Party Illegal with Divoli S’vere
The Pinhook, Durham
Saturday, Feb. 20, 10 p.m., $5–$8

Once there was a glory holelong since boarded up, mind youcarved into the stall walls in one of the all-gender restrooms at The Pinhook. Depending on your persuasion, the infamous orifice was either alluring or repellent during a lavatory visit at the downtown Durham club.

But more important than the hole’s sexual purpose (or those who might have taken it for a ride) is the symbolic role it played in inculcating an inhibition-free space in Durham, a place for people to get wild and free. The Pinhook became that spot, and, in many ways, Party IllegalDurham’s longest running electronic dance party and one of the Triangle’s most dependable outposts for hyper dancing, hard breathing, and heavy sweatinghas provided the fun social experiment that’s helped propel it.

Imagine, for instance, emerging from that restroom and finding yourself in the middle of The Pinhook’s dance floor, with fellow attendees swinging giant pink Styrofoam penises at one another, as though locked in an impromptu swordfight, to the sound of earth-quaking trap beats. This particular Illegal party has been dubbed the “all-male DJ night,” a send-up of the underlying sexism many party promoters exploit when they dub events “all-female DJ night” or “Ladies’ Night.”

Forget the glory hole; now this is wild.

On a December evening late last year, Party Illegal’s principalsJess Dilday, or DJ PlayPlay; Laura Friederich, or Queen Plz; Ryan Levin, or Sup Doodle; and Patrick Phelps-McKeown, or Treee Citygathered around a conference table in the Durham coworking space Mercury Studios. They laughed about that past “all-male DJ night,” tickled that their inside joke about gender norms within club culture didn’t land quite as well as they had hoped.

But that’s OK. During the last three years, Party Illegal has still managed to capture and reflect Durham’s community ethic by blaring diverse music at its dance partiesand by inviting most everyone in. By booking local and national electronic DJs whose deep knowledge of subgenres includes trap, house, moombahton, bass, club music, and most anything else you care to name, Party Illegal, as Friederich puts it, has fostered “sharing culture.” Party Illegal has given Durham the kind of fully integrated dance party it demands and deserves.

“It’s hard to find a crowd that can roll with your own neuroses,” says Friederich. “If we have a crowd that we can keep throwing random stuff at, we’ll have a crowd that doesn’t know what they’re going to get themselves into, which will create a space for experimentation. I want a crowd that is willing to show up and go with us to those creative places.”

Party Illegal’s organizers belong to the collective Durty Durham, a group of local artists and musicians who hope to work in creative contrast to the privileged tendencies of downtown Durham’s current redevelopment. For them, Durham’s new identity has repeatedly proven itself to be insensitive to race, class, and gender issues. Party Illegal addresses most of those through something as seemingly simple as a monthly dance party.

“We’re pushing for intentional diversity over consistency within a certain genre,” Phelps-McKeown says. “Part of it is the social experiment of throwing four different performers with four different styles with four different fanbases into a room. Everyone came there for something that they can relate to, but there’s also times when they’re going to be completely out of their comfort zones.”

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In 2004, The News & Observer published a story, “Gay? Straight? Let’s dance: A bar with a split identity,” about the eclectic, long-defunct downtown Durham nightclub, Ringside, which once sat right across the street from Party Illegal’s current headquarters at The Pinhook. In the piece, Margie Fishman described Ringside’s identity dilemma and the fate of area clubs whose straight agenda wasn’t sustainable.

“Like the swinging gay discos of the 1970s, which were mainstreamed before rock declared the movement dead, local clubs in the Triangle, such as The Power Company in Durham and Raleigh’s Retail, have tried going straight,” she wrote. “They went straight out of business.”

Fishman described Ringside as “hopelessly noncommittal” in its refusal to market itself as either a gay or straight bar. A few years later, another ill-fated straight club in downtown Durham, The Edge, went out of business, as did the Main Street nightclub The Republic. Those clubs shared a common problemtheir music programming was uninventive, largely catering to a ritzier urban crowd that did not exist in Durham.

But when Party Illegal first began at The Pinhook, the club already had a well-known reputation for being a queer-friendly space, thanks in part to the work of owner Kym Register.

“I knew that I could do some weird shit, and she would be OK with it,” says Friederich. “It started out more queer because we know a lot of queers and that’s who we were inviting to the party.”

As the parties grew, though, maintaining that identity proved difficult. More straight people have shown up, enjoying the work of a community they didn’t invent. The challenge has been making all the factions work together. Friederich has been very deliberate about this, even though the course may have veered slightly over the years.

“It’s hard when it’s a space that starts out as a queer space and then people are like, ‘The queers have the cool parties, so we’re going to go to the queer parties.’ We’ve struggled with that. One of the spinoffs of that is a lot of the queers are like, ‘I’m out. I don’t wanna hang out with all of these Duke bros,’” says Friederich. “I get that: I have had my ass grabbed by straight white men at an Illegal party where I’m ostensibly in charge.”

For her, though, the task has been to bring others into the system she helped create on its preexisting terms, not theirs.

“I understand the desire to flee when spaces become straighter,” she says. “I also understand that you can’t market a monthly party to just queers. There’s not that many of them, and they ain’t that rich.”

As Dilday points out, Illegal has a consistent track record of booking queer acts that, in turn, attract a largely queer fanbase. Over the past three years, nationally known queer acts such as deft New Jersey rapper Cakes Da Killa, Baltimore club singer TT the Artist, and bass-heavy “Club Kween” UNiiQU3 have been among Party Illegal’s headliners. That helps set the tone for the night, no matter who attends.

“It’s starting to resemble a party in a bigger city,” says Dilday. “Parties in bigger cities are inherently queer because everybody’s there. There’s something queer about thatabout there being a diverse party where anything flies. Those are hard to find.”

As downtown Durham’s redevelopment booms, new residents arrive, and new businesses thrive, the Bull City’s nightlife will have to accommodate a more cosmopolitan mix of creatives, techies, hotshot yuppies, students, and natives. In other words, the city may soon need a real nightclub targeted to all demographics, regardless of sexual orientation. That is, Party Illegal may simply be the start of things to come.

But what would that look like, especially in Durham?

“It may not look like a nineties disco in Miami,” offers Uzoma Nwosu, who began DJing and promoting electronic parties in the Triangle more than twenty years ago.

“The music has changed, and the venues have changed,” he says. “A lot of the artists that would play in the clubs are playing on rock ‘n’ roll stages in amphitheaters as opposed to a dark hole in the wall.”

For the past six years, Nwosu has helped run, a forum for area electronic artists, show promoters, and enthusiasts to share music, resources, and news. In 2012, he met Friederich and Phelps-McKeown, a year before they launched Party Illegal. He remembers their “wide-eyed excitement about the music” and the “contagious fervor” he experienced during his first Illegal. He recognized that Illegal’s organizers had all of the basic capabilities needed to turn the monthly event into a reputable dance franchiseexcept, well, the extra financial backing needed to “grab larger, second- or third-tier DJs and bring them into the scene,” he says.

Soon enough, Nwosu and his business partner, Michael Shoffner, came on board as Party Illegal’s key investors. To them, it was important that Illegal’s organizers thought about how the parties could become financially sustainable, but the two also made it clear that they weren’t looking for any major return on their investment.

“We’ll worry about the money. We’ll pay everybody,” they told the Illegal team. “You just throw a great party.”

With that financial backing in place, Party Illegal’s next priority was to make sure they could deliver as much sound as possible, to make sure their inclusive signal was as loud and clear as it could be.

“Part of the brand of the event has to be that it sounds good,” says Phelps-McKeown. “I’ve been to a lot of electronic events that did not sound good because they didn’t bring the proper low-end speakers. It’s painfully awkward.”

For two years, Illegal rented custom-designed equipment from the Raleigh-based sound reinforcement company Badman Sounds. In early 2015, Badman co-owners Sean Hennessey and Stephanie Teeple sold their entire sound rigfour whopping subwoofers, six cabinets, and two amplifiersto Illegal.

Now Party Illegal can consistently pump out enough low-end bass knock to satisfy an eight hundred-capacity room, nearly four times the size of The Pinhook. Phelps-McKeown seems delighted by the implications.

“One of the things that has excited me about Party Illegal from the beginning is this idea of sound systems and sound-system culture and setting up speakers in a parking lot or warehouse somewhere,” says Phelps-McKeown.

He and his Party Illegal crewmates have already cultivated a relationship with Moogfest. In November, the crew provided the sub-bass speakers for Moogfest’s Dial-Tones workshop before cohosting the event’s after-party. They don’t view Moogfest as Durham’s imported electronic culture vulture, moving in and discrediting all of Party Illegal’s local groundwork. For now, it seems, they see the festival as some benevolent beast.

“They need us, too,” Friederich says. “They need the networks that already exist. It’s a very mutually beneficial kind of thing.”

• • •


Shortly after I finished chatting with the Party Illegal crew on that December night, a few of them took the short stroll across the street to Tootie’s Bar. Frequent Party Illegal DJ Birdgherl, Durham veteran DJ Chela, and Raleigh house music connoisseur Keith Ward were billed for the traveling dance party Homebass.

In the past few years, several downtown spaces like Tootie’s have made their facilities available for electronic events. While mostly a concert hall, Motorco occasionally plays host to dance nights. Still in its infancy, The Revival dance parties at Tootie’s show potential. The Vault’s downtown multi-use space serves as the de facto stop for Afrobeat, house, and soul hoppers. More recently, the underground bar and lounge Arcana has been a destination for eccentric and “super secret” parties. You can credit at least some of this citywide growth to Party Illegal’s “contagious fervor,” as Nwosu puts it, and the larger mission of offering Durham’s marginalized communities a fun, legal, wild refuge for a night.

“The more the scene develops in Durham, the better it is for Illegal,” says Dilday, heading to the show.

And who knows, that process might produce a bona fide Bull City nightclub sooner rather than laterand, hopefully, one with enough inclusive sense to have an all-gender restroom.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Legalize It”