[Update] The Untold Story of How PS1's Warm Up Became New York's Greatest Summer Party
On the eve of Skrillex's surprise show, Warm Up's head honchos break down how they built their Saturday-afternoon juggernaut.
Warm Up in 2013.
Update: Skrillex is confirmed.
...And Klaus is PSYCHED.
Every Saturday afternoon this summer, the best place you can be is in the outdoor courtyard of New York's contemporary art museum MoMA PS1. Beginning when the doors swing open at noon, and going all the way to slightly after dusk, a hand-picked group of DJs and musicians take turns occupying a white booth perched at the top of the museum's foyer.
Below them, stacked on top of each other on the concrete stairs, the full spectrum of humanity in New York City is laid bare: greying hippies next to bowtied GQ photographers; off-duty models dodging hoola-hooping five-year-olds and and their sari-wrapped mothers; Afropunks in eye-popping prints swaying against French tourists; pale goths doubling as walking advertisements for Hood By Air. All of them, together, breathing the same hot sticky air. In spite (or maybe in defiance) of the broad daylight, everyone just giving it up on the dance floor for the DJ on decks. It's quite the sight to behold—if you can get the glitter out of your eyes.
DJ Harvey at Warm Up on July 2, 2005
This ramshackle crowd is converged for one reason: Warm Up. An outdoor party par excellence, its legacy is predicated on the invariable strength of its roster: a meticulously curated mix of highly respected artists and about-to-blow-up youngins. For a certain type of local head, the beginning of summer is signified by three things: rooftop parties, invitations to the beach, and the announcement of Warm Up's summer lineup. Music websites treat these announcements with the same degree of hyper-enthusiasm usually reserved for festivals ten times its size. And rightly so: this year, for example, welcomed Detroit techno gods Robert Hood and Kevin Saunderson, acid house pioneer Charanjit Singh, local heroes Mister Saturday Night, nu-kawaii king Sophie, and even the rumored surprise guest for tomorrow's closing show, Skrillex. (Seriously!)
"I think it is one of those things that New Yorkers go to regardless of [who is playing], because they know it's good," says Jubilee, a Brooklyn-based DJ who played Warm Up last year alongside King Britt and J.Cole. While music festivals often feature similar lineups over and over ad nauseum, Warm Up prides itself for acting as a site of both celebration and discovery. "They keep it interesting, which is important. This is great for new artists to get discovered and gain new fans."
As difficult as it is to imagine any event—scratch that, anything—in New York lasting more than a couple years, Warm Up has been chugging along since 1998. This is a party that survived Mayor Giuliani's nightlife crackdown at the beginning of the millenium, that endured the rise of Meatpacking District luxury clubs, that ultimately climbed to the top of this city's musical ecosystem. Most importantly, this is that rare breed of party that somehow manages to be both culturally significant… and shitloads of fun.
The story of Warm Up is therefore a unique one. Not only because it is a story of the who's-who in recent dance music history, but also because it represents an enduring alliance between New York's art world and music world, and the possibilities that arise when these two realms join forces.
It all began in 1998, as the brainchild of MoMA PS1 founder Alanna Heiss (also the founder of the indispensable Clocktower Gallery), museum director Klaus Biesenbach, music advisor Lokke Highstein, and fashion designer Agnes B. In 2001, the South African founder of Giant Step Records, Jonathan Rudnick, took the reigns for a year, before handing over the proverbial scepter to Jason Drummond, aka DJ Spun—the man whose seven-year tenure was crucial to establishing the identity and ethos of Warm Up.
Drummond hails from San Francisco, and the West Coast's rave culture became an important influence on the way he decided to run things. In the beginning, Drummond recalls, the party took place in a walled-off side gallery. "It was more about socializing. If you wanted to dance, you could go to the corner and dance." He decided to move it into the main courtyard, allowing more room for dancing and turning the DJ booth into a focal point. "I always thought music deserved to be center stage. I think that was a key change," he says.
Working with Lokke Highstein, the avant-garde musician David Weinstein, and new media artist Zach Layton, Drummond curated seven summers worth of envelope-pushing lineups that eschewed the usual noise-rock beloved by the art world in favor of soulful house and techno. "I come from the disco ethos of bringing people together. 'Love Is The Message' was the theme [of Warm Up], and the dance floor was a great place to convene with people. That house vibe was something that helped to create a community," Drummond says.
Drummond is also proud of how Warm Up became a homebase for the blossoming new disco movement of the early aughts. One of his first parties, on July 27, 2002, featured two relatively unknown dudes named DJ Harvey and Peanut Butter Wolf. A few years later, Oslo's Lindstrom and Prins Thomas would play their first live show in the United States on the same stage.
Asked what misses most, Drummond gets a little poetic—he remembers those days when the skies would crack open and dump rain on everyone's sweaty bodies, who partied on regardless. He remembers Afrika Bambataa and James Murphy—the faces of old- and new-school New York City—putting on a grand finale in 2003 during a heavy downpour. Or that one time, in 2006, when Carl Craig and Rhythm and Sound, who flew in from Berlin for an exclusive New York appearance, played under "monsoon conditions." "Warm Up was one of the first and best outdoor parties," Drummond declares. "There wasn't anything on that scale here before."
So how the hell did he do it? According to Todd Sines, a good friend who also DJed at Warm Up in 2004, Drummond's secret is his New York-style hustle. "He knows a lot of people. He's an industry cornerstone, and he busts his ass to make things happen," Sines says. "In Berlin, you've got five people doing what Jason is doing on his own. I applaud him for being able to pull it all off."
Following Drummond's departure in 2009, the herculean task of continuing Warm Up's legacy fell to Eliza Ryan, a curatorial assistant at PS1 who had previously worked for Klaus Biesenbach at the MoMA mothership. Ryan decided change things up. Instead of letting the entire program be dictated solely by her tastes, she created a six-person committee of music industry insiders who collaboratively determine each year's lineup.
I ask Ryan if her decision to create this curatorial committee was a leap of faith. "Well, Warm Up is about taking risks," she says. "It's an experimental laboratory contained in an institution. Plus, Klaus [Biesenbach] really gave me full reign. We worked together at MoMA, so we had a sense of trust."
Today's curatorial team is like a less sketchy version of the dance music illuminati: Dean Bein of True Panther Sounds; Brandon Stosuy, senior editor of Pitchfork; Jonathan Galkin of DFA Records; Imogene Strauss of Cool Managers, which reps forward-thinking electronic acts like Blood Orange and Nguzunguzu; Matt Werth of experimental dance label RVNG Intl; and Eliza Ryan, now an independent curator.
Each year, this crew starts getting together in the spring. Through some alchemy of in-person meetings, email chains, Google docs and conference calls, they come up with a master list of general ideas and headliners to pursue. Sometimes, they work off more abstract ideas, like a show in 2011 where they paired the "darkness" of Black Dice with the "lightness" of Clams Casino. But most of the time, the lineups are cobbled together through a delicate balance of practical concerns—who is in town, who they can afford, who can bring in another DJ friend or two.
Typically, if the team succeeds in bringing in a big artist, the rest of the day's roster is built around that person. (If they fail, that artist goes on a list, and they try again next year.) "It's shockingly collaborative," says Stosuy about his team. "No one involved has an ego about it. The last thing you want is an asshole personality shooting everyone down."
As with all live events, curveballs are par for the course. "Just Blaze surprised us right before his closing set. We didn't know who was coming until Fabolous and Freeway jumped out of a car at our back entrance. We handed them mics and they jumped on stage," recalls Ryan. Of course, this episode wouldn't have been possible if Ryan and her merry band of music gurus hadn't opened up Warm Up to a broader field of sounds—allowing hip-hop artists like Just Blaze to take a stage once reserved for dance music DJs.
Thanks to Warm Up's growing reputation, bigger artists started getting on board. "When we had Thom Yorke, it was because Four Tet had played and mentioned that he had a good time," recalls Stosuy. And if the bespectacled EDM kingpin known as Skrillex ends up showing up for tomorrow's final show, it will be the biggest artist they have ever brought in.
Vivian Host (aka Star Eyes), a local DJ who also manages the Trouble and Bass label, says these evolutions are necessary for the party's continued relevancy. "Warm Up is now a more mainstream affair… and a lot more about cutting-edge younger DJs than it used to be, which is reflective of the overall electronic music scene," she says. And while she wishes there was more dancing and less Instagramming, "it's a good thing to have that fresh energy and different kinds of music represented." This trajectory will almost certainly continue with Ryan's successor, Margaret Knowles, a curatorial assistant from PS1 who took over as Warm Up's musical director this year.
Ultimately, the biggest legacy that Warm Up leaves behind is its living testament that putting together a killer lineup is not so different from curating an art exhibition. Jason Drummond puts it best. "You take all these different pieces that other people have created and give them a context, some kind of common thread to hold it together. The result is somehow greater than it would be without that." The greatest parties, like Warm Up, get this.
The last Warm Up of this summer is happening on September 6, 2014. Get your tickets here.
Michelle Lhooq is an editor at THUMP - @MichelleLhooq
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