By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
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"I'm a reformed '90s raver," confesses DJ Doug Singer. "So dance parties for me used to be hundreds of people gathering at random spots and finding something in common together. The first parties I ever played were at campgrounds on a lake."
Seated together with his fellow DJ/promoters—North Carolina transplant Justin Carter and Irishman Eamon Harkin—at a bar in Fort Greene, Singer, an Ohio native, reminisces about a decade spent partaking in and promoting dance parties amid the cement strictures of New York, and how far the scene here has fallen. "With bottle service and Manhattan club life, going out became a chore. So we're bringing it back to where you don't have to be into anything other than having a good time."
The trio returns to those halcyon days of outdoor dancing with Sunday Best, which kicks off this Memorial Day weekend at Brooklyn Yard with German superstar-techno DJ Michael Mayer and runs through Labor Day, offering nothing more pretentious than a good time alongside, uh, the infamously toxic Gowanus Canal. "Brooklyn Yard is a legitimate business with liquor licenses and insurance, but it still feels mom-'n'-pop," Carter says. "It has the qualities of other Brooklyn dance parties that aren't at clubs, which happens to be the zeitgeist right now."
Carter had worked at APT in the Meatpacking District and Nublu on the Lower East Side for years before opting to book mobile dance parties with Harkin. "We're not investing in rent," Harkin says. "We're focusing our attention on the sound, building the brand, bringing great DJs, and having great artist relationships." Christening themselves "Mister Saturday Night," they've gone everywhere from loft spaces in Bushwick to the Water Taxi Beach in Long Island City. And joined by Singer, the trio has hit upon their finest, most offbeat locale yet. For three years now, Sunday Best has made thousands of New Yorkers forgo the Hamptons to instead carouse, sweat, and shake along the banks of the Gowanus (and not from high PCB levels). Or, for those who prefer to sit on what their mothers gave them, you can also eat pupusas (served by Red Hook vendors) and down sangria under shady trees while people-watching amid the throng on the cement-slab dance floor.
Whatever you do, though, don't go cool off in the nearby water. "At Metro Area, at the end of our very first year," Harkin recalls, "we had a guy jump in and climb out, going, 'Oh! It's tingling! It's tingling!' " The table collectively chuckles. "He had to go to the emergency room."
Originally, the undeveloped plot of land that runs along Carroll Street and abuts the canal was to only host a one-off party with Norwegian space-disco infiltrator Prins Thomas. "But Thomas caught the vibe there immediately and told us we had to do it here," Carter recalls of that Field of Dreams moment. And even though summer rain fell on the open-air space often during that first year, spirits never dampened. In fact, it often spurred guest DJs like Afrika Bambaataa or Detroit's Omar S. to make rain dances out of their sets.
This year, the trio has expanded its reach, drawing dance-music heavyweights from U.K. house producer Ashley Beedle (July 25) to New York's own Frank "Voodoo Funk" Gossner (August 15) to Scotland's heralded duo Optimo (August 29), who'll be playing their first Sunday party since shuttering their weekly residency in Glasgow last month, widely regarded as the greatest dance party of the past 10 years. "We are monumentally psyched to be asked to play," writes Optimo's JD Twitch about the invite. "Musically, what we played only worked because it was a Sunday—there's a certain freedom one can have then that perhaps isn't attainable on other nights. And playing outside creates a whole different atmosphere than playing in a dark nightclub."
But bringing over Mayer—the Berlin resident, Kompakt label head, and staple of huge techno clubs like London's Fabric and Berlin's Panorama Bar—is the party's biggest coup. "I've heard such great things about Sunday Best . . . and am in awe of the spirit there," Mayer writes from Germany. "Fun times ahead!" To which Carter adds: "Ordinarily, it wouldn't make sense, because Michael's such a big star. But musically, it's going to be perfect."
Paradoxically, the Environmental Protection Agency's recently granting the Gowanus a Superfund designation might keep the party going beyond this year. The move "will put less pressure on the neighborhood to build condos on that space," Singer says. For internationally known techno/house/disco luminaries to play in an out-of-the-way empty lot bordering an ecological disaster proves that, despite other international cities' glamorous nightlife, New York's legend still resounds.
"Last year, we developed a great gay crowd, and a crowd for people with children, and an underage crowd, because we can do all-ages there," Carter says. "We got all these different people there, and the thing that they share is they're all open-minded." Such a mixture for Harkin means that "when it goes off in New York, there's nowhere better." So when the packed, diverse throng in South Brooklyn watches as the sun sets and the disco ball begins its luminous rotation, the tiny lights reflecting off the leaves, the ceremony will begin anew. "It's something special, being outdoors and dancing," Singer says. "It's primal."
For a full schedule and more info, go to sundaybestnyc.com