with Nelly at Big Sky Buckhead in Atlanta in 2016.
Jermaine Dupri performing with Nelly at Big Sky Buckhead in Atlanta in 2016.

Dupri credits Tongue & Groove with being the first club to have consistent interracial partying in the mid-to-late ‘90s, with Otto’s being right behind it. The Buckhead community wasn’t very welcoming to black nightlife, but club owners knew it was too lucrative to pass up.

DJ Mars, who moved to Atlanta in 1991, explains black promoters were given nights that were supposed to be slow. “That limited your options,” he says. “But then you would start to see that the business nights were the black nights, and some clubs were like, ‘OK well, shit if these are the nights that are making the money, this is what we have to turn into.’”

DJ Mars enjoyed playing at Havana on Mondays, and Chili Pepper on Tuesdays. There was also Atlanta Live, where he saw Puff Daddy pulling up to the club with Morris Brown College’s marching band.

“I had never seen anything like that,” he tells me. “Whole-ass band. Who does that?”

The Buckhead nightlife is also part of what convinced Frank Ski, Atlanta’s most recognized radio personality, to move from Baltimore to Atlanta in 1998. When he spent a week in town checking out the city, he couldn’t believe that he was able to go out every night.

On a Tuesday night, he went to Chili Pepper, where Outkast was having an album release party for Aquemini. “Jagged Edge was on the corner of the bar,” Ski says, “and Wingo from Jagged Edge was like, ‘Yo, you want some champagne?’ And he didn’t even know me. I didn’t know them.”

Ski took that champagne, and remembers drinks flowing and joints being passed around.

“I was just like, ‘OK, this shit right here!’”

A couple of years later when Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl, Ski says he experienced one of the most unbelievable weekends of his life because of who Gidewon was able to bring to the club.

“He brought OJ Simpson in, and I couldn’t believe it was OJ Simpson,” Ski says. “You know who else blew my mind when they brought him? Freakin’ Bill Clinton! That was a celebrity night — Bill Clinton! You’re in the club with freakin’ Bill Clinton and OJ Simpson.”

But the more wild things seemed, the more that Ski and others started thinking that Buckhead might be getting out of hand.

He was on his way to a club on a Saturday during the late ‘90s/early ‘00s Buckhead peak, around the same time as the Ray Lewis incident. As one does in Atlanta, he was sitting in standstill traffic, trying to get to his destination.

Suddenly, he saw a man go by his car and walk up to another with a gun in his hand. As the man approached the car, traffic let up, and the car spun off and got away.

“That was the craziest shit I’ve ever seen,” Ski says. “When I saw that, I was like, ‘OK, this shit is out of control.’”

Frank Ski with his arm around Usher at an event in Buckhead.
Frank Ski, right, with Usher at an event in Buckhead in either 1999 or 2000, according to Ski.
Photo provided by Frank Ski

The altercation involving Lewis was, at the very least, the starting point of Buckhead’s demise.

“After Ray Lewis, Buckhead was on fire,” Dupri says. “People were coming to Atlanta specifically to see what the hell was going on in this little bitty area.

“The secret was out.”

Seven more murders occurred in Buckhead between the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2000, and Nov. 11, 2003, while the city was watched by everyone. Residents were scared. Black Mafia Family (BMF), a drug trafficking organization and regulars in the Buckhead scene, would put the final nail in the coffin in 2003.

P. Diddy’s former bodyguard Anthony “Wolf” Jones and Wolf’s childhood friend Lamont “Riz” Girdy were both shot and killed outside of Chaos that November. Demetrius Flenory, better known as “Big Meech”, was charged with the murders, but was never indicted after claiming self defense, having been shot in the buttocks.

“That shit fucked me up because it happened overnight,” Barnes says. “Like boom — that [BMF] shooting happened, and that weekend it was dead, the next weekend it was dead, and it never came back.”

After that shooting, Buckhead Alliance was created by Robin Loudermilk, who was president and chief operating officer of Aaron’s, a lease-to-own retailer headquartered in Buckhead.

The Alliance added security, forced parking requirements that prevented overnight clubs, and worked to attract high-end retail stores and condos.

“The general public took notice, and the city of course took notice, and that’s when they started the campaign to roll back the late night hours, and the area did deteriorate,” Krohngold says.

DJ Mars acknowledges that the Buckhead community didn’t want the black and hip-hop nights in the clubs. At the same time, he says he understood the concerns after what clearly became an area in need of some stability.

“When stuff like that happens, it kind of justifies fear, so I get it,” he says. “At that point it’s a matter of safety, so you can’t be mad at — whatever the color of the person is who lives in that community — they want to be safe. And they have every right to be safe.”

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Krohngold noticed the same, “There were nights where it was so bad that we would bring our doorman inside and we’d go, ‘Yeah we’re just gonna lock our doors, we’re closing up at midnight. We’re allowed to be open later, but it doesn’t look like any of our customers are out on the streets.’”

DJ Mars explains that because of the earlier last calls, a lot of people lost their jobs. Often times, that last hour was when hustlers came in and tried to spend money.

“A club would employ three DJs,” he says. “You would get the opening guy, the headliner, and then somebody to close. After that, it kind of diminished because now the club could only afford two DJs. I just saw friends of mine no longer being able to work after that.”

A developer, Ben Carter, started buying out long-term leases in the area — including Tongue & Groove’s — in 2007. Carter announced five high-end fashion boutiques, two restaurants, and two hotels in a billion-dollar Streets of Buckhead mixed use development, helping the Buckhead Alliance fulfill their goals to clean up the area. Mayor Shirley Franklin said at Carter’s ceremony celebrating the ground breaking that she was excited “to bring Milan and New York to Buckhead,” and called the development “the resurgence of Atlanta.”

Because of the market crash in 2008, Carter’s project failed, but developer OliverMcMillan finished the renovation, creating Atlanta’s own Rodeo Drive after purchasing the project in 2011.

“You know, the 30327 is the priciest zip code in the state, or in the Southeast,” Krohngold says. “Looking back, I can see how an area of some sleazy bars could be perceived as a black eye in what is the nicest part of the city, and that’s the way I think the city looked at it. Ultimately, could there have been a little bit of a compromise? To me, that’s probably what should have happened.”

Dupri echoes Krohngold: “Now it’s 100 percent the Beverly Hills of Atlanta.”

Today, Atlanta’s party scene is spread across Buckhead, Virginia Highlands, East Atlanta, The Battery, Sandy Springs, and more.

For the week of Super Bowl LIII, the city passed legislation so everybody could stay open until 4 a.m. Some are hopeful that there will be nights reminiscent of the best of old Buckhead, but that may be wishful thinking.

The culture inside Atlanta clubs has changed since then, too. “Now, it’s more bottle service and celebrity driven,” DJ Mars says. “Before — let’s say in the ‘90s — there were celebrity parties. But before celebs came to the club. Now, celebs are paid to be at the club, and that’s a different mentality. So before, if you saw Puff in the club, you saw him, you appreciated him.

“The party was the dance floor,” DJ Mars adds. “That’s gone, for the most part, in Atlanta. It’s gone. No longer exists.”

Still, Atlanta’s nightlife manages to pull people into the city, even if it isn’t the same sort of pull that it was two decades ago.

“Every time five people visit, two of them stay,” Pha says. “It’s just how it feels. You see people that you saw that were out-of-towners, and you see them a year later and they be like, ‘Oh man, I live over there on the south side!’

“I still love Buckhead,” Pha adds, “but it’s just different.”


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