02.03.12

Decentralized Dance Parties: Raves’ Next Wave

Decentralized Dance Parties, invented in 2009 by two bored guys, are a roving, free club, powered by boomboxes. Winston Ross attends one and reports.

PORTLAND―I’ve just left the house, bags packed, trash taken out, when I realize I have to turn around. I forgot the boombox. Decentralized Dance Parties can’t happen without boomboxes.

Turns out, Tom and Gary have me covered. These inventors of the DDP have over the past two years amassed an impressive collection of old-school portable stereos; some battered, some duct-taped, some spray-painted (some battered, duct-taped, and spray-painted), some encased in briefcases, all equipped with an FM tuner. They travel with 220 boomboxes at any given time. They buy batteries by the case.

Boomboxes are critical to a DDP because they’re the sound source. Hundreds of individual speakers are all synchronized, all playing the same song. Gary (whose last name is LaChance, he reluctantly discloses) chooses a song on his iPod, which is connected to an FM transmitter, an accessory that’s been available for the portable music players since they were invented. The transmitter turns the iPod into an individual radio station, with a broadcast radius of a few feet. Tune your car stereo (or boombox) to the same channel as the iPod’s transmitter, and your own music streams out of the speakers.

Decentralized Dance Party
Approximately 1,000 people gather beneath the Morrison Bridge in Portland, Ore. for a Decentralized Dance Party. (Winston Ross)

It’s with this low-end technology and a signal boost from two homemade antennas that Tom and Gary have reinvented the party. Saturday was the eighth DDP on a winter tour (or “Party Safari”) of the West Coast, the 40th money-losing bash the duo have put on since the inaugural event in Vancouver in 2009. A Facebook fan page and the Twitter hashtag #ddp draw thousands to these events; some with boomboxes, most without them, all feeling like they’ve discovered the next big fun thing.

Together, they roam the deserted-at-night industrial grounds of whatever city they’ve chosen to rock out in, dancing in wheelchairs, on pogo sticks, in spandex, on ferries, sliding down escalators, skiing down escalators, crowd surfing, limboing, in chicken suits, hockey garb, and cheerleader outfits. The DDP mashes up elements of a silent rave (wherein partygoers bring iPods all tuned to the same FM transmitter and dance with headphones on), a flash mob, the Critical Mass bike rides that have become popular in some cities and a good-old fashioned all-ages nightclub—not only mobile but free, at the expense of Tom and Gary’s credit-card load and subsidized by some who make donations on the Internet. It’s the new way to rage, summed up this way on the DDP’s Web site: “Why party in doors? Or near a power socket? Pay another cover charge? Or suffer another curfew? This is the power of the revolution!”

Decentralized Dance Party
A man in a banana suit picks up the first of 220 boomboxes supplied by Gary and Tom, inventors of the Decentralized Dance Party, beneath Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge. (Winston Ross)

Tonight, the city is Portland. I find a haggard Gary in a recreational vehicle he and Tom drove all night from San Francisco, where the last DDP was, the night before. Gary doesn’t want to give me Tom’s last name (It’s Kuzma, according to the Internet) and neither wants his age revealed (by my guess, they’re both in their mid-20s.) But Tom will admit to being a Marine Corps veteran and University of Idaho student, who grew up an hour north of Seattle and who met Gary years ago at a SantaCon event in that city. For the uninitiated, SantaCon is a mass gathering of people dressed in Santa Claus costumes who take to the streets and bars in cities all over the world. Tom and Gary clearly had something in common.

In the RV, a few hours before the designated 8 p.m. start time, Gary is organizing fellow DDP volunteers to load batteries into boomboxes laid out in the yard near where they’re parked, while Tom checks the Web for a vacant radio station, the best frequency to tune into without interference from some commercial broadcast. Both are dressed head-to-toe in Technicolor outfits that defy description. Tom is wearing a tank top that reads “Come to my party.”

Decentralized Dance Party
Winston Ross

Tonight’s theme is “extreme physical fitness.” Tom wields a neon Shake Weight. Gary is unwrapping a Suzanne Somers Buttmaster. Just outside the RV is a stuffed unicorn, lying face-down on top of a briefcase with a boombox inside of it, emitting muffled music. No one can remember the code to the briefcase and it’s been on since San Francisco, annoying everyone in the group. The unicorn is an attempt to keep it muted, until the batteries run out.

Tom and Gary tell people the DDP was invented because they were bored of party options in Vancouver, a city they deride as “Nofuncouver.” But there’s a better origin story than that. Back in 2006, the pair decided to crash a party some loosely connected friends were throwing on a beach. They brought boomboxes and iPods. But the MP3 players died, almost at the same moment, not long after they showed up. So the duo decided to tune both boomboxes into the same radio station, and they bumped oldies until the batteries gave out. The Decentralized Dance Party was spawned.

The first official DDP was in 2009, after Gary and Tom realized they could create their own radio station using iPods and FM transmitters. A bunch of friends showed up, they became a swelling crowd roaming the streets of Vancouver, and they had a fantastic time doing it. The biggest DDP, during Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics, drew an estimated 20,000 people. Tom and Gary had found their calling.

“We want to take this around the world,” Gary says, stifling a yawn. “It seems like the right thing to do.”

Once the radios are loaded, it’s time to tour the route on bicycles and kick scooters, a dry run with a watchful eye on parts of town to avoid. Areas of heavy traffic or too many houses could piss off neighbors and the police, and Tom and Gary always call ahead to warn the authorities when they’re coming to a town, to avoid being shut down in the middle of an event.

“The cops have been great,” says Gary. He’s not being sarcastic.

Gary loads up equipment in a backpack and readies the Nintendo PowerGlove he has wired into the unit to control the volume or skip to the next track. It’s almost time for the DDP to start, which means I need to run to the hotel and change into a track jacket and sweats and neon.

By the time I rejoin Tom and Gary, a crowd of hundreds of people have gathered at the east side of the Hawthorne Bridge, one of eight spanning the Willamette River into downtown Portland. Some have their own boomboxes. One or two are elaborate conglomerates of speakers tied down to a cart, or a bike trailer. Nearly everyone is decked out, and ridiculously so. There are Power Rangers, retro ski suits, leotards, and banana costumes. Someone brought a trampoline, and is urging one person after the next to leap onto it and bounce off, to cheers of the crowd circled around it. There are teenagers and baby boomers, hipsters and emo kids. And they’re all thinking what someone finally asks aloud, a few minutes after the DDP’s scheduled start time:

The biggest DDP, during Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics, drew an estimated 20,000 people.

“Where are the boomboxes?”

They’re being unloaded in a semi-circle nearby, beneath a pillar of Interstate 5, the unicorn seated in the center, supervising.

“OK,” says Tom to a few people gathered near him. “We need to get these things turned on.”

That’s a challenge, because some of these kids have never used a 1980s-era boombox before. One of them runs up to me, wild-eyed, frantic: “Where’s the fuckin’ ON button, bro?”

I flick the switch from tape to radio. It’s already tuned in to 87.9, the frequency least occupied by any other station, bumping a techno song Gary has chosen for the warmup. His genres of choice are Booty Bass, Jock Jams, and Eurodance, “hands down the best party music of all time.” One by one, the volume grows, scattered from one box to the next, a burgeoning symphony that draws the attention of the crowd. People rush in, grabbing one boombox and then another, hoisting them up on their shoulders or in the air. Then the music cuts, and Gary’s voice comes out across every stereo under the bridge.

“Are you ready for this party?”

The crowd roars in response, and the Decentralized Dance Party has begun.

A screaming girl charges through the crowd. A creepy middle-aged dude with a tiger backpack challenges my friend to a dance contest. And after a couple of songs, from “Push It” to “Sandstorm,” Gary’s voice again booms out over the radios: “It’s time to move.”

Tom leads the mob up the street, away from the river and across the train tracks. The horde streams along behind him, until a train cuts the parade into two halves, which Gary reports to Tom and everyone else via the boomboxes. Dozens of people sprint down the train tracks to catch up to the front of the group. A guy in a classic Chevy Impala stops to high-five people passing him.

Gary is ever respectful of the cars not expecting this impromptu throng, and as the group streams through intersections, he voices over the music again and again, “Let the cars through. Let the cars go through.”

At the next bridge north, the DDP stops beneath the Morrison Bridge, where a video production crew from the local group Con Bro Chill has erected floodlights, capitalizing on the thousand-plus free extras they’ll use to shoot a music video this night. The revelers dance there awhile, then migrate again, up toward the Burnside Bridge, where a dozen Portland Police officers in riot gear are waiting for them. Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” is inaccurately playing on the speakers.

A logjam has formed on the south side of the bridge, as the spiral staircase leading back down to the water is too clogged with people for the crowd to quickly scamper out of traffic. The police form a line, and every few seconds, they walk a few steps closer to the DDP, urging them to hurry.

“We’ve shut down the highway,” Gary announces to a jubilant, celebratory roar. But he’s not celebrating. He’s regulating. “That is not making the police happy. We’ve just got to back out the way we came.”

Crowd control is part of the reason Gary and Tom discourage inebriation at DDPs. Getting hundreds or thousands of people to comply with commands barked out over a boombox is much more difficult when they’re wasted.

“The prime objective at a DDP is celebrating life, enjoying music, and having fun―not getting drunk and being an idiot,” is part of the group’s seven-commandment manifesto. “If a party is good enough, alcohol isn’t required.”

For the most part, people seem to be heeding that call. There are occasional sips from flasks, but very few overt open containers, and only the occasional cloud of marijuana smoke. (No way to tell how many people might have been on something else, but I didn’t hear a lot of otherworldly, tripped-out dialogue, for what it’s worth.) The only obviously hammered person is another friend of mine, actually, who had too much tequila before she got here and got separated from her boyfriend earlier in the night. She reunites with him by charging up the bridge, head down, yelling out “Kaaaaarllllll!” over and over, until he finds her.

Most DDPers, says Tom, are having too much fun to stop and get smashed. “I had a guy tell me once ‘I showed up with a ton of beer and forgot to drink it,’ ” Tom says.

The logjam sorted out, Tom leads the group down to the legendary Burnside Skatepark, the DDP’s final destination.

“You guys having a good time?” Gary asks over the speakers, blaring music in half pipes, echoing into the midnight air. “Any requests? Backstreet Boys!?!??!”

And within a few minutes, the Decentralized Dance Party is over. Gary appeals to the participants to buy DDP merch from the cart a few feet from the skate ramps, which combined with the “crowd-funding” drive on Kickstarter that the duo created are the only sources of revenue. Five dollars gets you a “genuine, limited edition high-five from both Tom and Gary.” A thousand dollars or more wins a double date with Tom and Gary, who will show you “all their favorite stuff in Vancouver” and then party all night. “We may let you cop a feel. It will be very special and meaningful.” Ten thousand dollars gets you a DDP, in a city of your choice.

These are not gag invitations. Gary and Tom may live rock star lives, but their credit cards are maxed out. They’re looking for a battery sponsor. DDPs are popular but free.