Party Illegal is the Inclusive Dance Party Durham Has Long Deserved. Can the Series Shape its Wider Scene's Future? | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Party Illegal is the Inclusive Dance Party Durham Has Long Deserved. Can the Series Shape its Wider Scene's Future? 

click to enlarge Party Illegal, in part, is, from left: Ryan Levin, Laura Friederich, Patrick Phelps-McKeown, Jess Dilday, and Avry Marie.

Photos by Jeremy M. Lange

Party Illegal, in part, is, from left: Ryan Levin, Laura Friederich, Patrick Phelps-McKeown, Jess Dilday, and Avry Marie.

Once there was a glory hole—long since boarded up, mind you—carved 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 Illegal—Durham's longest running electronic dance party and one of the Triangle's most dependable outposts for hyper dancing, hard breathing, and heavy sweating—has 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 principals—Jess Dilday, or DJ PlayPlay; Laura Friederich, or Queen Plz; Ryan Levin, or Sup Doodle; and Patrick Phelps-McKeown, or Treee City—gathered 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 parties—and 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."

• • •

  • After three years running, can Party Illegal help guide what comes next?

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