The Utopian

David Cohen

David Cohen grew up to the sound of club music. In Miami, he cultivated a love of breakbeats; in New York and in Europe, he fell for hip-hip and techno. Cohen had an ownership stake in Club Utopia (founded by Gino LoPinto and the late Aaron Britt; Cohen bought in following Britt’s untimely death in 1997), the epochal venue whose arrival in 1996 heralded the beginning of Las Vegas’ club boom. It earned him more than cash and recognition; it put him next to the speakers for some of the best DJs, rappers and electronic music acts in the world.

My best friends were all DJs. I started bringing the DJs that I liked to Utopia, though nobody knew who they were. If I booked, let’s say, Kimball Collins, I would send 10,000 fliers to him while he was doing stuff in Orlando [Fla.], where he had a huge following. Every night at Utopia we would have three or four different DJs, and every single weekend we would have people coming to Vegas who only knew that their favorite DJ was coming here. Celebrities came from all over the country to visit Utopia, because we wouldn’t let the paparazzi in to take pictures of them. We kept it secret, so they could actually come and have a good time. When the Chicago Bulls were playing the Utah Jazz for the NBA championship, Dennis Rodman came to Utopia with Carmen Electra. We kept the club open until 2 the following afternoon, and Rodman missed his flight; he was an hour late to an NBA championship game! He was more interested in listening to house music and learning to dance with glow-sticks.

Utopia’s Sunday nights, Hip-Hop 101, was just as big for hip-hop as Saturday nights were for house and electronic music. A lot of the artists we brought in for Sundays would come in on Saturday night. One night Jay-Z was there—this was before he was a star—with Fat Joe, Big Pun and, I think, Busta Rhymes. We were all sitting in the VIP room on a Saturday night, and they’d never seen anything like it. They were like, “What are these people doing? Why is everybody drinking water?”

The coolest night for me was when we had Danny Tenaglia. He was famous for doing these 15-hour sets. It was a crazy night for me; we turned over maybe 7,000 people. When I finally came out of the office Danny asked, “Did you hear me spin at all?” I hadn’t. This was his first time on the West Coast, and I think we’d paid him a lot of money that night—$50,000 or $60,000. He was like, “I can’t believe you couldn’t come hang out!” So he just kept spinning after the lights were turned on. He spun for a few of my friends and me until 5 in the afternoon, and afterward he said, “I feel so bad taking all this money from you; I’ve got to help out.” And he took a broom and cleaned up the dance floor! That was pretty awesome.

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The Downtown Cocktail Room’s doors are impossibly un-door-ish. You walk up from the intersection of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, happy to join the buzzing downtown camaraderie—the urban revolution taking hold of Las Vegas—and you’re faced with walls of one-way glass and no apparent door handle. For the uninitiated, it makes for an awkward moment. Had this happened to me, and I’m not confirming that it did, the larger metaphor wouldn’t have been lost: Maybe everyone doesn’t fit in here.