The Life of the Party

Start with $12,000, 20 teenage entrepreneurs, and a crowd of anywhere from 200 to 2,000. Let's see you throw a better party.

Two thousand people show up and there's no DJ--what if it happens? Twenty-year-old John Charles (J.R.) Springer Jr. runs a hand over his impressive afro, gazes at the red traffic light, and tries to remain calm. "I don't know what we're gonna do," he says as he rolls down University Avenue in St. Paul in his Volkswagen Jetta. "It's gonna be impossible to find a headliner two weeks before the show. We might have to lower ticket prices [from $20] to $15."

In two weeks, Springer and his St. Paul-based rave production-promotion-performance crew, Family Werks, will be staging their second annual Valentine's Day party, "Love," and four days ago Springer received word that headliner Roy Davis Jr.--a Chicago-based DJ and one of the European club circuit's top draws--would not be appearing because of a disagreement with his booking agency. So Family Werks, which had put Davis's name on their flyers and advanced half his fee to his handlers, is out nearly a thousand dollars. They need a replacement, fast.

Riding shotgun is 16-year-old fellow Werker Thai Nguyen. Short, bullet-shaped, and strung tighter than a harp, he typically would be bouncing off the windshield in nervous anticipation. But tonight he's subdued and supportive. "We'll find someone," he reassures Springer.

Lords of the dance? The Family Werks crew: Jeff, Mercia, Pepe, J.R., Matt, and Thai
Lords of the dance? The Family Werks crew: Jeff, Mercia, Pepe, J.R., Matt, and Thai

"We'd better," Springer replies.

A few minutes later, the car pulls up to the enormous house Springer shares with his girlfriend of 13 months, Mercia Givogre (an 18-year-old student at Zenon Dance School), her mother Patricia, and her younger sister Maggie. J.R. enters to find his surrogate family sitting in the small, yellow TV room upstairs watching Beverly Hills 90210. And in all the time it takes to say hello, Springer is pacing the hallway with a portable phone, combing his list of connections in search of potential last-minute fill-ins.

Finally, halfway through Party of Five, he reenters the room looking like someone who has just been asked to choose between hell and high water. He has found two DJs, Chicago-based house spinners CZR and Justin Long. Both have holes in their schedules they're willing to fill with Love, and J.R. needs to decide quickly, lest one slip away. It's a tough call. CZR comes $400 cheaper, and has a couple of records currently burning up the club charts, while the more popular Long, an old friend of the Family, is empathetically willing to lower his fee just for this emergency. "What do you think?" J.R. asks Mercia, and her moon-shaped face contorts as she grapples with the gravity of the situation.

"Why not both?" she asks.

"Are you nuts? We can't afford that."

"Get them both," she responds, "and I'll cover it."

J.R. looks at her incredulously. "Are you serious?"

She is. Mercia's mom helps fund her fun, and she's the only kid in the 20-member crew who can afford to blow that kind of money at once. J.R. is so excited he almost drops the telephone as he calls back the DJs to confirm their appearances. Over the next few days, every move Family Werks makes is done with an air of triumph: They've escaped disaster by their fingernails, and they know it.

The following evening, the group holds their weekly meeting in the Midway-area home of group members Thai, Long, and Truc Nguyen. Family Werks has about seven core members: J.R. and his brother Ed; brothers Long, Thai, and Truc; Jeff Lathrop; and Matt Noble-Olson. There are about 13 peripheral members, mainly girlfriends, friends, and semi-interested scene peers. The boys--especially J.R.--make most of the decisions and the girls help out; even if this event couldn't have come off without the help of Mercia, her role will remain that of helpmate. Scenes may change, but sexual politics stay the same.

The meeting, like every Family gathering, is laid-back. Sixteen-year-old Ed plays booming house music on the Technics 1200 turntables set up on an unused pool table in the basement as several satellite members sit a few feet away watching skateboarding videos. Some of the kids--most of whom are hip hoppers or ravers in their teens--are here to work on the upcoming event, some to show moral support, and still others just to hang out. They'd probably be here even if the collective weren't gearing up for D-day. Everyone is always over at the Nguyens'. It's an ideal hangout: messy, fully equipped with gear and toys, and, most important, unsupervised. The Nguyens' parents are never home: Their dad Tam is largely out of the picture, though he does stay over occasionally, and their mother Thanh works two full-time jobs.

Upstairs, group treasurer Matt, a blond, doughy-faced 18-year-old, announces that the group is still $200 short on funds for the week, even after J.R., Thai, and Jeff have handed over their latest paychecks from the Pie Shop, the Grand Avenue pizzeria where all three work. A collective sigh goes out before J.R., who has two other jobs, and the abrupt, smart, 19-year-old Skye Rossi (the group's sole Minneapolis member) pledge the funds needed to fill the gap. This takes care of the deposits for the new DJs, the fee for renting out the East St. Paul National Guard Armory where the event will be held, and payment for a security staff mostly made up of off-duty St. Paul cops.

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