Brooklyn’s Sugar Hill Club is not exactly a temple of New York’s avant-garde party scene. It’s a single-storey brick building dating to 1979 with plaster crumbling from the walls. The canopy above the door reads Supper Club – Restaurant – Disco. It’s early Saturday evening, and at the bar inside, a man hypnotises a beer as Barry Manilow murmurs on the radio. In exactly seven hours from now, New York’s wildest underground party is due to kick off here: BangOn! NYC, with over 1,000 guests, DJs from Europe and performances from Brooklyn’s artists’ scene. The motto of the night is Danger Zone. An email advises ticket holders: “Let your inhibitions go!”
The underground party king of New York races across the backyard of the Sugar Hill, swearing. Brett Herman, 30, miraculously beard-free, has already been working 28 hours straight, and he still has to organise transportation of six tonnes of equipment here from a factory building a couple of miles away in East Williamsburg. The factory building, explains Brett, was, right up to midnight last night, the location for the Danger Zone party. But then the alcohol licence was not issued: in the party-organising trade, a perfect storm. “Somehow we had to spontaneously come up with a replacement location,” says Brett, rubbing his eyes. “We booked the Sugar Hill today at 2 o’clock this morning. Since then we’ve been here building a party set-up from scratch.”
A six-wheeler stops in front of the Sugar Hill: it’s the BangOn! task force. Men in shorts and vests jump down from the loading platform and schlep spotlights into the disco room. Shortly afterwards, a 1996 Dodge Ram Van with a stage on its roof pulls up in the building’s back lot. This is the ‘boom-box car’ and it looks like a ghetto blaster on wheels.
Despite the urgency, everything unfolds with practised composure. The people at BangOn! have learned to think of events as commando exercises. Their mission: crazy parties in unusual locations. Ninja warriors duel in warehouses, brass bands play in abandoned grain silos. There are bouncy castles for grown-ups and readings by naked poets (If you want to see what we’re talking about, click here - ‘Tommy D Naked Man’). Five metres above the floor, they’re screwing a canoe to two steel girders: a stage for the night’s go-go dancers.
The first high-point of the evening: a bouncer with the neck of a linebacker flashes his vampire teeth. The man looks like Wesley Snipes in Blade, only twice as big. He has reptile-eye contact lenses and a leather coat which reaches his boots. Super Snipes is not giving interviews.
Tim Monkiewicz is 30, with brown curly hair; the kind of guy you’d book for a beachwear shoot. In the disco room, he kneels down in front of the decks and tightens screws. He is one of the founders of BangOn!, and the crew’s sound tech. Before midnight, he says, there’s never a soul at the party. This gives him time to talk about the biggest police bust in BangOn!’s history. “Of course, early on everything was illegal. We put on parties in the craziest locations. We gave out phony addresses to throw the cops off the trail. No one was thinking about things like fire exits. One time, rotten wooden beams were falling from the ceiling when we turned up the bass.”
The first roof terrace party was held in July 2008. Initially there were 300 guests, then 700, and soon there were so many that they had to shift to empty industrial buildings. In 2010, 20 police officers stormed a hall where 2,000 partygoers were celebrating Halloween. “It was like a raid during Prohibition,” says Tim , “cops bellowing, tables kicked over.” That’s when he and the other BangOn! founders decided to stick to legal events. Relations with the NYPD have improved since: “The cops come by for almost every event. Maybe they just want to party for free.”
There’s still a queue in front of the Sugar Hill. As a leftover from the old game of hide-and-seek with the police, no flyers or posters are printed and locations are kept secret until the last moment – it’s up to the guests to find the party. BangOn! simply scatters a few clues on Facebook. About 1,400 guests have already made it past the door and are pressed into the courtyard and on three indoor dancefloors. Beats from the sound system shake the gutters. Two go-go dancers climb on to the canoe-stage. They’re wearing fighter pilot helmets in honour of the Danger Zone theme, a reference to the song of the same name on the Top Gun soundtrack. The dancers salute. Fluorescent light tubes flash from their bras.
The three BangOn! bosses – Brett, Tim and Gene Bradley, a bearded Australian – gather at the taco stand in the courtyard. How do they put together their performance programme? They each pull out their iPhones and scroll through contacts. They read out what they have for ‘Company’ under each artist’s name:
Tim: “Naked hula.”
Gene: “Specialist in body painting which glows in the dark.”
The red-carpeted disco room is normally a venue for wedding parties. When Dan Ghenacia steps up to the decks, however, this place is a hothouse, at least 35°C. The mirrors on the walls are fogged up. Ghenacia, the top musical act of the evening, arrived from France five hours ago. Resident Advisor, the leading online dance music magazine, calls him the ‘king of the Parisian underground’.
Right now, he is a king crowned and robed in sweat. In the crowd, girls are twirling fluorescent hula hoops. Hipsters in vests do their best to dance casually. The room sways, hypnotised by a swirl of house beats and heat. In a corner, three super-skinny girls stoically slurp their drinks. “Alexander Wang models!” as an excited Tim later reports.
The fashion moment of the evening comes when Brett presents his Danger Zone outfit: a US Navy dress uniform of white trousers, starched white shirt, outsized cap at a rakish angle. A captain’s insignia glitters on his shoulders. Still, he isn’t completely satisfied with the evening: “We’re still waiting on two performers.” He takes a big swig of beer before explaining his party philosophy. “At BangOn! we believe in the communicative power of craziness. We believe that strangers are more likely to laugh and start talking to each other when they’re painting their faces or admiring Tommy Naked Man. We want to shoot our guests way out of their comfort zone. Everyone should have a story to tell the day after a BangOn! party.”
In the disco room, a petite woman is riding one of the bass amps.
The two performers Brett has been waiting for slip unnoticed behind the boom-box car. They look like extras from a Mad Max film. Colin has Wolverine sideburns, a greasy leather jacket and black boots. If you ask him where he comes from, he will show you the tattoo on the inside of his lower lip: shaky figures spell out ‘718’, the area code for Brooklyn. Mark, brawny of body and mohawked of hair, wears a sleeveless black plastic vest of a medieval design. He says he stitched the vest together from car mats. Mark and Colin are proud sons of Brooklyn. They both crack open their first cans of beer.
Colin says that the atmosphere of the BangOn! parties reminds him of the raw charm of Brooklyn before the invasion of moneyed hipsters and the invention of regular police checks.
Mark explains that in the Brooklyn of the pre-hipster era, grown men used to spend their leisure time “smashing the windows of strangers’ cars and sleeping with their girlfriends on the backseat”. In telling this, his voice takes on a melancholic tone.
Showtime. Mark and Colin climb on to the boom-box car. Each man has two Poland Spring mineral water bottles dangling from his belt. Once on the roof of the car, Colin fishes torches from his backpack. Mark sparks up a Zippo. People crowd around beneath them. Colin and Mark each take a great swig from the bottles, which contain lamp oil, then blow fountains of flame into the sky. The heatwave is brief and intense, flaring in the faces of partygoers below. Hipsters take a step back, faces are ablaze with astonishment. Colin blows a second flame, arches his back, spits fire, coughs.
Dawn is already stealing across the rooftops. Colin and Mark spit fire as if their lives depend on it. At exactly 4.30am the whole courtyard is staring at the boom-box car as twin pillars of flame become one fiery column shooting 5m into the sky. This is the story everyone will tell about tonight: how two leather freaks on a Dodge Ram Van torched the air above the Sugar Hill. Anyone who was flagging before is now wide awake. Colin and Mark take a bow. Lamp oil trickles from Colin’s mouth.
After a 42-hour working day, Brett Herman closes the club door. His eyes are blinded by the sun. In his white captain’s uniform, he strolls through the Brooklyn morning to the subway.