In the middle of a shadow-strewn corner of Bushwick where actual warehouses and factory buildings still outnumber the ones that have been turned into luxury lofts and craft-cocktail bars, the two young dudes in up-to-the-minute streetwear stand against a nondescript facade. A guest list, four or five pages thick, is the only indication that something is happening inside. There’s no sign because this isn’t an actual club, and no line out front because if you’re not on the guest list for Boiler Room events, you don’t get in.
Inside, it’s a dimly lit industrial space that doesn’t seem noticeably different from the usual Bushwick warehouse party: the DJs set up on the floor with dancers packed tightly around them, the harried bartender slinging well drinks, the people smoking in dark corners. Live feeds from webcams scattered throughout the venue are projected on the walls, creating a disorienting visual-spatial effect that the bottom-shelf tequila isn’t really helping.
The difference is that this particular party, curated by fashion designer (and Kanye’s long-serving style guru) Virgil Abloh, is being broadcast globally by those very same webcams to a massive fan base that may be tuning in by the thousands throughout the night.
Boiler Room’s been putting on these kind of events in an ever-shifting collection of odd spaces since 2010. Along the way it’s become an institution in the underground dance community. A Boiler Room set is now a must-have for any DJ on their way up, and an easy way for veterans to show their bona fides. Invites to their events are a popular clubber status symbol.
Their bookings are also providing crucial documentation of the dance underground’s constantly evolving shape. Recent standout sets include Peruvian beat-makers Dengue Dengue Dengue, who make psychedelic club bangers incorporating indigenous music from several continents, performing in Portugal; Drake-approved grime spitter Skepta broadcasting his album release party from Tokyo; and future-techno producer LSDXOXO, part of the super-influential NYC party/crew GHE20G0TH1K that teamed up with Boiler Room (and its regular sponsor, Ray-Ban) for a recent event that enticed fashionable Brooklyn dance music acolytes to Uber all the way to the Bronx.
Boiler Room sometimes does multiple events in a single day, staggered in time zones around the globe. Their brand partnerships include Audi and electronic music gear maker Native Instruments. They’ve started producing original documentary videos. All of which has sprung from an almost laughably counter-intuitive concept: Who wants to sit at their laptops and watch other people have fun at a party that they weren’t invited to?
Apparently over 60 million people a month, according to their internal numbers.
If you think about it for a second, there are a couple of reasons why something like Boiler Room might catch on—and with the number of similar livestreamed parties popping up online, the model’s clearly caught on. Truly obsessive dance music fans have an almost Deadhead-like appetite for live performances. (Boiler Room stays far away from the just-push-play DJs that populate mainstream EDM, and their programming’s also expanded to include experimental, jazz and even rock performances.) And a lot of people who are passionate about underground dance music don’t live in NYC, LA, London or Berlin, where most of it’s being made and performed. Even if you live in one of those cities, probably the only way you’re going to see someone like the heroically unhinged Brazilian rapper MC Bin Laden without buying an expensive flight is through his Boiler Room set.
At what seems like every one of their events there’s some guy losing his shit, dancing his ass off right behind the DJ.
Ultimately, though, a lot of Boiler Room’s appeal comes down to the way it balances exclusivity and egalitarianism. Theoretically anyone can get into most of their events by requesting an invitation, although there are conspiracy theories about how the invite system is somehow rigged. Some events are more strictly limited, like the one in Bushwick, with its 150-person capacity “filled exclusively with friends and family, hand-picked by Virgil, Boiler Room & Ray-Ban to create a friends-only safe space where artists can musically experiment,” according to a press release. That last part in particular sounds ridiculous when you read it, but in practice it’s actually a very real, very cool thing.
The intimacy of most Boiler Room events makes them feel more like a party than a professional gig, and that looseness usually comes across in the performances. When he’s in town, Abloh usually plays bigger clubs like Williamsburg’s sprawling Output, where it’s unlikely that you’d catch him casually trading off selections with fellow cult fashion icons Heron Preston and the hosts of the podcast No Vacancy Inn, bouncing from vintage soul slow jams to trippy prog rock to the latest viral trap-rap hits percolating out of Atlanta. Turntable-side webcams put you right up in the scrum around Abloh and his crew, and even if you never quite feel like you’re actually physically present alongside them, it’s enough to make you feel like you’re part of something special.
And also, yeah, it can actually be fun to watch people having fun at party you’re not at. At what seems like every one of their events there’s some guy (and it’s almost always a guy) losing his shit with joy, dancing his ass off, and he’s usually positioned right behind the DJ so he’s in frame for most of the broadcast. Those dudes, to me, are maybe the best part of the Boiler Room viewing experience. There’s something kind of powerful about being able to tune in at odd hours of the day to see someone halfway around the world losing their shit in pure joy. It’s enough to make you stop and ponder how much the Internet has been put to use simply connecting people who never could have met otherwise. You might even feel a little more hopeful for our future as a species.
But on another level, it’s enough to know that there’s always someone out there in the world having the time of their life, dancing like a total idiot in front of an audience thousands deep.