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The stuttering, stratospheric strain of some anonymous trance track blares in the cool night air, and smoke billows from the engine room of a rusty, rain-slicked tugboat plowing its way up the choppy waters of the Harlem River. As we chug by Highbridge Park and under the George Washington Bridge, 18-year-old high school student Ben S. points out to the assembled revelers the verdant spot down the hill where he helps Machinelf, the boat event’s host, put on outdoor outlaw parties at the edges of this largely Dominican neighborhood.
“The atmosphere is very hippy-dippy,” allows Ben about these clandestine affairs, where banners featuring giant alien heads are unfurled, and sci-fi and psychedelic images are projected under the arches, creating a dramatic backdrop for dancing and dining alfresco. “It’s like having a communal picnic in the middle of the night. If you bring food, it becomes everybody’s food; if you bring beer, it becomes everybody’s beer; if you light a joint, it becomes everybody’s joint. There’s a feeling of complete freedom.”
“We only have two rules,” chimes in amateur chemist, Machinelf (so named after the angelic entities that ethnobotanist Terence McKenna claims guide the DMT user during a trip). “Leave no trace and be as respectful to the police and neighbors as possible.”
Give Rudy Giuliani some credit. Ten years ago, the sight of 200 gaily attired ravers happily strolling down 181st Street at four in the morning, carrying sleeping bags and heading toward a darkened park, would have been most unusual, but now it is a common occurrence during the warm weather. While the mayor’s heavy-handed clampdown on downtown nightspots has turned the regular clubs into burned-out shells of their former flamboyant glory, paradoxically, his successful war on street crime has opened up whole new party zones in uptown and outer-borough neighborhoods previously regarded as too dangerous for middle-class honky hipsters. All across town, not only in neighborhoods like DUMBO and Williamsburg, but also in places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, East New York, and the South Bronx, there’s a boom in word-of-mouth parties at unconventional locations (lofts, warehouses, boats, bridges), as night crawlers abandon the public spaces of the clubs for cozier spots where they can get down and boogie without feeling Big Brother is constantly watching their every move. Away from mainstream nightclubbing, and largely under the media radar, a new DIY spirit (after all, anyone with two arms can spin records) has taken hold among crews like Blackkat, Touched-by-a-DJ, Matter/:Form, the Madagascar Institute, and Freeskool, whose members throw small-scale, off-the-beaten-track bashes that attempt to reignite the festive and creative spirit so lacking from the large dance halls.
“People are tired of the drama,” says Touched-by-a-DJ’s Curt Ashley. “They’ve had one too many bad experiences. They’d rather go somewhere more intimate and be among friends and listen to good music without all the hassle.”
“What’s driving this phenomenon,” agrees Ben S.’s uncle, techno promoter Matt E. Silver, “is that people are bored shitless with the clubs. Young people still want to go out and party. But because of Giuliani, they can’t do it at Twilo or the Tunnel anymore.”
Back on board the floating chill-out room, the boat takes a sharp left at Inwood Hill Park before anchoring off the Palisades that loom like some primeval forest in the moonlight. The chattering party-goers—drawn from the more philosophical end of the post-rave movement, the type of folks who lecture you about how unnatural cocaine is compared to MDMA—immediately disrobe and dive butt naked into the Hudson River. “Anabolic fluid! Anabolic fluid!” screams Machinelf, his bobbing head barely visible in the murk.
On the deck, which doubles as a dance-floor, a red-haired Irish woman named Orla explains the appeal of these illicit parties over established discos. “You can create your own atmosphere. You don’t have it dictated to you.”
With obnoxious bouncers ordering you around, obtrusive body searches, cookie-cutter environments, capricious door policies, and the same old music, not to mention the pervasive paranoia bred by the constant surveillance of the state, going out clubbing in New York is now more of an ordeal than a pleasure. These days clubs seem primarily like playgrounds for annoying Wall Streeters, steroid-pumped muscle boys, and callow teenagers looking for cheap chemical thrills. No wonder that nightlife insiders tend to shun the large-scale venues.
Maverick musician and nightlife veteran Moby is old enough to remember a time when New York clubland was an important cultural institution, not just a place to ogle aspiring models, get drunk on overpriced cocktails, and strain one’s neck in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of some tacky celebrity.
“I rarely ever go to big nightclubs in New York anymore,” said Moby, who has been going out in Gotham since the days of the Mudd Club. “I’m fed up with gigantic clubs where you get treated like shit. The vast majority of times I’ve gone out in the last few years has either been to loft parties or roof parties. The sound system isn’t that good. The DJ isn’t that special. You have to bring your own beer. But the atmosphere at house parties is better, because you’re not being manhandled by a 300-pound gorilla.”
Moby sees house parties as antidotes to the sterile conformity and lack of personality of the mainstream clubs and lounges, where buzz, money, and celebrity are valued above creativity and originality.
“The reason most of my friends like house parties is they know Donald Trump isn’t going to be there,” he continued. “House parties are the antithesis of trendy lounges. You go up in a freight elevator. You pay five bucks or nothing to get in. No one asks to see your ID or if you’re on the list. Most people are dressed down. And everybody is sweaty.”
But not all house parties are created equal. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the bare-bones affairs that Moby is talking about to elaborate costume extravaganzas like the hoity-toity Goth galas that House of St. Eve sometimes throws, where a select group of invitees sip absinthe while dressed as romantic characters from myth and legend; or the nouveau riche blowouts that playboy-millionaire Jonathan Leitersdorf used to stage in his swanky Lower Broadway penthouse apartment, where monied party freaks sipped champagne and danced until dawn under the chandeliers of the impressive Mediterranean-style villa-cum-disco—complete with gardens, swimming pool, and spectacular wraparound views of Manhattan—that Leitersdorf thoughtfully constructed on the roof of his cavernous bachelor pad.
Of course, house parties have always been around—but a few years back, they began to occupy a bigger part of the nighttime landscape. For a while, the dotcom bubble financed this trend. “The Internet expansion fueled the bigger parties,” says DJ Sean B, whose well-regarded Freeskool parties are a regular pit stop on the current scene. “You had all these young, creative people with money in their pockets. That was a big spur,” he said. While Pseudo, for instance, eventually went bankrupt, the parties at the start-up’s offices—multimedia orgies of drugs, technology, and too much cash that sometimes lasted for days—proved a far bigger hit than the service (Internet television) the company was supposed to provide.
But Moby is right. Most of the current parties are resolutely low-budget, underground events. “It’s all about building these small communities,” continues Sean B. “Each party has its following, which is built by e-mail and word-of-mouth. You need people who support you and feel strongly about what you’re doing. It’s the same spirit as the early rave parties.”
The night before Machinelf’s boat party, Blackkat, a DJ collective that sprang from the squats of the Lower East Side and which has thrown parties everywhere from East Timor to East New York, is staging a bash called “Depth Charge”—promoted on their Web site as “an up-all-night Mermaid underwater adventure”—in a large set-design studio at the unfashionable end of Park Slope. On the windy roof deck, with forks of lightning providing the dramatic lighting effects, a 30-foot-high homemade metal swing—held together with weights and bits of duct tape—spins brave party-goers in 360-degree circles, threatening to catapult them into the nearby Gowanus Canal. Inside, circus performers and break-dancers, anarchists and artists—folks generally tired of the commercialized nightlife scene—rub shoulders as DJ Chrome lays down the sort of experimental sounds not normally heard in mainstream venues. Suddenly, the surrounding streets are filled with flashing fire engines. The Blackkat crew has some unwelcome guests—firemen in heavy plastic coats and helmets, looking for code violations. Chrome escorts them through the throng, and after a brief inspection, the firemen decide everything is fine and leave the party undisturbed.
“We try to behave like responsible adults,” says Chrome’s partner, Jason Blackkat, also a DJ. “We work hard to create a safe and creative environment. We make sure fire exits are clearly marked, there’s a working sprinkler system, and there’s no flammable material in the space. And we’re very respectful of the surrounding neighborhood.”
Blackkat threw its first parties in 1996 at the 5th Street Homestead, between avenues A and B. The next year, cops raided the squat and allowed city workers to demolish the place. Blackkat sued the city and eventually won an out-of-court settlement. Forced out of lower Manhattan, Blackkat relocated to Brooklyn, where it now throws parties practically every weekend. “More and more, the parties have spread out from Williamsburg deeper and deeper into Brooklyn.”
What Blackkat and their ilk do is illicit, but whether it’s actually illegal is a moot point. They try to stay within the appropriate laws and ordinances. For instance, for each event, they purchase a one-night beer-and-wine license. But when does a private gathering cross over the line to become an illegal public assembly? “The laws pertaining to public assembly are deliberately vague,” says DJ Chrome. “A lot of it is up to the individual policeman. Different cops tell you different things. Some say you need a public assembly permit or a cabaret license, other’s say because it’s private, you don’t.”
One argument that club owners use to protest the crackdown on their establishments is that it forces party-goers into illegal and dangerous spaces. Yet the atmosphere at the house parties feels a lot safer than most big discos. These are overwhelmingly peaceful and friendly events, where displays of excessive intoxication are relatively rare. But occasionally trouble rears its ugly head. This past May, Connecticut teenager William Jouannes was stabbed and beaten at one of the under-the-bridge raves in Washington Heights after he decided to confront a bunch of hooded party crashers who had just jacked his backpack. Despite a collapsed lung and internal bleeding, the lucky raver survived.
After being shut down by the Social Club Task Force—originally formed in the wake of the Happyland fire—on several occasions for various minor infractions, Blackkat are sick and tired of being hassled by the authorities. “Freedom of assembly is being denied on a regular basis by the city and the NYPD based on a general xenophobia for something they don’t understand,” contends Jason. “In any real democracy there should be a place for young people to come together on their own terms and just have fun. You can’t deny people’s need to dance. They will always do this—they can’t stop it and it’s asinine to try.”