Last week Sutra ended its 10-year-run in the East Village with a throwdown that saw Questlove DJing and Melle Mel spitting “The Message,” his seminal hip-hop track with Grandmaster Flash.
Also in the house: Vincent “Maseo” Mason from De La Soul, Freedom Williams from C+C Music Factory, producer extraordinaire Just Blaze (who also hit the decks), and chef Chris Santos from Chopped and Beauty & Essex. Oh, and of course, Tony Touch, whose Toca Tuesday party (now at Santos Party House) helped make Sutra a go-to spot for hip-hop drop-ins like Funkmaster Flex, Slick Rick, and De La Soul.
Check out Nicky Digital’s flipbook (below) and photo album to see who else rolled through the grand finale and you’ll spot Sutra owner Ariel Palitz in a black shirt. Today, we spoke to the self-described “New York nightlife preservationist” about the club’s legacy and her future as both a nightlife operator and a member of a community board that hasn’t exactly smiled on clubs like her own.
I knew Questlove even before I owned Sutra. I was a Roots fan and part of the Roots family as they were coming up and when I got this venue I was able to call on him for some pretty great events. He was with us for all the fundraising up to Obama’s election, and he was here on election night. Probably one of the biggest highlights of Sutra was to have Questlove in the DJ booth when we were electing our first black president. We had almost 800 people in and out that night.
I was an investor in the bar that it was before Sutra, The Flat. It was just an opportunity that came to me from an old friend I grew up with in New York. As an event planner I thought it was a great opportunity to not have to use other venues and have a small piece of one myself. After a little less than a year that incarnation failed and I took it over, renamed, revamped relaunched it as Sutra.
Sutra wasn’t initially intended to be a hip-hop venue – it was more about being a New York culture venue and hip-hop is a part of New York culture. It was always meant to be a common ground for the diverse expression of New York, from hip-hop to rock music to reggae to Bollywood. For the first 4 or 5 years it maintained its diverse programming but at the time Tony Touch and the Toca Tuesday party came in old-school hip-hop was really not embraced as it is today. There wasn’t a home for these old-school hip-hop DJs who were the forefathers and pioneers, and they all lived within 20 minutes from here. Having Tony Touch come in with his great connections, it became a home base for old-school hip-hop DJs and MCs and lovers.
When we first started, the reason there weren’t a lot of venues willing to do old-school hip-hop events was because of the perception of danger that was associated with them. But we really never experienced that – we’ve had some of the greatest and oldest and biggest and best and we were essentially incident-free. Even though there’s this hip-hop police myth, I think it’s really more about having a professional venue that knows how to control any crowd, whatever the genre is. This old-school hip-hop party was people that knew each other, grew up together, people all over the world – they were real music lovers. We never encountered that police pressure or surveillance, because it was a really positive party.
I don’t think that the attitude toward nightlife or nightlife operators has changed very much. Because of the proliferation issues and because of their desire for more business diversity and also because a lot of citizens who are new to the neighborhood that might not know the history of the neighborhood, I don’t think anyone’s rolling out a red carpet for nightlife. I think there is reform on the horizon as far as being able to have better judgment and use more common sense restrictions and stipulations when approving licenses, rather than just throwing up a list of restrictions that ultimately wind up making the businesses suffer and close. There was a very strong hand and hopefully now it’s going to be more of a common sensical hand that’s more beneficial to both the business owners and the neighbors.
The grand finale felt very throwback – you don’t see that kind of messy dance party as much in this new East Village of cocktail dens and restaurants. How has the nightlife landscape has changed during the 10 years you’ve been open?
I definitely think the relentless crackdown mentality on restricting, restricting, restricting has made it difficult for operators to create environments where people can feel like they can really let go and enjoy and release like they did “back in the day.” There’s a sense of more restriction in the air, and it has changed the way that venues configure their spaces because they know they also need to survive. There’s also the gentrification of the space – it’s a different type of resident and neighborhood than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. It’s a different kind of vibe. But I’m a positivist and I’m very New York centric and I always believe that if a scene is removed from one place it’ll pop up somewhere else.
I guess that has yet to be seen by everyone else and myself – when you’re so immersed in running an operation like this you have ideas and hopes and dreams. I have a lot of those. I think I just need to make some space for myself to see what opportunities come and what I can create.
So, no truth to those rumors, posted by Bowery Boogie, that you’re taking over the Mars Bar space?
It’s been terrible for me, if I actually cared. If they were truly impartial, the blogs would be very beneficial: it’s local news and people want to know what’s going on and it’s important to have blogs that are focused on the community. But I think that they are not impartial and that there are individuals or agendas that for whatever reason have an undertone of malice behind them. They don’t just report, they put a lot of their own personal spin on it, and use them to influence people against the industry and against the operators and actually incite cyber-bullying and character assassinations and defamation of people’s characters and of their businesses. It’s completely unregulated and I feel like they should have a greater sense of responsibility to the neighborhood and to the people who are working there, as well.
It’s always been so consistently positive. We’ve had weddings, we’ve had engagements, we’ve had proposals, we’ve had so many life experiences of every-day people and great music, great staff, it’s just been a great ride.
I really didn’t expect the overwhelming feedback that I’ve been receiving the past couple weeks about what Sutra meant to people and people having a home here – that our place helped them get through hard times, people that started businesses here. It really was a generation of people, it wasn’t just a decade – it really has been incredible to hear how important a venue can be in someone’s life. I think ultimately when we tear down the whole nightlife thing (“there’s too many bars”), it’s really important to recognize that it really does play an important role in people’s daily lives. I’m really proud of what we were able to contribute to this neighborhood and culture.