Imagine if in 1985, instead of acknowledging the existence of AIDS for the first time, President Reagan had announced the discovery of the preventative drug PrEP. Imagine if, as a result of taking it, many of the greatest artists of the late 20th century had lived to see the new millennium. If pre-exposure prophylaxis pills had arrived early enough to begin shifting AIDS from a diagnosis of certain death to, at least for those with access and cash, the chronic condition it can be today, maybe Arthur Russell, Sylvester, Patrick Cowley, and Larry Levan could have kept producing astonishing records. Instead, all those artists and so many more icons of queer culture—from Keith Haring to Klaus Nomi to Cookie Mueller—are dead. And not just them, but hundreds of thousands of people who loved them. As famed author Fran Leibowitz once put it, “The knowing audience also died and no longer exists in a real way.”
Last night, Frank Ocean sought to make a space for that knowing audience with the launch of his queer club night, PrEP+, named for the drug and the HIV status it treats. A press release announced that the events would pay “homage to what could have been of the 1980s NYC club scene if the drug…. had been invented in that era.” (He later clarified that Gilead, the drug manufacturer behind PrEP, had nothing to do with the party.) What might this mean? PrEP, in a significant way, has facilitated a sexual revolution in New York City over the past few years. Would Ocean’s party be an orgy? Queer culture has always intersected with drug use; could PrEP+ be a rave where PrEP was sold at the bar instead of vodka sodas, on the dancefloor instead of MDMA? Would he perform, surrounded by survivors of the plague years? Would there be merch?
The answer to all this was no. The reality was, he asked some people to play some music in the basement of the Knockdown Center, a snazzy Queens venue-compound just north of Bushwick. If you had to ask how to get a ticket, you weren’t getting one.
But if you had one, you could follow the brightly lit tunnel leading you underground, around a few blind corners, and into the club known as Basement. A very young, very turned-up crowd wandered around the crepuscular maze of concrete, full of hidden nooks that have been used, at queer parties I’ve attended, for sexual encounters. At PrEP+, they were mostly used for chatting, which suggested a different party potential, a mix of plan-hatching and queer solidarity-building.
Or maybe it was just a chance to shut up and dance. New Orleans DJ Bouffant Bouffant spun an ingratiating set of industrial and electro jams for the children serving looks, including one with a little panda backpack and what looked like a padlocked grill across their mouth. Another wore a cowboy hat and an LED collar that scrolled “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on repeat. There was a lot of western wear, a lot of Matrix homages, a lot of baseball caps and vertiginous platform boots and long dreads and mesh and volume. When, around midnight, Peggy Gou’s “Han Jan” came on, it felt like a kind of national anthem for this fluid, friendly world.
A few hours later, Seattle’s Sango wowed the crowd with an invigorating, time-stretching blend of hip-hop, Brazilian funk, and South African gqom. Frank Ocean himself hit the DJ booth and played a few snippets of their reported collaboration, a bonkers kind of ’80s boogie with pitch-shifted vocals. By about 3 a.m., UK DJ Sherelle began winding down the night with massive bass pressure, building bridges between footwork and hard techno that shifted under the dancers’ feet but never gave up.
A large number of dancers had given up earlier when the DJ booth had shifted over to the night’s surprise headliner, French house duo Justice, with whom Ocean is reportedly collaborating. (He returned at the end of the set to debut a hymnal ballad). When the initial excitement wore off and the duo scrolled through a long list of 2000s bloghouse hits, it felt out of place at a queer party devoted to reimagining the ’80s. They lost the plot entirely when they played Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” and lead-footed gabba and noise as part of a procession that came across as manic and bored at the same time.
At one point, Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” emerged from the mess, and it was like finding the Holy Grail in a swamp. The feeling was so entirely real that a bunch of queens returned to the dancefloor for some serious showing off. Soon enough, though, it vanished. As did way too many people from the 1980s club days, and still too many do today thanks to lack of access to PrEP, bigotry, and violence.
Today, responding to suspicion of the motives and funding for the PrEP+ party, Ocean posted on Tumblr, criticizing the pricing and lack of awareness of the drug. “I’m an artist, it’s core to my job to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist and it’s a joy to,” he wrote. But hundreds of thousands of visionary queers and weirdo prodigies and casual romancers and hunks and femmes and dykes and people trapped in the closet and those who could never even fit inside one didn’t die just so we could stand at an exclusive party and listen to straight people play Buffalo Springfield. The living, and the dead, deserve better.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork