How a Hip-Hop Party Went From a Harlem Basement to Packing Barclays

Kameron McCullough and Nile Ivey were having a rough year.

Mr. Ivey, a D.J. and music blogger, had been laid off from his job at BET Networks. Mr. McCullough had been fired from his job at Condé Nast just a few months after being evicted from his apartment.

It was December 2012, and the two friends hatched a plan to simultaneously wash away their troubles and usher in a more buoyant 2013. They settled on hosting a small game night.

They planned to keep the invite list short, ensure that it included plenty of women and inform attendees that gaining entry required two things: a bottle of Hennessy cognac and a bucket of fried chicken.

“It’s going to be a Henny Palooza,” Mr. McCullough recalls one friend joking.

Seven years later, the event — now known as D’ussé Palooza — has grown from an East Harlem house party attended by barely 50 people to an event that drew 9,000 to Barclays Center in Brooklyn this month, while expanding to more than a dozen United States cities.

The party attracts thousands of fans every year, a group that includes professional athletes like the N.B.A. star Kevin Durant and the New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, music industry luminaries like the New York radio hosts Charlamagne Tha God and Ebro Darden, sports journalists like Bomani Jones of ESPN and Jemele Hill of The Atlantic, and the hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper.

“It’s the best party in America,” Reginald Ossé, a podcaster and onetime Source magazine editor known as Combat Jack, once declared. (Mr. Ossé died in 2017.)

The event’s new name is the product of a multimillion-dollar deal with Jay-Z, the music star and entrepreneur. Mr. McCullough, 34, and his team have entered into a rare partnership with Jay-Z’s music label, Roc Nation. As a result, the cognac brand D’ussé, which the rapper is an investor in, now sponsors the event.

Although Hennessy figured in the party’s origins and some people who attend still call it Henny Palooza, neither Mr. McCullough nor any of his colleagues has ever had any affiliation with, or the consent of, the cognac’s maker, Moët Hennessy USA corporation.

But the liquor brand that gave the party its original name was not the most important ingredient in its early success. It was the energy and spirit behind it.

When the party was created, Justin Smith, better known by his D.J. name, Just Blaze, had spent more than a decade as one of hip-hop’s top producers, collaborating frequently with Jay-Z and working at top nightclubs in New York.

In 2012, Mr. Smith said, bottle service had taken over the city’s night life. High-rolling clubgoers — often young and privileged — held court in the city’s top clubs and bars, paying for preferential V.I.P. treatment by buying bottles of liquor at prices that typically started at around $5,000 apiece.

“It was the go-to format” Mr. Smith said. “And while these clubs opened themselves up to a new revenue stream, they got cut off to the cool people making the waves in culture, the influencers.”

That style of socializing was fundamentally at odds with hip-hop culture, which had historically taken its cues from often financially strapped provocateurs.

“That’s what Palooza represents in a nutshell, really,” Mr. Smith said. “A bunch of cool people getting together and saying ‘Let’s do our own thing.’ At a certain point the underground is going to subvert the mainstream.”

Mr. Ivey, 37, said that the rise of bottle service and V.I.P. sections had begun to make going out feel rote and monotonous for many young black people.

“We made it O.K. for people to come together and not look at each other weird because you don’t have a bottle,” he said, adding “or you don’t have a section at all.”

Kazeem Famuyide, 32, who was at the first party and remains a core member of the Palooza event team, put it more succinctly.

“We were the anti-V.I.P.,” he said.

Three months after the first game night, the organizers held a second event at an art gallery on the Lower East Side.

The location was kept secret until hours beforehand. An email invitation from one of the hosts — plus chicken and liquor, of course — was required for entry. The goal was to keep the crowd at the 100-person estimate that Mr. McCullough had promised the gallery’s owner.

“More than 250 people showed up,” Mr. McCullough said with a laugh.

By the end of 2013, he and the other organizers had expanded, hosting their first out-of-town event in Washington during Howard University’s homecoming. (Mr. Ivey is a Howard graduate.)

By 2014, attendance at the party had nearly tripled. More than 600 people packed a venue on the Lower East Side for one event, and the first international version was held in Toronto.

When the party returned to Howard in October 2014, word of mouth was so strong that the rap artists Wale and Pusha T showed up unannounced and performed. Pusha T called it the best party he had been to in years.

Charlene Acosta, an office manager from Rockland County, N.Y., said she had gone to her first D’ussé Palooza event in 2014 and had attended every one in New York since then.

“It’s a party for us, by us” Ms. Acosta, 38, said.

Ms. Acosta said she appreciated that people at D’ussé Palooza actually danced and that there were never fights. She also said she admired the party’s egalitarian ethos.

“Everybody’s special,” she said. “It’s not like ‘Oh, over there are the cool kids, and then the rest of us are over here.’”

In 2015, thanks in part to chatter on Twitter, the event began touring nationwide. Parties were held in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans, and New York fans were kept happy with several events in Brooklyn.

Cory Townes, a D.J, writer and onetime D’ussé Palooza host who lives in Brooklyn, began attending the parties in 2013.

“Here was an event where you might see people on TV or the blogs, go to a ’Palooza and then run into those exact people at the party,” Mr. Townes, 32, said.

In fall 2015, the organizers started having talks with Roc Nation. Jay-Z had been hearing about the parties and was eager to learn more.

“One of the things about Jay,” Mr. Smith said, “he keeps his ear to the streets so much more than people realize.”

When Mr. McCullough and members of his team — including Mr. Ivey, Mr. Famuyide and Benner Hall, who had recently joined as chief operating officer — met with Roc Nation’s senior vice president, Lenny Santiago, at the company’s offices in the garment district.

A D’ussé rep placed a pen and pad on a table and asked for a number, Mr. McCullough said.

“We asked for too much money,” he said with a laugh. “We weren’t ready.”

During the event’s five-year run as Henny Palooza, despite Mr. McCullough’s overtures, Moët Hennessy never collaborated with, sponsored or donated to the organizers, according to four people familiar with the matter.

In a statement, the company highlighted what it called its “long history of supporting the African-American community,” adding that it was “proud of our ongoing efforts to contribute to culture in a positive way.” A Hennessy spokeswoman said the company did not comment on active or potential sponsorship details.

Mr. McCullough and his colleagues announced last year that they had entered a partnership with D’ussé.

Mr. McCullough posted a slick, movie trailer-style video on social media noting the change from “the other brand,” emphasizing the cultural significance of working with a liquor affiliated with Jay-Z, hip-hop’s first billionaire. The implicit message: Jay-Z and Roc Nation had stepped in because Hennessey would not step up.

The D’ussé Palooza team now has an annual budget for producing events. Roc Nation does much of the work that Mr. McCullough and his colleagues previously handled, including booking venues, hiring staff and brokering deals with performers.

For the event at Barclays Center this month, Mr. McCullough said he had worked with an operating budget of “about $500,000.”

“From the basement to the Barclays” Mr. Ivey said as he sat in the arena hours before the doors were scheduled to open.

Half party, half concert, D’ussé Palooza featured D.J.s and performances from newcomers and New York legends, including Junior Mafia, The Lox, Fabolous, Cam’ron and Jim Jones.

“You can’t find parties like this anymore,” said Celasia Brown, 25, who added that she had been attending Palooza events since 2015.

The next step, Mr. McCullough said, is to extend the party’s global reach. There are plans for shows in Ghana, South Africa, London and Paris with the goal of finding more fans like Lisa Piper.

Ms. Piper, 35, had flown in from Miami for the Barclays event after attending her first D’ussé Palooza party last year.

“I’m hooked,” she said.

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