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Raising the bar

Competing promoters face off at the River Market.


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Last Thursday, the River Market sidewalks held hundreds of people. Two long, winding lines of bodies mirrored each other on either side of President Clinton Avenue, each seemingly oblivious of the other, each buzzing, laughing and enduring the dank July humidity to be part of the new, undeniable epicenter for Little Rock's urban nightlife.

On the north side of the street, the line waited to get into "In Too Deep," held in Deep Ultra Lounge's downstairs, run by Jason "J-One" Marshall, 27, singer, producer, promoter and head of J-One Productions Inc.

On the south side, the crowds waited for the debut of "Posh," held in Ernie Biggs' upstairs and overseen by Chris Bowen, 39, singer, producer, promoter and head of One Stone Productions.

By the end of the night, both venues were packed to maximum capacity. While a sold-out event on a weekend is commonplace, this type of weekly success on a Thursday is almost unprecedented.

It's not only a sign of a reinvention for Little Rock's urban nightlife, but also a testament to the tenacity of the events' promoters, whose personalities tend to be as big as the parties they throw.

Despite keeping a professional distance, the two men complement each other. J-One is a Little Rock native and graduate of Robinson High who translated a vocal and production career into his own promotion and graphic design business. Four years into professional promotions, he's taken a DIY approach to the industry, churning out his own flyers, commercials and voiceovers for his own events, including a karaoke night at Prost on Tuesday and the party "First Class Fridays" at Bill St. Not to stray from self-promoting, either, he threw a three-day-long rager to celebrate his own birthday in June.

Bowen is a Kingston, Jamaica, transplant who's been in the game since 1998, when he started organizing events for One Stone Reggae Band, his own musical outfit that's been based in Little Rock for years. Since retiring early from a successful, lucrative career in auto sales, Bowen has dedicated his time to his promotions and production company, One Stone Productions. Beyond weekly parties like "Posh" and "Successful Sundays," he's known to regularly bring name acts to town like Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, Frankie Beverly and Maze and Whodini.

But if J-One, local nightlife's new young gun, caught the promotion bug in 2006 after selling out his first event at Juanita's, his elder, Bowen, deserves credit for perfecting the urban party. He brought to town "grown and sexy" parties, each with a 25-year-old minimum age standard, and required "grown and sophisticated" attire for entry to his events.

"Check your attitude at the door, come dressed properly: trendy and upscale. Don't come looking like a hoodrat; I'm gonna call it what it is," he explained with his signature stoicism.

By his estimates, Bowen regularly packed the now-defunct On the Rocks space with anywhere from 800 to 1,200 people per week for "Thirsty Thursday," the precursor to "Posh." The parties became so popular, entry so in demand, that Bowen began incrementally raising cover prices as the night progressed and the room filled. It wasn't uncommon for men to happily hand over upwards of $50 or $60 to get in towards the end of the night. Ladies, of course, enjoyed a set price all night.

"Downtown people weren't ready for the business we were doing at On the Rocks," Bowen recalled in a deep patois. "There were so many people — so, so many black people — they just weren't ready."

J-One speaks of one day opening his own club to permanently house his parties, but keeps coy about it.

"Yeah, I'm talking to a few investors; I've been approached by people who want to put some money behind my ideas. It'd be great to run my own place."

Bowen, on the other hand, is blunt.

"The problem with opening up your own club is that Little Rock doesn't want it," he said, pausing momentarily. "It's hard for an African-American to open one up in a downtown district. They want you on Asher, communities where people want to smoke weed in the club. That's not what I'm looking for. At all."

So now, they've set up shop in the River Market on the same night, at the same time, across the street from each other.

There's no doubt that "Posh" meets Bowen's sexy and sophisticated standards with ease. The open upstairs loft in Ernie Biggs, with its dark, wooden walls and mounted deer heads, is like a 1950s Ivy League study with dancier music as scratched up, blended in and hyped up by DJ Mike Fresh, who commands from a crow's nest in the back corner. On Thursday, the party's fashion sense was a progressively-dressed smattering of guys in ironic Stetson glasses floating through the room beside women in Balenciagas.

What really sets "Posh" apart, however, is the wide-eyed, beef-free camaraderie in the night — it's a welcome change from the alpha-male and diva-packed nightclub standard.

"In Too Deep," on the other hand, brings the formality down a notch. The chit-chat swarms around the intimate basement space's brick walls and low ceilings on the bar side. The main party area is abuzz, with the dance floor, shook by party regular DJ Greyhound, moving in one bulky grind even though it's shoved in a corner of the room. The space is split into two long corridors, which makes the flow a bit precarious, but getting detoured in the tide of people can end up in a few minutes of unexpected, unintended fun.

Together, the two competing events brought out anywhere from 900 to 1,100 bodies last Thursday, according to the promoters, not counting those who waited in line to party and didn't get any further than the sidewalk. But the regulars who make it inside seem to be hooked, not to mention eager to talk about the Thursday nights and their party of choice.

"There's no bullshit here," said a "Posh" attendee, a tailor-dressed Bowen faithful who works in retail and would only give his name as Jamie.

"When they say 'come classy,' they don't mean just your clothes: They mean your attitude first and foremost. I like that. So when someone comes and tries to act disrespectful to the vibe that's created, the crowd doesn't hesitate to exclude them for acting like a jerk when we're here to have a good, adult time, y'know?"

A partygoer across the street was quick to offer up an opposing opinion.

"It's gets superficial over there," said an "In Too Deep" regular in a figure-hugging dress. "I'm friends with a lot of people who like it. I'm riding back home with folks who are over there right now, actually. But 'Deep' has this great, sophisticated design and the people who come here are ready to party and dance and unwind."

The partygoers said, however, said that most people go to both venues, bouncing from "Posh" to "Deep" and back again.

The nightclub and promotion businesses are known for being fiercely competitive and not very friendly. With two big personalities throwing their own signature parties at the same time, across from each other in the heart of Little Rock's after-dark scene, it's easy to interpret the night as an act of professional aggression between the two promoters.

Are they hostile to one another? J-One and Bowen both shrug the idea off as bloated gossip, born out of easy assumptions.

"We haven't spoken since last year, but I can feel there's some tension between us," J-One said. "There's definitely some animosity. I've heard crazy rumors, but it's like I tell everybody, it's not personal, it's business. I think it's kinda good, though." J-One paused and continued with a chuckle, "It makes people curious, like when 50 Cent and Kanye released their albums on the same day. Bullshit sells arenas."

"Little Rock and the town's nightlife are too small for other promoters to bash other promoters instead of coming together," Bowen said. "If [promoters] maintain integrity in their events, the city will benefit more from it. A city, like a nation, that stands divided will fall."

Together, but separately, the two have laid down the basis for what is shaping up to be an unmatched reinvigoration of small-city nightlife. Whether any beef between these organizers is real or perceived is beside the point.

For now, it's a symbiosis of experience and youth, insight and optimism, basements and lofts, guys and girls, gin and tonic and absolutely, positively the required bump and grind.


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