Founded by Dody DiSanto and Jon Bowers, the 9:30 Club was the home for alternative music in D.C. during the early 1980s and was a regular stopping point for bands touring the east coast as well as local D.C. artists, such as Chuck Brown, Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band. The Police played their first American appearance at the club, which was then located in the Atlantic Building. Other performers in the early days of the venue included X, Blue Angel (with lead singer Cyndi Lauper), The Bangles, Marti Jones, Marshall Crenshaw, Nash the Slash, The Go-Go's, and Betty (Alyson Palmer of Betty tended bar in the club at the time). Washington music programmer and writer Tom Terrell was instrumental in masterminding the U.S. premiere of reggae band Steel Pulse on the night of Bob Marley's funeral, which was broadcast live worldwide from the 9:30 Club on May 21, 1981.
The 9:30 Club's name was derived from its original street address, 930 F St NW. The original building was also known as the Atlantic Building. In addition to the address, the name referred to the original opening time of 9:30 p.m. Early advertising on D.C.'s WHFS radio featured the motto "9:30 - a Place in Time!" Since the early 1980s, the 9:30 Club was known as a progressive venue noted for its talent in discovering up-and-coming acts. Originally claiming an audience of rock and alternative fans, it was not uncommon to see acts such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during the Atlantis Club years, and in the initial 9:30 years the Psychedelic Furs and The Ramones. In the 1980s, the club became most famous for its hardcore punk crowd, who emulated bands such as Black Flag and X.
The club allowed fans as young as sixteen to enter. By that point, the club was based around Dischord Records and then-local bands such as Minor Threat, Fugazi, Government Issue, and The Slickee Boys.
The post-punk jazz outfit Lounge Lizards and local new wave band Tiny Desk Unit were the first bands to play the original location 9:30 Club; however, New York's The Fleshtones were the first band to be booked.