“Man, I got the swaaaaaag!”
The opening line to Fast Life Yungstaz’s 2009 hit is more than just a song lyric; it’s a command to get in the proper position, and everyone knows exactly what to do.
The people on stage face the crowd. The crowd stops dancing and faces the stage. People at the bar tell the bartender to hold their orders. Alzo Slade, the party’s hypeman and MC, points to his right.
DJ Square Biz cues up the command again.
“Man, I got the swaaaaag!”
This time, the song continues. “You know I got the swaaaaag.” Strangers have arms around strangers like they’re best friends as they rock side to side. No one seems to mind the back sweat from the bodies of fellow party-goers.
The first refrain starts: “I’m on Hypnotic/Exotic/This polo on my body….” People start jumping up and down, pumping their fists. Mini-mosh pits break out, and more drinks are being spilled than consumed. The place has exploded into what looks like a real-life Ernie Barnes painting. For anyone who has ever partied in the South, the scene is a familiar one.
But this is not happening anywhere below the Mason-Dixon Line. This is a Saturday night in New York City at a party known as Grits & Biscuits.
If you’re young, black, and social in New York City, scenes like these are why you go to the Grits & Biscuits party. No, not all the songs are new, but to a particular group, these are the oldies but goodies. There is no “Cupid Shuffle” or “Electric Slide.” At Grits & Biscuits, line dancing is swag surfing, the Wobble, or the hip-hop version of the bunny hop. At Grits & Biscuits, removing your shirt to cool off isn’t worst behavior—it’s typical behavior. People are hoisted up on shoulders, and others are elbowed (usually by accident). These are things that have been happening since the first Grits & Biscuits took place in July 2010 at a mid-sized club called Southpaw in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“When I got here in ’04, my homeboys and I would go to these parties, and they would either be all bohemian or these mega-clubs,” recalls Alzo Slade, one-third of E.Z.Mo Breezy, the team behind Grits & Biscuits. “None of those places were playing the type of music we grew up with.” His preferred type of music was Southern hip-hop. In Houston, where he and his younger brother, Maurice “DJ Square Biz” Slade, grew up, it was less about Eric B & Rakim and more about Bun B and Pimp C. The team’s third member, Erika Lewis, grew up in Michigan, but attended North Carolina A&T University, an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities. DJ Square Biz attended Florida A&M University, Alzo Slade attended Praire View A&M University in Texas) where parties similar to Grits & Biscuits are commonplace.
Most HBCU graduates living in NYC will tell you there are very few degrees of separation amongst themselves. Alzo Slade and Lewis met through a mutual friend and credit their shared HBCU experience for them hitting it off so quickly. One night, in 2004, Lewis and Alzo Slade were listening to a mix CD of Southern hip-hop Alzo Slade received from one of his friends down South. “I had to borrow it,” recalls Lewis.
“Yeah, and she never gave it back,” Alzo Slade says with a laugh.
“I gave it back,” Lewis says.
He-said, she-said aside, they agree on one thing: That mix CD made them realize what New York City was missing. “We realized someone should do a party with nothing but Southern hip-hop,” said Lewis. Alzo Slade's younger brother Maurice Slade, who was just starting to get into DJing and already DJ’d an annual crawfish gathering they held at a friend’s house in Brooklyn, would man the 1s and 2s.
The trio simply aimed to recreate what is known as a LaTex party, an event that has become tradition at many HBCUs. The name is a combination of the state abbreviations for Louisiana and Texas. Students at an HBCU who hail from those two states come together and organize a party where most of the music played is from artists from those two states and neighboring ones.
To pull something like this off, the three of them needed to take everything they heard and saw at other New York City parties where young black professionals partied and do the exact opposite. This meant the dress code was come as you are. There would be no velvet ropes, no guest lists, and no bottle service. Inside the party, there would be no VIP area except for the stage, which is largely reserved for friends who helped out. The cover for the party was $10. Alzo Slade says the first invite to the party was “an email blast to our friends and our bible study group.” They did not expect the venue to reach its 550-person capacity.
“People were coming up to us asking how they could find out about the next one. Honestly, we didn’t have any of that prepared because we never planned past the
Southpaw was no stranger to hip-hop parties. The Rub, another popular hip-hop party that goes back to 2002, got its start at Southpaw. But what Lewis and the Slade brothers created wasn’t so much a party as it was a revival. People were waving church fans emblazoned with the Grits & Biscuits logo, a little touch the team added to give the party a glint of Southern authenticity. Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard in the Paint” was the song of the moment and was run back by Square Biz at least three times. Depending on the song, people had their hands on their knees either to catch their breath or to twerk on something. It was a party unlike anything most attendees had experienced.
“People were coming up to us asking how they could find out about the next one and where they could find us online,” Lewis says. “And honestly, we didn’t have any of that prepared because we never planned past the first one.”
Five years later, Lewis and the Slade brothers are not only planning numerous Grits & Biscuits parties around the world, they are also selling out venues that hold 12 times the amount of people Southpaw held. When the party celebrated its five-year anniversary on July 18, the spirit from their inaugural night remained intact, but it had become a full-blown music festival.
A crowd of 6,000 people came out to see Square Biz do what he has always done. What was once a party that gave away church fans was now selling a variety of Grits & Biscuits T-shirts. Artists like Trina and Waka Flock Flame weren’t being played on record, they performed live. According to Alzo Slade, the size of the crowd even surprised Trina. “She was nervous because she was a surprise guest and wasn’t expecting a crowd like that,” he said days after the party. As Alzo Slade, Square Biz, and Lewis watched along with their team from the side of the stage, it wasn’t Trina or her pull-over-worthy ass they were looking at. They were staring at the sea of people facing the stage, proof that the three of them, none of whom are full-time party promoters, went from humble beginnings in a quaint Brooklyn music venue to putting on for thousands of people.
The popularity of Grits & Biscuits is due partly to the Slade brothers and Lewis helping to debunk the idea that black people would only act civil at parties if they were dressed a certain way. “E.Z. Mo Breezy identified something ahead of the curve,” says Clarence Fruster, a native of Harlem and veteran party promoter who helped promote the first Grits & Biscuits party. “It was a very strong, black collegiate body of people, and nobody was catering to their taste sonically.”
Nearly every party plays some form of hip-hop, but not every party is a hip-hop party. The Tunnel did not host the first hip-hop party, but it was the first club to prove how valuable a hip-hop party for hip-hop fans could be. In the ’90s, the Tunnel on Sunday night was where people went to not only hear and dance to hip-hop, but also to see the culture in action on a large scale. Hip-hop stars from DMX to Jermaine Dupri and, of course, Diddy were common faces. DJs Funkmaster Flex, Big Kap, and Cipha Sounds were making names for themselves breaking new records. As a result, people came from all over the city (and country) to party.
From the music to the style, Sunday nights at the Tunnel were a hip-hop oasis in Manhattan. “There were places playing the music we were playing, but they were clubs that held like 100-200 people in local neighborhoods,” says Cipha. The Tunnel was the one place not afraid of the music and the crowds it attracted, which is why it became so popular. As Jessica Rosenblum, the brainchild behind the Sunday night parties at the Tunnel, told Complex in an oral history about the illustrious club, “The Tunnel proved that hip-hop in a nightclub was a financial force to be reckoned with.”
Unfortunately, when the club closed in June 2001 the big hip-hop party went with it, even though hip-hop itself continued to grow in popularity. Occasionally parties catering to a young black and brown crowd would pop up, but there was always an issue. Lines were long, doors were tight, and capacity would be reached quickly. It was a testament to how few options people had for this type of party in the city. There was also a feeling that wherever the hip-hop party was, the potential for police to shut it down loomed large. “Any parties that were catering to a hip-hop audience were being shut down by the city for violations,” says Just Blaze, the renowned producer who currently DJs the 1992 House Party at Webster Hall every Thursday.
“E.z.Mo Breezy identified something ahead of the curve. It was a very strong, black collegiate body of people, and nobody was catering to their taste sonically.”
The attitude was no better outside of Manhattan. In October 2010, Savalas, a small club in Williamsburg, told its DJs it would be taking a rap sabbatical due to the crowd it was attracting. According to an email obtained by The Village Voice, bouncers told the managers and owner, “If it's going to be hip-hop night every night, you're going to get a certain crowd, and we can't turn away everybody.” The club closed in 2011, the same year residents of Park Slope, the neighborhood where Grits & Biscuits first started, signed a petition to ensure a new restaurant opening in the neighborhood would play indie music instead of “focusing on hip-hop and urban entertainment.”
The only real mega club in the city that could compare to the Tunnel was M2 Ultra Lounge. Around 2008, celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Cam’ron were making M2 look like what the Tunnel used to be, a place to pop bottles and flash chains. But only if you were a part of Dipset did you have a reasonable chance of getting inside. If you and your friends were merely a group of everyday people who dressed like the rappers in VIP, chances of you getting in were slim. Well, that is unless you were willing to drop $5,000 for one bottle of Veuve Cliquot.
Bottle service in New York City created a class system in the nightlife, which created a shift in the culture that was being celebrated in the clubs. Just Blaze attributes the rise of bottle service with the growing popularity of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) that was starting to take place around 2008, a genre whose fan base was flashy but tone deaf. “The rich broker who can come in and drop $10,000 in a night probably isn't the most cultured musically and doesn't really care what is played,” he says. “The hip-hop audience is more aspirational and doesn’t come from a lot of money.” Therefore, Just says, clubs started catering more to the Wall Street types who only wanted to hear radio records, instead of “kids who have to pull their money together to buy a bottle of Hennessy at the club.”
Kameron McCullough (known on Twitter as @KoolestkidOut), the founder of Henny Palooza, was one of those “kids.” A native of Harlem, he remembers vividly hearing about the Tunnel, but not being old enough to get in. In 2008, fresh out of college and working at a bank, he remembers he and his friends decided to check out M2 on a Wednesday night. When they arrived, the line was around the block, and no tickets were available. The only way they could get in was if they bought bottles. “Between seven of us,” McCullough says, “we paid $3,000.”
Was it worth it? Even in retrospect McCullough says, “M2 was the best club New York has ever had.” But after a while, he says, “It just got old.” McCullough listed other issues he started seeing: shifty door policies, strict dress codes, stress over how many guys were in a group. He was tired of having to consider all these things when he went out. To him, a good party only needed three things: good music, good liquor, and good-looking women.
No longer content with depending on the city to provide him with the atmosphere he craved, McCullough decided he could get all those things by hanging out with his friends at his apartment in East Harlem. In November 2012, he had a small game night. “People brought food, liquor, and we chilled,” he says. “It was a good time, and the next day I said I wanted to do it again, except with Hennessy.”
"We’ve had conversations with the team that works with Hennessy. They know about the party, but for now we’re fine with doing this ourselves.”
The French cognac has been McCullough’s spirit of choice since his college days, which is why he requested everyone who was invited to bring a bottle of it. He also asked for people to bring chicken, the food sponge for all the Hennessy that would be consumed. He sent a text to his friends who were invited that read: “Hennessy, chicken, my crib, hashtag Henny Palooza.” He then tweeted, “#Hennypalooza, my crib.”
McCullough says at the time, he only had 1,500 followers, but his friends who retweeted the hashtag, Nile Ivey (@LowKeyUTHN) and Chris Foxx (@FoxxFiles), have upward of 40K followers combined, many of which have tens of thousands of followers themselves. “I sent the text to them on a Wednesday,” McCullough recalls. “Low calls me on Thursday morning and tells me to check the Henny Palooza hashtag.” The result was numerous people McCullough didn’t know and who didn’t follow him trying to get more details on a party that was originally intended to be the sequel to a small game night. “I had to talk to my landlord to see if I could rent out the event space in our building,” he says. Even when he booked the room, the plan was to have no more than 30 people. On the night of the party, shortly before it began, he went to go get some ice at a store a block away from his apartment building. When he returned, the community space was at capacity with over 100 people.
Much like how Lewis and the Slade brothers knew what they had after the first Grits & Biscuits party, McCullough knew he had something special after the first Henny Palooza. But he also knew better than to rush it. He wanted to continue to build hype around it.
At the second Henny Palooza, which took place at a small art gallery on the Lower East Side in 2013, there was a doorman, but it was invite only and all very secretive. While the hype machine was working online with the Henny Palooza hashtag, offline, you had to know someone who could get your name on the list. The location of the party was not disclosed until midnight the day of the party, and while there was no cover charge, the same rules applied as the first one: bring a bottle of Hennessy and some chicken.
The party embodied McCullough’s idea of a good time. There was enough Hennessy for everyone to get a taste, good-looking people, and great music provided by DJs GeniusinHD and Meka (of the popular hip-hop blog 2DopeBoyz).
In October 2013, McCullough, along with Lowkey, Foxx, and other people he refers to as family, decided to take Henny Palooza public. “If I only kept the party limited to my friends, Henny Palooza would’ve just seemed like some bougie black Twitter shit,” he says. They decided to take the show on the road to Washington, D.C., where, for $40, anyone—not just McCullough’s friends—could buy a ticket to Henny Palooza. A year later, they returned to D.C. and repeated the pay-to-party model to commemorate the one-year anniversary. Both times tickets sold out within an hour. Tickets have sold out for every Henny Palooza since then.
If $40 seems steep, consider all of the money that goes toward the numerous cases of Hennessy that allow for an open bar. It’s cheaper than buying four mixed drinks in a New York City club and way cheaper than bottle service. McCullough buys the bottles of Hennessy himself and maintains that there is no relationship between the official Hennessy brand or its owners, LVMH. “We’ve had conversations with the team that works with Hennessy,” says McCullough. “They know about the party, but for now we’re fine with doing this ourselves.” When asked if they have any plans to collaborate with Henny Palooza, a spokesperson for Hennessy offered a tepid response: “Hennessy is not affiliated with this event. We encourage all our fans to celebrate responsibly.”
Even without Hennessy’s support, the party has continued to grow. McCullough took an if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it approach towards promoting Henny Palooza. Ever since the first party he had at his apartment complex blew up off of the Henny Palooza hashtag alone, he’s continued to harness the power of Twitter. In 2015, the Henny Palooza hashtag is more important than the Henny Palooza fliers seen on Instagram. Then there is the #HennyPaloozaRules hashtag, created by two of McCullough’s friends, Cory Townes and Dewayne Evans, which serves as an explainer of what people can expect from the party. Like any trending topic on Twitter and Instagram, the pictures and tweets are an effective way to induce FOMO from even the most skeptical party-goer. But hype is only half the battle. Parties still take place in real life, which is why McCullough continues to make sure Henny Palooza is not just something people see on their screens but also an incredible IRL experience.
To do this, McCullough thought of little touches that would help make a big splash. Chief among them was deciding to keep Henny Palooza parties relegated to the afternoon and early evening, which McCullough says has been a huge part of his success. “You can party at 4 p.m. like it was 1 a.m., and still be home by 10 p.m.,” he says. Lowkey serves as the official host, there are multiple DJs including Mecca, GeniusinHD, Showtime, and Austin Millz, as well as people walking around with water guns full of Hennessy.
The irony is McCullough has actually created a party as big as the ones he used to line up for at M2. Now some of McCullough’s friends who were invited to the original game night are business partners, fully invested in helping the party become the major production it is, and people have a hard time getting into his party, even if they have a ticket. When Henny Palooza returned to D.C. for Howard University homecoming in October 2014, Wale and Pusha T showed up. Pusha T later tweeted about Henny Palooza, “I promise this was the best party for me in years!!!!”
The popularity of Henny Palooza has also caused some backlash from the public. Last December, when Henny Palooza celebrated its two-year anniversary at the Well, people with tickets complained of waiting up to an hour or longer to get inside. And though Henny Palooza has run out of Hennessy before, never had the bars run out of the brown as quickly as they did at the last event. In less than three hours after doors opened, the venue was completely out of Hennessy, leaving many party-goers thirsty. (In McCullough’s defense, there is no guarantee that Hennessy will be available when you arrive, and there are no limits to how much Hennessy a person can order.) As DJ Austin Millz admitted, the two-year anniversary party wasn’t their best showing.
All throughout the New York City party scene, the indelible influence of both parties can be seen and heard. These days, parties heavily populated by people of color featuring music that is welcoming to people dressed more or less as they please is more common than it was five years ago. There are the VS Parties, the product of promoter Clarence Fruster, which focus on creating events based on imaginary musical mashups such as Jay Z vs. Drake. There are also roving day parties such as Brunch Bounce. The popularity of Grits & Biscuits made the idea of a Southern hip-hop party in New York City more commonplace too. South N the City, promoted by Landon Dais and Calcie Cooper, two HBCU alumni, and DJ’d by DJ Commish, also an HBCU alumnus, is a popular seasonal afterwork party where strictly Southern music gets played. DJ Square Biz, who now resides in Los Angeles, still remains a draw when he comes back to the city for parties like the popular LaTex Crawfish Boil, which began before Grits & Biscuits.
Fruster, who has been promoting parties for years, says a lot of this new wave of hip-hop-focused events catering to young black people can be traced back to Grits & Biscuits. After all, he was the one who saw the vision Lewis and the Slade brothers had, which is why he decided to give them a prime slot on a Saturday night.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just the Slade brothers and Lewis’ church group that wanted a party like Grits & Biscuits. It wasn’t just McCullough and his friends who wanted a party with copious amounts of Hennessy and good music. Thousands of people wanted the same things. Until more venues and promoters recognize the value in catering to a crowd who very much would like parties similar to these on a weekly basis (the way it used to be at the Tunnel), special events like Grits & Biscuits and Henny Palooza will continue to draw massive crowds in large part because all you really need to know is that when “Swag Surfing” comes on, the dance starts from right to left.