Where the Bass Never Stops
I emerge from the L at the Montrose stop along with several other people. The sidewalk is busy, plenty of cars pass. But as soon as I take a right down a side street, I’m alone. Squatting on either side of my route are warehouses, their windows dark and their brick walls tagged with graffiti.
I scan the locked doors as I hurry down the lonely street, looking for a certain address that was emailed to me in the middle of the week. I wonder what the chances are that the party got cancelled and if I’m here for nothing. Then I spot the man ahead of me, standing by himself. He’s big, and he looks bored. Bingo.
As I get closer, I hear the bass thudding. “You here for the party?” he asks me. “I’ll need to see your I.D., but we can check it inside.” He opens the door, checks my I.D. and directs me up the concrete-and-metal staircase with lime green walls, toward the deep bass and down-tempo of minimal house music.
* * *
Hi, my name is Alden, and I’m a house music addict. I think I knew when I started choosing my love interests based on their taste in music. Or maybe it was earlier, when I found myself with my hands pressed up against a speaker that was taller than I am, my hair ruffling in the puffs of air while I danced to the music at six a.m. Either way, I’m a goner. Whenever I fantasize, as some New Yorkers do, about escaping to the countryside for some peace and reflection, I realize that the countryside probably doesn’t have good DJs, which cuts my fantasy off short.
The general consensus is that house music debuted in Chicago in the early 1980s. It was propelled, a few years later, by the seminal song “Acid Tracks,” which tweaked a bass synthesizer to produce fresh, hypnotic beats only vaguely reminiscent of disco. As a fourteen-year-old in the ’90s, when I first read about the warehouse rave scene that grew out of this music, all I wanted to do was sneak in and try it out. Alas, it would take ten years. As tales of rampant drug abuse at raves spread, frightening parents and lawmakers alike, the RAVE act (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy—cute, Congress) passed in 2003, allowing police to treat raves like drug bazaars that happened to have music and fine them heavily enough to wipe out many organizers. The scene faded out almost completely.
Over the last few years, raves have come back, in a somewhat different form. Instead of white ecstasy pills with smiley faces and hearts, you have modest capsules of brown powder. Instead of sucking on a pacifier, you chew a piece of gum. And instead of calling it a rave, it’s just a party with a DJ.
I keep going back—and make a point to become friends with as many other house fans as possible—because every time I emerge from a good house music party, I feel like I’ve just experienced the pinnacle of what New York City has to offer, a unique experience that will never quite be replicated again in the exact same way. It’s the closest you can come to pure, hedonistic pleasure in this world.
Oh, and the fact that these parties are illicit is a perk, of course. I talked to one party organizer—let’s call him “Big Sal”—who has been doing this for five years. For one memorable party, he and the DJ straight-up broke into an empty warehouse. Big Sal told me in an email: “At a warehouse, we have full control. We have no official management to answer to. We have no government regulations to regard or uphold. In a sense it’s complete and total anarchy at these events. Controlled chaos. You can smoke, do drugs, piss in the corner, fuck a stranger…it’s really anything goes. It’s what a party is supposed to be.”
I’ve never personally seen anyone fuck a stranger on the dance floor. But peeing in a corner? There was that bucket bathroom outside on the roof one time. Either way, I want to describe to both readers and myself why I worship at the foot of drum and bass; I needed to push myself deeper into the scene than I’ve gone before, if possible. My goal: to find the dirtiest, grimiest, most underground house music party happening on the Friday night before Christmas. If I was successful, this wouldn’t be just one party; it’d be several—an all-night journey that didn’t stop until the sun came up.
After some research, I settle on two parties happening in a no-man’s-land section of Bushwick, between the last of Williamsburg culture and the start of Bushwick’s trendy new restaurants. It’s home to warehouses, empty townhouses, the art collective 3rd Ward, and artists looking for super cheap rent. One party starts at eleven and goes until “???” The other starts at midnight and ends at eight a.m.
My next task is enlisting people to go with me. My friends who remain in the city are hard to wrangle. Some balk at the idea of being forced to stay up until seven a.m. or going all the way out to what some kindly call East Williamsburg. Others who have told me they want to join me are now happily partying Downtown, with no interest in trekking out to Brooklyn. But I am committed to my goal. So, at midnight, I reluctantly leave behind the cozy Christmas-themed party I’m at and enter the L train station on First Avenue, alone, to begin my adventure.
* * *
Inside, two girls are waiting at a folding table inside to take my money, but I run into problems when I try to give them a twenty—they don’t have change. One runs over to the bar. The same thing happens at the “coat check,” a folding table in front of a rolling rack backed by a false wall.
When the coat check guy goes to the bar to get me more change, I look and realize with a sinking feeling that the party is pretty much empty. There are probably fifteen people scattered around what I estimate to be a chilly three-thousand-square foot space. The DJ is stoically doing his thing on the stage, which is a small table strung with Christmas lights up on a platform. Behind him, the wall dances with trippy images and videos from a projector. A small, glowing LED Christmas tree hangs upside down above his head. On one wall, there are psychedelic, unframed oil paintings. The floor is warped wood and there are small metal columns scattered about. The various strips of white cloth twisted across the high ceiling (they seem almost like leftovers from another party) complete the look. Which is to say, no look at all.
Great. I think to myself, This party is so underground no one is here. Or maybe it’s that I’m too early. It officially started at eleven p.m. but now it’s only 12:30, and that is still pretty early for a house music party. More people will get here later. I hope.
To get around alcohol regulations, the bar is set up so that I give $5 to one man in exchange for a ticket, which I then hand to one of the bartenders (again, at a folding table) a few feet away in exchange for a Tecate beer, which he plucks from one of the ice-filled plastic storage containers behind him. I crack it open, take a look around, and then make one of the best decisions of the night: I stride across the vast, empty dance floor and plunk myself down right next to a guy sitting on a bench by himself.
* * *
It’s easy to make friends at house music parties. In line for the bathroom, by the DJ table, while taking a break and sitting down, on the dance floor—everybody is eager to interact. It’s sort of like a feel-good version of an urban emergency, when strangers all talk to one another to process the immensity of what just happened. “How good is this song, this DJ?” “So good.”
It also helps that many people are high on something. The most popular drug (as you’ve no doubt heard by now) is ecstasy, or its close and more pure equivalent, MDMA (street name: “Molly.”) It stimulates production of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, creating an intense feeling of euphoria that crashes in a pleasurable wave over all your senses. (Maybe that’s why they call it “rolling” when you’re high.) Music—and bass especially—expands. Your body seems to move almost independently as it tries to maximize and fully inhabit this pleasure. Physical touch is lovely, just rubbing your hands together is fun. But getting a shoulder massage from the stranger behind you is like platonic sex, if that’s possible to imagine.
MDMA also reduces social anxiety and anger while increasing extroversion, excitement and empathy. So imagine a hundred people or more walking around a party, rolling on ecstasy, who are just so fucking happy and excited to be there. All they want to do is dance and then learn all about your wonderful life. You’ll rarely see a fight at a house party, even as a hundred or a thousand sweaty and drunk people bump into each other on the dance floor. As an article in this month’s GQ pointed out, electronic dance music crowds that are high on MDMA are at “near parodic levels of gentleness and etiquette.” And mundane cocktail party chatter is mercifully absent. Or if it is there, you wouldn’t know, because every conversation feels revelatory, like falling in love.
Basically, MDMA does what a lot of meditation is supposed to do for you: it helps you be patient, kind, happy and in the moment. But taking a capsule of the drug, or licking a pinkie and dipping it into a small bag, is a handy shortcut to nirvana.
MDMA is credited for making house music possible in the 90s, by both improving the experience of listening to this newfangled, synthesizer-made, disco music update, and taking away the social stigma of getting out on the floor and dancing like you just don’t care. One party organizer says that the availability of MDMA at these parties—and their gay-friendly culture—is what distinguishes them from every other scene in New York. That’s a hell of a drug.
But if you don’t want to commit to Molly—and it is a commitment, up to six hours of adrenaline pumping through your body—you can choose from a menu of other options. Ketamine, a veterinary and medical-grade drug used to sedate animals and babies, can be snorted in powder form to make the music sound more pleasurable. Used correctly, it makes you happy-drunk and lasts a half-hour at most. But too much K, or too much alcohol combined with K, can send the user to the bottom of a well of consciousness, called a K hole, where they physically collapse and are unable to move for a half-hour or longer. Someone in a K hole looks exactly like someone with alcohol poisoning, without the vomiting. If you use ketamine regularly, there will probably be a time where you’ll overdo it. But after a half hour, you’re back on your feet, lesson learned.
Finally, there’s the standard cocaine and pot. All of these hallucinogenic, sedative and stimulating substances, including alcohol, can be—and often are—freely mixed together by partygoers throughout a night. And they are easy to get. Sometimes a guy will be walking through the crowd, saying, “Molly, Molly, K.” Or there’s a guy standing at the edge of the dance floor looking bored. At one party, all I had to do was look at a guy standing in front of me inquisitively (Why aren’t you dancing?), and he opened his fist to reveal a galaxy of bags, pills and vials. When I shook my head, he melted away into the crowd and was gone.
With all these substances floating around, you might think a warehouse party with a thousand people would be utter chaos. Strangely, it’s not. That’s because attendees aren’t there to get drunk; they are there to listen to music. You won’t find shot glasses at the makeshift bars. Also, with the goal of lasting for six hours or more, music devotees are nothing if not learned self-regulators. A beer here, a vodka soda there, and careful application of drugs when needed is meant to maximize your enjoyment of music and keep your body cranking until dawn.
At the dozens of house music parties I’ve attended, which range in size from thirty to a thousand people, I’ve seen only one drunk girl that had to be helped home—an NYU student. People who fall into K holes are sat down in a corner or outside on the curb where they quietly recuperate until they can come back in to rejoin the party. But most attendees are remarkably mature and self-composed (you know, chill), a striking contrast to what I’ve seen at many sports bars and clubs.
Of course, there are plenty of house music devotees who don’t need anything beyond a beer to enjoy the music, because the music can be stimulation enough. With its rolling, intense bass, quick tempo beats and not a second of silence for hours, the only thing between you and sunrise is sore feet.
* * *
The guy on the bench is happy to introduce himself. His name is Richard. He’s Puerto Rican, grew up in New York City. Slim, with a black t-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a loose black cap over his brown curls, he explains he’s taking a break from studying advertising and works at an organic café in Brooklyn. He’s a big house music fan, and has started trying his hand at DJing apartment parties. I ask if he’s afraid of being viewed as just another amateur who wants to be a DJ.
“I think about that all the time,” says Richard. “But that just means I have to try harder. I’ve been listening to it long enough—I know what sounds good. I just need to get the technical stuff down.”
We continue to talk house music, DJs, clubs and drugs. I look around and comment on how empty the party is.
“It’s never been like this before,” Richard says. “I was here for the Halloween party and it was packed. And they really decorated it. But it got raided a couple weeks back.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Drugs, I guess.”
That’s surprising to me, since I’ve heard that the security guards are usually hired as much for their relationship with the police as for their bulk. Usually if the police come, they will just ask that the “bar,” which obviously doesn’t have a license, stop serving alcohol.
Richard’s friend arrives, a tall, trim black guy with dreads and a backpack. He introduces himself to me: John Swan. (He’s always called by both his names together.) He’s Richard’s manager at the café, also DJs using disco records and writes comedy sketches. Richard heads off to the bathroom and I hang out with John Swan. When Richard comes back, John Swan goes. Now a third friend arrives and the two boys introduce me. Jess works in merchandising at a luxury department store in Manhattan. She wears a purple silk top, gold pants and black flats. She’s pretty, with shiny brown hair past her shoulders and minimal makeup.
More people have started to show up, and the dance floor is no longer embarrassingly empty. The DJ hasn’t seemed to notice either way. His songs have been going fast and furious the whole time we’ve been sitting there. Chk chk chk, BOOM BABOOM, Chk chk chk, BOOM BOOM BOOM. Properly fortified by their visits to the bathroom, the boys pull us out to the dance floor.
It’s an eclectic crowd tonight. There are guys dressed in low-slung jeans, baseball caps and colorful sneakers; a woman wearing a skin-tight body suit and shiny black over-the-knee boots; men dressed in button-downs and polos with neat jeans. There are no cocktail dresses or mini skirts, and definitely no high heels. (Only the Eastern Europeans can do heels for six hours of dancing, and they don’t seem to be here tonight.) But in what I estimate to now be fifty people, every race is represented—white, Hispanic, black and Asian. I look to my right and think, Is that a midget?Richard catches my gaze and says, “Yup, that’s a little person.”
None of these people as they are currently dressed would get into a club in the Meatpacking District. But why bother to dress up when the bouncer doesn’t care what you look like and everyone wants to talk to you anyway? You don’t need to impress. And you want to be comfortable for dancing.
It’s true that you can find every type of person at house music parties. Retail workers, people who work in finance, blue-collar workers, students, architects, even accountants and lawyers find their way to the scene. They range in age from twenty-one (for illegal parties, the bouncers are remarkably strict about checking I.D.) all the way up to their early forties. House music doesn’t care how beautiful, successful, popular or rich you are.
I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. I pass through a door and walk down a long flight of steps heading down into an open basement. It smells of wet concrete down here. The four bathrooms in a hallway could have made a cameo in Trainspotting. The one I choose has a white toilet with a mismatched putty-pink lid. The DJ and his speakers are probably twenty feet above my head and thirty feet away, but the bass is so loud that the hollow core door, the kind you would find in a cheap private residence, is rattling with such violence it’s as if someone is trying to force their way in. I check my makeup in the dirty mirror, exit the bathroom and wash my hands in the small room at the end of a hallway. There is a shower in there too. (This seems to be a common thing at warehouse parties, though why, I couldn’t say. Maybe it came with the warehouse bathroom? Other possible scenarios for why one would need a shower in a warehouse I don’t really want to entertain.)
When I get back, Jess eagerly introduces me to her new friends she made while I was gone, a group of guys. Richard realizes he knows them—he met them at a thirty-six-hour-long house music festival in Miami called Sunday School two years ago. It’s a small world, the house music scene.
“People live in this building,” John Swan tells me over the music. I look at him incredulously. “People live in this neighborhood?”
“Yeah. I used to live here. I had to move because there was always something going on, and nights went later than I liked. I moved to a more neighborhood-y spot. I like to be able to leave the party, you know?”
He flies off to start dancing again, his arms and legs akimbo to the beat and dreadlocks flying. There are all sorts of styles of dancing around me. One guy has his hands shoved in his pockets and is shuffling to the beat, eyes fixed on a spot on the floor in front of him. Others step, step bounce. Some guys do a dance that is all the way up to but not quite breakdancing, kicking the air in front of them with precise movements. A woman with an impressive fro is jumping around the dance floor. Jess gets into a dance-off with a stranger to our right, and everyone in our group—now ten strong—cheers. We’re moving like electrons, spinning around and bouncing off one another, talking and then flying away again, full of energy.
The orange glow of cigarettes dot the dance floor. It’s cold in here. Many people still have their coats and hats on as they dance. I’m not sure the building has any heat on, and outside it is in the mid-thirties. There are about one hundred people here now, but it’s not enough to heat the place up.
Richard procures ketamine from a friend at the party, which comes in a cute glass vial about the width of my pointer finger and less than an inch tall. It has a blue plastic lid stamped with an apple. John Swan hunches with Richard and carefully rolls the vial back and forth between his fingers to drop a small white mound of powder onto the webbing between Richard’s pointer finger and thumb. Richard brings it to his face and snorts it up. This sort of obvious drug use is fine, but when they want to dip into a stash of cocaine mixed with ketamine, which comes in a dime bag, they leave to do so in private in the bathroom.
It’s two a.m. now, and friends are texting me because their parties are over and they want to come join up. But I warn them off. I’m having an excellent time with my new friends, but this party, with its sketchy walk down a dark street, sparse crowd, intense music and drugs, is not for everyone.
We’re now onto a new DJ. He rolls the bass down a steep slope, gathering grime and buzz along the way until it hits the bottom, rattling our teeth in its intensity. BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM. It’s lyric-less, minimal, minor key and dark—drum and bass music. Jess wheels over and we hold hands as we dance, foreheads pressed together.
John Swan shows back up, and it takes a moment in the darkness for me to realize that he has red lipstick on. “Why are you wearing lipstick?” Jess asks him. “Some girl in the bathroom put it on me,” he says. Everyone is satisfied with that answer, and continues to dance. John Swan plants a big kiss on my cheek. Richard, a few minutes later, curiously lifts my hair from my face to look at the war paint on my cheek. I look in the bathroom when I visit it again, and yes, it is very intense, two fat stripes of red cutting diagonally across my cheekbones.
It’s now three a.m. One of our new friends, Andrew, bounces up to me. “You want rolls [another name for MDMA]? I know someone who is selling them.” I decline and he bounces away again.
I’m thinking it’s time to check out the other party. I pull up the Instagram image of the digital poster on my phone and show it to John Swan. He’s impressed with the lineup, and grabs Richard and Jess to leave. We hug everyone goodbye, and clatter back down the lime green staircase and out the front.
We have a ten-minute walk ahead of us. The streets are completely empty, and one smells like fresh tar. We pass Eastern Bloc-style apartment buildings, docking bays for trucks, parking lots and commercial buildings. We hear bass thumping again. We’re walking by the House of Yes, another house music venue carved in a townhouse in which most of the second floor has been ripped out to yield higher ceilings. We briefly discuss stopping in, but instead head on to our main destination. It becomes silent again as we pass under the flickering halogen streetlights and walk past blown-out, abandoned buildings.
I check my phone again, and we turn right down a larger street. Now there are cars passing by occasionally, and other people too. We stop in front of a door. This is the address. Jess and I look at each other. Is this it?
“You guys looking for [street number of building]?” a booming voice calls out. “It’s behind the U-Haul.” We turn the corner of the building, cross the parking lot and round the U-Haul truck. It’s pandemonium. A crowd of people are milling about, standing and sitting on a bench by a door overhung with ivy, protected by a security guy. Jess and I march up to the bouncer. “We’re back,” Jess declares, lying.
“You’re back,” the bouncer replies.
“Yes, we’re back.”
He waves us in.
The boys have more trouble. Apparently, the bouncer wants money from them. We pass back a twenty, and after some more negotiation that starts to get heated, he finally waves them through.
We walk down a few steps and we’re in a basement measuring about fifteen hundred square feet with white painted concrete walls. There’s a folding table with alcohol, a couple of bathrooms, and a DJ table. And that is pretty much it. It is packed.
“You think they have a coat check?” I joke. John Swan gathers up all of our coats and heads off to stash them somewhere. Green laser lights pierce the pot and cigarette smoke to play over the crowd. A tiny string of twinkle lights is strung above the heads of the two DJs.
The crowd is very different here, a bizarre combination of white Bushwick hipsters with thick beards, “huge thugs” (John Swan’s words, not mine) and sisters in fabulous, brightly-colored dresses and costume jewelry. The vibe is a little different too, people are a little less friendly.
We’ve arrived just in time for the next set of DJs. They start with the house equivalent of top forty, Scuba’s “Hard Body” and Julio Bashmore’s “Au Seve”—rolling, melodic drum and bass. The crowd grinds and bounces. John Swan says, “We need more drugs,” and disappears. He comes back fifteen minutes later with a bag of coke, which Richard and him share right on the floor in front of the table, digging a key inside to pick up a small mound of powder for a key bump. I nervously move forward to shield them from view, but they don’t seem to care, and neither does anyone else. It’s that kind of party, I guess.
The DJs switch to hip-hop flavored beats, though we’re still firmly in house territory. “Brooklyn!” the track yells and hands go up. “B-b-b-b-Brooklyn!”
John Swan is typing on his phone, posting to Facebook. “Why is me and Complex the realist most party turntablist EVER! Brooklyn!”
The girl next to me is dancing with a skateboard tucked under her arm. An Asian girl with double-D breasts barely contained in her plunging v-neck holds onto the DJ table’s vertical pole and leans back to dance. John Swan drops to his knees in gratitude for the music. Jess and I are bouncing around to the music like the two little white girls we are, exuberant and actually shocked to be here in this moment. Richard grabs my hips to dance, turns me around, trying to kiss me but I shove him away. No hard feelings. It happens. We continue to dance.
Some of the men around us are mean mugging Richard and John Swan, shooting them dirty looks. John Swan produces a small glass bottle of Wild Turkey and hands it to them, a peace offering. The DJ is playing the intro to Dr. Dre’s “Next Episode” and the crowd has their hands up, waiting for the beat to drop. John Swan hands his flask to the DJ, who takes a swig, grimaces, hands it back and then deftly flicks his fingers over the dials to drop a sped-up version of the song. Whistles and shouts. Jess leans in to light her cigarette off the guy next to her. The smoke machine kicks in and I can’t see the DJs anymore, just the glow of their mixer board.
It’s now six a.m. and my feet are burning inside my shoes. They’re the most comfortable heels I own, with just an inch-and-a-half rise, and usually carry me through a night fine, but I’ve been on my feet for at least eight hours. I consider taking them off, but look down at the sticky floor littered with what looks like broken glass and keep them on. I keep going. I’m going to make it until sunrise.
There’s a disturbance, and two guys are hustled out of the door before they come to blows. Everyone continues to dance. The Asian girl wraps me in a hug as we sway to the music. Stop staring at her boobs. Don’t stare. Another girl pulls me in for a grind a few minutes later. Men sidle up to Jess and I, as if we won’t notice them behind us. We spin away or scamper back to Richard and John Swan for protection, though they look tiny next to the fridge-sized men on the dance floor.
Jess heads to the bathroom and stops by one of the few windows on the way back, gulping in fresh, cool air. When she comes back, John Swan digs our coats out from their hiding place so we can leave. The DJs are still going; the dance floor is still crowded. The party organizer tells me later in an email that the last people left at a little after nine a.m., per usual. We tumble out into the frigid night air, exclaiming over the party. The boys insist on walking back to check out the other party again. They sky is grey now. House of Yes is silent. Incredibly, when we walk up to the other party, the bass is even stronger. The windows are rattling. “Three hours later …” John Swan says.
We walk in, but it looks like the party never really picked up. So Jess and I decide to call it a night. We say goodbye to the boys, and walk out. The sky now has a creamsicle orange tinge in the east. Jess gets in one of the black cars waiting by the curb. I hug her goodbye.
I hobble toward the L, clutching a fresh bottle of water to my chest and hunching against the cold. I might see my new friends again, or not. I have two of John Swan’s business cards in my wallet. (“John Swan … exists” and “Swan, John Swan.”) Richard has my number. Jess and I are friends on Facebook. They all want to read the story when I’m done writing it.
I text a friend who was at Cielo earlier in the night to see if he’s still up. My hair is infused with so much cigarette smoke, it will take three washes to get the smell out. I try not to fall asleep on the subway.
When I get out of the subway in Manhattan, I have a text from my friend. He’s at an after-hours party in Midtown with a DJ. It requires a code word to get in. Tempting, but I decline. I’m walking like an old woman with arthritis. (When I talk to him at two p.m. the next day, he’s still up, playing house music at his apartment with new friends he brought back with him. I’m sure he has the benefit of rolls in his system.)
The sun is up when I hobble inside my building and wave a sheepish hello to my doorman, before peeling off my shoes, taking the elevator upstairs and falling into bed. Mission accomplished.
* * *
Alden Wicker blogs about personal finance by day for LearnVest.com, and writes about living sustainably in the city for her personal blog, CleanHippie.net. Her work has appeared on Huffington Post, Forbes, The Fiscal Times, Aol, xoJane, EcoSalon and Elephant Journal, among others.