Denis Hemakom, 808 Club, Royal City Avenue (RCA), Bangkok, Thailand

Denis Hemakom, 808 Club, Royal City Avenue (RCA), Bangkok, Thailand

808 Royal City Avenue (RCA) Bangkok, Thailand
royal_city_avenue_808_2
808 Royal City Avenue (RCA) Bangkok, Thailand
808 Royal City Avenue (RCA) Bangkok, Thailand
808 Royal City Avenue (RCA) Bangkok, Thailand
808 Royal City Avenue (RCA) Bangkok, Thailand
808 Royal City Avenue (RCA) Bangkok, Thailand

On RCA, we spoke to Denis Hemakom. Denis has the luxury of being a partner of 808 Club, which a quick sound check with a young Thai club fanatic we know confirmed, is “the hottest place on RCA”. 100% Thai, yet a native of Washington DC, we could find nobody better to give us an insight into the club scene in Bangkok, RCA in particular, and what exactly brought Grandmaster Flash to town.

What attracts the planet’s peripatetic youth to Thailand’s capital? For many, their quest is of a spiritual nature; a quest for discovery – to find people different to themselves and situations they would never encounter back home; to learn and to grow… and, of course, to take in some of Bangkok’s “kickass nightlife”. But with all of this passion for discovery abounding, you can sometimes wonder if the KSR “decompression chamber” actually has a safety net around it. It’s sad to say, but many a traveler on KSR never actually makes it further than the police station of an evening. Some of those that do venture out only get as far as Rambutrri Road, where they fill their journals with vivid descriptions of their “taste of Bangkok the traveling masses rarely encounter”. Well, as Ricky Fitts said, “Never underestimate the power of denial”. With a philosophy that aspires to get people off Khao San Road, KhaoSanRoad.com had to intervene. We took a look around to find something worth getting off the strip for – and we came up with RCA.

On RCA, we spoke to Denis Hemakom. Denis has the luxury of being a partner of 808 Club, which a quick sound check with a young Thai club fanatic we know confirmed, is “the hottest place on RCA”. 100% Thai, yet a native of Washington DC, we could find nobody better to give us an insight into the club scene in Bangkok, RCA in particular, and what exactly brought Grandmaster Flash to town.

RCA started life as a failed investment – a street full of shop front offices that were finished just in time to greet a massive downturn in Bangkok’s real estate market. The area’s fortunes
turned when a couple of Thai pop stars bought up some of the offices and opened them up as cafes/bars. Through their fame, and their choice of local bands as entertainment, they encouraged an immediately loyal clientele. When members of the government raised their eyebrows at role models as purveyors of alcohol fueled entertainment, the pop stars sold up, but RCA’s fame as an ‘alternative’ venue remained. The rest, as they say, is history.

Compare RCA (or ‘Royal City Avenue’ by its proper, but now somewhat outmoded name) and KSR, and you might be entering the Twilight Zone. To imagine what it is like, take KSR, shake off all the travel agents, hotels and guesthouses, and you are left with the clubs and entertainments venues. Now, add a genuine club culture with top local and international acts, and you have RCA. What’s curious in the comparison is that RCA caters to a local market with acts like Grandmaster Flash and Ed Banger, while KSR, where the bulk of visitors might have at even heard of DJs of this magnitude, in general, does not. Why then aren’t legions of die hard clubbers heading from KSR to RCA as part of their Bangkok itinerary? We ventured to 808 Club to find out.

808

We enter a dimly lit 808 Club – clothed in black ‘808’ t-shirts, the club’s bar staff and security receive a military-style briefing in preparation for tonight’s big act – the DJ legend Grandmaster Flash. Opposite, Grandmaster Flash’s crew are setting up turntables and checking sound levels. It’s all go in here tonight, but despite the backdrop of industrial efficiency, we get a warm and generous greeting from a calm and relaxed looking Denis Hemakom. A Thai-American, Denis looks a lot younger than his 32 years.

KSR: So, how long have you been in Thailand?

Denis: I was brought up in the US, but I came to Thailand often, and I moved here full-time 4 and half years ago.

KSR: And were you involved in the US club scene?

Denis: Actually, I was involved in the bio-tech industry, but I also used to run DJ events and parties on the side. We used to do things like throw a party in the desert 2 or 3 hours out of San Diego – that’s when I was living in California.

KSR: In the desert? That’s sounds like a lot of organizing?

Denis: Not really – these weren’t ‘Burning Man’ type events. There’s a plateau in the desert we called ‘Fat Man’s Crack’ which was this huge crack in the ground that tapered off into something the size of a footpath. We’d set up speakers and we’d have about 400 people there. They were pretty intimate affairs.

KSR:
You obviously know your stuff – so the first question should be about the club scene in the US and the club scene in Thailand; are they at all similar?

Denis: Totally different. In the States a venue might be just a bar and a dance floor. It might even be a warehouse. There the focus is on the music – here people want the package; the sofa to sit on, the table to have their drinks – that’s part of the club experience. I am not saying one is better than the other – both are unique.

KSR: So where does 808 fit in?

Denis: We looked at Astra (the former name of the club) and thought hard about where it went wrong, and how we could fill the holes. Yes, it’s a compromise between a US club and a Thai-style club – we have tables, but not so many, and we have a dance floor. We really feel like we have created a genuine international club here. Our biggest investment was the sound system – if it’s not the best, it’s equal to the best in Thailand.

(A post interview walkabout around RCA revealed some clubs in the area, like Denis said, had an intriguing nature. One of the wings of Route 66 typified what Denis was talking about – rows and rows of school desk-sized tables where you’d expect a dance floor. The advantage though was punters had plenty of room to house dispensers the size of mini-beer kegs, each holding about 5 liters of ‘Vodka and soda’ – very handy, if potentially life threatening.)

KSR: And what about the music?

Denis: To be honest, the ‘cutting edge’ in Bangkok might really only be what the ‘Top 40’ clubs might play in the US. The House is the same as the US, but there’s no real Hip-Hop hardcore here.

KSR: Do the locals really understand the music?

Denis: Not in the same sense someone in the US might – not really, but the changes are encouraging. When we opened 6 months ago and we had a big name in, I’d send pictures back home and my friends would say, ‘Is that Thailand?’ – they’d just see rows of white faces with maybe a couple of Asians – a similar dynamic to clubs in some parts of the US. We had ‘DJ Nu-Mark’ here and he said the same thing – he felt he might as well have been playing in the US. But even in the short time we have been open – 6 months – there have been changes. Now when we bring in a big name we can expect much closer to a 50/50 split between Thais and foreigners. Regular nights, it’s a typically Thai scene, but at events like Grandmaster Flash – well, you’ll see tonight.

(And although it was probably more 40-60 loaded in the favor of foreigners, he was closer to the mark than we expected.)

KSR:
So, in the West a lot of ‘youth culture’ – for want of a better word – comes from grassroots, the streets, and works its way up to mainstream. Here in Thailand the music on the streets is the music farmers listen to in the Northeast of Thailand, or Ad Carabao-type ‘Songs for Life’ music – which is never heading for mainstream. If club music doesn’t have any roots in Thailand, can it ever be anything more than fashion here? I mean, let’s face it – the people who come to your club are pretty well off.

Denis: Maybe, but the people who come to 808 don’t come here because they are rich; they come here because they like the club and the music we play. Yes, the people into this music have traditionally been pretty well off in Thailand – they’ve studied abroad, they have done an MA at college in New York or Washington, but they’ve grown an understanding and appreciation for the music. They have brought it back, and they have made it accessible to people in Thailand. Bands like Thaitanium – they spent a long time in New York. Clubs like Route, Slim, Santika sprung up to cater for the demand or adjusted their format, all
big opulent places – where we fit in is by providing something a bit different. Yes, we want to make money – but we also want to be accessible. We could charge 1,000 Baht ($35) at the door for Grandmaster Flash, but we are not, we’re charging 700 Baht ($21). Like you said, in the US things start at the street and work their way up, while here there has been a trickle down. We play a part in educating people so that they start to feel going to a club is a good way to spend their time. We want people to come regularly, not just for events.

KSR: In your opinion, what does RCA have to offer?
Denis: It offers some really great clubs – Route 66, Flix, Slim, House of Bangkok, 808 of course – they are all good places. It also offers diversity – down the road you have ‘Old Leung’ – it’s a rock venue. There are clubs here full of students dancing to local pop music. You get live bands down here. Some good places to eat. Also, it’s an Entertainment Zone – that means we get a license to do this and we can legitimately stay open until 2:00 a.m. We’re still going when you get kicked out of most places in Bangkok.

KSR: It’s clear RCA has a genuine club culture and you have international acts here that Westerners and others might already know, so why aren’t there legions of clubbers coming down from KSR?

Denis: We have asked the same question and didn’t really come up with an answer. Perhaps it’s the distance in uncharted territory…

KSR: You mean they’re shit scared?

Denis: (smiles) Or perhaps they are in Thailand and they don’t want that sort of thing – perhaps they came here to get away from clubs. We tried piggybacking a few acts down there (KSR) when they came to Astra, but it didn’t really work out. Who knows – if you find out the answer let me know! (smiles)

KSR: Would it be a good thing? Herds of foreigners in a traditionally Thai scene?

Denis: Anything that gets people to see more of Thailand has to be a good thing.

KSR: OK – RCA, Bangkok. Why Grandmaster Flash?

Denis: Well – it’s personal!

KSR: So this is just for you?

Denis: (smiles) Right – you see in this job I have had the opportunity to meet some of my heroes. Jazzy Jeff, DJ Premier – as I was growing up Grandmaster Flash was the man. He was just – you know… a hero. So, yes this is just for me, but it’s also a safe bet. We’re going to sell out tonight – it’s not a problem.

KSR: Aren’t you worried about too many old people turning up with walking frames or electric wheelchairs?

“Yes – they’ve been on the phone all day today”, interrupted Dave, Denis’ British partner.

KSR: Have they been asking ‘Is it the real Grandmaster Flash?’

Dave: That’s right!

KSR: So what’s the next big thing at 808 after Grandmaster Flash?

Denis: Ed Banger August 2 – it’s the one we’ve had the most requests for.

KSR: OK – well good luck tonight and good luck with Ed Banger.

Denis:
Thanks.

Three hours later, Grandmaster Flash was making people make some noise and work up a sweat that could only have meant bar receipts for the evening were pretty good. It was a good night, and despite Dave’s worst fears, a packed house wielded not a single walking frame and no fire risk bylaws were broken. Strange how things change and stay the same. I guess quality always does and Grandmaster Flash played an awesome set. Although it lacked some of the presence his earlier days mustered, it was still powerful. But what’s to compare – there was nothing when Grandmaster Flash started off, so of course he was going to be amazing then. OK – it wasn’t the 80s, but Grandmaster Flash in Bangkok? Has to be awesome enough!

If you ever feel like venturing off KSR and ending up at RCA, probably the best way is get a taxi to Hualumpong Railway station and catch the MRT. Get off at Praram 9 station, and get out of the station on the ‘True Head Office’ side (you will see the signs). From there, take another taxi to RCA. Yes, there is a bus route, but you don’t want to bother late at night – bear in mind RCA is a late venue… things really don’t really get going until around 10:30-11:00 pm.

Tip: Leave before 2:00 am. When the masses move onto the street, getting a taxi is a bitch, and at that time of night you aren’t going to find another way back to KSR easily.

If you want to know more about 808 Club visit their website.

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