The Life of the 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.
"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.
But there are still other costs to be covered: hotel rooms for out-of-town DJs, a generator to power the massive sound system, food, drinks, and various incidentals. For now, J.R. says, they should defer these costs "till the day of the show, just like we always do." Decisions finalized, the meeting comes to an end with the group drawing up posters to hang at rave-oriented retailers like Let It Be and Cynesthesia that will explain the Roy Davis Jr. disaster.
The meeting is adjourned, and one of the most productive, efficient groups of young businesspeople you'll ever meet wanders toward Thai's bedroom down the hall and soon launches into what becomes an hourlong wrestling match. The battle royal begins with the breaking of Thai's bed frame and continues into the living room. J.R. tackles Skye, gleefully yelling "the Afro versus the Italian 'fro!" in reference to Skye's puffed-out 'do. J.R. sends him into the wall, smashing a framed picture, and for a moment it seems like common sense and rug-burn have worn the combatants down. But after a short series of tests, Skye's shoulder seems in good enough shape to begin the match anew, and he lunges into action.
Finally, the fight comes to an end with Long Nguyen giving J.R. a three-minute sleeper hold. But the unwieldy celebration continues the next night. J.R., Ed, Long, and Thai have just finished DJing at the Foxfire Coffee Lounge, and the gang, about 14 strong, winds up at the Riverside Avenue Perkins. They ask their waiter to indulge them with a mountain of straws, which he provides, and J.R. and Jeff set about fashioning a five-foot-long überstraw. J.R. attempts--and fails--to drink water out of a glass placed two tables away, and when that grows tiresome, his wandering eye falls on the glass of a Werker who has made the mistake of leaving his drink unattended. Grinning, he pours an array of condiments into his friend's beverage, and, with reserved glee, remarks, as much to himself as any possible spectator: "Think about it. We throw $20,000 parties."
Edward and J.R. Springer grew up near St. Paul's Grotto, an area between Thomas and University Avenues. "We used to hang out on my mom's retaining wall and watch the drug dealers," J.R. reminisces one Friday night during one of his DJ sets at the Foxfire. "No summer camp for us!" Their mother Janet raised the pair on a nurse's salary after their father died in 1988 (J.R. was nine, Ed five). Shortly thereafter, J.R. entered junior high and began what he calls his "problem-child phase"--breaking into cars, stealing, getting high. After a couple of years, Janet put her foot down and J.R. curtailed his behavior. But he didn't start to find any real "direction," until 1995, when he attended one of First Avenue's weekly dance parties.
"I went to First Avenue on Sunday night for the first time when I was 16," he recalls. "When we got there, there was a line around the block. I just fell in love with the way ravers looked--it reminded me of disco. I started going every week, and it made me realize there was more to life than sitting around and smoking weed. I felt like I'd found myself."
Soon the Springers and the future members of Family Werks--all students of St. Paul's Central High--started going to every party they could find out about. A multiracial bunch--the Nguyens are Vietnamese, the Springers have a black father and a white mother, Skye is second-generation Italian American, Jeff's mother is Peruvian--they stuck out in a Twin Cities rave scene that remains, for the most part, white. J.R. and Ed were the first kids in the group to start buying (and later spinning) house records, and eventually J.R. decided to throw parties of his own.
At first these were held at his mom's house. J.R. threw five parties between New Year's Day and Valentine's Day 1997. ("We'd been evicted from the house we were living in by the end of February anyway," he says, "so we didn't give a fuck.") Soon they moved their events into lofts and warehouses, alternating between hip hop at one gathering and house music at the next. After noticing that they were losing money on hip-hop shows and making it back on their house-based followups, the group decided to stick to house music, and their events soon became proto-raves.
Their fifth major event proved they'd made the right choice. Although J.R. had doubts about whether it would work--"most people want dinner and a movie for Valentine's Day," he laughs--the first Love party, thrown on Valentine's Day 1998, drew close to 1,000 people. Lathrop, who was behind the scenes counting the money for most of the night, recalls his amazement when he finally went out at about 3 a.m. to check the event for himself.
"Paul Johnson was spinning this track and had taken all the bass out," he says, "and he was lit from behind by a green light. All of a sudden he dropped the bass back in, and everybody on the floor went nuts. I turned to J.R. and we just hugged each other, saying, 'We did it, man!'"
One year later, Family Werks are nervous about whether they'll be able to do it again. For one thing, they're working with a severe handicap: Truc Nguyen, part of the organization's backbone, is serving jail time. Last year, Truc's brothers report, he unknowingly gave some friends a ride to a bank they planned to rob. He'll remain in the Ramsey County workhouse until a month after Love. Truc usually takes care of the DJs' needs the day of the show, and the extra tasks arising from his absence will be divided between the group's already overworked mainstays, J.R. and Matt.
And then there are the pressures that come with turning an obsession into a quasi profession. The kids in Family Werks have been organizing events for more than two years now, and the constant dedication is beginning to take its toll. Most of the crew is struggling to balance schoolwork with the demands of throwing a party. Jeff, Matt, and Ed still go to Central, J.R. attends Brown Institute, and late-night DJing gigs and frequent out-of-town trips to hand out party flyers are having a rough effect on their classroom performance. Of course, some Werkers have no real interest in school at all, but most, especially the core, express at least a vague desire to attend college. Sadly, even Matt, the best student in the group, with a 3.5 GPA and serious college plans, has seen his grades slip. And he cringes, imagining the grade he may take home on next week's Spanish final.
On top of all this, there's an obstacle that is so ever-present the kids hardly even talk about it: Most of the crew's parents don't see rave promotion as the ideal part-time job. Look at the books and you will notice that the money Family Werks sinks into its projects doesn't always come back to the crew. In fact, their events following the first Love--"House Therapy 2" and "Wishbone"--both lost money.
As the group has gained experience, they've adopted certain strategies to curtail what can at times be heavy losses. Family Werks doesn't pre-sell tickets, bypassing intermediaries by handling all admission at the door. And while this can work to their advantage financially, it also means they'll have no idea how many people are going to be there until the kids start showing up--if they show up at all. Then there are other, minor factors to take into account--the weather, the possibility that Roy Davis Jr.'s cancellation has turned off scenesters, and the possibility that a missed flight or a bad road could mean one of the show's headliners misses the party, which could seriously threaten the Family's rep.
Ultimately, like all name brands, the Family does count on its reputation. It isn't just Family Werks' business practices that set it apart from some of the fly-by-night organizers in any rave scene but the group's sense of roots in the culture and music that first excited them. They're not interested in generating a quick profit by throwing gigantic, blockbuster one-offs. Instead they choose to build their organization from the ground up, putting together events that are centered on not a trend but a sound--in this case, Chicago house music. Theirs is a name you can trust, and their rise from house parties to full-scale rave promotion has been steady and organic.
"We don't have any beef with anyone," says Lathrop, "but it seems like some parties are thrown by kids from the suburbs whose parents have money. They'll spend megabucks on what ends up being a just okay party."
The final expense tally for Love will be around $12,000. Still, despite a stellar lineup--Boo Williams, Glenn Underground, and Miss Miss, in addition to Justin Long and CZR--and memories of the good vibes generated at its predecessor, success is not a sure thing. The rave climate is fickle and heavy on burnout (especially as scene vets enter their 20s) and, as with any subculture, infighting. Someone is always grumbling that you've lost your underground edge, and the rave scene is proud of its legacy as a sort of renegade disco.
"This article is commercial suicide," one crew member told me bluntly. "Good or bad, you talked. 'Those are the guys who went commercial.' It's stupid, like a bunch of snooty teenage girls talking behind each other's backs. But that's the way it works."
While J.R. wouldn't give me specific dollar amounts--"Don't give away our secrets, man!" he asked, expressing worries about rival promoters and the taxman--it's safe to say a rave's organizers divide their money into four categories. First, and most costly, are the DJs, whose fees and expenses eat up about half of a rave's money. The bigger-name acts are usually booked months in advance. Lesser-known locals cost a mere $50 or $100 each, but most of the out-of-town talent at Love costs between $500 and $2,500 per artist, not including hotel rooms, plane tickets, and last-minute accommodations. (For instance, Glenn Underground asked to have his girlfriend flown up at the last minute, and Mercia's mother--a generous woman--ended up footing the bill.) Then there's the cost of the venue, including insurance, which adds another couple of thousand.
Cost aside, finding a space may be the single most nerve-racking aspect of any promoter's job. In theory, it's easy: Drive around a lot and look for rental signs on the side of some anonymous-looking behemoth of a building--usually in the far suburbs or, this being the Midwest, in rural areas. (Every seasoned raver in the five-state region has partied in a barn at least once.) In practice, however, it's much more difficult, since most warehouses are reluctant to rent their spaces out to parties primarily attended by teenagers, particularly if those teenagers are reputed to be sloppy, graffiti-scrawling, lysergically fueled hippies.
The Family's unsuccessful Wishbone party of 1998, for instance, didn't find its space--the Augsburg College basketball arena--until a week before the party. And, as Sarah Nichols, Thai's girlfriend, put it: "We only had an hour and a half to set up. And we were supposed to only have 20 minutes. There was a basketball game going on [before the party] and we had to sweep the floor and put away the bleachers and everything." One of the reasons the crew is reusing the Armory for Love is that the facility has an in-house staff who takes care of the cleaning.
The third major expense--about $2,000 to $3,000--is lighting and sound equipment, which is rented for the evening and operated by the owners. And the final major expense is security. Among those who think keeping it real means keeping it illegal, Family Werks parties are often dismissed simply because of the fact that their preferred security force is uniformed, off-duty St. Paul police officers. (Five will be used for Love. "And they get paid a lot," stresses Olson.) Of course, what dissenting ravers love to overlook is that if the cops aren't involved, the party is officially illegal and can be shut down. "We've never had a party shut down, and the cops' involvement is why," says Rossi.
The cops aren't just a way to safeguard the event against legal hassles. They're also there to deal with drugs: kids out of their heads on drugs, kids smuggling drugs into the event, and kids selling drugs inside. "What people don't realize," says one Werker, "is that the people who throw raves are completely different from the people who go to them." Several members of the crew have gone through the seemingly prerequisite heavy pothead phase and they look down on "tweakers" who insist on partying high. They're twice as disdainful of DJs who indulge on the job.
"Stupid kids are always like, 'Here you go, Mr. DJ,' giving them shit," says J.R. "It's pathetic, man--they take that shit and then they blow sets and play out records for too long."
Nevertheless, nobody--from the crew to the officers they use to secure their parties--is kidding themselves about the presence of drugs in the rave scene. "If some kid takes acid on their way to the party and comes in on it," says J.R., "there's not much you can do."
By Saturday, February 13 at 4:45 p.m., when Matt Noble-Olson and Jeff Lathrop pull up to the St. Paul Armory, the members of Family Werks have considered every possible scenario--from blowout to burnout--in their collective consciousness, and they're ready for anything. The first thing Matt and Jeff see as they reach the building is the 50,000-watt generator parked outside, which the Pie Shop's delivery driver, Mickey, picked up last night with the company truck. As they enter the building--basically a high school basketball court with a delivery truck parked in the middle of the floor--they're greeted by J.R., Ed, Skye, Long, Jeff, and several peripheral friends and Family Werkers. They're assisting the crew of Dynamic Smart Light in turning a half-dozen seven-foot metal poles into a pair of long arms from which DSL will hang their lasers, spotlights, emulators, and disco balls.
After a number of long sleds holding dozens of folding metal chairs are spread around the room, a 20-foot Ryder pulls in, packed to the top with speakers from Slamhammer Sound. After everything is unloaded from the truck, Jeff, J.R., and Skye (the acting stage manager for the evening) help the Slamhammer folks place three of the roughly four-by-six-foot subwoofers (known as "bass bins") in front of the stage. A couple of high-powered speakers are also wheeled into the kitchen-lunchroom area, which will function as a second DJ room where the drum 'n' bass crew Jungle Vibe Collective will spin records. Once this is finished--almost three hours later--Olson heads out to pick up DJs Boogie and Miss Miss, the main stage's first acts. Other folks grab a basketball from the maintenance office and unwind with a few games of 21.
At 8 p.m., Sonik Boom of Love, a local dance act who will perform third, shows up to assemble their equipment just as Skye and his friend Edgar Sanchez leave to bring Thai and a friend to the Central High Valentine's Day dance, where they'll do some last-minute promoting.
"I'm gonna probably get 100 messages today," Skye says over supper at the Malt Shop after the mission has been completed. 'Hey, Skye! Hey, I haven't seen you in a long time, man! Say, you doin' that Love thing? [whispers conspiratorially] Why don't you let me in there, man?'"
When they return to the Armory at ten o'clock sharp, there is a line stretching half a block from the door to the venue's parking lot. At least 500 kids are standing in the 30-degree weather to attend the party, and its elated organizers have to fight their way through the crowd to get inside.
Not long after they walk in, opening jock Boogie drops his first beat, and the doors are opened to let in what would be pandemonium if security weren't so tight. The money table--manned by J.R.'s mom, Mercia's mom, and a friend of hers--is positioned close to the door, narrowing the entryway so that only one person can pass through at a time. Two officers stand by. One pats the kids down and the other goes over them with a metal detector and shines a flashlight inside their bags. Almost immediately, the line is in order. Even more remarkable, it doesn't seem to have an end: For the next three hours, at least 300 kids will be waiting in line at any given time, and they won't stop coming until 2 a.m.
No matter which possible party scenario the Family Werks members arrived on while imagining the Love of their dreams, none of them was quite prepared for this turnout, and although they handle it as well as can be expected, it clearly throws them for a loop--the phrase "Oh my god! I don't believe this!" receives a thorough workout. The door people find themselves trapped in place for two hours; at a couple points, they stop admitting people for a few minutes so everybody can catch some breath. The Minnesota AIDS Project staffers, who have set up a table near the bathrooms, watch in disbelief as 400 condoms disappear in an hour. By 11:30 p.m. you can't move without stepping on the cuffs of somebody's phat-pants. There are no major problems, but getting through the room and out the front door is so difficult that J.R. and Matt are late picking up several DJs.
At 2:15 a.m. Justin Long starts his set with Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart," and Olson walks--no, struts--backstage to announce, with as much modesty as he can muster, that the party has broken even on $20 bills. (They haven't even started counting the tens, fives, or ones yet.) Love, Jeff tells me later, will not only recover the money spent on it, but the money spent on their last three parties combined.
By the time the show closes at 6 a.m., a room that last year seemed to barely accommodate 1,000 people has had roughly 1,500 pass through its doors, and about half that number are still present. The house lights go up as J.R. finishes spinning the night's final set. He tries to maintain the energy in the room for just a few more songs, and though the masses are already grabbing their stuff and heading for the door, a few dozen die-hards keep dancing. Even after Slamhammer cuts the sound in half, a few keep going.
It's 8:30 a.m. on Sunday. The remaining members of Family Werks are eating at the Midway Perkins and enjoying their first quiet moment in almost 24 hours. Breaking the equipment down took 90 minutes (the group would have been there twice as long if the Armory's janitors hadn't helped clean up the trashed floors and bathroom). The morning sun is incredibly bright, and the group closes the blinds to save their tired eyes. Some of the Family are still wide awake after the daylong adventure, but most are quietly winding down; a couple even fall asleep in front of their half-finished plates.
But just as the kids start readying themselves to separate, someone brings up the obvious question, the question that every young entrepreneur asks himself after a windfall: What next? J.R. pauses, places his tired head against Mercia's, and musters what seems like every bit of his remaining energy to speak one sentence. "We're gonna rest, just chill," he says. "I think we've earned it."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.