After 16 years, South Street's favorite dance joint is closing in April. PW chats with the players who fueled its greatness—even as a sea change in DJ culture made the end inevitable.
It was inevitable, really, but Questlove’s Feb. 18 tweet announcing that the legendary nightclub Fluid will be closing next month made it official: The dream days of the ‘90s Philadelphia DJ are dead.
That Fluid is shuttering after 16 years in business is not a surprise. That’s damn near a century in nightclub years. Who remembers when the first summer night meant the roof-deck party at Eden Roc? Or when the front glass door of Filo’s—now the Mexican restaurant Xochitl—would fog up from the Tastytreats party raging downstairs? Five Spot, Evolution, Walnut Room, Loie, 1616, Eighth Street Lounge, St. Jacks, Soma: All have come and gone like so many hangovers. Other clubs routinely close down and reopen like pop-up shops, with a new name and slight redesign done in the quest to stay fresh.
Not Fluid. Through years of legendary parties—DJ Cosmo Baker and Big Rich Medina’s The Remedy; Psydde Delicious’ Fast, Cheap and Out of Control; Dieselboy and Kevin Gimble’s Platinum; Medina’s and Dennis Perez’ Afrorikan Vybe; Questlove, Stacey “Flygirrl” Wilson and Yameen Allworld’s Tastytreats; Robert Drake’s Sex Dwarf; Illvibe Collective’s Soul Clap, to name a few—and the countless one-offs and monthlies and Valentine’s Day Aphrodisiacs, Fluid’s been, well, fluid. Stable, but ready to adapt.
No, the real surprise isn’t that Fluid is closing; it’s that it was able to stay successful and vibrant for as long as it did while everything else—the neighborhood, technology, the whole DJ scene—changed so drastically.
South Street’s decline from artsy to corporate to what sometimes feels like a ghost town of empty storefronts may have played a part in Fluid’s demise, but let’s be real: People will go where they want to go. Parking can be a bitch, but South Philly party-seekers pass right by Fluid on their way to parties in Northern Liberties and Fishtown. Fluid’s closing has less to do with location than vocation: The advancements in technology that obliterated the old music industry and DJ culture also changed the whole role of clubs.
“There’s just a different level of access now to music than in Fluid’s heyday,” says DJ Sonny James, co-founder of Illvibe Collective. “I remember when [Big] Rich [Medina] did Afrorikan Vybe, I would go there every week and just for specific records because I knew I’d only hear it there. Nowadays, the patrons have the music first because blogs leak it first. There’s just a totally different relationship to music that the patrons have.
“The day of needing to go to specific places to hear special tunes is just over.”
In the ‘90s, when DJs still served as premier tastemakers, they’d drop the needle on a new track or dig up an obscure treasure, and then the next day, kids would head down the street to 611 Records or Cue Records or Spaceboy Music to buy the record.
There was a synchronicity. DJ Jugo, aka Jugo Stevcic, both helped Fluid owner Tony Schiro bring artists in to the club and managed Cue Records, specializing in buying drum and bass and trip-hop records.
Schiro saw the transformation in the record store first. “It was startling how quickly things changed once MP3s were created,” he says. “Once Rane made the Serato system”—that’s vinyl-emulation software that enables mixing and scratching right on the computer—”everybody started going digital instead of purchasing music any more. All of a sudden, the distributors—huge companies that would sell new music to stock the store—were going out of business.”
Cue sold used records for a while. Now, all those shops are closed.
‘We used to fuck around and call it ‘Fluid University,’ because one of our aims was to totally school the dance floor,” says DJ Cosmo Baker of The Remedy, the legendary Monday night Fluid party he co-hosted with Medina from 1997 to 2003. They didn’t mean it, he says, “in a pretentious manner—just in a way where it created a symbiotic relationship with the dance floor and the DJ.”
Patrons certainly thought of the scene that way. “My friends would be like, ‘You going to school tonight?’ and we would literally go and get schooled as far as music was concerned,” recalls Oronde Gibson. Gibson hit Fluid so much as a patron that he was asked if he wanted a job as head of security, and eventually managed the whole club.
Fluid’s dance floor is intimate by design. The layout, designed by local artist Owen Kamihira and inspired by buildings in Barcelona designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, is cozy and womb-like, with curving walls and towering pillars covered in a sea of deep-blue glass tiles. There are no right angles.
“The sound system and lineups always made it easy to detach from the world around you and focus on the music,” says Billy Werner, a DJ who heard about Fluid before moving here from Brooklyn and subsequently co-founding Robotique, his party at Kung Fu Necktie. “Can’t ask for more than that.”
Though DJ culture is still strong in Philly (our mayor was a DJ who still raps at events) Werner points out that these days, everyone with an iPod is—or thinks he or she is—a DJ.
“DJs have become increasingly devalued as the art form has become more and more accessible,” he says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean the practitioner is a ‘DJ,’ but venues don’t care. They see someone who has music and a large group of friends and will work for free beer and maybe $50.”
Josh Wink, one of the most famous DJs to come out of Philly, laughs when he thinks about the changes in technology since he started out almost 30 years ago. “I was one of the first lucky people to use the digital system,” he says. “The first one that had vinyl that encoded and controlled through the computer was a system called Final Scratch. It was a computer from Holland, and two friends of mine were friends with the developers.”
Wink and King Britt, who both spun at the same address when it was Xero, spun together the first Wednesday after Fluid opened in May, 1997. Inspired by the design and vibe of the dance floor, they called the party Womb.
PW's Music Issue 2014