It wasn’t on the Hudson this past Memorial Day weekend, but rather on the East River stretching across the other side of Manhattan. Hundreds of people slept, drank, and tossed Frisbees in the 80-something-degree heat, feeling those first rays that signify the cycle of time has clicked once more, that we have returned to the high point of romanticism, of sunshine, of summer. Their feet beat down the wet sand where they doused themselves with water bottles; inside the covered tent people carried plastic tumblers of sangria and smiled, and danced, for the music, too, had emerged.
When Turntables on the River launched nearly ten years ago behind a then-makeshift ice rink on what is now Chelsea Piers, the basic idea was for a pair of local DJs—Nickodemus and Mariano—to host a gathering of positive music, whether it be the funk, hip-hop, and soul of Nicko’s childhood, the dance tracks they were both crate-digging, or their slowly growing fascination with African, Latin, and Balkan beats. Add to the mix their inspiration from Giant Step and Organic Grooves parties, adding live percussion and instrumentation into DJ sets, and a template was carved. Nappy G joined in on congas and shakers; a party was birthed.
Mariano was new to the turntables; as Nappy G would tell me—and as Mariano would affirm with laughter—“I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but Mariano is a very famous hairdresser. The crowd at the very first party was almost all women—beautiful women from all over the world, and not a lot of guys. It was the best ratio I ever saw.” The first party led to a handful more, and by the end of the 1998 season, the trio—along with the occasional staple, oud/guitar player and producer Zeb—knew they had something lasting on their hands.
The foundation was indeed set. Changing its name to Turntables on the Hudson, in honor of the river they were rocking on, the party has seen numerous locations over its decade-long history, most famously the Frying Pan. Located adjacent to the ice skating rink, the submerged and rediscovered tugboat (and accompanying pier) has been the site of innumerable parties, as well as controversies, over the years. Unable to host Turntables there in 2008, they moved to the Water Taxi Beach in Queens, another oddity of locations that you appreciate simply for its sheer existence: a fully-sanded beach amongst a row of warehouses, indoor tennis court, and upscale condominium buildings that are invading Long Island City at the moment.
I first met Nickodemus in 2003 when he was our guest at a weekly party I was throwing with Karsh Kale called Kollektive. It was a global-minded musical exploration at the Moroccan-themed Kush; when Nicko was booked, I looked forward to the night. I had been to his party before, and always felt welcome dancing amongst the hundreds (at times thousands) of people circulating in the middle of the river. There was no pretension whatsoever, and I learned that night that there was none to the person behind the party. We became fast friends, and slowly I was introduced to the entire crew, and since have DJ’d the party myself numerous times.
What’s so inviting about Turntables is embedded in its premise and purpose: to dance. It is a unifying art form, one shared amongst people of all persuasions. (Its international status is very high; they tour overseas quite a bit, and foreign visitors inevitably end up wherever the party happens to be.) With the growth of Nicko’s record label, now called Wonderwheel Recordings, you literally hear the cultured and evolving influences. The party is a philosophy in motion, a sociological experiment that keeps the common denominator basic, and because of that remains one of the most successful parties in New York City: good times, good music, good people.
The crowd at Turntables on the Hudson
When things do get uppity—when they end up in a club that tries to discriminate at the door due to dress, or the security guards are laden with attitude—they move on. The crowd that comes to Turntables is one that has no patience for the gentrification and exclusivity of Manhattan nightclubs; they seek out this party to avoid that irritating brand of low-mindedness. Everything comes at a cost, sure, but to forget your principles is never rewarding in the long run (or, some would argue, any run).
During the filming of their ten-year documentary (currently in production), when I asked them what their most memorable moments have been, all four members—Nicko, Mariano, Nappy, and Zeb—rolled their eyes upwards and laughed, as if that question could possibly be answered on one tape, in one setting. The commonality of all the stories they related came to the same conclusion: people. They do it because of the human connection, to be in the midst of friends, family made of friends, and new friends that will soon be part of the family (not to mention that ratio Nappy mentioned).
This is why I’ve danced at the party for so long: it reminds me that I’m human, fully human, and the experience on the dance floor—whatever texture or substance it may be that particular night—is unlike anything else. You connect with strangers; you find music you never knew existed; you find friends, old and new, again and again. With all the political, religious, and environmental ails occurring in the world, all that our media reminds us of every day, sometimes it takes this ritual of movement and music to bring us back to our common root, to our humanity. There’s nothing more beautiful than feeling a part of a family, and of inviting others inside. Here’s to another decade of that.