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Canopy’s landlord restricts hip-hop and “urban music”

The new café and venue is slated to open soon in the former Plan B and Prism space on Willy Street.

Canopy, a new café and nightclub in the works at the former home of Plan B and Prism Dance Club at 924 Williamson Street, has a provision in its lease that prevents it from booking hip-hop shows without the landlord’s permission.

The lease, submitted to the City of Madison’s City Clerk as part of the process of applying for Canopy’s liquor license, includes the following language: “Lessee shall not have or promote any hiphop [sic] or urban music special events without the prior written consent of the landlord.” Canopy owner Austin Carl and landlord Chuck Chvala, a former Wisconsin state legislator who served prison time after the “caucus scandal” of the early 2000s, signed the lease in December. The lease runs from January 1 through April 30, at which point Carl plans to renegotiate a more long-term lease.

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It’s not yet clear when Canopy will be up and running, much less what its music programming will look like, as the city has not yet granted its liquor or entertainment licenses. Carl says it will be open for private events in the meantime. And by all indications, Canopy is still sorting out exactly what it wants to be.

The lease provision briefly came up at Wednesday’s meeting of the city’s Alcohol License Review Committee. About six hours into the meeting, which ran into the early hours of Thursday morning, Carl mostly fielded committee members’ questions about concerns over parking, noise, and the viability of his business model. When ALRC member Michael Donnelly asked about the hip-hop language in the lease, Carl framed it as Chvala wanting to help the business prevent having something bad happen. Whatever Chvala’s motivation was, Carl’s explanation points to the unfounded stereotype that hip-hop audiences are more likely than other audiences to engage in violent behavior. 


Canopy owner Austin Carl speaking at the January 15 ALRC meeting. Screenshot from cityofmadison.com.

Canopy owner Austin Carl speaking at the January 15 ALRC meeting. Screenshot from cityofmadison.com.

“It was a concern due to a couple of instances that had happened at the old hip-hop nights,” Carl said. When pressed on it, Carl said he’d be open to trying to re-negotiate that term with Chvala later on. “The landlord was worried that we would have some instances that would scare away some of the community members—not scare away, necessarily [so much] as make the community uncomfortable. And this is something that is open to negotiation in our second lease. The landlord just wanted to provide us with as little trip-ups as possible, in the sense of, if someone got hurt or something awful happened, that it wouldn’t completely tank the business.”

When Donnelly pressed him further on it, Carl said he’d be open to hosting hip-hop events in the future “I think that given the opportunity, we could provide a safe and healthy space for a hip-hop night, not that it would be once a week, but three weeks, one month. It all boils down to a cohesive security team and a good plan. And that’s with anything. I would definitely look at revisiting this in the future and obtaining that right back.”

The ALRC voted to take up Canopy’s liquor license application again at its February 19 meeting, to give Carl time to address neighborhood concerns and clarify his business plan. That means Canopy can’t serve alcohol right now, even though it’s scheduled to have its grand opening this Saturday and was already advertising drink specials on the Facebook event for the celebration.

“I don’t think we have good enough plans to understand what license we’re voting for,” ALRC member Amy Westra said at one point during the discussion. That more or less summed up the concerns of city officials and community members alike. Marquette Neighborhood Association board member Jack Kear spoke at the meeting in opposition of Canopy’s liquor license application, pointing out that MNA has had only slim opportunities to meet with Carl, and that Carl’s explanation of Canopy’s business model seems to keep changing—from the capacity of the business to the parking plan to its food offerings. 

“The actual application that we received in mid-December is nothing like the application [MNA] reviewed last night, which is nothing like the application you’re looking at this evening,” Kear told ALRC members. Kear also argued that given the closing of both Plan B and Prism, it’s doubtful whether a bar or nightclub really makes sense in the current space at 924 Williamson St.

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The MNA also issued a letter on Wednesday afternoon asking the ALRC to deny Canopy’s application. The letter doesn’t mention the hip-hop provision, but cites “A vague business plan with no precise service hours and clear stated capacity,” “A short-term lease with exorbitant rent means we revisit this in 4 months or less,” “No written parking allotment with the landlord with neighboring businesses relying on use of the lot,” and “Entertainment and alcohol license applications to the City that are incomplete and not current.”

Chvala did not respond to a request for comment from Tone Madison. This story well be updated if he does.

Carl, a 25-year-old Army veteran, has various plans for Canopy that include serving as a coffee shop by day, holding DJ events at night, and, he told The Capital Times recently, offering space for other activities: “Something like physical therapy, yoga, a dojo.” Canopy is currently working its way through the process of getting the city’s approval.

After his appearance at the meeting, Carl briefly spoke with me about his ideas for music booking at Canopy. In the interest of fairness, please keep in mind that it was nearly 1 a.m. at this point and everyone was pretty fried from a long meeting, so anyone’s response would have come off as a bit rambling.

“During our operating hours, to facilitate people—it depends on the capacity that we’re allowed to have—with the coffee shop and earlier in mind, we would like to maintain lo-fi and stuff like that, a very nice, mellow, sort of calm atmosphere to be able to actually study,” Carl told me. “And then towards night—I mean, minus karaoke and some other things—we aim to play modern EDM. There’s a lack of, minus maybe Liquid,  EDM [venues]…there’s about two to three venues that are consistently EDM. Not that I’m opposed to hosting certain events like live shows and bands, but bands were a point of concern with the community. They don’t necessarily want bands. And towards hip-hop, that was something that was put on the back burner in our first lease.” 

I explained to Carl that the lease provision dealing with hip-hop is newsworthy because of Madison’s historically repetitive struggles around around hip-hop and access to venues. It was hard to tell if he was really getting the full picture. “As long as you have a proper plan and security in place, everything’s safe, everything’s manageable,” he replied. “I believe that it could be a benefit, but as of right now, it looks like even at that location, the neighborhood doesn’t necessarily want even a normal bar. It seems they want to change the entire prospect of that building.” 

The lease does not define what specifically “urban music” or “special events” mean. The term “urban music” has an ugly history in the music industry of serving as a code word for “black.” It could arguably apply to not just hip-hop but also to most kinds of dance music, given that genres like house and techno emerged from communities of color and queer communities in cities including Chicago and Detroit. Plus, while Madison isn’t anyone’s idea of the teeming big city, the isthmus is in fact an urban area. Not to mention that hip-hop has become a dominant force in a music landscape where boundaries between genres are increasingly porous anyway.

“How do you make a determination if the music is urban [or] hip hop or not? Does that mean we will be protected from ‘Old Town Road’?” asks Lindsey Lee, who sits on the Marquette Neighborhood Association’s Preservation and Development Committee and owns the Cargo Coffee and Ground Zero coffeeshops along with his brother, MNA board member Lynn Lee. 

Lindsey Lee says that in his opinion, several other provisions of the lease raise concerns, including the fact that it requires Canopy to start paying rent to Chvala right away. “It is not the norm to pay rent while not open for business,” Lee says. “Usually you get a grace period while you get your approvals and do your buildout.”

Canopy lease by Tone Madison on Scribd

Whatever Chvala and Carl’s reasoning was for signing a lease restricting hip-hop booking, there’s important context that makes this a sore spot. The lease provision continues a long history of business and public policy decisions that have made it difficult for hip-hop to enjoy an adequate platform in Madison. The city has always had its share of gifted hip-hop artists and avid hip-hop fans, but hip-hop events in Madison have historically been over-policed and/or singled out for added private security (for instance, venues and promoters using metal detectors at hip-hop shows but not at rock shows), and venues have at times overtly banned hip-hop. These bans, whether explicit or not, have generally come down the hardest on locally based artists and promoters. The white business, government, and media establishment in Madison has often pushed a narrative that hip-hop audiences are more likely than other kinds of audiences to commit violence at events, but a study released in 2017 debunked that notion. On top of all that, conversations about how to proceed constructively are often framed around security and policing, not the bedrock issues of racial and economic inequality in Madison.


Chvala, middle left, in the State of Wisconsin 1997-1998 Blue Book. Image via University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

Chvala, middle left, in the State of Wisconsin 1997-1998 Blue Book. Image via University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

Chvala isn’t the only landlord in Madison who has a commercial lease to discourage a venue from booking hip-hop shows. Beloved downtown venue The Frequency, which closed in 2018, had a provision in its lease forbidding hip-hop shows. The Frequency’s landlord, Larry Lichte, only ever enforced it selectively. Frequency owners Darwin Sampson and Dana Pellebon also got themselves into a mess over hip-hop, declaring a one-year ban on the genre in 2016 after a fight broke out at a show and an employee was injured. This outraged artists and fans, and pretty soon The Frequency reversed the ban and made a real effort to engage the community over issues of inclusion and discrimination. In its time, The Frequency actually ended up being one of Madison’s better venues in terms of giving local hip-hop artists a platform. 

“I don’t know if a codicil in the lease like that is actually legal,” says Pellebon, who is black and also works extensively in the Madison theater community. “We had a codicil like that in our lease. We ignored it a lot, obviously, and then when we had some issues, we made some poor choices about how to deal with those issues. Because of that, one of the things that we did, Darwin joined the [city Task Force on Equity in Music and Entertainment] and the task force worked for months to come up with a bunch of recommendations that the city was supposed to look at to work towards equity in our entertainment industry, and nothing’s happened.”

The Task Force on Equity in Music and Entertainment’s December 2018 report did briefly discuss the issue of landlords using lease terms to bar venues from booking hip-hop shows. The report’s 31 recommendations did not offer a way to deal with that particular problem. “The closest part of the task force recommendations that relate to this is probably the discussion of how to make equity/diversity/inclusion requirements linked to liquor licenses,” says Karen Reece, who chaired the task force and has advocated tirelessly for hip-hop in Madison as president of the Urban Community Arts Network. “The only problem is whether the landlord cares whether the tenant has a liquor license.” 

Reece adds: “The tricky part is that talking about music isn’t specifically violating the Fair Housing Act that bans discrimination on the basis of race or protected class, even though everyone knows what this means.”

Pellebon says she’s not surprised that Canopy’s lease includes a provision restricting hip-hop, though she’s disappointed that Chvala, a Democrat who represented parts of the Madison area in the state legislature, would engage in discriminatory business practices. “There is a fear that is based on racist beliefs and practices that we’ve all played into,” Pellebon says. “We learned very quickly [at The Frequency] that whatever your intent was, it doesn’t matter. The impact of what it is you’re doing, and the impact of policies like this, limits the ability of black entertainers. It limits the ability of black audiences to enjoy work done by their community, and that’s problematic.”

I’ve yet to figure out whether Plan B or Prism had similar provisions in their leases with Chvala. Lili Luxe, who handled booking for Prism, says she didn’t deal directly with Chvala but didn’t operate under any such restrictions. “I know that I booked hip hop events and DJs so that wasn’t something I was made aware of ever,” Luxe says. “I definitely would not have consented to excluding them, because that’s bullshit and racist.” Rico Sabatini, who owned Prism and co-founded Plan B but sold his stake in Plan B in 2014, declined to comment. 

Plan B and Prism were both dance clubs that specifically aimed to serve the queer community, albeit imperfectly. Our Lives Magazine reported in early 2019 that Plan B’s owners and some staff engaged in a pattern of harassment, discriminatory behavior, and mistreating performers. Prism opened in March 2019 and tried to turn over a new leaf, though at least one DJ reported dealing with slurs and harassment from a patron. Prism closed in November. Canopy isn’t explicitly a queer space: Carl told the Cap Times that it would be “demographicless” and “not catering to any specific community.”

Correction: The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that the ALRC’s next meeting is on February 11. The correct date is February 19.

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