Parties at Freak City could well be the best parties in the city. Certainly Diplo believes as much; the ubiquitous DJ/producer, after all, has said it's his favorite club in the world.
But getting into a Freak City party — which are held in a former department store on Hollywood Boulevard — is something of an ordeal. You enter through a grimy alley off Cahuenga, where you're greeted by a wall of graffiti. A security guard stands watch at the door. Ducking into darkness, you try not to trip as you feel your way down a hall.
Once inside you encounter a “grown-up amusement park,” in the words of the whimsically nicknamed co-proprietor Justin Time, who is 27 and declines to give his real name.
Amid mannequins in cages and a wall spray-painted with penises, a Lite-Brite spells out the store's logo. Journeying up the winding staircase, you arrive on the second story, which is sectioned off into lounge areas and impromptu dance floors. A mishmash of hip-hop, ratchet rap and synth-heavy electronic music blares, as girls in towering platform sneakers wearing Smurf-blue lipstick mingle with guys who look straight out of New York City's early-'90s club-kid scene.
Since they started in 2008, these parties — held once a month or so — have been attracting Los Angeles' most cutting-edge artists and revelers. Kreayshawn had a birthday party here, cross-dressing New York rapper Mykki Blanco performed here, and on Sept. 22 experimental radio collective Dublab is throwing itself a massive soiree.
The only problem? Freak City is not a sanctioned dance club, and it's not permitted to sell alcohol. And so, the cops have been known to poke around in its business — the party has been shut down before, and visited by police on several other occasions. Its prominent location in the heart of Hollywood certainly doesn't help matters, nor does the fact that, unlike the police in other big metropolises, cops in Los Angeles tend to be heavy-handed about breaking up illegal and after-hours parties. (A Hollywood division officer who has investigated Freak City says the spot is on LAPD's radar, though he declines to give his name because he isn't authorized to speak on the situation.)
“We don't call ourselves a club,” asserts the slight, soft-spoken Time, who has intense brown eyes. Indeed, Freak City operates on a month-to-month lease as a boutique. During regular business hours, shoppers come in through an entrance on Hollywood Boulevard and browse rows of clothing racks featuring a blend of vintage '80s T-shirts and original designs by Time's girlfriend, who calls herself Vally Gurl and co-owns Freak City. There are also wacky knickknacks on offer, reminiscent of the gag gifts for sale at Spencer's, and even a dressing room emblazoned with fluorescent troll dolls.
But even calling the spot a boutique isn't entirely accurate, Time adds, speaking from behind the register on a recent weekday afternoon. “It's more of an art project.”
The space's mission is to be a place for “artists [to make] art, whether that is clothing or art or events.” Hence the graffiti and fashionable apparel, as well as the facility's recording studio. In fact, Time and his girlfriend recently released an album called Sounds of Freak City, Vol. 1. The funky work, available as a free download, glistens with new-wave synths and '80s Casio keyboard sound effects. Time made the beats, Vally Gurl sang and played keyboard and, with some of their friends, they recorded it on the second floor of the shop.
The couple met in the middle of last decade at a Pasadena shoe store where he was working. (He was born in East L.A., she came up in Highland Park, but they've both lived all over the city.) They formed a group, which they called The Keyishe, which played a genre of party music they dub “L.A. bass.” Eventually they scraped together a few thousand dollars to rent a loft on Melrose. They named it the Lipstick Gallery and used it to throw parties at which they'd perform, or fashion functions where they would sell the clothes that Vally Gurl designed.
After a year there, they linked up with Rick Ross — co-owner of hip-hop label Delicious Vinyl — who convinced the landlord of the Sunset Boulevard building in West Hollywood that housed Delicious to rent to Time. He moved in, naming it “Freak City” after the Arabian Prince song, and continued the music and the parties.
The run-ins with police didn't start until Freak City migrated to Hollywood Boulevard in fall 2010. The problem is that the venue's parties, even if they're billed as private soirees, have many of the trappings of public events, which means proper permits are required.
While Time says they're largely publicized through word-of-mouth, they're also spread on Twitter. The upcoming Dublab event, further, was promoted by that organization's publicist.
If Freak City was throwing small parties that weren't too loud and didn't draw the attention of its neighbors, its organizers might be able to convince the cops that they're simply get-togethers for their friends held after the store shuts down. But that argument loses force if an entry fee is charged, or attendees are required to pay for drinks.
For that reason, Time says, all parties are now “donation-based,” meaning that folks can chip in to help cover the costs of the event (or the beer) if they'd like. The Dublab soiree, for example, is advertising a “$10 donation for admission,” with proceeds to benefit the nonprofit organization putting it on. (The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control also permits sponsored open bars, which appeared at Freak City in the summer of 2011, when Vitamin Water and the Fader hosted a free concert for Bay Area rapper Lil B and served mixed drinks at no charge.)
The Hollywood officer says the department is tipped off to illegal parties through Internet promotion and calls from citizens, and Time speculates that complaints have been phoned in from “jealous” owners of nearby clubs, though this can't be verified. The cop adds that the donation-based modus operandi is something of a gray area. “If it's a 'mandatory' donation, that's not a donation,” he explains.
In any case, what everyone can agree on is that, brushes with the law aside, Freak City has been a smashing success, achieving its mission of becoming one of the city's beacons for graffiti artists, musicians and creative types. “Freak City's about freedom,” Time says. “[That's the] key element that makes it cool. You're not being monitored or controlled.”
As for the cops? Well, even they aren't always mad. Ross recalls Freak City's New Year's Eve event at its old West Hollywood location as 2009 was becoming 2010. “Two huge, gay WeHo cops came in. We were all like, 'Oh no.' They ended up in the middle of the floor, dancing.”
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