Cover Story: The Class of Yin Yang Cafe

How one nightclub turned music into a movement

In the mid- to-late ’90s, Atlanta witnessed a soul music renaissance not seen since the ’70s funk glory days of Brick, Mother’s Finest and the S.O.S. Band. Its epicenter was Yin Yang Music Cafe, a small bistro at 64 Third St.

Opened in August 1994 by three friends, Atlantan Reggie Ealy, French ex-pat Andre Zarka and Maryland native Paul Sobin, Yin Yang Cafe was an esoteric haven for visual artists, musicians and performers.</
The cafe’s first hot ticket was Chocolate Soul, a Thursday night event inaugurated in October 1994 by William Griggs, aka Will G, a student at Georgia State University. Will G brought in the Chronicle, an improvisational funk/jazz ensemble led by drummer Little John Roberts and featuring DJ Kemit. Their furious jam sessions began attracting admiring musicians and students from the Atlanta University Center colleges. They were soon followed by musical celebrities passing through town, such as George Benson and Wynton Marsalis, who often jammed with the group on stage.</
Initially, Yin Yang birthed a sound that was flavored by acid jazz, but as time passed, the cafe’s musical vibe evolved to soul — or, as it would soon be known, neo-soul. The club became a musical breeding ground, yielding a brand of Atlanta soul that has since spread around the world via platinum recording artists India.Arie and Floetry, and cult artists Donnie and Jiva. For them, however, Yin Yang was more than the sum of its stars. It was a moment in time that continues to reverberate in the present, even as it fades into history.</
Yin Yang Music Cafe stayed open for six years — a lifetime in Atlanta’s nightlife industry. Its legend, however, has only grown since its closing more than five years ago. This oral history gathers together recollections from several of the club’s owners, performers, promoters and fans who were instrumental to its history.

Reggie Ealy: It cost us $35,000 to open up. We put everything we had in together, and whoever put the most in first got paid back first. But everybody was equal partners. Paul did the books. Andre was basically the front guy, booking the bands. I was the kitchen guy as well as the front guy with Andre. Yin Yang stands for “unlike entities coming together to create a whole.” It’s not an acronym, but it’s the definition of what Yin Yang is, especially for us.</
Will G: It was kind of a tough go when they first started. They had a difficult time getting the awareness of the club up to speed because of where the club is located. It’s kind of tucked away. It’s on a dead-end street, and it’s not a through street, so getting something like that up and flourishing can be very difficult.</
Ealy: We went through a cycle of music before we even found our niche. We went from rock ‘n’ roll to experimental music.</
Jason Orr: I was managing soul artist/singer/songwriter Vinnie Bernard, and his band called Original Man. “Buzzy” Jackson — Maynard Jackson’s son — was the drummer. But he couldn’t keep good time. Little John was living in Alabama. I just happened to see him one night in Pearls, and he had that big Dr. Seuss hat on. We got to know each other, and I asked him, “Hey, would you like to play with us?” He was like, “I’m in Alabama — if you’ll come get us.” So, we would go get him and the sax player, Melvin Miller. Then we added DJ Kemit, which was a big step because Kemit was in Arrested Development.</
Little John: I was helping Original Man develop their sound, so I moved to Atlanta with just $1,000 in my pocket. Jason looked around and found me a nice apartment in the West End, Cascade Heights. From there, I handpicked a bunch of musicians that I liked to play with and formed the Chronicle.</
Orr: I put on my first FunkJazz Kafé event at the Royal Peacock and someone told me that I might want to do it at this new place, Yin Yang. I went by there and met the owners and dropped them a business card. But it was too small for FunkJazz. I went back and told Will G that he should go do an event there. I put him in touch with the Chronicle.

DJ Kemit: We were a straight improv band. This is how we would plan our sets: Ten to 15 minutes before we would go on, John or somebody would say, “This is what I’m playing tonight. I’m doing a hip-hop set or a FunkJazz set.” And then we’d go from there — “We’re gonna go to Mars.” That was our thing. We’d say, “Let’s take it to Mars, and I’ll see y’all when we get back.”</
Little John: We were playing jazz standards but funking them up. And I knew people liked hip-hop, so we fused all those styles into one sound. The audience at the time was small, very intimate.</
Jamal Ahmad: The first time I went [to Yin Yang] was back in 1994, and it was after a Swing Out Sister show. I was with my girlfriend at the time, and we had heard about it; actually, we heard somebody else talking about it at the [show]. So we said, “Let’s go over there.” We went over there and ... there was like four people up in there on a Thursday night, but it was the Chronicle, and they was jammin’. And I was just sitting there like, “Why is no one here to hear this?” They were just doing [it] their way. I’m barely out of my teens, so it was a musical epiphany for me. You know, like, “This is it. This is how clubbing is supposed to be.”</
Will G: In the short term, Chocolate Soul grew into an extremely popular weekly night that was really one of the stepping stones in Yin Yang Cafe being a real player in the local soul scene.

Donnie: I grew up a church boy, so — well, that’s really not an excuse, especially when you’re Holiness, you usually are real wild — but I grew up a little nerdy or whatever. [In 1994] I started exploring and one night I did a studio session [singing gospel] and somebody invited me to sing [at Yin Yang] on a Thursday night. ... It was Little John. I came in, never been in a supper club, and I got on stage and did “You Got A Friend.” I’ll never forget. Nadirah [Shakoor], she used to sing with Arrested Development ... we were on stage together doing the duet thing, going back and forth.</
Will G: As Chocolate Soul grew, and got super, super huge, I started to have a bit of a different viewpoint for which way the night would go than the owners. [The owners] wanted to create more of a dinner/lounge feel, whereas we wanted to keep the live concert feel that [Chocolate Soul] had grown into. Once we stopped doing [Chocolate Soul] at the Yin Yang, we started doing actual [Chocolate Soul-themed] concerts at different venues around the city. ... It was a good chance for us to grow and do actual concerts and get out of jam-session mode, and a chance for them to go back to the little supper-club mode that they wanted. But they were never able to really do that. Once something becomes that popular, the supper-club thing is gone.</
Ken Batie: After Will quit doing his thing [at Yin Yang] and started doing [Chocolate Soul events] around the city, the Chronicle stayed there on Thursday nights. That became a mainstay. We knew that on Thursday nights, man, we could go there and get fed musically. Get your soul fed with the vibe.</
Khari Simmons: In the beginning, it was about 75 percent black. I think most of the people were artists. Then, after some time, you started to get people from schools and people who knew that on Thursday nights, you go to the Yin Yang and that’s where it was happening.</
Little John: By ‘95, the place was pretty popular. I’d allow people to come up and sing and rap.

Laurneá: I started going up there when Andre and Reggie were the owners and we became friends. Then I guess people started finding out what I did and so I started getting popular up there. Everybody, from Roy Ayers to Rachelle Ferrell, anybody who was in town — anybody who was funky and wanted to hear some live music after their show — that’s where they would go.</
Ealy: We would have the president of Sony/Epic, Babyface, and his wife, Tracey Edmonds [who filed for divorce in January], coming in to see [Atlanta soul artist] Laurneá perform. Then you’d have George Benson coming in to jam with Jacques Lesure and Swing Association [who played Yin Yang on Sundays], Wynton Marsalis, Freddy Cole, Caron Wheeler from Soul II Soul, Omar ... all these [famous] people coming into your establishment because not only do they feel comfortable, but they come up and they jam with the people [on stage]. We didn’t pay anybody on that level to come in. We paid local Atlanta artists to come in and do their jam sessions. And they would pull in everybody across the board.</
DJ Kemit: [The Chronicle] brought out all the producers in town: Dallas Austin, Jazze Pha, and the whole Dungeon Family. They would come out and they would get inspired by what they heard at the club and leave and go straight to the studio.</
Salah Ananse: During the LaFace period, it wasn’t like L.A. Reid and them didn’t notice what was going on. And they were signing groups. If you think about it,</
[LaFace artists] Society of Soul was a soul group. Society of Soul was Rico Wade [of the Dungeon Family] and them looking at what was going on in our scene and taking that and adapting it.</
Sleepy Brown: All the groups who were there and the bands — you got a chance to see everybody’s different flavors and what you could add to that. To me, it was kind of like a little school of new soul. What it taught me was how to perform better. ‘Cause when it’s that intimate, you have to be more involved and put on a show, ‘cause the crowd is sitting there looking at you. So it taught me how to be better on stage.</
Ealy: The only time I remember when we had problems is when we did a listening party for Erykah Badu. [Motown Records] did a media blitz — this is when [Baduizm] first came out [in winter 1997]. We were hired for a private listening party — private. They were saying it was going to be 30 to 40 people. There was probably 500 people trying to get in. But [Motown] was trying to do it for the publicity aspect of it. People that had flown in couldn’t get in because the place was packed to capacity. They were trying to climb through the roof and climb over the fence. I flipped out. I was like, “Uh uh. They’re tearing up our shit!” That’s not the way we went about things. The only other person that ever did that was Left Eye [from TLC]. And I had to call the police on her and shut her shit down!

Yin Yang was really an artist haven in every respect. It was what I would say the Lost Generation, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and all those guys went to Paris for. It was a haven where people could come in ... like Bone Crusher. He used to work in our kitchen. Bone Crusher always got up on stage and sang and did his thing with everybody there, even though he worked in the kitchen. Now he’s doing his thing.</
Batie: We thought that Thursday would last forever. It was so good, how could it stop? But, you know, everything comes to an end.</
Expanding their influence, Reggie Ealy, Andre Zarka and Paul Sobin successfully opened Kaya on Peachtree Street with business partner Tia Landau in 1995. Unlike the small Yin Yang Music Cafe, Kaya was a big, full-fledged nightclub that booked national acts and DJs.</
By 1997, the trio owned two of the most popular spots in Atlanta. But the stress of managing both ventures burned them out, and they decided to sell Yin Yang to Philippe Chekroune, a French-born businessman who frequented the club. Chekroune and his partner, musician and concert promoter Freddy Luster, brought a new vision with them.</
Philippe Chekroune: I loved the music. I wanted to do something in that field. It was my first club.</
Freddy Luster: [The original owners] operated more of a cafe, more of a little bistro-ish, cafe kind of thing. But our vision was to make it more of a music spot.</
Chekroune: They had the jazz going on, but there was no [real] sound system, nothing. It was very basic. We added full production, which is, you know, a full-time sound engineer, full system, full production team, and work[ed] on marketing and booking.</
Jason Orr: Reggie and Andre definitely had a real passion for making a creative scene. Freddy had the same ambition. He was already one of the top promoters in the city. If Clear Channel wanted to do a show testing that “neo-soul” in Atlanta, they called Freddy.</
Khari Simmons: I think later on — this happens with most things, and I don’t at all put this down when this sort of thing starts to occur — but what you started to have was more people come there who were not as interested in the art of the music as much as they were happy to be in the most happening place, you know?

Little John: When the club owners changed, the vibe changed. The passion wasn’t as strong.</
Philippe Chekroune and Freddy Luster continued to stoke the club’s popularity. Unexpectedly, however, many of the young musicians who were longtime fans of the Chronicle — including Khari Simmons, Anthony David, India.Arie and Donnie — took the spotlight for themselves. Much of that activity was encouraged by Luster, who led his own neo-soul band, Seek.</
Khari Simmons: One day, the Chronicle could not make [their] Thursday [gig] because they had to do something, so [Freddy] asked my band, Sirius B, to do it. So in 1997, we did our first Yin Yang show. We did two sets of us rehearsing music and doing songs. After that, the people at the Yang were like, “Yo, this is great because it’s very different from the Chronicle.” The Chronicle energy is about the magic of the improvisation. When we came, that was like, “Here come these bands that are writing songs, rehearsing their stuff, and then getting out into the stuff.”</
Jamal Ahmad: Groovement was an idea that myself and my friend, Anasa Troutman, had back in 1996 because we knew all these great artists. We bit the name from [Japanese cult vocalist] Monday Michiru — she had an album called Groovement. The Groovement was basically an artistic collective to help these artists who were doing this new kind of energy. They were just scattered all over the place and we said, “Hey, let’s bring ‘em together because there’s strength in numbers.” Earthseed was the label, and Groovement was the collection of artists. Initially, you had folk like Sirius B, Jiva, Monique Miller, Donnie, India, Us and Brother Son.</
Simmons: It was 13 artists that all started this label together. We started this label so that we could put out our music. We were very much so, like, “Flip these major labels, and F what they’re doing, F major radio, we’re gonna bring the real, true music.”</
Anthony David: I liked everybody in Groovement but I wasn’t in the business of Groovement. I didn’t like the idea, honestly. They were cool people and great musicians. ... They were like, “We gonna share all the money.” It seemed too utopian. I was managing India at the time and she was really attracted to it. They did a lot of stuff together.</
Ken Batie: The Yin Yang served as a home for a lot of different people to work on their craft. The audience was forgiving. It wasn’t like you had to do everything perfect when you performed there. People knew that you were certain to get the right thing in line. So it was like getting a chance to look through a window on an education in progress, musically. Donnie would be a perfect example of that, [as well as] any of the cats out of Earthseed — Khari Simmons, any of those cats — mainly because they were young.

Laurneá: I’ve known India since she was 19. I used to see her walk around with this guitar and she had this big Afro. I saw her perform and she blew me away. Anthony David was managing her at the time and he asked me if I could help her with stage presence. But I said, “I can’t help her. She’s got it.”</
Donnie: I saw this girl wearing this gaelae [head wrap] and she was just walking down the street. ... Everyone had been saying, “You got to meet India.” She said, “Hi, I’m India.” I said, “Hi, I’m Donnie.” And she said, “I know.” So we started hanging out. ... We started performing together — I would perform on her set, she would perform on mine. “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” “You’ve Got A Friend.” Kind of reviving the whole Donny Hathaway/Roberta Flack thing, ‘cause she was a delicate, soft, perfect-pitch singer. I was a belter from the church. [The crowd] loved it. It was like we were channeling the spirit of that time. I’ve seen big old burly men shed tears hearing us sing.</
Simmons: We did an EP called the Groovement EP [in 1998], which a lot of people still have. Then we were working on the album.</
DJ Kemit: Donnie was going to be the one to jump off, ‘cause when Donnie came into the set, everybody would be like, “This is gonna be hot.” But when India hit, it was like, “Huh?” And I’ve got mad love for India. India was definitely up-and-coming, but she didn’t have that stage presence like she does now.</
David: [India] was my best friend, so I knew it was coming. Because LaFace was here, there was some semblance of an industry. So she blew up in the city. Will G and Jason Orr were pushing her and reaching out to folks in the industry. Groovement spread the word to Nashville. She [played the 1998] Lilith Fair.</
Simmons: When India got signed [to Motown in 1999], everybody went through a phase of, “Man, I really need to go and get my stuff together.” And instead of so much pulling together and working together, everybody started to pull back and get their own stuff together, work on their own thing, flesh out their own idea. Because they were like, “Oh, wait, she’s signed, that’s what I want to do.” And I think Earthseed dissolved shortly after that because she got signed, and it was very different from our mind-set of, “Hey, we’re all gonna come out together.”</
For better or worse, Yin Yang Cafe evolved into a traditional nightclub, prompting many longtime regulars to go there less frequently. Those same people were shocked, however, when Chekroune and Luster announced its closing in September 2000. Few knew that, according to the club owners, they were having legal problems with the property’s landlord. (Despite repeated attempts, neither Charles Fiorenza, whom Reggie Ealy identifies as the building’s owner, nor Jennifer Florenza, whose name is registered on the building’s public records, could be reached for comment.) Yin Yang Cafe’s demise was a bittersweet reminder of its importance to the Atlanta music scene.</
Freddy Luster: We had a landlord issue where, basically, [the landlord] was trying to sell the property [to a developer]. [This developer was] trying to assemble the properties to build townhomes and condos or some sort of development. But ... we had a clause in our contract which states if they sold it, then there was a certain amount of money they had to pay us and we had a certain amount of time to move out. So that was fine. But instead of the landlord adhering to that, he tried to kick us out. Then we fought it in court, and we won the right to stay. Basically, nobody won. [The landlord] obviously couldn’t sell the property. The [land] deal went away. But after that fight — it cost us a good bit of money — we were just tired. Our lease was coming back for renewal pretty soon, I think the following year. So we just made a business decision and said, “Hey, you know what? It’s time to shut it down.”</
Jamal Ahmad: The scene — we were scared. It’s like that old adage, you know ... what did Stevie Wonder say? “The things you cherish most in your life can be taken if they’re neglected.”</
DJ Kemit: When we were heard it was closing, we were like, “What can we do to keep it going?” But at the same time, we knew it was running its course. But it wasn’t until six to 12 months later when people started to realize what happened. You start to lose touch with everybody you saw on a weekly basis. What fueled the soul scene, it was gone. You had to look to other places for inspiration.</
Khari Simmons: The way I looked at the Yin Yang closing, after my sadness went away, was the mother bird kicking all the younger birds out of the nest because it was time for us to fly. Otherwise, all the birds would stay there all the time, you know, they’ll never get out and fly and make their own nest.</
After Yin Yang Music Cafe closed its doors, many of its signature artists went on to have successful careers.</
Bolstered by the hit singles “Video” and “Brown Skin,” India.Arie’s 2001 debut, Acoustic Soul, was certified multi-platinum and made her an international star.</
Khari Simmons often plays in India’s backing band. His group Jiva records for a variety of international labels, including New York’s Giant Step, U.K.’s Expansion Records, and Japan’s P-Vine.

In 2002, Donnie released a critically acclaimed album, The Colored Section, on New York label Giant Step. Motown bought the rights to the album, re-released it, and also signed Donnie to a recording contract. Donnie and Motown have since parted ways.</
Even Bone Crusher, the cook at Yin Yang who often went on stage to rap with his group Lyrical Giants, became a solo star, issuing the gold-certified AttenCHUN! and hit single “Never Scared” in 2003.</
Meanwhile, back at 64 Third St., Asa Fain, a drummer who often played at Yin Yang, and his wife, Karen, leased the building. In April 2001, the couple opened Apache Cafe, a restaurant and nightclub catering to a variety of musical tastes, from spoken word and soul to hip-hop and world music. Apache Cafe is still open today.</
Asa Fain: I’ve been playing in bands since I was 14 years old. ... My wife and I wanted to go into business for ourselves. We were looking at different locations around the city. Everybody thought [the 64 Third St. building] was going to be torn down. I happened to drive by one night while I was doing some work, and there was an “Available” sign on [the property]. So I called.</
Jamal Ahmad: One day, I was just riding by [the building] and I said, “Wow, it looks open.” So I just parked and went up and saw that somebody had bought it. Looked up and it was Asa and I was, like, “What are you doing up here?” And he was like, “I own the place.” I was like, “Daaaaang, how the tables have turned.”</
Salah Ananse: Yin Yang had more of a family feel. ... Young artists still go to Apache to get noticed. People go there to try and re-create that time period, but you can’t.</
Ken Batie: There’s really no comparison. [Apache Cafe] has developed its own style and its own little touch. But it still doesn’t have the same vibe that Yin Yang had. Different time, different scene, different people.</
Donnie: I’m different. They’re different. Why would you expect everything to stay the same? I honestly think that we went from being children to being adults. And now Apache is the adult version of Yin Yang. We were children. We were immature. I’m glad it’s not the same. ‘Cause I’d be the same angry, confused person that I was.</</</
Special thanks to contributors Toni A. Jones and Noah Gardenswartz. Some archive photographs provided by John Crooms,


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