Angelenos know where to find Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Ethiopia, and Little Armenia. But Little Jamaica? In the right place (the House of Blues), at the right time (every Sunday), with the right DJ (White Lightning) -- the Sunset Strip can seem downright Caribbean. Dance-hall reggae blares through enormous speakers, and the masses sip Guinness and Red Stripe. They may be in Hollywood, where dancing violates cooler-than-thou etiquette, but 800 partygoers flock to the dance floor in droves.
At one end of the bar, two Belizean girls mouth words to every track. At the other end, Jessica Ryan, who just moved to L.A. from Pennsylvania, is discovering a whole new scene. "We were driving on the Strip looking for a club, and we came in here," she shouts over Beenie Man's "Girls Dem Sugar." "I never really listen to reggae, but after tonight -- this club is amazing! -- I'm definitely going CD shopping."
Such conversions are familiar to the evening's hosts, White Lightning and Q-Bwoy (a.k.a. Jamie Koz and Quie Anthony). As the founders of Jamaican Gold, L.A.'s longest-running reggae night, they have, as Lightning puts it, "been making reggae fans in L.A. for years."
Eight years, to be exact, during which Jamaican Gold evolved from a once-a-week, 400-head party into a roving reggae empire. On three nights, at different venues, Jamaican Gold has established itself as a nightlife force with a slew of reggae and hip-hop DJs, teams of dancers, various MCs and an impressive Web site. Sean Paul's reggae single "Gimme the Light" may be riding high on the charts these days, but Jamaican Gold sustained reggae fans well before such crossover successes did.
"Nowadays, you can't go into a club and not hear our format," says Q-Bwoy. "Most DJs now have to give the crowd at least one reggae set."
It wasn't always so. Eight years ago, Q-Bwoy and Lightning met at one of L.A.'s only reggae clubs: Kingston 12 in Santa Monica, where Lightning spun records and Q-Bwoy ran a hip-hop night. The transplanted New Yorker and the L.A. native started their own reggae night, soon moving to the Martini Lounge on Melrose.
Offering virtually the only reggae scene in town (Kingston 12 closed and the Jamaica House started spinning more hip-hop than reggae), the pair first had the challenge of getting word out. Instead of producing fliers to litter Hollywood, they flooded the streets with Jamaican Gold membership cards, which offered an entry discount. It became impossible to exit clubs or record stores without encountering the cards with Bob Marley's visage.
The next feat was getting a reggae-wary mixed crowd, from Hollywood and beyond, to enjoy the music.
"I'd get frustrated because we have hip-hop DJs too, and when it was time for my reggae set, people were like, 'Put back the hip-hop, man!' " Lightning recalls. "But over time, and with the right records, we'd turn people on to reggae. And now, people ask me when the hip-hop set will be over."
Within two years, Jamaican Gold found homes in venues ranging from the Dragonfly to the Century Club to Gotham Hall. They now draw between 500 and 800 reggae lovers Thursdays at Dragonfly, Fridays at the Martini Lounge and Sundays, their biggest night, at the House of Blues. Although other reggae clubs have cropped up over the years, none has the longevity, or the same crowd, of Jamaican Gold.
"Our crowd is a melting pot, because really, reggae music is about bringing people together," Q-Bwoy says of his multiethnic team: Jamaican Gold's DJs, dancers, and MCs are black, white, Jewish, Asian and Latino. In addition to reggae DJs, Jamaican Gold boasts a hip-hop lineup that includes DJ Vice from radio station Power 106 (KPWR-FM 105.9). Over the summer, they took their act to packed clubs in Japan.
The Sunset Strip venue can be deceptive: Jamaican Gold is not your typical Hollywood club. There's no dress code; everyone gets in; and the music trumps the "scene." On performance nights, Q-Bwoy and Lightning have brought in everyone from Born Jamericans and Barrington Levy to Rayvon and even Mos Def, but the top admission remains $20. "We love our crowd, and we owe them that," Lightning says.
And with winter setting in, the entry fee is cheaper than a flight to the Caribbean.
"If this were the '60s, Jamaican Gold would be the best hippie spot in the world," Q-Bwoy says with a grin. If the crowd at Sunday's House of Blues is any indication, he must be right.
Where: Dragonfly, 6510 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.
When: Thursdays, 10 p.m.
Cost: $10 for women before 11; $15 for men before 11; $20 without membership card.
Where: Martini Lounge, 5657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.
When: Fridays, 10 p.m.
Cost: $10 with membership; $15 without.
Where: House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.
When: Sundays, 10 p.m.
Cost: $10 before 10:30; $15 after; $20 without membership card.
Info: (323) 980-3444 or lareggaeclubs.com.