Back in the groove

World on Wheels, a rite of pas­sage for many teens, rolls again

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Au­gust Brown

In the ’80s and ’90s in L.A., if you were a teenager, World on Wheels was the hottest club in town.

The Mid-City roller rink was fa­mous for its “7 to 7” lock-in par­ties, where par­ents could drop off kids for a 12-hour binge of roller skat­ing and safe so­cial­iz­ing. Top lo­cal mu­si­cians would fun­nel new re­leases to DJs there and see how their tracks worked in the crowd. And just as im­por­tant, it was some up­beat neu­tral turf for kids near gang-scarred South L.A. at a time it was des­per­ately needed.

Now, af­ter a thor­ough ren­o­va­tion and an in­vest­ment from one of the city’s top rap­pers, a land­mark of L.A. teen life is rolling again. World on Wheels of­fi­cially re­opened its doors July 19.

“It’s big­ger than skat­ing, it’s about cre­at­ing a cul­ture,” said Tommy Karas, the nightlife im­pre­sario over­see­ing the ren­o­va­tion. “I take it se­ri­ously — you’re in a po­si­tion to in­flu­ence thou­sands of kids.”

For decades, the venue was a fo­cal point for kids cre­at­ing and dis­cov­er­ing L.A.’s blended sounds of hip-hop, funk and disco. DJs from the old-school hip-hop ra­dio sta­tion KDAY-FM used to spin there; Snoop Dogg lov­ingly cited the venue in his 2011 sin­gle “The Way Life Used to Be,” as did Di­lated Peo­ples in their song “World on Wheels.” And L.A. Dream Team, a pioneering West Coast hip-hop duo, sang there in the 1980s.

For many L.A. mu­si­cians now com­ing of age, it was a for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence in their mu­si­cal and so­cial lives.

“In mid­dle school, it was the place to be. In L.A., you have to grow up fast, and this was one place kids could go to have a party and be safe,” said Nipsey Hus­sle,

the rap­per whose in­vest­ment group S.C. Capi­tol Ven­tures helped fi­nance the re­fur­bish­ment.

Hus­sle, in his early 30s, grew up in the nearby Cren­shaw dis­trict, and World on Wheels was a sanc­tu­ary where he could hear the lo­cal mu­sic that would later de­fine his own sound.

“DJ Quik, Suga Free, Snoop Dogg — th­ese were records you could skate to,” he said. “Peo­ple would make a record and go, ‘Oh, that’s for the rink.’ You’d have your club record, your ra­dio record and your rink record.”

The venue, which opened on Hal­loween 1981, was dam­aged in the L.A. riots in 1992, though it quickly re­opened. When it closed again in 2013, how­ever, its fu­ture was un­cer­tain. At the time, its owner, AMF Bowl­ing Cen­ters, had filed for bank­ruptcy, and Young Man­age­ment Co., the in­vest­ment group that bought the prop­erty, hinted that it was look­ing for fam­ily sit-down restau­rants, health clubs or movie the­aters to fill the space.

Though the few re­main­ing places like Moon­light Roller­way in Glendale are pop­u­lar, they’re not at the cen­ter of L.A. mu­sic cul­ture like World on Wheels was.

The build­ing badly needed re­fur­bish­ment. Lo­cal ac­tivists en­cour­aged Coun­cil­man Herb Wes­son’s ef­forts to help find a buyer who un­der­stood the rink’s legacy (and per­haps de­velop it into a com­mu­nity cen­ter), but none took on the risk of a full ren­o­va­tion until Karas.

“It was a night­mare. Hun­dreds of peo­ple had looked at buy­ing it and said no,” Karas said. “I knew it would test my pa­tience, and it did. But there was such his­tory to it, ev­ery­one knew the place and I saw their pas­sion.”

Karas’ night­clubs in cities like Chicago, Las Ve­gas and L.A. are a far cry from a plucky roller rink. His bars like Play­house in Hol­ly­wood are known for high-end bot­tle ser­vice and sets from ra­dio-star rap­pers.

But he said that, for him, “I’ve al­ways been in nightlife, but I’m not a nightlife guy. Fairs, car­ni­vals — I never grew out of that phase.” And for some­one look­ing to ren­o­vate the space, deep con­tacts in L.A. hip-hop could help prove their good in­ten­tions.

“It goes right to the roots. All the best DJs, break dancers, KDAY, they all came through be­cause mu­sic was part of the cul­ture of skat­ing,” he said.

The new venue could re­store some of that old sheen. The rink feels a bit like a night­club — low leather couches and gray wood trim; a high-end sound sys­tem flecked by neon-light fans in the roof.

But the sense of in­no­cence is still there: Much of the top level is full of clas­sic ar­cade games, and there’s a cafe­te­ria serv­ing more re­fined takes on clas­sic party snacks. For older crowds, there are gospel, oldies and throwback hip-hop theme nights as well.

On a balmy re­cent Wed­nes­day night, Oliver Tay­lor from the Cren­shaw dis­trict came to skate with his 20-year-old son. Tay­lor fre­quented the venue in its first in­car­na­tion, and he was glad to have it back for a new gen­er­a­tion.

“It was a place where kids could hang out and en­joy life,” Tay­lor said. “It’s an out­let to do some­thing dif­fer­ent, and they need it.”

Across the rink, 17-yearold Ari­ana Wafer was all smiles af­ter a few laps around the floor. She was in town vis­it­ing from Fresno and al­ready pined for a spot like this back in the San Joaquin Val­ley.

“This is pretty cool, I like the mu­sic and the vibe,” she said. “It re­ally gives a cul­ture here. We could use a place like this in Fresno.”

Given L.A.’s di­verse young pop­u­la­tion, it may yet again re­turn to the cen­ter of the scene. Tyler the Cre­ator’s pop­u­lar Flog Gnaw Car­ni­val, which is held in the fall at Ex­po­si­tion Park, shows that cheeky county fair-style fun pairs well with se­ri­ous mu­sic; and plenty of L.A. artists like Hus­sle are mak­ing funk-in­fused records that would sound awe­some on skates (though Karas said he doesn’t plan to bring back the all-night “7 to 7” par­ties).

Decades on from the strife of the ’90s, World on Wheels’ re­turn is both a nod to L.A. his­tory and a big bet on the neigh­bor­hood’s fu­ture. Hus­sle, in par­tic­u­lar, knows what it’s like to grow up in a de facto seg­re­gated neigh­bor­hood, where light­hearted fun for kids was harder to find. For him, World on Wheels’ re­turn is noth­ing less than a revolution for the area.

“L.A. is his­tor­i­cally seg­re­gated, but now we’re cre­at­ing a new cul­ture where we’re not re­strict­ing our­selves,” Hus­sle said. “We don’t have a cul­ture of be­ing self-de­struc­tive. Now, we have power. ”

Karas, ges­tur­ing over the vast ex­panse of dark­ened wood floor on the rink, wanted to make sure that today’s mid­dle school­ers felt that as well.

“There’s a sense that this place be­longs to them,” he said. “We pushed so hard for this be­cause we’re do­ing it for the kids. I’m not go­ing to let them down.”

Allen J. Sch­aben Los Angeles Times

SKATERS dance to mu­sic played by a DJ and min­gle at World on Wheels in Mid-City. It re­opened last month af­ter four years.

Mar­cus Yam Los Angeles Times

TOMMY KARAS, a nightlife im­pre­sario, over­saw ren­o­va­tions. “It’s big­ger than skat­ing,” he said. “It’s about cre­at­ing a cul­ture.”

Allen J. Sch­aben Los Angeles Times

WORLD ON WHEELS fea­tures a high-end sound sys­tem for mu­sic, ar­cade games and, of course, room to skate. It re­opened in July with hopes of ap­peal­ing to all ages.

Allen J. Sch­aben Los Angeles Times

RAP­PER NIPSEY HUS­SLE, who grew up in Cren­shaw, and his in­vest­ment group helped fi­nance the project.

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