EYESPY Soundsystem (and the preservation of Brooklyn’s vibe)
The first time I stepped into the underground joint Cameo—the venue for the speakeasy event known amongst Brooklyn’s peak black set as EYESPY—I thought I’d been transported back in time to the borough’s near past. Or into its future.
Cameo was an old-school, wood-endowed basement bar reminiscent of the pool halls my family used to operate back in the Bed-Stuy ’80s, except sprinkled with elements of Afro-futurism fused comfortably with EYESPY’s vintage aesthetic. Snap. At the speed of light, a tall, wiry photographer caught a shot of me, like an apparition traveling at warp speed. That was definitely Kwesi Abbensetts. He moved so quickly I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming the whole thing. Maybe I was. Because as far as we all knew, this type of hot, sweet Brooklyn ’ting—authentic, sweaty, Black Starr, Black funk, boom box, Roti, Ackee & Salt fish Brooklyn—had been on gentrification life support for some years now.
EYESPY had a subterranean block party vibe. A love your enemy vibe. An early Tribe Called Quest vibe. A Paradise Garage, Puerto Rican Day Parade, sound-clash-dub plate-skin out, Empire Boulevard-Eastern Parkway vibe. A shit-I-used-to-sneak-into-with-my-older-cousins vibe. I’d gathered the immense wave of love energy in the building was crafted by the resident shaman-slash-tastemaker himself, Dauod Abeid. And I was familiar with Kwesi’s striking photography; he was an artist-spiritualist capturing beautifully obscure moments that would be hailed iconic in years to come.
But the music. I wasn’t yet as familiar with DJs P.U.D.G.Emental and Frei SPEECH as I am now, a whirlwind team who was in twin-sync on the decks, transforming the fucked up day I’d had into an oasis of Soul, Rhyme and Rockers. I could tell they were locals. I knew my own kind. But the set was definitely not local. We were in a packed-out basement with faces I’d seen on billboards and at yoga studios alike and no one—I mean no one—had their phones out. No phones. No cameras. No Wifi. Just beautiful people dancing, drenched in sweat, unable to shake the allure of being transported to a vintage galaxy of historical fantasy where pride in the raw Blackness of Afro-Diasporic music is not myth, but foregone conclusion.
Frei and Pudge came by my tiny apartment on Nostrand Ave. to talk old Brooklyn, new music, and their underground speakeasy vibe that is preserving the cultural aesthetic of the world’s most famous borough, one rhythm at a time.
FREI: I’m trying to remember how all that happened. [thinks…] To understand EYESPY is to understand us. Go back to our chemistry as DJs.
PUDGE: You know I’ve been thinking about how we met and I think I’ve finally pinned down the party. It was right about the time I moved back from L.A. The joint at Dinna’s house. Whatever speakeasy she was poppin’ off back then was happening in her old apartment, and you [Frei] got on the wheels and I was like… yo…he’s killing it, and then I got on and he was on me the same way and we just vibed.
FS: It was more like, it felt familiar. Natural chemistry. The way we conducted ourselves around the set. We had mutual friends trying to hook us up to spin together even before we knew each other. The chemistry made it easy. The flow was just natural. It’s one thing to play with someone and be like I’ma do my thing, you gon’ do your thing. It’s another thing when the chemistry is right and you’re just vibin’ on the music, the selection, on everything. Kind of makes it worth it for you to continue playing together.
P: As far as EYESPY is concerned, after the house party that I just mentioned, where we smashed it, every gig we played after we’d say to each other, we gotta do something together. That was back in 2011.
FS: A long time had passed by before we created EYESPY, though. But because we were playing mad gigs together, we knew what it would be like to have our own thing. We just didn’t have a spot. I was doing a gig at this place called Cameo—Meridian Lights was havin’ a release party—and I started vibin’ with the bartender there and he’s like yo…I like your vibe. At the end of the night when everyone left, the bartender takes me down into the basement and turns the light on and says, “You think you can do something here?” I took a look at the spot and was like yooooo…
P: I remember how Frei came back upstairs mad excited. And normally he’s a real chill dude but he came upstairs like, “I got something. I got the right space.” That was 2014. EYESPY started right there.
Whose idea was it to kill the phones?
FS: I’ve been playing for a long time. I’ve seen what the party scene has become. I’ve seen how people have become addicted to their phones and losing the moment musically. I already knew I needed something to close that off. And I tried spinning at speakeasies before but a lot of them had fallen off for whatever reasons—Cloud. Blind Pig. I’d DJ’ed everything from major clubs to block parties and knew the only sense of real contact between people was coming at the speakeasy or the house party or the backyard joint. And all of those are illegal but they’re happening because they’re the most natural way for us to connect. So we knew we wanted that vibe. That connection.
P: Crowd exclusivity was a factor, too. With a house party or speakeasy you’re also forced to curate your crowd. Nine times out of ten when people show up to our joint it’s because they know someone who invited them.
FS: If you look at our [Instagram] page we really do n’t promote EYESPY as a party. The idea was we were gonna invite our friends because we thought they were cool and they’d invite their friends because they thought they were cool, and it would be our little thing.
P: A lot of the original vision had a lot to do with the fact that there was no signal in the basement of the first EYESPY joint. That’s where the hashtag came up.
The #eyespynowifi thing.
P: Yeah that came about later. “No wifi” was a big reason that I wanted to do the party in a basement. The whole access to wifi thing at events, that’s a large part of why DJ requests have become what they have. You can Shazam any song at anytime. You can look something up from any era, then ask the DJ to play your shit. Total disconnection from the spirit of the music. So we decided not to have that element at our joint.
I hear the request situation has become somewhat of an epidemic.
FS: At other events, people come up to me requesting music, waving their phones like, “Play what I want to hear. I have all the world’s music at my fingertips.” The average record is like three minutes long. Back in the day I got to play maybe two minutes of that. Today? Thirty seconds. People only know the main lines of the songs now. They might not know the actual songs. We wanted to change that. Go back to where there was trust between the DJ and the crowd. When we spin we enter a trust situation with the crowd. That connection, when it’s there, you see it. Once we realize you guys trust us, there’s no stopping. But we gotta be able to get you there.
At EYESPY, people think you’re playing remixes but half the time you’re blending live—creating music on the decks.
P: That’s just who we are as DJs. Frei makes music. I make music. I remember coming to one of his joints and he was behind the booth with an MP making beats on the spot. I’ve done remixes of Frei’s tracks—
FS: I’ve done all types of remixes with his.
P: A lot of DJs just spin. But when you make music and play music regularly, I find you start doing both while on the decks. Lotta times while we’re DJing, we’re actually up there making new songs.
FS: A lot of that is based off of you guys, though. We feed off of you. The energy is wild. It makes us keep digging.
Can we talk about Daoud and Kwesi’s input: the photography and pulsating energy of the event? Is it fair to say EYESPY is a collective?
FS: It’s definitely about the team. The interesting thing about the creation of EYESPY is I definitely knew I wanted Kwesi Abbensetts to shoot the party. He was always in my head as the visual premise of the aesthetic. I’ve worked with him since he was Spaceship George. I’ve seen where his artistic eye has gone. There are only three photographers that have the most footage of me: a guy named Michael July, another named Terrence Jennings, and Kwesi. I watched Kwesi become this unstoppable eye. I knew he had to capture what we were doing.
P: Daoud is our [unofficial] resident dancer and spirit guide. It feels like we have spiritual security on the dance floor. He’s got an insane sense of fashion and his connections in that world definitely influenced the party because a good portion of the attendees are from his circle, and are also stylish but non-trendy.
FS: His involvement on the floor usually represents the vibe of the party. When Daoud starts really moving, usually the party is moving as well. He’s a good gauge of how we [DJs] are vibing. And he definitely lets us know when the vibes are lagging, at the party and after the fact. His input definitely influences the overall vibe.
What would you say Brooklyn’s music culture is right now? Besides the obvious, how would you say it’s different than it was, say in the ’90s?
P: I can speak more on what it is now. I started coming to Brooklyn in the late ’90s. I met a Panamanian homie. He lived off the Kingston Throop stop. So my first year at St. John’s I did a baby shower there. That was during the Rawkus era. Black Star era. I was hanging around cats that were a part of Lyricist Lounge—that esoteric backpack shit, the beginnings of the “conscious” rap era—and the hustler vibe, were all blended together. Now, the vibe in Brooklyn is wide open. There’s so many new “neighbors.” So many new faces. I’m kind of scared for the vibe because I see it getting diluted. You have things like petitions to tell bars to turn their music down.
It’s happening in London. Bars shutting down.
P: It’s happening here, too. People move here for the culture but then complain about the culture. I see that new force shifting things around. You’ll have a nice spot and then people complain about the music which totally upsets the vibe. Volume and sound quality make up a good portion of the vibe, which is why even though the U.K. is going through the same thing, they stay winning because their sound systems are ridiculous; they come straight from Jamaican dub culture influence. They’re gonna blast you with vibe. So if the music is good, you’re gonna feel it. The current vibe in BK seems open in that you can do whatever you want as long as it’s artful, but I’m not sure of where it’s actually going. Everything is being diluted.
Do you feel like there’s still a culture in BK that’s fresh?
FR: I definitely do. I mean, change is inevitable. I definitely agree that it’s not how it used to be but that’s inevitable. Brooklyn hasn’t been the same since my parents arrived.
P: It’s not a bad thing. Just unpredictable.
FS: [contemplates…] My only thoughts are to preserve some of the characteristics, kind of like if I was to treat Brooklyn’s music and arts culture like a brownstone I’d say: walk into this brownstone, let’s strip down all of this paint and get to the original design. And appreciate that. Appreciate the art. Of course you can put new things inside of it—new appliances, central air—but let’s keep the aesthetics. Let’s keep the original beauty. Let’s keep the culture. Because that’s why you’re here in the first place.
You can check DJs @FreiSPEECH, DJ @PUDGEmental, Daoud (@daoudsun), and Kwesi Abbensetts (@kwesiabbensetts) on their pages and get your life @eyespytheparty.
Tamara P. Carter (@tamarapcarter) is a television writer by day, record shop geek by night. Wax Poetics is her favorite magazine on earth.
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