The House Party Is The New Festival
Built in 1920, Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel is as much of a Brooklyn signature as the bridge. It’s overlooked the borough’s many lives from its southern tip; after the Jackie Robinson years, the crack epidemic, and the Bloomberg era, the “WONDER WHEEL” sign pledges to glow red every summer night. There’ve been two nights this summer when the 150-foot landmark is the second-most significant ferris wheel on this beach.
For those two rare occasions, it’s the ride a five-minute walk west that garners a second look; the smaller one boasts the words “The Greatest Day Ever!” in cursive font at its axis. It’s past 10 p.m. and its bulbs eminate green as the festival’s attendees twerk to the DJ’s Jersey Club mix, oblivious to the blackout that has paralyzed Midtown Manhattan. Past the other amusement rides and fried Oreo stand, inside the Ford Amphitheater, EDM producer Carnage is hyping the crowd in his guttural voice with every other bass drop as they’re bathed in their own red light. The scene is just the latest edition of Irvin Benitez’s brainchild, an amalgam of EDM, hip-hop, and carnival attractions inspired partly by the big time music festivals that have become ubiquitous.
The audacity of placing his annual amusement park next to the Wonder Wheel isn’t lost on Benitez as he talks about GDE in an Astoria Starbucks a little over a week later. The New York native doesn’t look back on that sight with that much awe; he’s already well-aware of the minor strokes that built this portrait. Benitez remembers GDE’s growth with a boyish energy that only betrays his age as his wide grin pushes his eyebrows into the wrinkles on his forehead. By his account, Benitez invested his life savings in throwing the festival, a mix of DJ acts and games produced by the same company Alicia Keys used for her child’s birthday party. The banker-turned-event organizer took a picture of the site and at one point sent the image to an Adidas executive in hopes of getting the brand as a sponsor. He refused to consider a social media pitch.
However, the first GDE did well enough for Benitez to be able to afford to have a ferris wheel the following time. That same executive saw an image of the ferris wheel and decided to reach out to him unaware that he was the sender of that DM. But Benitez remembered when they sat down in Adidas’ offices to discuss a partnership.
“At the end of the conversation, I’m like, ‘Yo, I wanted to show you something...I DM’d you,’” Benitez says, recalling that he took a screenshot of the slight with him to that meeting. “He was like, ‘Wow, I guess that I should pay more attention to my DMs.”
Benitez’s first famed event—the still-running Brunch Bounce, which became one of the first to bring the day party experience to Washington Heights after originally being just a shindig to bring his friends together—was created with just a three-figure budget from his own pocket. The Greatest Day Ever! is Adidas sponsored with costs that run upwards toward $2 million.
Though the ferris wheel is unique, the story of GDE’s rise has familiar themes. DussePalooza, formerly HennyPalooza, grew from an invite-only house party for friends that thrived on endless Hennessy. It now subsists on D’Usse and a partnership with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, boasting Pusha-T, and Jay-Z himself as a few of its famed guests. Grits & Biscuits started when two HBCU alumni bonded over a southern hip-hop mixtape while living in New York. They did not realize how many New Yorkers had love for the subgenre until over 500 people showed up at that first party at Park Slope’s Southpaw in 2010. “It was almost like someone getting high for the first time,” third founder Maurice Slade, who co-founded the party alongside VP Culture, LiveNation Erika Lewis, and his brother Alzo Slade, says. The ecstasy was too high for them not to do another one—and eventually tour nationwide.
They’re all gatherings that grew into entertainment brands that pride themselves on democracy instead of clout. In a sense, they rebel against the exclusivity that’s been a signature of New York City nightlife. Many of the city’s clubgoers have stories of bouncers defending the door against a growing line, VIPs jealously guarding their bottle service spoils, or becoming hyper aware of one’s poverty thanks to a celebrity’s presence. DussePalooza was of a similar sort of guardedness during its early HennyPalooza days: attendees needed either invites from founder Kameron McCullough or be well-connected to get in before it became a public event at the 2013 Howard Homecoming after years of social media buzz.
“They felt that energy from us coming in to just know that it was a safe space, to know that there wasn’t any bullshit happening, to know the women were there just to have a good time,” says McCullough. “It was just a really fun house party that a lot of people have been craving and looking for and didn’t have the opportunity to have. When we opened it to the public, yeah we were nervous because at that point it was like, ‘I don’t really know this person.’ Probably can’t account for 500 people I don’t know personally. But in that same space, people just kind of felt that energy and what ended up happening was even with the people we didn’t know, we ended up creating a community.”
Benitez has a distaste for party hosts who don’t actually host and just exist in a glorified air in a roped-off section; at GDE, it’s him that’s greeting guests at the door. DussePalooza’s lore includes an ex-New York Giant whose publicist pitched the idea of him showing up as a star guest. (And tellingly, Grits & Biscuits’ merchandise include “No VIP” clothing.)
“He kind of angled it like his presence would make the party bottle service or whatever,” says Cory Townes, an early HennyPalooza guest and host. “Kam and [co-founders Kazeem Famuyide and Nile ‘Lowkey' Ivy] and them were like, ‘No, that’s not what this party is about.’ The party ain’t about VIP. This is everybody just being in the mix just listening to good music, dancing, and having a good time.”
The parties destabilize that dynamic; the absence of bottle service and similar perks evoke a large scale house party that appeals to its attendees’ shared love of expensive cognac-made-affordable and, in Grits & Biscuits’ case, Jeezy. The appeal isn’t only to everyday people, either. YG endearingly called DussePalooza “just some black sh*t” during a recent Hot 97 interview.
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His point was that was when black culture is presented on a large scale—his 2019 Coachella set for instance—there’s usually a predominant audience consuming it. (YG: “When you do your tour and sh*t, you put your tickets up on the internet, black people is not the first ones to go buy it.”) DussePalooza is one of those spaces where the fact that it’s cultivated by people of color is seen in the faces of the audience and the room’s very air.
“That’s the message,” says ChriStylezz, DussePalooza’s longtime host. “It’s just us in one place having a great time, singing along, electric sliding, rapping, dancing, getting to it. It’s just some black sh*t.”
The scene is a small one that vies for the same demographic—college-educated people of color—but it’s not necessarily competitive. They come with their own worldviews; Benitez notes GDE draws more of the big festival Lollapalooza experience than G&B’s more communal vibe. The organizers also maintain they’re supporters of each other’s brands—the DussePalooza crew are no strangers to G&B’s gigs and are getting ready to co-host an event with Brunch Bounce at the Brooklyn Mirage in August.
“There’s no reason for it to be competitive,” Lewis says. “We’re all just trying to elevate the culture in a way that’s meaningful and respectful.”
The festival’s increasing crowd sizes parallels the founders’ ambitions. Benitez described himself as “dog tired” when the Greatest Day Ever became a Monday. When he started Brunch Bounce, he was a banker who was breaking even doing it as a side gig, when it took no longer than a week to plan. While planning those events still takes a short amount of time, the Greatest Day Ever’s schema dates back to the prior autumn, when the Wonder Wheel is less wondrous and the more lively lights are the yellow ones on the projects that overlook the beach. He said he’d already started thinking about the next artist lineup when this year’s GDE went down.
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ChrisStylezz, Chief Operations Officer Benner Hall, and the rest of the crew already had their big We-Made-It moment: “Last December. Hammerstein Ballroom, Jay-Z came to DussePalooza.” His starry eyes and seconds-long silence make the significance of Hov’s appearance—not just as a cameo, but as a guest staying for hours—obvious. But Mr. Carter is a supporter instead of an end goal. Chris is still looking upwards toward becoming a boutique festival, where instead of touring over 20 cities, DussePalooza expands its scale in three or four major ones, while McCullough is considering moving it to other countries. Whatever the height or continent, they’re convinced it’s in reach.
“We’ve looked at it like we could do whatever we wanted because nobody has really done what we’re doing at this moment,” Hall says. “It’s up to us to define what our path is in being trailblazers in the real time. The difference is [the goal] isn’t high in the sky anymore. We’re looking at it like it’s obtainable.”