The DJ booth at Luka's Taproom & Lounge. The venue opened in 2004 and led the way for nightlife's expansion in downtown Oakland. (Rick Mitchell)
n the early 2000s, going to Brothers & Sisters at Luka’s Taproom & Lounge was nothing short of a transcendental experience for DJ Emancipation.
Every Thursday, she and her friends would roll up on their bikes to the downtown Oakland spot. Once inside, they’d say hello to the host, bypass the dining area and enter the dancefloor through a heavy velvet curtain. “It had this mysterious feeling to it, like you’re about to enter a womb of love,” she remembers.
Emancipation, who eventually became a resident DJ at the party, says those nights felt “almost like a prayer for our community”: bodies moving in unison to soulful house music, the advanced dancers getting in the middle of the circle, time melting away. At the time, downtown Oakland had fewer places for young people to party, and almost none of the existing spots had nights welcoming Black and Brown LGBTQ+ clientele like Brothers & Sisters did.
“Our sweat and our DNA is definitely ingrained in the wood floors of that space,” she says.
“The party was for everybody,” says DJ Dedan, who started Brothers & Sisters with DJ Daniella in 2004, when Luka’s first opened. “The whole idea is to bring people together and have a slice of utopia for those four, five hours on a Thursday.”
Last week, Luka’s announced it would be closing after 18 years in business. Husband-wife owner team Rick Mitchell and Maria Alderete decided to shut down after their landlord, HP Investors, wanted to double the rent and take a portion of their profits in a participation agreement. The bar, restaurant and venue will close at the end of January, joining a growing list of pandemic-era closures in the area that includes longtime punk dive Stork Club, nightclub The Layover and soul food destination Brown Sugar Kitchen.
With some key establishments going out of business and customers hesitant to go out because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, “downtown is looking real 2004-ish,” says Leon Dnas Sykes, an Oakland high school teacher, community advocate and radio personality who hosted the party Fresh Steps at Luka’s from 2009 to 2017. He’s referring to the era before Oakland saw a massive influx of development and gentrification, a time when city policy made it difficult for nightlife venues catering to young, Black audiences to operate.
“Black nightlife was strategically removed,” says community advocate and event organizer Chaney Turner. “That’s when you had a ghost town, pretty much, downtown. OPD would sit in front, pretty much intimidating the owners and staff, and providing ‘security’ or whatever, and sending these venues these crazy ass bills.”
hen Lukas opened in 2004, there were few places in town where hip-hop thrived outside of house parties and underground warehouses. “There was definitely this excitement that there was a legit venue that was supporting real hip-hop DJs,” remembers DJ Platurn, who DJed at Luka’s on First Fridays from its early days until about 2011. “Oasis was around, and was Geoffey’s Inner Circle was around. But this was the new spot, and we hadn’t seen a new spot that was at this caliber come along in I don't know how long. ... It was a big deal for Oakland, I definitely remember that.”
“My original vision was I wanted to make it like going to Kool Herc’s place in 1972—DJs cuttin’ it up, showing off their skills, not just playing records,” says co-owner Mitchell.
When he and Alderete started the business, he had previous experience waiting tables but had never run a bar or restaurant, let alone a nightclub. He enlisted DJ Wisdom, who booked the first parties at Luka’s and helped Mitchell network with other DJs. DJ Platurn and DJ Spair started a party called Flashback Fridays after Mitchell wrote an email to the address on the back of their mixtape from their influential DJ collective, Oakland Faders.
By the mid 2000s, the First Friday art walk started drawing a punk and hipster crowd to downtown, and the hyphy movement was in full swing. The excitement of young, creative energy was in the air. Underground scenes percolated, invigorated by the rise of early social media and sustained by an abundance of cheap real estate. Luka’s was a place where all these different kinds of people could meet.
“There just wasn’t a ton of stuff to choose from, and there was an energy involved with our night that people were really attracted to,” says DJ Platurn. “That was for sure an undeniable thing that I remember pretty fondly as far as an Oakland nightlife energy goes, where you’re seeing people from literally every walk of life and all ages, the whole nine, all coming to party for the right reasons. ... The drinks were always super heavy, the bartenders were always really generous with their pours. People would be hammered, having a blast. Dancing the whole night. The walls would fucking sweat in that place on our nights. It was hardcore.”
Over the years, Luka’s nightlife programming continued to evolve: there were nights for salsa and reggae, and local celebrities like Pam the Funkstress (who DJed for Prince and Boots Riley’s The Coup) regularly showed up. After DJ Platurn and DJ Spair moved on, DJ Mere and Max Kane took over First Fridays, and eventually KMEL’s Lexx Jonez held down the slot along with Kane.
“When First Fridays were going on outside, it was usually people’s first stop,” he says. “It was a meeting place for artists and DJs and everybody, period.”
DJ Aebl Dee started his party, Fresh Steps on a New Lawn, in 2008 to celebrate Black excellence after Barack Obama was elected. The monthly showcase continued at Luka’s for 10 years, and became a place for emerging rappers to sharpen their skills. Bay Area artists who eventually became nationally recognized—IAMSU, P-Lo, Ian Kelly, Duckwrth—had some of their first performances there. Veterans like Zion I and Mac Mall showed up, too. And there were even live instrumentalists: hip-hop orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj performed, and so did hip-hop, rock and cumbia group Bang Data.
“It was such an intimate show—it was no stress,” says Aebl Dee. “You showed up, handed me a flashdrive and just got up on the stage and went for it.”
hile Luka’s is set to close at the end of the month, HP Investors hasn’t officially announced new plans for the site. Razing the building to put up a hotel is one possibility. For many longtime Oakland residents, that prospect indicates a trend towards homogeny and more corporate ownership, and less of what makes the city vibrant.
“Each time we lose a space, we’re losing a bit of culture,” says Chaney Turner. “We’re losing memories that have been made, friendships with different people.”
Noting the empty storefronts downtown, Turner says, “The city has to do more to protect our small businesses across the board so we can protect jobs.”
“The reason why people come to places like Oakland, even San Francisco, New York, is because there’s a culture there,” says Brothers & Sisters’ DJ Dedan. “When you start stripping that culture away, what are you gonna have? You have a hotel but there’s no reason to go to Oakland anymore because there’s nothing there.”
Aebl Dee takes a more optimistic view. He recently started spinning at Continental Club, a historic blues venue that just reopened in West Oakland, and he’s a resident DJ on First Fridays at Hello Stranger with DJ Platurn, who is the talent buyer and promoter there. “Oakland nightlife is gonna be here,” he says.
As for the owners of Luka’s, once their venue closes they’ll be taking some time off from the hustle of running a small business to focus on community work. They started Community Kitchens, which buys meals from other local restaurants and serves them to people in need with the help of mobile clinics. They’ve distributed 120,000 hot meals since the pandemic started, Mitchell says, and are getting ready to launch a new initiative called Dining for Justice, where the participating restaurants add a 1% surcharge to checks to raise permanent, sustainable funding for these efforts.
Luka’s brought people from all walks of life together in an unpretentious atmosphere, and for many artists and partygoers, it’ll always hold a special place in Oakland nightlife history. But when looking back at the venue’s legacy, Mitchell doesn’t like to take much credit.
“The truth is, I didn’t come into this in any way with a master vision,” he says. “I was just a guy who didn’t like what I was doing before, and wanted to have a change and get involved in my community. People saw it as something going on and wanted to help. DJ Wisdom built our nightclub, and it’s just the community of people that came around, that’s what I’m most proud of, the people I’ve met and what they’ve accomplished. I managed to not burn the place down along the way. It’s everybody else who made it happen.”
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