At 2 a.m. last Saturday, small clusters of people — young, old, black, white, suburbanites and city dwellers — made their way to a cavernous warehouse underneath the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
It was the same excursion thousands of others have made over the past 21 years to the Paradox, the 13,000-square-foot renovated warehouse in the outskirts of Baltimore. The club, alongside Club Fantasy (since closed) and Club Choices, is where B-more Club music, the furiously aggressive strain of hip-hop and house, was cultivated and finessed — where DJs K-Swift and Ultra Nate got started.
The crowds, one of the biggest I've seen in recent visits to the club, came to see Louie Vega, the Grammy-winning house DJ and producer, who was the marquee act at Deep Sugar, Ultra's monthly dance party.
Inside, they also found an updated Dox, which closed for five weeks starting in January for some renovations. The changes are cosmetic, but mainly because the Dox of late didn't need a major face-lift. They underscore its unique, unchallenged place in Baltimore landscape. Simply put, no one in clubland holds a candle to the Dox.
Past the bouncers outside, past the suddenly slammed ticket booth and that black-and-white linoleum near the entrance, Ultra and Washington D.C.-based DJ Chris Burns took turns behind the turntables at the club's main room, priming the crowd for Vega.
Labyrinthine and intermittently bathed in neon colors, the main room was mostly filled. The Baltimore DJ Schwarz, who was in attendance, told me he'd seen bigger crowds there before. But that's not been my experience. Even at Deep Sugar's eight-year anniversary party last fall, dancers could claim a wide swath of dancing real estate just for themselves. On Saturday though, the room was bursting, and for the first time in the nearly two years I've been going to the Dox, I had to fight for my little corner.
It's not that the parties here — which include Enlighten and Hype Vol. 2 on Thursdays, college nights on Fridays and Amnesia and Deep Sugar on Saturdays — aren't well attended. But the club is bigger than an Olympic pool, and it's not the mid-1990s anymore, when the club could command a thousand ravers on a weekend night.
The club surely had Vega to thank for the big turnout, but the renovations suggest it's not just coasting on its laurels. In addition to technical upgrades to the sound system and DJ booths, there are several new lounges — one by the bar, and another for ambient house between the two smaller dance floors. There's also new Chinese lanterns and poppy gallery lights and new seating, including, in the main dancefloor, a raised platform full of long couches in one end and a brightly-lit lounge ensconced in another corner.
The upgrade was more obvious by the club's bar, which is now moodily lit in shades of red and indigo and has its own, upgraded lounge with white couches. The bar still doesn't serve alcohol, only sodas and light food fare.
On Saturday, the club was in great form. The main room was decked out for Vega's set with tears of white fabric hanging from the ceiling in the main room. In one of the smaller rooms, young dancers vogued aggressively. The DJ was playing urgent, visceral ballroom beats, and their elastic dancing played to it, becoming more exaggerated and acrobatic as the music's drama swelled. In the middle of it all, an older man wearing a bluetooth headpiece struggled to keep up with the young guys.
Underneath a gorgeous burnt sienna sky, guests in the patio, which sometimes vibrates from the passing trains, chilled out from the hubbub, which still came out in muffled bursts whenever someone opened the door to the main floor.
When Vega came on, he played tracks that, as is increasingly the norm in house circles, drew from global sounds; he has said he's a fan of South African artists like Black Coffee and Boddhi Satva, who's actually signed to his own Vegas Records. But he also made overtures to mainstream pop, at one point playing a disturbingly good remix of "Born to Die" by Lana Del Rey. Throughout, he had the crowd hanging on to his every trick.
In one corner, all all by herself, I saw a woman who must have been in her early 50s dancing in front of a booming set of speakers. Her eyes closed, she was animated just by the speakers' vibrations, seemingly transported to her own dimension.
It is a familiar sight to regulars of this great institution, still, after all these years, a gem, as much a part of the Baltimore landscape as the Domino factory or the Bromo Seltzer tower.
Back-story: After Club Fantasy closed in 1990, The Paradox became a mecca for dance music in Baltimore. Alongside Club Choices, it played a fundamental role in the evolution of B-more club music over the '90s, becoming a platform to many of the voices — K-Swift, Rod Lee, and later DJ Class — that came to define the genre, as well as Baltimore-bred house divas like Ultra Nate. In January, it closed for five weeks for a renovation.
Parking: Metered, street parking is widely available
Signature drink: None; the club only serves sodas ($3, including water bottles) and light food fare (a $7 turkey burgers, $4 hot dog). Admission is normally $18, though coupons and specials sometimes make it cheaper.
Where: 1310 Russell St.
Contact: 410-837-9110, thedox.com
Open: 9 p.m. – 2 a.m. on Thursdays; 11 p.m.-6 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.