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Dallas’ Underground Dance Parties Struggle to Survive City Crackdown

The location of the party is top secret. There are no fliers, no public advertisements, not even an address for those who have been invited. There is only a private group on Facebook, and a message: “WE ARE THE UNDERGROUND. WE WILL NEVER SURRENDER. IN THE SHADOWS WE ARE FREE."  

Virtually every other after-hours dance party for the past month, starting with a series of busts on New Year's Eve, has been shut down by the fire marshal, in many cases before the party had even started. The organizers of tonight's gathering, called Electro Resistance, have taken steps that seem lifted from a spy novel to ensure that this one will happen.  

In the hours leading up to the party, the organizers send out a code, which guests have to relay to a phone number that was shared the day before. After texting the code, a message comes back with directions to a designated checkpoint. At the checkpoint, guests can pick up the party's location details. Shortly before the checkpoint is due to open, another message goes out: There have been unforeseen delays. The start time has been pushed back. The price of admission has been raised by $5. But the party is still a go.

The checkpoint is at a diner. “Look for the disco ball,” reads the cryptic text message. There, seated at the bar, is a man with a disco ball on his T-shirt. “You here for the party?” he says, flashing a grin. Before he's even finished the question, he reaches out his hand, passing a folded-up piece of paper. The instructions.

They lead attendees to a darkened warehouse in a secluded industrial area, about three miles from the diner. There are cars parked up and down the street, but all is silent. Inside the door to the warehouse is another set of doors. Blinds prevent anyone from seeing in and pieces of paper, bearing notes typed in Spanish, are taped to the glass. Behind the second set of doors stand two people, a man and a woman, in a room illuminated only by a single, bare light bulb placed on a wooden hutch. “Welcome to the party,” says the man, while the woman reaches out to scribble on wrists and hands with a black marker.

Clusters of people gather inside the warehouse's main space. Some are dressed in bright colors or have brightly colored hair, some wear furry animal hats, others have animal-print Zubaz, and many are bundled up with jackets, hats or scarves. (The temperature outside hovers around 30 degrees.) In the back of the room there's a table set up with booze and mixers. A small side room has an overhead light that splatters it in green and red, with pillows and blankets laid out on the floor, and more pitch-black rooms behind it. “Private rooms,” says one man, sprawled out on the bed of blankets.

The party doesn't pick up until around 3:30 a.m. The DJs — obscured by purple floor lights and set up at the front of the room, between two projection screens and in front of metal scaffolding stacked with cardboard boxes — switch off throughout the night. Each plays variations on electro music. The music is choppy and monotonous, built on insistent, bleating beats. People dance through pools of spilled alcohol on the concrete floor, some off to the side, flailing away by themselves. The party only tops out at 100 people at any one time, and averages around 50 most of the night.  

For the most part, these do-it-yourself parties are illegal, operated under the table without permits, alcohol licenses or any consideration of fire code. So evading the authorities, and getting shut down, is all part of the game. But the city's recent efforts have made the dance scene tense. “The more parties that get shut down, the more theories there are,” says Toni Youngblood, whose Sparkle party — an off-the-grid warehouse party — was shut down by the fire marshal on New Year's Eve. “Everybody's witch-hunting now. The more unfamiliar faces in the crowd, it's like, 'That guy. Who's that guy?'”

Tonight, the fire marshal never shows up. The Resistance has persevered, at least for now. 

The party hadn't even started when there was a knock at Eric Trich's door. It was only 8:30 p.m. and Trich's New Year's Eve party in his Deep Ellum loft, which he operates as a DIY studio and event space called 3014 Space, wasn't due to start for another half hour. There would be live performances from rappers -topic and Blue, the Misfit, experimental singer Lily Taylor, and Trich's own art installations. But when he opened the door it wasn't overeager guests on the other side. It was the fire marshal and a firefighter, there to shut him down.

"There was no one there. I mean, there was evidence it was about to happen, but it was only the people working the show," says Trich. The marshal, whose name Trich didn't catch, let Trich off with a warning. "They told me they were going to be coming back by and if anybody was here they were going to kick everybody out and give me a ticket. And it wasn't a small ticket."

At issue was Trich's certificate of occupancy, or rather his lack of one. Trich's loft is zoned as a residential space, but his party — which charged $20 admission — provided alcohol and was advertised online. That made it a business, and businesses need inspections and to follow a host of rules to get a certificate.  

Trich says he and his landlord had gotten a CO, but he wasn't able to produce the proper certificate and the marshal said it wasn't in the fire department's database. While Trich escaped without a fine — at least $1,500 worth — he lost more than $800 because of the cancellation.

3014 wasn't the only place getting busted that night. "They told me they had a list," remembers Trich. "I asked why they picked me. And they were like, 'We have plenty of other places we have to go after this.'" The implication seemed clear: The city wouldn't tolerate these parties in 2016. That night the fire department shut down at least two more parties, one at a nearby loft called That That (the organizers of which declined to comment for this article) and a warehouse party known as Sparkle. 

Lieutenant Joel Lavender of Dallas Fire and Rescue says the closures are a matter of safety. "Dallas Fire [and] Rescue Inspectors did have to close down some New Year's Eve events due to invalid or no CO at all," he says. He would not say how many such events were shut down that night, but says none of them, to his knowledge, had proper certification. "Sometimes we have to make unpopular decisions to make sure that our goal [of public safety] is achieved," he says. "Ultimately the venue owner is responsible for helping us keep their patrons safe by following the laws, guidelines, policies and procedures of the city."

Barry Annino, the former president of both the Deep Ellum property owners group and merchants association, says the fire department is doing the right thing. "If for some reason they let it go and there's a fire and something happens, whose fault is it? The fire department's," he says. While he says that he's "in favor of the fun," Annino isn't too sympathetic about the shut downs: "For the guys that have to pay for COs and have to follow the rules, it's not fair to them. If these guys want to have a party on the best night of the year and they get caught, this is what they get."

Getting a CO requires navigating the city's bureaucracy. Frances Estes, assistant building official with City of Dallas Building Inspection, says that a tenant can apply for one with a one-time $280 fee for as long as the tenant occupies that space. There are limits. "We wouldn't allow commercial amusements to go into a residential zoning district," Estes adds. Even then, a building might need proper sprinkler, plumbing and electrical systems, stairway access and additional parking.

A zoning change would require a heavier lift, including a trip to the city's plan commission and possible objections from the reliably contentious City Council. There would also be significant extra costs, which Trich estimates could be as high as $2,000. Other effects of "playing by the rules" include being required to close at a certain time and likely having smaller-capacity parties to meet fire code. Compliance costs money, so going legit would mean charging more for admission. So much for the affordable, after-hours club. Obeying the letter of the law sort of kills the spirit of the party.

The shut downs haven't been limited to New Year's Eve. There were reportedly two more busts the following night, and more parties were shut down each of the successive weekends, including one hosted by DJ group Our House at a DIY venue called Electric Lotus, and another hosted by Premier at a gallery space called Ash Studios.

"That's the thing that really bothered me," Trich admits. "I really want to know where they got the list. You have a list of spaces, so who's on the list? He said there were several."

Lavender insists a crackdown isn't taking place. "We are not targeting any specific business or space," he says. When asked about the existence of the list that Trich refers to, Lavender is more evasive. "To be clear, our focus is on life safety and public safety, and we will continue to keep that focus," he says. "Hopefully we can find all the violators to help keep our citizens safe."

Tracking these New Year's parties wouldn't have been difficult. Both 3014 and That That had event pages on Facebook and sold tickets online, which is one of the ways Lavender says the fire department finds violators. "It's part initiative, part Building Inspection assistance and part Internet publicity. Sometimes we accidentally find violators," he says. The shut downs are also separate from the potential violations for selling alcohol without a license (the Facebook event page for That That's party even specified, "No BYOB"), which is an issue for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

That’s one situation that’s not likely to be enforced, according to TABC Regional Director Victor Kuykendoll. “It’s not customary for us to be involved in these things. We focus our attention on licensed locations in the state of Texas,” he says. “Honestly, we don’t have the resources.” 

Party planners are raising the question of whether traditional business owners are tipping off the fire department to step on this underground competition. Lavender won't say if any businesses have filed complaints that prompted shut downs. “By law, we are not allowed to release the identities of individuals that file complaints,” he says, before adding, “The issue is not where the tips come from. The issue is life safety.”

Annino doubts that would be the case. "I don't really see [the competition] as an issue because that particular night of the year brings out more people than a regular weekend," he says. "They're not going to say anything because most of these guys are pretty cool, so they're going to suck it up. And the truth is, on the inside — I know these guys — they're saying, 'Hey, that's bullshit.'"

Annino thinks part of the problem is that these venues are simply picking the wrong neighborhood, one where the fire department is prone to keep a close watch. "It's not like the 1980s anymore down there where you could just get a warehouse and throw a beer party and it was cool. It's not like that anymore. People are paying big rents and the city's changed," he says. "They picked Deep Ellum because they can make money off of everybody else's efforts. Dada and Trees and all these guys worked their asses off to make it cool down there."

Toni Youngblood thought she had done everything she needed to do to make her New Year's Eve party legit. Her Sparkle party had gotten bigger and better every year, moving from houses to warehouses, and this one would be the most ambitious yet. It was based on an anthropomorphic adventures theme, and Youngblood and her friends built a giant, “interactive,” 17-foot tree, complete with lights, swings and a canopied bed. There was a Styrofoam ice cave and a giant, handmade chandelier hanging from the ceiling, plus light projections and custom-made art brought in by Burning Man artists. 

Most important, Youngblood had all of her paperwork in order. Or so she thought. She had sat down with the owner of the building — a quonset hut on South Malcolm X Boulevard, about a mile south of Deep Ellum — and his attorney to draw up a lease, purchase insurance and get her permits in order. She'd hired medics to be on site, purchased fire extinguishers and brought in first aid kits.

“At 12:30 I was up on top of the tree house and somebody came and got me and said the fire marshal's here,” Youngblood recalls. The party, with more than 250 guests, was “in full swing,” but she kept her cool. “I'm outside smoking cigarettes but we got all our ducks in a row. We're legit. But they walk up and they're like, 'Hey guys, we're going to have to shut you down. This building doesn't have a certificate of occupancy.'”

Through all of her dealings with the owner, Alvaro Aguilar, and his attorney, Juan Marquez, there was never a mention of the CO. “Had we known going into it, we would've easily gone down to City Hall, paid a couple hundred dollars and gotten a CO,” Youngblood says. But that wasn't the worst of it: A party hosted by another promoter, We Are Dallas, was shut down on the same property back in June. Alvarez was a repeat offender.

“[The fire marshal] says, 'We're not going to go after you, we're going to go after the venue owner. He's done this before. He knows better,'” says Youngblood. Between the rental and the insurance, she had paid Aguilar $1,950 — all of it up front, in cash. “I'm like, 'Are you fucking serious?'”

Youngblood was suddenly faced with the task of turning partygoers out into the streets, even though the whole point of the party — scheduled to run from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. — was to give people a safe place to party overnight. Once guests were in the building, they weren't allowed to leave, and were told they wouldn't have to worry about driving or getting an Uber. “I was really impressed with our group,” Youngblood says of the evacuation, which went off without trouble. “I fully believe it's because, as burners, we were looking out for each other.”

Sparkle's ethos is built on the central tenants of the Burning Man culture, which is a close-knit, trust-based and steadfastly private community. “It's communal effort and gifting and participation. Things like that,” says Youngblood. “You bring things, you share things.” As such, there was no fee for entry — money was strictly not accepted at the door — although people were allowed to make donations beforehand to help secure the rental and necessary supplies, which included $800 in lumber to construct the tree. There was also no alcohol for sale, although guests could BYOB and leave it at the bar to share with others. That's where things get confusing.

According to the report filed that night, fire marshal Deputy Mike Fehr ordered Youngblood  to “discontinue use of facility without proper certificate of occupancy for commercial amusement inside.” Yet she had gone to great lengths to ensure the party — which was only disseminated through a private Facebook group — was private and not commercial, right down to a carefully guarded guest list. “It had everyone's name on it who could come in the door. No exceptions. We don't care who you think you are or who you're sleeping with,” Youngblood says. “No one's getting in unless you're on this list.”

None of the known hosts whose parties were shut down that night and in subsequent weeks received fines. This leniency might make more sense if, as Fehr allegedly told Youngblood, the fire department was “going after” landlords. However, Aguilar did not respond to requests for comment on whether there has been any follow up from the fire department after the shut down. For his part, Lavender says, “I think this is the first I've heard of that” in reference to the possibility of landlords being penalized for CO issues. “That's still more he-said, she-said kind of stuff.”

After her party was shut down, Youngblood filed a grievance with the State Bar of Texas and the Better Business Bureau against Marquez, but what continues to puzzle her is how the party came to the fire department's attention in the first place. In spite of all the party's secrecy, a preview showed up on a local fashion blog's things to do on New Year's Eve list.

There was also speculation that business owners might have tipped them off: John Eaves, co-owner of Red Light Lounge in Deep Ellum, was at the Sparkle party when it was shut down and offered to comp all guests at his club for the remainder of the night. The same happened two weeks later when a party hosted by Prime was shut down at Ash Studios and relocated to Red Light. But Youngblood, who went to party at Eaves' apartment that night rather than his club, doesn't see the motivation. “I told him, 'If that's true, your plan really backfired because you had 100 of us in your home till the next day,'” she says. “So I don't think that was it.”

Hoping to get to the bottom of things, Youngblood's friend Mark Kaplan — who helped coordinate the move to Red Light — filed a request for public information with the fire department last month, seeking information on the shut down of the Sparkle, That That, Electric Lotus and Ash Studio parties, as well as another space called A Room With a Clue. The results came back at the beginning of February, but they did little to help solve the mystery: Each report included the indication of a complaint, but — outside of one noise complaint — no sign of why, from where or from whom.

Another trend seems to be emerging: While the dance music after-parties like the Resistance have almost completely disappeared in the past month, DIY shows featuring punk or experimental bands continue. In fact, every party that's been shut down —  rap and DJ parties on New Year's Eve — has been a dance party. The reason could have something to do with the legacy of the infamous raves from the late '90s and early 2000s.

Wade Hampton still remembers the buzz that surrounded the Groove tour. It was the summer of 2000 and Hampton, a native of Dallas who owned dance clubs throughout the country, was performing as DJ WishFM alongside fellow DJ Dmitri on a 13-city tour. Their stop in Grand Prairie attracted 5,000 people.

"That was a really cool party,” says Hampton, who's preparing to release a documentary on Dallas' legendary Starck Club later this year. “It was 10 of the top junglists in the world, which is a very specific type of music to have that kind of draw, and at that point we were proving this city had the same firepower as Los Angeles in that one genre.”

This was to be the high-water mark of Dallas' rave culture. The show took place in an old, rundown teen club, which he remembers as a treacherous space. “It had live electrical running through standing water,” Hampton remembers. “They just got lucky those cables got buttoned up tight enough.” But for those passionate about the music, such risks were acceptable: “People were proud of going to that lawless, dangerous place because they knew they were participating in something nobody else had,” Hampton says. “That's why a lot of kids would say they were going through that, and you didn't want to miss it.”

It didn't last. “Way too many kids had shown up and they circled the whole neighborhood,” Hampton says. Police showed up and the party was shut down.  

Scottie Canfield, better known as DJ Red Eye and the resident DJ at It'll Do Club, sees history repeating itself. “It's basically like the early 2000s starting to happen again,” he says. “They're looking for [parties] again because they're starting to pop up. What they're worried about is underage kids out there getting all fucked up.”

While today's parties attract crowds in the hundreds, the '90s parties had turnouts in the thousands — although at first, drugs weren't the problem. “It was a completely different animal. We were breaking into warehouses,” says Canfield. Starting in the mid-'90s, he was in close with promotion crew Hazy Daze. “We actually had people in place who would go to jail for the night if the cops showed up — like, 'OK, it's your turn to go to jail.'” With most of the warehouses being abandoned, the punishments usually amounted to trespassing, not even breaking and entering.

Without easy platforms like Facebook to spread the word, these parties were strictly word-of-mouth affairs — “It was more in the know than on the low,” jokes Canfield — with partygoers needing to know checkpoints like Innovation Skate Shop or Oak Lawn Records to pick up directions.

Tradecraft to keep parties secure is nothing new. “We'd set up an individual phone number and get voice mail numbers for each individual party,” remembers Canfield. “You'd call the number and the phone number would have a voice mail with directions on it.” Inconvenience was often the name of the game: “Hazy Daze would throw parties out on far out camp grounds,” he says. “Those parties would go on for two days, like 48 hours, with not a single cop in sight.”

But as the parties got bigger and more frequent, problems started. “People started catching on and they would throw parties everywhere,” Canfield says. Some promoters would hire off-duty police officers to help keep their parties on the level. “And then people started calling and busting each other's parties. It got super messy.” The makeup of the crowds, which had always reached well beyond the core dance music fans, also changed: “People were there for the wrong reasons. They were there to get fucked up,” Canfield says. “There’d be fights in the streets and then someone would call the cops because of a fight.”

By the early 2000s, law enforcement sought new ways to keep the parties under control. Senator Joe Biden, motivated by a series of rave deaths in Washington, D.C., introduced federal legislation to penalize property owners and party promoters for drug offenses at their events, and the raves were soon stamped out. "Then they started making examples out of people,” says Canfield.

For more than a decade, the after-parties never really made a comeback. But as they have started to return, Hampton and Canfield see a familiar pattern — this time the pressure is coming from the fire department rather than the police. “The CO is the first thing they’re going to look for," Canfield says. "It’s the first way they can shut you down, no questions asked."

But he doesn’t buy the conspiracy theories that someone, particularly club owners, could be out to get them. He says it's more likely that the fire department is simply looking for parties. “They show up at It’ll Do unannounced just to check out stuff,” he points out. “Whenever something happens, it’s like, ‘Oh, who’s calling on us? Someone’s jealous.’ But no, they’re just doing their job.”

If the cycle of boom and bust seems inevitable for such parties, Hampton says it’s necessary to have them, right alongside clubs. Without them, in fact, he believes Dallas talent suffered for years. “The biggest DJs in the world, from Kaskade on down, love to talk about It’ll Do,” he says. “But you need a few kids out there on the underground level who believe in what they’re doing. If you don’t, you won’t have a healthy, full-fledged scene years later.”

The day after the Resistance party, 100 or so people pack into a small room on the corner of Commerce and Walton streets in Deep Ellum. It’s the future home of Deep Vellum Books, complete with picture windows that wrap around two sides of the room, but for now the walls are bare, save for empty shelves. Tonight, however, it will be a refuge for DIY music, the home of the latest Vice Palace party.

Arthur Peña has booked a handful of hip-hop and experimental performers, including rapper Lord Byron, plus a DJ. He also has Trich projecting an elaborate, colorful light show during the performances. Between sets, fans mill around openly out front, smoking cigarettes and dancing around to stay warm. There’s none of the secrecy of the night before here, none of the concern with the party getting shut down, and it only takes an hour for Peña to sell out his 100 wristbands .

“I think there's a shift happening,” says Peña, whose roving DIY venue Vice Palace has gradually transitioned from guerrilla shows in warehouses to curated shows in commercial spaces like bookstores and recording studios. He sees others being forced to follow suit. “The idea of having a [$2,000 fine] before the party even starts? I think that's definitely spooked people.”

Peña sees a silver lining should the trend push more DIY shows into commercial spaces in the future. “Hopefully what it’s doing is forcing them to consider new options and new ways of hosting amusing events,” he says. “Is the point of this DIY culture to propagate and cultivate a sense of the underground, or is it to give the talent of this city the exposure and support it needs? From my standpoint, it’s always been the latter.”  

But not everyone is ready to follow Peña’s thinking just yet. “I’m excited for next year already,” says Youngblood of her Sparkle party. She’s kept in touch with Deputy Fehr from the fire department, who she stresses has been friendly through the entire process. “He said going forward, if we’re going to do a party and going to rent a space, he’d be happy to go over with us before we hand over cash and say, ‘Oh, hell no, you can’t do this,’ or, ‘OK, this is legit’ or ‘We’re going to have to do an inspection.’”

Trich, too, is planning to carry on with a "content creation space" in a new location when his lease is up. "I can't afford to be messed with again," he says. "The city may still shut me down, but it will be harder because I won't be charging or providing alcohol and I'll make it more low-key." But he adds with a laugh, “If they still don’t let me become legit, I’m going to have to become more underground.”

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Jeff Gage
Contact: Jeff Gage