The struggle between party promoters and Manhattan clubs isn’t a new one. Fact is, downtown hip just doesn’t bring in the numbers (at the bar or at the door) compared to mainstream crowds and tourists–increasingly, bigger underground-DJ lineups are pushed out of the city and into Bushwick warehouses and secret lofts with secret passwords. Many big-name clubs remain black holes of bottle service, bridge-and-tunnel crowds, and superstar house DJs–Pacha, here’s looking at you–but the experience is hardly worth the extravagant cover charge and spendy drinks. Even when Santos Party House and Webster Hall play along (for Dance Here Too or Girls and Boys, respectively), the anxiety of being around a certain clientele may ward off the bravest of partygoers.
That said, the lineup at Sunday night’s Dark Disco party was enough to keep me in the city and away from the beach this Memorial Weekend, and promoter MeanRed‘s “Take Our Clubs Back” rally cry sealed the deal.
The event combined Lower East Side’s Element–an open dance floor surrounded by a second-floor balcony that held the DJ booth–and the Vault, a basement lounge one floor down. Cover was $30 as usual, but at least this time it was worth it, as for once you seemed to be paying for the talent, not the venue. U.K. garage pioneer MJ Cole and house legend Kenny Dope topped the enormous bill; dubstep maven Ikonika made her first New York appearance (just a few weeks after the release of her Contact, Love, Want, Have album) alongside Hyperdub labelmate Actress. A handful of locals appeared as well–Michna, Nick Hook, and House of House included–but those were extras.
We arrived around 1 a.m. and descended into the Vault, which resembled more of an art-school show than a dance party. House music did seep from the walls, but we couldn’t find the source; instead, patrons poked around the cave-like dungeon playing with different interactive installations. A photographer was set up next to a dimly lit bar, taking photos of people light-painting in one room, while the next one over had the most noteworthy piece of the night–an interactive video installation by Paul Noztold that quite literally pinpointed the actions of everyone in the room based on movement and sound. (You didn’t have to be on drugs to feel tripped out.) If that was all a bit much, you could participate in Noztold’s “Sext’N” installation, in which all you needed was a dirty thought and a telephone to make the projected image of a large gold woman say whatever you wanted.
Upstairs is where the dancing began and ended during our time there: MJ Cole catered to the club instead of the crowd, which was somewhat disappointing, though understandable. (As one patron put it, his fans didn’t line up to listen to him play “Pon de Floor.” But he did.) We expected choppy kick-drums and maybe even grime, but got mostly house instead, though those on the dance floor didn’t seem to mind.The space was full but not uncomfortably crowded, everyone sipping on $12 cocktails and dancing before a tall stack of TV screens set up to act as a mirror to the dance floor. Manhattan drink prices aside, the club was totally engulfed in a relaxed, Sunday groove–which is really the whole point. “Going to a club doesn’t have to be about dropping a lot of cash, getting trashed, and forgetting the rest of your night,” says MeanRed’s Jen Gottstein. “It can be about discovering a new artist, getting exposed to a new medium, changing your perception of music. We’re trying to facilitate that.”