Backbeat: Vice Pulls Out the Stops for Lavish 'Upfront' Party; Rick Ross, Death From Above 1979, More Perform
Backbeat: Vice Pulls Out the Stops for Lavish 'Upfront' Party; Rick Ross, Death From Above 1979, More Perform

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(Photo: Bryan Derballa)

BROOKLYN, New York -- After spending much of the last decade being misrepresented by an unintuitive, clunky website -- Viceland.com -- and having its subsequent endeavors fractured across multiple late-coming sites (VBS.tv, The Creators Project, and Noisey.com), the Vice brand has gotten it all onto one site: the long-coveted, hard-won Vice.com. (The domain was initially acquired by a pornographic entrepreneur, who set the astronomical price tag of $1 million, apparently far more than VICE was willing to pay... more on that later.)

To celebrate, the company held what it described as an "over-the-top, unnecessarily lavish to-do" -- billed as a television network-style "upfront" -- in the beautiful, cathedral-like Skylight One Hanson building, a.k.a. the historic Savings Bank of Williamsburgh (sic), to celebrate.

Suffice it to say the fete lived up to its billing: The upfront segued into a whale of a party/concert, featuring performances from Rick Ross, Death From Above 1979, DJ A-Trak, Tanlines and, in a smaller room downstairs, six nascent bands including the Men, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Anamanaguchi, Hanni El-Khatib and Total Slacker, as well as a slew of DJs throughout the night (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, the Black Lips, and True Panther among them).

During the upfront's keynote, Vice co-founder Shane Smith walked onto a stage with bikini-clad women, golden confetti trickling down, and, projected behind him in large red letters, the word "PORN." For Vice, it wasn't that surprising an opener. "We've never done an upfront before, and I've never actually been to one," Smith explained. "Everything we learned about online video, we learned from porn. 240 billion videos a month are streamed, 60% of which are porn. If you type one letter into Google, porn comes up." (We weren't able to verify this claim -- after typing in each letter of the alphabet into Google, the closest thing to 'blue' material was a suggestion for Victoria's Secret).

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Vice's Shane Smith and Andrew Creighton during the upfront (Photo: Clint Spaulding - PMC)

What followed was a perfect example of the VICE business keystone: smart, ambitious ideas wrapped in a ridiculous, glossy package, with no audience in mind except the young, generally well-informed, and preferably beautiful. Smith continued: "So what if you take all the lessons that porn teaches us on the web, and do something that's a little bit more constructive, and do something that can actually change the f---ing world?"

Then a voice-over, featuring slides of VICE's various on-the-ground reportage from Liberia, Ireland, the Balkans, Congo, and more played as a narrator asked: "[The news] has completely failed at its job. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, social media and the internet are a changing of the guard... We are non-political, non-partisan, and subversive -- young people that viewers can trust -- and we consistently come back with a story that is completely different from the one in the mainstream media." Following that, the announcement of Vice's partnership with news organizations around the globe: Der Spiegel, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, El País, and their continuing partnership with CNN.

In addition, Vice announced an HBO show with Bill Maher described as "60 Minutes for the next generation", new series such as Ecomagination (backed by GE), travel show All the Wrong Places, and more. Whether the company can maintain its well-tended image across so many new ventures, including the addition of verticals dedicated to sports, travel, food, and film/photography, of course remains to be seen.

In short order, the upfront evolved/devolved into a party that many outside found exceedingly difficult to get into. Inside, the venue was packed but not exceedingly so: young revelers, businessmen, artists, and suited security all bathed in a red glow throughout the building's enormous front lobby as massive globule balloons, sporting jittering projections, loomed overhead. Downstairs, bank vaults opened the way to a second performance area, a wide, high school dance-feeling space, with a low ceiling and (of course) another (free) bar, where the night's non-headlining bands were performing. There was also an upstairs VIP area and party rooms off to the sides, a smoking area outside and possibly more.

But the venue's biggest asset - well, except for the free booze -- might also have been its worst enemy. The early-20th century beauty of Skylight One Hanson's lobby can't be overstated: ceilings soaring a hundred feet or more overhead, stained glass, marble -- imposing scale prevailed, and the choice of room made sense for the grandiosity of Vice's announcement. What a room like this doesn't do well, however, is communicate sound. As was the case with Kanye West's performance there earlier this year, the sound blended into a roar. The re-emerged Death From Above 1979's set was a wall of trebly vocals, cymbals, and a low, groaning throb where Jesse Keeler's normally chunkily precise bass could be found. The crowd, excited at the prospect of seeing the band after so many years' estrangement, and plied with all the free alcohol they could drink, didn't seem to mind.

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The pit during Death From Above 1979's set (Photo: Jem Aswad)

It was much the same for Rick Ross, who emerged to the stage in his sunglasses, gold chain, and jean jacket after a brief opener by Rip Van Winkle-bearded Maybach associate Stalley. Ross gave a cool performance, thanking the crowd and telling them evenly, "Everyone in here is a f---ing winner, so put your hands in the sky" and asking the crowd to "put up your deuces." But as with Death From Above 1979, the beats were lost in the vast space (except for the comically persistent air horn and 'Maybach Music' samples, which the DJ seemed to have a big red button for), and his words were barely intelligible in the mid- and upper-register fray. But everyone was enjoying it anyhow -- it seems like Ross survives at least as much on image as talent, making the enjoyment of his shows less dependent on how things sound than your average musician.

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Rick Ross (Photo: Bryan Derballa)

Not surprisingly, there were hundreds of music and media business notables in attendance, and while some were buzzing about the just-broken reports that Interscope's L.A. offices were used as a way-station for cocaine shipments by Game manager Jimmy "Henchman" Rosemond, the bountiful open bar guaranteed that people generally were much more interested in getting their party on.

Just some of the people we saw were all of the Vice principals and dozens of staffers, Hot 97's Miss Info, The New Yorker's Kalefa Sanneh and Sasha Frere-Jones, Interscope's Dennis Dennehy, Spin's Steve Kandell, the New York Times' Melena Ryzik and Jenna Wortham, attorney Paul Sommerstein, Press Here's Jennie Boddy, People mag's Carlos Greer, Jesse Camp, Adidas' Bradley Carbone, Innovative Leisure's Jamie Strong, ADA's Amy Dietz, journalists Julianne Shepherd and Reggie Ugwu, not to mention Johnny Knoxville and Das Racist.

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Tanlines (Photo: Jem Aswad)

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Vice's Eddy Moretti with Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner (Photo: Bryan Derballa)

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Ross (Photo: Bryan Derballa)