House Party: Where New Talent Keeps NYC Hip-Hop on Its Toes
Vic Mensa works the crowd at House Party.
Courtesy of Webster Hall Photo: Carlos Alayo
What do the leading artists in 2015's rising class of hip-hop talent have in common? How are Vic Mensa and his house-inflected hit "Down on My Luck" connected to Tinashe and her luxe anthem "2 On," or the moody revivalism of Joey Bada$$ with Rae Sremmurd's anarchic, weirdo ecstasies? You don't need a thinkpiece to figure out the answer: They've all played Webster Hall's House Party, helping to break their records to a New York City crowd while cementing the venue's weekly dance party as the spot for hip-hop fans to catch the next wave of stars before everyone else gets a piece of them.
Every Thursday, House Party helps a couple thousand New Yorkers show up to work or class the next morning in a bleary-eyed fog. Billing itself as "the biggest weekly hip-hop event NYC has ever seen," the party — in its first full year of operation — has already made a name for itself as an exciting, unpredictable event. It's too early to measure it against other long-running, iconic hip-hop dance nights, like those at the much-missed Tunnel, but it's helped reclaim the city's hip-hop dance culture from the insular, elitist realm of bottle service and velvet ropes. Admission is free for women (and anyone with a flattop haircut) and never more than $25 for men, and Webster Hall's multi-story layout gives House Party a truly democratic feel. Four rooms with distinct sounds — Va$htie's celebrated 1992 Throwback Party, Electric Punanny's reggae room, the trap room in Webster's Studio, and the huge party in the Grand Ballroom, featuring Just Blaze, DJ Soul, and a weekly guest or two — give attendees the chance to have four completely different club experiences without leaving the building.
"It's the embodiment of hip-hop culture in New York City," says Alex Damashek of Move Forward Music, who helms the party and books its weekly talent. Webster Hall's Kenny Schachter tapped Damashek in 2014 to expand the venue's long-running Ladies' Nights into something much bigger. Damashek, a Brooklyn native, had been booking hip-hop bills and promoting shows in the city for years, and he used this opportunity to conjure up an event more ambitious than anything he'd previously attempted. Any promoter would likely tell you that putting on a weekly party for upwards of 2,000 people is difficult enough, but doing so while juggling the schedules of artists like Just Blaze, Va$htie, and that week's top-tier guest or breakout star? Damashek and Lindsay Hart, Move Forward's general manager, had their work cut out for them.
Damashek had been a fan of Just Blaze and DJ Soul's OPEN, a much-celebrated weekly party hosted by the duo at Manhattan's Santos Party House, and he wanted to bring that event to a wider audience with Just Blaze's blessing. Santos Party House's relatively small size (it has a capacity of around 800) meant OPEN had a more exclusive feel to it. Webster Hall would triple that capacity, offering a more accessible party.
But Just Blaze — who's worked with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Eminem, and other hip-hop superstars — felt wary of shouldering such a huge event on his own. "Weeklies are a tough thing to do," he admits. "When things are going well, it's good and you can take credit. But when things are bad, it's all on you. That's why I didn't want the whole [night] to revolve around me." Beyond that, he recognized the impossibility of staying fresh when performing so frequently. "No matter who the artist is," he says, "if you knew your favorite artist was performing every Friday at Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden, you'd go the first few times, but after that, it wouldn't be special anymore."
Va$htie, too, had concerns when considering the move of her successful but intimate 1992 Throwback Party to a much larger space. "The spaces we were doing those parties in were very contained," she says. "If someone walked in the room and we didn't know them, we would just go up and talk to them, like, 'Hey, how'd you hear about the party!' — very much just a 'home' setting, all positive vibes. So the concern with House Party was that it's just this gigantic space, with so many different rooms and so many different people channeling through." Fortunately, she and Just Blaze both feel they've adjusted to House Party's scope. "Once the other members of the team took shape," Just Blaze says, "it made more sense." Va$htie is even more direct: "Now, it just feels like home."
Once the resident DJ crews found their rhythm and the party itself began drawing serious numbers, Damashek and Hart began to focus on bringing in outside talent. "Vic Mensa was our first booking," Damashek says, "then Tinashe. Things really heated up when we booked Bobby Shmurda — it was his first real show in NYC, and it was on the day he signed his big record deal." He credits the Shmurda show with giving House Party enough momentum to catch the attention of other about-to-break acts, who began coming to him and asking for a spot. "For me, it's been about paying attention and catching people who are on the rise, and getting them right before they blow up. O.T. Genasis, Shy Glizzy, Tinashe — we did the release parties for Joey Bada$$ and Rae Sremmurd. Now, when people have a hot record they're trying to break in NYC, they want to come to House Party and break it to our crowd."
It's the job of a promoter to boast, but House Party's bookings give serious weight to Damashek's claims: New York hip-hop royalty Funkmaster Flex and Busta Rhymes have both made recent appearances, and any club would beg to have even half of the names he rattles off. When asked about the party's quick success, he credits the city itself and its desire for this type of non-exclusive atmosphere. "It fills a void, because there wasn't that kind of central cultural event in New York for a long time," he says. "It's a throwback to old NYC...instead of having to have a certain status and amount of money to get into a lounge or a smaller venue, regular New Yorkers and whoever else wants to come can just come."
Just before Valentine's Day, that welcoming spirit was palpable in Webster Hall. Though the crowd may have been thinner than usual — Va$htie points out the competing draw of NBA All-Star Weekend and New York Fashion Week and their attendant parties — the Grand Ballroom was packed, and the other rooms had a more intimate vibe that offered a nice contrast to the full-on spectacle of Just Blaze's space. Pusha T, Virginia's peerless firebreather and G.O.O.D. Music MVP, performed a set that sent an already energized crowd into a frenzy. Elsewhere, people cleared space in Va$htie's room for breakdancing, while DJ Yamez held court to a younger crowd in the Studio and a more relaxed vibe prevailed in Electric Punanny's reggae-focused Balcony Lounge. The sheer eclecticism of the music being played in each room stayed true to Damashek's promise of four discrete parties under the same roof. (A smattering of records spun included DeJ Loaf, Waka Flocka Flame, Vybz Kartel, DJ Jay Mami, A$AP Ferg, Rae Sremmurd, and the night's most ubiquitous rapper, Nicki Minaj.) When Pusha T finished his set, at around 3 a.m., the crowd flowed from the Grand Ballroom into the other three spaces, with few people heading out into the cold.
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Throughout, Damashek seemed to be everywhere at once. He stayed moving, having a good time but keeping his eyes on next week's party. "Part of what makes it crazy and exciting is that so much of it happens last minute," he says. "On the fly." Even in the chaos of another successful night, he gives off a sense of calm, genuine gratitude for his collaborators and for House Party's attendees. "People say New York City has fallen off, or that it's a town for rich people, you know? But we've finally got our thing. This is New York." With that, he's off to make sure everyone's having a good time.
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