The lights went out about three months ago at Pat's Bar, an Oakland watering hole that had already fallen into disrepair. Gone were the weekly blues jams, the hip-hop DJs, and the free pool table. Even the neon martini-glass logo had sputtered out, leaving only a somber "closed" sign in the window. But last week, the place showed signs of life. College radio blared from a boom box in the corner, while a group of young-ish guys painted the walls in bright pastel purples and olive greens. They retiled the upstairs bathrooms, hung lanterns from the ceilings, and built a booth out of scrap wood and hand-sewn cushions. By time they finished, Pat's — now rechristened the Layover — had transformed into a chic cabaret, making it of a piece with much else in Oakland's newly refurbished downtown. The new owner, a wiry backpacker emcee named Prozack Turner, had just refashioned himself as a businessman and city booster. For anyone who knew him as MC Prozack, it was a rather improbable maturation.
Prozack Turner is best known as one third of the hip-hop group Foreign Legion, which he formed in the mid-1990s with emcee Marc Stretch and DJ Design. The group never quite took off, but it did generate a cult of fandom that endured for roughly a decade. Prozack and Stretch were outré, even by backpacker standards. One is small and white; the other is tall and black; both are covered with tattoos. They would take the stage dressed as Flintstones characters, superheroes, or Roman warriors. (Prozack is still convinced that Gnarls Barkley stole his gimmicks after attending a Foreign Legion show.) Over time their lyrics got increasingly conceptual and absurd: By the time he went solo in 2005, Prozack was inviting his mother to guest-rap on his albums — he would later write a love ballad for Internet porn star Adriana Sage. There was no disputing his creativity as a rapper.
It wasn't until a couple years ago that he began having second thoughts about hip-hop. "It costs money to put out records," Prozack explained. "You have a publicist: five grand. Two grand to press up records. A thousand to press up CDs. Three hundred for stickers. Online shit. When you're selling 10,000 records it's like, 'Okay, I broke even. What the fuck?'" By mid-2008, he'd gotten hitched and adopted a more tranquil middle-class lifestyle. He was tired of picking up restaurant gigs when music failed to pay the bills. Moreover, he was suddenly fixated on the idea of "giving back to the community." Prozack decided the best way to leave his stamp on Oakland was not by writing rap songs, but by opening a nightclub in the city's gradually developing downtown. When the opportunity arose three months ago, he and painter-friend Tim Martinez immediately swooped in on it.
"The neighborhood's popping," Prozack said, waving a beer bottle for emphasis. "It's cleaned up, the Fox got opened, and there's just a lot of opportunity. There's more restaurants down here than there used to be."
The two guys seem to complement each other, although they make an odd couple. Prozack is fast and impulsive, with an off-color sense of humor. Martinez is soft-spoken and relatively sedate. Whereas Prozack's entrepreneurial sensibility mostly stems from shilling and marketing his own CDs, Martinez has a legit business portfolio. He opened Papa Buzz Cafe — which later became Mama Buzz Cafe — in 1998, and helped the owner of the building fill both adjacent storefronts: One became an artists' studio, while the other turned into Bing Gallery, so named for the remaining letters on an old "Plumbing" sign. (It's now the Buzz Gallery.) He recruited fellow artist Nat Swope to start a screen-printing business nearby, and another friend, Kevin Slagle, to launch Ego Park Gallery (now the Hatch Gallery) on 23rd Street. Thus Martinez planted the seeds for what would ultimately become Oakland's Uptown gallery corridor.
He wound up selling Papa Buzz in 2001 because it was too hard to make money "a dollar at a time." But after eight years of eking out a living as a DJ and visual artist, Martinez yearned to get back in the small-business game. He and Prozack both had experience bartending and were well habituated to Oakland nightlife. (Prozack worked for six years at Bluesville and Kingman's Lucky Lounge before his hip-hop career took off; he currently pours drinks at the Fox Theater. Martinez worked at Kitty's.) So when Martinez found the listing for Pat's, he called Prozack right away. It was a go.
Neither of them had any money, nor any chance of getting a bank loan. "The economy tanked and we were getting shut down right and left," Turner said, explaining that no bank wanted to invest in something as risky as a bar or nightclub. Fortunately, they were able to secure a loan from the nonprofit microlender OBDC Small Business Finance and assemble a team of investors to come up with the rest of the seed money. Turner and Martinez had no qualms about dipping into their personal coffers. After years of living hand to mouth, they've stumbled into a business that they believe promises genuine returns.
Ten years ago, a club like the Layover would have had no chance of survival in downtown Oakland: Back then you could open a sports bar or a hip-hop club, but a high-concept music venue just wouldn't fly. But times have changed, and Oakland appears to have reconceptualized itself as a more urbane metropolis. As older blues clubs and corner bars go out of business, they are being replaced by music venues that represent the city's new self-image. Sweet Jimmie's shuttered a few years ago, and in its place Namane Mohlabane and his business partner Michael O'Connor opened a combination restaurant and nightclub called the New Parish, with three retail stores in front (including a fashion boutique that O'Connor will co-own with Mohlabane's sister, Goapele). Similarly, Prozack and Martinez designed the Layover as a sophisticated, ecologically correct venue with flea-market furniture, a highbrow jukebox, and local beers on tap. They plan to host live music, but not in a conventional format — meaning something besides Top-40 hip-hop on Friday nights.
Such nontraditional ideas helped endear them to their new landlord, who gave them first right of refusal on any new property that opens up in the building. "When the space becomes available, he wants to switch it up," Martinez explained. "He's really trying to work with us to bring more art-and-music kinda stuff in here."
"New blood," said Prozack.
Prozack has high hopes for the Layover and hopes to funnel some of the profits into future Foreign Legion albums. But those albums can be vanity projects rather than a means to put food on the table. Prozack says he's happy with the change. For now, he's got a fifteen-year lease on the bar at 1517 Franklin Street. "Fifteen years," he said. "That's a lot of drinking."
The Layover opens Friday, October 9. OaklandLayover.com
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