There’s a group of guys throwing sporadic ragers and donating the money to charity. They don’t want to be party promoters or club impresarios; they just want to deliver a good time with a conscious message.
It’s Saturday night, and Ben Mulroney is hosting the 17th annual Starlight Children’s Foundation Gala—an evening of opera, smiles and hope—at Exhibition Place. Luckily, that’s not where I’m going with this. Instead, I was persuaded to do something a little more enthralling when my photographer pal Beeca Lemire emailed me about a group of young guys she was helping out over the weekend: “If you haven’t already heard of it… meet Dudebox.” What Becca went on describe was dubbed by another friend of mine as a “hipster fundraiser” (my own abhorring of the moniker notwithstanding). But it’s part of a bigger picture: As the young among us begin to mature and redefine the success of a generation and its professional practices, the black-tie fundraiser may very well be a casualty of the revolution for realness.
So who or what is Dudebox? Founded in 2007, it’s a group of seven guys joining the influx of crews that have come up on the scene not as companies, but as “collectives.” I don’t know any of them personally, but their Facebook description will illustrate why they caught my attention and why you’d probably dig them too: “Originally based out of the slums of Shaolin in a huge dirty apartment, the Dudebox evolved from bullshit parties into a modern social phenomenon (blatant exaggeration).” The mission is simple: “helping people by being awesome.” Yes, they come off exactly how you think any university-aged “dude” would, but it’s endearing and indicative of how they’re helping to set a precedent and shape a no-bullshit transparency of having fun and getting it done. Now, look at the group’s hilariously frank tenets: “Getting people drunk and bumping; playing bad music that girls like; paying for your lunch; getting friends to hook up with no regard for social controversy; maintaining a 6:1 girl-guy ratio (dudes, fuck off).”
Held at Creatures Creating, the art gallery/store/creative agency with a fiercely independent and individual spirit, this Dudebox production is a party for kids with some sort of social conscience, intent on helping the world on their own terms, even if that means doing so one Steam Whistle at a time. It’s a sparse, two-floor space I’d never been to, next to the spot that still remains desolate from that Queen West fire a few years ago. There’s pink hair and dreadlocks, a combination of ombré everything; it’s a trendy happenstance that looks like someone’s shooting the latest issue of Nylon. An old high-school friend is the bartender, serving up $5 drinks across the board, fuelling the beer-can art spontaneously creating itself around the DJ booth. The music is a series of wayback playbacks, too: Mary J’s “Real Love;” Aalyiah’s “Rock the Boat”; Q-Tip’s “Vivrant Thang”; Nelly’s “E.I.”; Lauryn Hill; Khia. It’s all my favourite memories coming together in a place that isn’t doused in irony. Finally.
This most recent installment marked the ninth overall for Dudebox, and when I talk to Said Yassin—the night’s designated ringleader, who tells me he doesn’t drink so it’s okay to interview him—you can tell the group has come a long way. “A bunch of us used to live in a house at College and Spadina—picture seven dudes in a three-bedroom house—and a friend of ours coined the term ["Dudebox"], like a mancave.” Yassin explains that the guys used to throw “gigantic house parties with too many people,” and it started to tear the group apart, so they all moved out.
But the College/Spadina dream survived. Yassin and co. wanted to keep chilling and throwing jams together, but the group decided that if it were going to be an organized effort, it wouldn’t be for the money. “None of us want to be party promoters—I don’t want to be in that world—so we thought maybe we should just give the money to charity, and everyone was down with that.” Today, Dudebox includes guys who all have full-time jobs and go to school, often clocking in 80-plus hour weeks. Yassin, for example, studies political science at Ryerson, and member Rob Dyer (pictured below) runs Skate 4 Cancer, traveling the country raising funds and awareness. They’re socially responsible guys, period.
The first party happened at 751 on Queen West, where Dudebox endeavored to raise enough money to support a cow for a Kenyan village. “It was stressful at the beginning, and it was amazing to see people roll through,” Yassin says. “There was no hate, and everyone was just happy to be there; it was one of the best parties I’d ever been to. There was so much love.” The first night ended up raising enough money for two cows, and spurred the group’s interest in supporting various causes. Even typing a sentence like that in relation to something like this feels odd, which means they’re probably doing something right.
Each subsequent Dudebox edition has jumped around the city from places like the Crawford in Little Italy to The Drake Hotel, which also donated $2,500 to group’s efforts (and probably saw a doubled return on investment in bar sales). And the concept continues to evolve. Their November 2011 party moved away from the traditional bar setting and landed at the Academy of Lions crossfit gym on Dundas West. It was the most successful to date, raising a total of $5,000 and featured a performance from Kids & Explosions, the mash-up DJ musical project from Oscar-nominated Toronto filmmaker Josh Raskin. It’s also Yassin’s most memorable event to date and shows the hard work they put into this stuff: “We had to do everything to the space if we wanted to use it: not only assemble the bar and break it down afterward, but also put away all the weights beforehand. We threw this gigantic party, and then put the gym back in its original state because it opened in a few hours.” Pair this with the 80-plus hours guys like Yassin juggle between full-time work and school, and you can’t help but give credit where credit is due.
If you look closely, you’ll see that Dudebox isn’t a “hipster fundraiser” at all, but rather some sort of unexpected and necessary surprise, a revolution even. Says Yassin: “I don’t know that we’re club dudes or anything like that, but we bring out a lot of different people: those who are socially-conscious, who just want to fucking party.” Either way, it’s encouraging a new, untapped group of patrons to give back – and they’re starting early. Maybe one day, not soon, they’ll be the ones at the Starlight Gala. Dudebox is directly trying to change lives through the privilege of being able to drink and dance all night. No suits, no ball gowns, no fancy dinners, no expensive tickets, no guest lists. For that, I have nothing but respect.
No one knows when the next Dudebox is, not even the guys themselves, but stay in touch on Facebook to find out all about it.