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How a Minneapolis Barbecue Joint Became a House Music Hub

Beast Barbecue's Friday house music nights keep the party going.

Farah - AKA (Phriz)|

The basement of Beast—can you believe it?

When Honey shut down at the the start of the pandemic in March 2020, veteran house-music DJ and promoter Jeff Swiff was prepared to let go of “the dank basement aesthetic” of House Proud, the monthly party he threw in the eclectic Minneapolis nightspot.

“But thoughts of the party itself ending? No,” Swiff explains by email. 

Still, there weren’t many places House Proud could go. Underground dance promoters in the pre-pandemic years often had a hard time finding venues interested in hosting regular house and techno nights, and some of the city’s most reliable, like Honey and the Kitty Cat Klub, were out once Covid hit. 

House Proud was a top draw, and a few venues nibbled, but none felt right. Swiff says he even entertained making it “a monthly warehouse party.” Instead, he adds, “Beast landed.”

Since the summer of 2021, when things began to reopen, House Proud has yet again been packing them in on the first Friday every month in northeast Minneapolis—about half a mile up Hennepin Avenue from Honey at Beast Barbecue. (Yes, I know this area isn't technically Northeast, but that's what everyone calls it. Be real.) The clean, spacious basement space soon began hosting three other Friday residencies: Freak of the Week (second Fridays), Cyber City Disco (third Fridays), and HouseWerk (fourth Fridays).

John McKinney, Beast’s co-owner-operator, agrees that the spot has inherited Honey’s dance music legacy, even if, he notes, “It wasn’t planned that way.” But once House Proud took off, the strategy was obvious. “It was like, ‘Well, if we’re gonna do music, let’s make it every Friday, so it’s a hub, and people know they can always dance to music on Fridays at Beast,’” he says. Only on the rare fifth Fridays is it empty.

McKinney, who is 58, calls himself “a raver from the ’90s.” He launched his hospitality career at TGI Friday’s in Roseville in the late '80s. “I opened about 15 stores around the country, including a couple in Dallas,” he says. There, he and his friends would drive around to map points offering directions to outer-area techno parties in warehouses. 

When McKinney returned to the Twin Cities in 1993, he says, “The Quest was going on downtown, and Zak [Khutoretsky, aka techno DJ DVS1] was playing at Mel’s Beauty Bar. But I wasn’t dialed into the underground parties because I was 28 by then, and the 19-year-olds were doing the parties.” Instead, he’d road-trip to Chicago to dance to the great Derrick Carter, who was spinning at the house music temple SmartBar. Needless to say, he was a House Proud fan. “I used to go to Honey all the time,” McKinney says.

McKinney (who, along with his partners, also owns Eli’s across the street) opened Beast Barbecue in 2019. He was already booking dance music in the basement prior to the pandemic, with quarterly parties thrown by Monte Hilleman, Swiff’s promoting partner in House Proud and another veteran house DJ. “It was a success, and it was a lot of fun,” McKinney recalls.

When clubs began to re-open, House Proud was a natural fit for the basement. “In June of 2021, we met all together to discuss the night,” Swiff says. The party launched on the first Friday of August, and the regulars came in force: “The night was billed as the ‘10-year reunion,’ and it really felt like it.”

The space was, if anything, even better suited to the gathering than Honey, which had low ceilings, with the bar set away from the dance floor. Beast’s bar is right off the dance floor, and its ceilings are 12 feet high. 

Like any good rave veteran, McKinney pays close attention to set and setting. He frequently helps haul the DJs’ gear to and from the basement, and every Friday, prior to the parties, “I crank it down to 60 degrees before dance parties, because it gets up to 80 by the end,” he says. 

OK, I thought I’d noticed that.

“Even in the winter,” McKinney says. “I’m turning on the air conditioner, just on those days, so there’s better airflow down here.”

McKinney extends Beast’s customer service policy to the dance events. “I’m a service-orientated guy,” he says. “Taking care of the clientele, energy wise, is very important.” The Friday night server, Rachel Bass, is a longstanding dance-scene participant; at the May edition of Cyber City Disco, she wore a System T-shirt—the black-and-white exploding-circle image from the legendary, now shuttered Minneapolis techno warehouse space. 

And the Friday doorman, Dorian Myers, may be the friendliest ID-checker in the state. He acts, as McKinney notes, as “a host—this is not about security. He’s super gracious and good with people.”

Beast rents the basement space out most other days of the week, with “birthday parties, high school reunions, and celebrations of life” among the main events. 

But Fridays are set. “Yeah, you don’t bump Fridays,” McKinney says.

McKinney, along with the promoters that Racket spoke to, all consistently noted two key and intermingled parts to the success of Beast’s Friday night DJ lineups. One is its neighborhood placement, and the other is how young many who come out to dance are.

“Just the location, and the fact that it’s a restaurant—it’s kind of by the U, which I think helps,” says Joe “Jobot” Bartuski, who co-promotes HouseWerk, the fourth-Friday Beast party. 

“I feel like some of it is word of mouth, and also people that live in the area,” says Nola Rave, who runs Freak of the Week (second Fridays). “Being able to walk there is amazing for a lot of people. Friend groups show up there now, then they invite more of their friends next time.”

The just-dropping-in crowd was always a big factor at Honey, especially for House Proud. But Swiff says, the Beast audience is “60 percent different, 40 percent always the same” as at Honey. 

“Attendance feels more intentional in a lot of cases, at least for newer heads and random pop ups,” he says. ”Transient traffic is down by direct comparison, [which is] different. But the destination choices being made to attend these nights is pretty evident when we look at the floor on a given night—seeing dialed-in faces and people werkin’ off the week on the floor and chasing a vibe, together.”

If the walk-ins have kept House Proud growing from an already healthy base, they’ve done even more for the second Friday residency. Beginning its Beast night a month after House Proud, Freak of the Week (FOTW), run by the DJs Nola Rave and Evian Rave, who are married (and yes, the name is real), had spent several pre-pandemic years at numerous spots. (Full disclosure: I have played DJ sets at Freak of the Week twice, once at Pimento Jamaican Kitchen and another at Beast.) “It was harder when we were bar-hopping to get the word out,” Rave says. 

But once FOTW was installed, Rave began moving the party beyond its initial disco-funk leanings. “I love all kinds of dance music, and I was having a hard time just sticking with that,” Rave says. Now, FOTW features a lot more techno—a recent headliner was the Detroit hero T-1000—and embraces a wide stylistic remit. 

“They get to hear all kinds of different dance music at my show, a big variety of stuff,” Rave says. “I want people to have access to all the different styles and not have it be the same all the time. It’s definitely more of a progression; it changes every hour or two, and it feels really good to me.”

She’s been rewarded not only by longtime loyalists, but a whole lot of new faces. “The crowd is a lot younger than I expected them to be,” Rave says. “I started realizing that I didn’t really know many people there anymore. I was like, ‘These are all strangers. I have no idea how they got here or how they found out about it.’”

Freak of the Week is also the Beast monthly that features the largest number of out-of-town guest DJs. “It’s because the party got busy enough at Beast where we felt like we could actually bring somebody in and afford it—and we would have the right crowd for it, too,” Rave says. “I wouldn’t want to bring somebody there if it was a dead dance floor.” 

Jaycee Cooper promotes Cyber City Disco on third Fridays; it attracts a lively and queer-heavy crowd. Cooper had worked with Rave on several events before joining the Beast lineup, and she also promotes the Saturday monthly Jumpsuit at Black Hart of St. Paul, the queer sports bar in Midway.

At Beast, Cooper says, there’s “a nice blend between the crowd that’s normally coming out for house and disco events in the Twin Cities, and also bleed-over from my Jumpsuit crowd, so there’s a very queer element to it. You see a lot of trans folks and LGBT folks coming out and adding their own flavor to the dance floor. [I] focus specifically on queer and trans folks and making sure that we have space for dance music that isn’t necessarily Top 40; more of that underground house and techno and disco—going back to our roots as a community.”

The fourth monthly, HouseWerk, is also deeply rooted: Bartuski and co-promoters Miss Elaine Eos and Neil Fox all have been involved in the local dance scene for years, and like Rave they put on nights at a number of spots before Beast called. “It came together really quick,” Bartuski says of HouseWerk, which began in March of 2022. “They had the Friday night set. It was real nice to have that blueprint there.”

The swarm of new faces was surprising to Bartuski, who welcomes the change. “It’s gotten more diverse,” he says. “It’s gotten a lot younger. It’s a lot less of us old chin-stroking white guys who know every record.” (He means the author as much as himself, of course. Zing!) 

“It’s a lot of people down there for the first time, discovering stuff, which is really awesome,” Bartuski continues. “And now, a lot of those people are becoming familiar faces. They’re coming to other events. They’re coming to The Great Beyond. It’s really great seeing the community expand. And the more you get to know people, the more you find out, ‘This face in the crowd makes awesome noise music.’”

At first, HouseWerk seemed to have the fourth Friday all sewn up, but there was a post-pandemic party swarm.

“Our first [party] was the same night as another event that a friend was throwing,” Bartuski says. “That [had] happened a few times before the pandemic, but that set that tone for after—whereas now, some Friday nights, there’s six-seven-eight things going on to choose from. Even with that, being able to exist in that environment, and still get enough regulars to make it worthwhile, has been really awesome, too.”

House Proud
With: Allen Hz and Jeff Swiff
Where: Beast Barbecue, 825 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
When: 9:45 p.m. Fridays
Tickets: $10; more info here

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