Strip clubs literally can't exist without music. Because without it, there is nothing for strippers to strip to. From hair tossing to twerking, the soundtrack is what powers the moves that make a striptease work. But the kind of music strippers tease to has changed, repeatedly. In the early 20th century, burlesque dancers performed to ragtime. In the '60s, Lenny Bruce emceed at strip clubs while live bands played bump-and-grind accompaniment. Go-go girls in the '70s shimmied to pop songs from a jukebox. The exotic dancers of the '80s inspired and were inspired by hair metal, creating pop culture iconography with a much wider reach thanks to MTV: "Girls, Girls, Girls," "Cherry Pie," "Pour Some Sugar On Me”: this was specifically stripper-identified pop music gone very much mainstream.
Today, the most visible image of strippers and strip clubs are embodied in hip-hop and R&B. There are some rock remnants of strip club anthems (“Porn Star Dancing,” “Shakin' Hands”; thanks, Canada) but those barely register alongside the embarrassment of rap riches of the last 15 years. “Make It Rain” (both the 2006 one, from Fat Joe and Lil Wayne and Travis Porter's 2010), “I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper),” “Rack City,” “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” “Perfect Gentleman,” “Where Dem Dollars At,” just to start. But there's new singles written expressly for the strip club every week. And much has been made of how instrumental Atlanta's strip clubs are in breaking new acts, so it's a symbiotic relationship.
The owner of the club has banned all rap music unless it has 'Real SINGING' in it... Such as someone singing the hook. —Ivy, Louisiana
But in the industry itself, geography and markets mean that not every club is the scene of dollar bill monsoons. The "gentlemen's club" model, where gently gyrating young ladies peel off rhinestoned gowns instead of neon slingshot thongs, where there are dress codes for customers and dancers alike, still exists, as do clubs that consider music format conducive to both drawing a crowd and getting them to spend once they are there. Part of this strategy sometimes involves banning rap altogether, or greatly restricting its floor time.
A strip club with no hip-hop, with no making it rain, sounds like a relic frozen in 1995. But just a couple of months ago, when a friend told me her club was banning rap, I thought back to the actual club where I worked in 1995—a place where rap wasn't allowed, per the owners. (Who also mandated the clean versions of songs with profanity.) Dancers and DJs got creative, playing a lot of “classic” rap and '70s funk, which they found they could get away with. The rap ban was ostensibly to cater to an older, more sophisticated crowd, a refrain I've heard repeatedly from club managers and owners.
A man who was 40 in 1995 did not grow up with hip-hop, but a 40-year-old man today is about the same age as the genre. (Jay Z turns 44 today.) A 60-year-old man might hear rap and think it's just a bunch of noise. A 40-year-old's adolescence coincided with hits from Run-DMC, Tupac, N.W.A., De La Soul, and Cypress Hill. In 2013, rap is mainstream and the idea that it's a niche genre is absurd.
They dance to awful songs in white strip clubs. I don't wanna see you dance to Marilyn Manson, 'The Dope Show.'—Hannibal Burress
Not only is it a large part of popular music, it's the theme music for strip clubs. There's a Hannibal Burress routine where he talks about white strip clubs vs. black strip clubs, and the music you hear in each. “They dance to awful songs in white strip clubs. I don't wanna see you dance to Marilyn Manson, 'The Dope Show'...Madonna, 'Take a Bow'...Why don't you dance to the songs that rappers made specifically for the strip club? 'Shake that ass while I throw money that I made selling crack.' Oh, this is good music for this environment!"
One DJ, Daryl Roberson, who spins at Blush in Pittsburgh, said his club has a long-standing ban on hip-hop. "The owner is an older guy who has run it for literally decades after taking over for his dad," he says. "I think with him, he wants to relate to an older clientele." The dancers there wish they could dance to hip-hop, but "the money is decent, so they are willing to put up with it."
Ivy, a dancer in Southern Louisiana, says her club forbids hip-hop completely, and has a generally strict music format that she says hurts her income. “The owner of the club has banned all rap music unless it has 'Real SINGING' in it," she says. "Such as someone singing the hook." Under their current DJ, she says, the playlist is dance-music focused, eliminating most rock and hip-hop. “The men who come in work offshore and they listen to three things: rock, rap, and/or country. Not remixes or dubstep. It has hurt the money we make on stage and I have had many customers say they were leaving because they HATE the music.”
Aaron Duarte DJs at clubs in Phoenix and San Francisco and hosts the “I Got Love For Ya” podcast in which he talks with people within the industry. His club went from a no-hip hop format to an all-hip hop format after its owner, who'd expanded the Texas-based chain Jaguars into Phoenix, discovered that banning rap was a poor business choice.
"It was that Texas format," Duarte says. "A little bit of country, little bit of rock, little bit of alternative, just a little bit of like the old school R&B. No hip-hop, no rap. After six months of losing money, he basically came to us and said, 'You guys have six months to figure out what you have to do to make money in this club.'" Since the club was in West Phoenix, far from the Scottsdale clubs that draw the area's white-collar clientele, Duarte says they started to add Mexican music, regional hits, and hip-hop to the club's playlist, and hosting appearances by Omarion, Uncle Luke, and Too $hort. "Within four months, we were [Jaguars] No. 1 money maker. Making that switch, catering to your market, catering to your clientele, that's where we started making money," he says.
Making money is the reason given for playing hip-hop, too, which Duarte attributes to the different niches clubs serve. In general, louder, faster music is considered to improve drink sales, and some clubs interpret "upbeat" to mean rock n' roll. Others, like those in San Francisco and New York, interpret is as EDM.
He banned rap because he didn't want the 'wrong kind of people' in his club.' —Ivy
The again, a club that doesn't want to play any hip-hop might just not want black customers. “He banned rap because he didn't want the 'wrong kind of people' in his club,'” Ivy says of her club's owner. That's pretty straightforward. And not the only kind of policy that clubs put in place to control who comes there. A dress code that mandates collared shirts and closed-toe shoes conveys one message, one that bans oversized white T-shirts and baseball caps another. Last week, the Toronto Sun reported that a dancer was considering filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission when a strip club told her that the club wasn't hiring black dancers.
One DJ I spoke with told me that he'd worked at two different clubs that had banned rap. "One was race related," he said. "And one was more 'we want to be classy.'" Racism in strip clubs, where hiring quotas are often blatant, is often closer to the surface even though it's frequently couched in words like "upscale" or "urban" or "the wrong kind of people." And just as Duarte found, a music format can draw in a crowd or keep them away, and it can do so subtly. It's a particularly disturbing kind of racism in its use of cultural and demographic justifications that are just vague enough to go unchecked.
Making it rain and rap music are coded as "urban," which is of course, code for "black." And there are club owners and customers who don't take to the new popular image of strip clubs, whether for reasons of finding it disrespectful or just too black. But young white guys make it rain all the time. Because just like their uncles learned to respond to strippers from Motley Crüe, they learned from Lil Wayne. And there's a lot that's joyful and fun about a part of the culture that makes strippers into muses. Working in a club with no rap feels less fun, and definitely costs dancers money when customers who want to make it rain to make-it-rain music can't hear their requests played. It reminds me of one club I worked at where the customers were required to stay seated at the stage—a policy originally in place to keep them from standing and staring instead of tipping. One night some guys were standing, throwing money on the stage (it's hard to make it rain from a seated position) and a manager came and asked them to sit down. It was ridiculous and uptight and it cost every dancer there money.
Gentlemen's clubs didn't imitate steakhouses and make stripping "classy" for aesthetic reasons, they did it to increase profits by making them acceptable places to bring expense accounts. Today, expensing champagne rooms is a thing of the past. (The strength of that imagined culturally conservative customer base will show itself sooner or later in accounting ledgers.) A rap-free strip club already feels out of touch. And will soon be about as common a phenomenon as one that only plays ragtime.