Word-of-mouth leads to unique parties around town that bring up-and-coming musicians and artists to an intimate crowd.
It’s 1:58 a.m. on a summer Saturday night. At the end of an alleyway near Ossington Ave. and Queen St. W., there’s a green-lit stairwell leading to a basement. Two bouncers bar the way, surrounded by a dozen or so people — mostly in their 20s — smoking cigarettes and trading contact info.
Some of them have been inside already, stamps on hand. Others are waiting, somewhat impatiently, for the capacity to go down so they can slip inside. It probably won’t.
Get inside and the setup is basic but dripping in indie character. A few red stage lights give life to the concrete-walled basement where around 200 people sip from red plastic cups. Some stand or lean against a wall, others sit on vintage couches or IKEA tables meant to have drinks spilled on them.
In the far back corner, past the makeshift bar, there’s a line forming from the bathroom — genderless, like most parties thrown at private homes or studios. An impromptu performance being put on by Johnny Darko, a local rapper, and CRSB, the DJ for the night, has another portion of the crowd moshing to a mid-tempo trap beat.
For many of the self-identified artists, photographers and musicians here, the night has just begun.
Tonight’s event happens to coincide with Chieff Bosompra’s birthday. The 25-year-old has been throwing these Undisposable parties for almost two years now, the name a riff on the event’s conceit, to hand out disposable cameras to guests and post the developed photos online.
It doubles as a branding technique that differentiates his events from the city’s other DIY hip-hop parties, a scene Bosompra would like to see expand.
“I feel like, at least to myself, there’s a lot of different artistic crowds downtown, all in small microcosms,” Bosompra says, stirring his iced coffee at a café the day before the event. “To me, DIY spaces in Toronto bring a pretty diverse crowd. They’re all different cultures, music tastes, styles. It’s not homogenous. I don’t think anyone wants it to be.”
Underground events like Undisposable have typically been stereotyped as grungy hip-hop turn-ups; the after-parties for people who get a VIP invite or know someone who did.
But Bosompra’s parties are open to anyone who learns about them through word-of-mouth or can decipher his cryptic social media posts. That means it’s not at all uncommon to see a guy in a Calgary Flames hat and cargo shorts mingling with one of the scene’s hottest up-and-comers: everybody from Toronto’s Jazz Cartier to Kanye West’s designer Virgil Abloh have showed up to Bosompra’s events, usually with shades on in the hopes of staying incognito and having a drink or two.
The idea for Undisposable came to Bosompra, a communications graduate from Carleton University, after spending his early 20s in Quebec and New York among friends working as creatives or artists. Parties, Bosompra says, were both a ritual to relax and a networking tool. But unlike in Toronto, they were often held in lofts or warehouses that had been converted for one night into spaces customized to fit a specific vibe.
The events are distinguished by a low-rent yet poetic esthetic: unique neon signs by local glassmakers providing minimal but moody lighting; visuals from contemporary artists and tastemakers that adorn unfinished walls; an inconspicuous bar, lacking a menu, that takes only cash and serves drinks in plastic cups.
It smells homegrown because it is, but can leave a more lasting impression than commercialized spaces with velvet ropes and bottle service.
“Undisposable events aren’t just a show-up, buy-drinks, go-home sort of night. They’re supposed to be an experience,” Bosompra said, taking a jab at the city’s mainstream clubs for not pushing the envelope far enough.
Bambii, a Toronto DJ who recently put on the third-year anniversary of her own “JERK” event series, praises DIY party culture for giving emerging artists the chance to shine.
Today, many of the same acts that you’d see tucked underground are headlining major festivals. Bambii herself, once confined to the local scene, performed at both the WayHome and Osheaga festivals this summer.
“When I first started DJ’ing, I had to book myself,” she said, noting the tough time she had finding paid gigs as a black female DJ in Toronto. “If you only stay underground, there’s an issue with visibility. You can get known for only being in that scene . . . But even now when I play (mainstream) events, if there’s an issue or something’s going on that I don’t agree with, it’s not worth the cheque. I’ll pass.”
Dudebox — a series of house parties-turned-mega-gatherings originally started by a group of seven Toronto roommates — is designed to fill the gap left by the mainstream scene with its promise of “parties in weird places.”
Since 2007, Dudebox has been hosting events featuring local artists and musicians a few times a year, with almost all the proceeds going to charity. So far, they’ve raised almost $160,000 for a variety of initiatives, both local and foreign, from The 519 on Church St. to the KANPE Foundation, an organization that sponsors struggling communities abroad.
Co-founder Said Yassin, 31, describes the challenge of finding a place for DIY events — a space that’s safe, legal and adventurous — like “working at a call centre 24/7.” Just to put on one of these events takes a lot of legwork and the perseverance to keep going after dozens of rejections. Obstacles include capacity issues, liquor licenses, and a general distaste that some venue owners might have for a wild group of young people throwing art parties.
“People will reject you, reject you and reject you again,” Yassin says, trailing off. “I do think it has a lot to do with the fact that, you know, these parties are nuts. It’s not clean and clinical. Things are going to get wrecked, but that doesn’t mean we’re not there cleaning up and making it look perfect afterward.”
In 2013, Dudebox secured space at the now-defunct Planet Carwash at King St. W and Bathurst St., for what Yassin says turned out to be “one of the best parties” since the project started. It had water hoses that still functioned, a large parking lot for smokers and others to spill into, and an industrial space customized with art and lighting, creating an event both epic and ephemeral for a crowd of 20- to 30-somethings partying the life out of a place on its way to demolition.
But to both Bosompra and the Dudebox crew, things are getting better. Just last month, Yassin and company were able to throw a massive party at the decommissioned Hearn Generating Station, in partnership with local queer party collective Yes Yes Y’all, at the Luminato Festival. The event raised $8,000 for the Regent Park School of Music and $4,000 for families of the Orlando shooting victims.
Bosompra has long pegged Undisposable parties as intimate. “There are probably, like, 600 people who are in this scene that you will see regularly,” he says, making note of Toronto’s still-blooming talent base of rappers and visual artists, a group that pales in size and scope compared to places like New York City.
Ask anybody who goes to events like these and they’ll probably tell you it’s the community vibe — of knowing everybody, but not really — that makes underground events so special. They’re built by the scene, for the scene, but that can come at the cost of not always having the place to set up, or being limited to run-down venues that can’t accommodate bigger exhibits.
To Bosompra, it’s a careful balance of charm and finesse.
“I don’t want to lose how tight it is,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”