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Seattle’s Best Dance Party Tracks the City’s Ongoing Evolution

In the middle of a packed nightclub at full tilt on a Saturday night, one guy presses against the DJ booth and waves his phone in the DJ’s face. He wants to hear “Draco” by Future. Friendly yet firm, Gwen McKenzie enters from stage right and points out to the guy that he’s standing in front of a sign that reads “No Requests: Trust Your Local DJ.” After a brief back-and-forth, he puts the phone in his pocket and re-enters the throng.

Welcome to Night Shift, the best dance party in Seattle. On this particular night, the ceilings drip sweat at the basement venue Kremwerk while DJs blend Stevie Wonder, modern rap and all types of dance music, working two dance floors until 3 a.m.

“I saw two girls dancing at our New Year’s Eve party,” says McKenzie, one of Night Shift’s three principals, “and one girl was about to make a request from the DJ. Her friend stopped her and said, ‘Oh no, you don’t do that here.’”

What you do at Night Shift is listen to the music and feel the vibe. Audiences generally in their 20s and 30s dress fashionably and are majority people of color, making Night Shift an oasis in a city that is overwhelmingly white and at times culturally obtuse.

Founders Joseph Guanlao and Anthony Sosa started Night Shift in 2014, hyped off the energy of friends starting businesses, a shared love of DJ culture and a certain nostalgia for Capitol Hill nightlife circa 2007, before our main party neighborhood entered final-form gentrification.

“Capitol Hill in 2007 wasn’t like it is today,” Sosa says, lamenting the loss of hip-hop-centric nights like Moe Bar Mondays, Sing-Sing, 2080s and Ring the Alarm. “It was grimy and you could jump from bar to bar and the underground was popping.”

Sosa was an established club DJ who wanted to bring back that old feeling. Guanlao had a compatible vision: Seattle should have its own Boiler Room, the roving global dance party that happens in noncommercial spaces and is documented with an online video stream. Dance-music fans view Boiler Room sets almost like albums, and DJs elevate their game. Maybe rare geographies and intimate events bring out better DJ performances. Maybe DJs are energized by a smart audience that’s willing to be challenged.

Leading an after-school program in video editing at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Guanlao raved about certain Boiler Room sets with his coworker Justin Av, who, as Hansmjustin, is now a regular Night Shift DJ.

“It just looks like turntables on a table with maybe some liquor,” he says. “I thought, ‘We should do that.’”

A few blocks from Wing Luke, Guanlao’s friends had opened the culture-shifting store Trichome, selling Japanese streetwear and modern cannabis accessories. It became the de facto Night Shift clubhouse, a salon to talk about creative projects and a venue for early prototype parties. From that orbit came the staff for the first official Night Shifts, which went down in an unmarked Belltown location—a space rented from a friend, produced with DJ friends and more friends to run the door and serve drinks.

“We had the worst luck with booking venues at first,” Sosa says. “We wanted full control of the party and people didn’t want to give that to us.”

They don’t have that problem anymore, now that Night Shift has brought more than 130 acts, almost all local but some national and international, to more than 20 spaces for 40 parties–
an impressive three-year run in Seattle, with recent forays into LA and Austin for SXSW. Their outdoor summer spinoff Day Shift has been going strong since 2015, operating on a biweekly schedule and hosted at Ciudad in Georgetown. In contrast, Night Shift is still fairly unregimented, occurring on an irregular schedule in places you’ve never heard of, and also established venues like Neumos and the Crocodile.

It was a hit from day one. The first party, on a snowy night in February 2014 and promoted only by email, drew 150 people. Things got more active on social media when McKenzie came along, who was then a Trichome employee and is now, along with co-owning Night Shift, an assistant talent buyer at the Crocodile.

McKenzie styles Night Shift venues to feel like experiences. With a background in theatre stagecraft and a DIY crafts blog, she made her presence felt immediately when she kicked off Day Shift in 2015 with elaborate floral arrangements mimicking Photoshop color gradients. Her selfie-inducing approach has incorporated bathroom-mirror stickers reading “it’s lit” and “safe space” and, for Day Shift, “wear sunscreen.” McKenzie is the main reason Night Shift, unlike too many dance parties, feels friendly to women.

Recent events have been strung with blue and white caution tape reading MINDFUL CONSENT. Business cards printed with similar language are available at the bar in case patrons need to issue a warning on the dance floor. McKenzie developed the messaging with the Portland company C.A.R.E.S. PDX. Combined with “no requests,” it’s enough to change your mind about what it means to go out dancing.

“Before Night Shift, I had a pretty pessimistic view of nightlife in Seattle,” says DJ Maryjane Bermudez. “When I turned 21 I went to hip-hop and R&B nights at venues like 95 Slide, Baltic Room, Tia Lou’s and Rhino Room. At all of these places, I felt like I had to fit into a mold of what it meant to go out–that I needed to dress up in order to fit in and I had to tolerate unwanted advances from male attendees. When I went to Night Shift, I found a place where it was all about dancing and enjoying the music.”

She’s 24 now, and as more than a casual fan, she decided to learn to DJ. Night Shift now books her for parties.

“I don’t feel expected to play the newest hip-hop—just whatever gets me and hopefully everyone else dancing,” she says. “A huge thing though: I like that Night Shift consistently books DJs who identify as women.”

Musically, Night Shift is not a rap night, but it does align squarely with where rap music is right now: widely diffused into all types of music, becoming more danceable and stylistically diverse, with artists borrowing flows and regional tics like cups of sugar. Night Shift DJs follow their own paths but always gear the music toward the impulse to dance, incorporating whatever styles—soul, R&B, house, rap—will rock the party. This ethos stems from a local lineage that includes the long-running, itinerant monthly TRUST (as in “trust the DJ”), weekly Circle of Fire parties (at Nation and later the War Room) and KEXP’s Expansions MLK Day events.

Historically, the Seattle music scene has been dominated by guitar bands of white men performing in pubs over pitchers of beer, with concerts advertised by paper fliers stapled to telephone poles. That’s all retro now. In 2017 we’re a DJ town.

Now a digital art form, DJing has never been so widespread. Our most popular musical exports are Odesza—two DJ-producers—and Macklemore, whose DJ Ryan Lewis makes the music that makes the money. Capitol Hill nightlife used to be rock-centric but now has a dozen DJ-dominated venues. (It’s not only our nightlife culture, it’s our daytime culture, too, if you consider the playlists at yoga, spin, TRX and all the other exercise classes where the teacher is also a DJ). Rock venues Chop Suey and Barboza have moved to a DJ format on weekends. DJs play bars and restaurants like Bait Shop, Linda’s, Nacho Borracho and Revolver, usually without a cover charge, every night of the week. The newest venue in the neighborhood, Sugar Hill, is for DJs.

Night Shift engages with the Capitol Hill scene but curates it carefully, adding unsung and unproven artists and often relocating the party away from the eye of the storm. The unmarked SoDo destination for their 2016 New Year’s Eve party was so low-profile that the Uber driver asked, “Are you sure?”

Some amount of mystery is important, according to Sosa, who fondly remembers the first Night Shift at the defunct Belltown venue Burner Phone.

“I liked that it was hiding in plain sight, and that you needed to do your homework to know it was there,” he says. “We wanted to make people part of the journey. We’re doing things above-ground now, but we still have that appeal. You have to do due diligence to know what’s going on.”

Today, Night Shift is a truly social media-driven nightlife event. People like DJ Maryjane learn about it on Instagram posts featuring artistic party photography showing dancers in unguarded moments, usually bathed in blue or purple light. The images are by photographers worth following: Ella Ordona, Stephen Reigns, Toryan Dixon, Abdirahman Mohamed, Daniel Nguyen.

Night Shift puts its own spin on every aspect of what it means to throw a dance party. It taps into Western Washington’s spirit of redefinition. This place is home to gay marriage, legal weed, the tech-industry boom and rampant gentrification. We’re living in the future here and there’s no going back.

For music, that’s a good thing. Local music is at its best—and most reorganized—in years. Rap is morphing like crazy. Club music is popping up all over. Hardly Art Records is creating new narratives for rock. Our main rap radio show, KEXP’s Street Sounds, has an outstanding new DJ who also happens to be black, gay and a woman—Stas THEE Boss, a Night Shift DJ who went to Renton High School with Sosa and Guanlao.

In the overlapping scenes of dance and rap music, power is surging and organizing in crews. Tuf represents women and non-gender-binary DJs. Dance music crews Jet, Heat Records and 320 RIP are havens for international subgenres. Yoga and DJ crew Women.Weed.WiFi and rap crew 69/50 are free-spirit leaders. The monthly Prototype Sessions at Lovecitylove is reminiscent of Night Shift, featuring DJs who are also clothing designers and visual artists, including this issue’s cover photographer, Avi Loud. Night Shift may have even inspired a spinoff in Tacoma, with the party called Toe Jam.

McKenzie, Guanlao and Sosa are well aware of all this activity as they scout for future venues, DJs, photographers, associates.

“It’s our job right?” Guanlao says. “We should be paying attention.”

Along with a new emphasis on DJs, right now Seattle music is driven by grassroots independence. Event producers no longer need to engage with the traditional channels to attract followers. Just as talent buyers didn’t understand Night Shift a few years ago, the current generation has little faith the old guard will understand it. They’re doing it anyway, happy to be overlooked by the establishment, drawing dedicated fans anyway. It’s a movement, and Night Shift is a leader. It’s happening not only in Seattle but everywhere: Artists, not gatekeepers, dictate culture.

“Night Shift LA proved we can create the same vibe down there,” McKenzie says. “People were saying, ‘Whoa, I’ve never been to something like this. Look at all the people here.’”

“It’s crazy people mentioned the diversity even in LA,” Guanlao says.

Sosa: “Yeah LA was one of my favorite ones.”

Guanlao’s?

“Probably the first one. It was pure.”

McKenzie says the same thing you’d hear from most Night Shift devotees: “My favorite is always the last one that happened.”

Night Shift plays Chop Suey on April 14

Top photo by Daniel Nguyen, bottom photo by Toryan Dixon

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