Inside the Magic of the Friendship Festival Cruise's Maiden Voyage, Set to Return in 2020

do not ever reuse - one time use
Jake Pierce
Friendship Cruise 2018

It's 10:42 p.m., but the crowd buzzes like it's one in the morning as Boys Noize peppers Switch's “A Bit Patchy” with the vocal of Justice's anthemic Simian remix, “We Are Your Friends.” The latter's manager Busy P, himself a consummate DJ, beams with pride from behind. “Swag, swag, swag” the people chant as the Ed Banger label head waves vinyl slip mats bearing 15th anniversary logos, ready to send them soaring into the hands of rowdy partiers. Some 30-odd bodies are packed into the hall, limbs wriggling like worms in a bucket, one of whom totes a giant inflatable penis tattooed with stickers and the words “Big Dick Energy.”

Beer cups teeter atop speakers as photographers fight to capture a moment so intimate, if it were recreated in Los Angeles, New York City or Miami, it would reek with exclusivity -- but this spontaneous eruption floats amid international waters. It's the maiden voyage of the Friendship, and its idealistic founder, Gary Richards, aka the DJ Destructo, soon appears in an elevator he's filled with unsuspecting passersby. He wants as many people to experience this magic as possible.

“I love Gary's passion about music and how he treats other people,” Boys Noize tells Billboard Dance hours before. “The industry can be so hard and defined by numbers ... Gary runs around through the crowd, talks to people and dances. That's something I really appreciate about [him. He's] just a great human being.”

On paper, the Friendship was a four-night music cruise that sailed from Port of Miami to the private Bahamian island of Coco Cay. With the support of his team at LiveStyle, Richards loaded it with top electronic talent curated to appease even the most discerning participants, all of whom were 21 or older. In practice, it became an exercise in party perfection. There was no major damage to the Celebrity Equinox's glistening décor, no deaths by substance abuse or otherwise and few arrests. There were some organizational hiccups, sure, but more than anything, there was an overwhelming air of inclusively and acceptance as strangers took the event's name to heart.

The Friendship is new, but the concept is not. It follows in the footsteps of Richards' previous dance cruise Holy Ship. He helmed and organized nine Holy Ships across five years before making a headline-grabbing exit from his HARD event company mid-2017. Holy Ship continues to operate back-to-back sailings each January as an Insomniac festival, but by March of 2018, Richards announced a new company in partnership with LiveStyle called AMF, or All My Friends. The Friendship was a mighty test of AMF's viability. More than 1,400 cabins sold out in less than 48 hours.

“We're born-again virgins," Richards jokes. "I was trying to figure out so many things to make this better than all the ships I've done, like 'what can I do musically and experience-wise?' But what always surprises me the most, and what is always the takeaway, is the people. What I've realized on this one is, this is the best of the best of the people that have gone over all the years.”

Holy Ship spawned a community as vibrant as its Caribbean home, and so-called “Shipfam” was divided by Richards' idealogical divorce. Fans had long waved literal banners reading messages like “In Gary We Trust,” but check the Shipfam Facebook group and you find a culture divided. Does one choose a side? Is it safe to ship both? Is it dishonorable to wear Holy Ship apparel on Friendship? What about your blue “graduation robe,” signifying a Shipper having sailed at least four years of Holy Ship? One robed attendee called it “the most expensive thing I own,” and seeing as how four Ship sailings would cost one at least $10,000, it's easy to believe.

“I wanna retire, take my $10,000 and put it somewhere else,” says Austin, a seven-time Shipper from southern California “[But I'm] 100 percent [happy]. I love Ship. That's a chapter in my life. Holy Ship, it's a part of you -- the people that I met, relationships that I made and the times I had. Land Fam, they don't understand.”

Austin is the kind of guy quick to invite total strangers into his suite for a drink and some conversation. It's this level of camaraderie that he misses about his first Holy Ships (which, if you do the math, would have been in 2015).

“Friendship is the real shit,” he says. “The whole vibe and everything is just so much better, like 100 times better. With Shipfam, you get a little too -- not cultist, more like cliquey. At the end of the day, we're all here to be together. Open all the balconies!”

His words echo into the night over open sea as Austin's neighbor pokes a head over the railing.

“Are we being too loud?” someone asks.

“No man, just saying hey. Do you have a cigarette by chance?”

“Sure do.”

“Legend!”

This, and new experiences like organized room parties, are what keep Austin investing in Richards' cruises year after year. And these room parties? They're not just Shippers who've packed decks and monitors onto the boat. Those kinds of things do happen on Holy Ship, but for Friendship, Richards streamlined the experience, then put it on steroids. Fortunate Friendshippers who demonstrate a real love for the music were gifted with “Dial-A-DJ” cards.

“Request a DJ to your room now,” the pink card, decorated with palm trees and a ‘90s handheld phone, boasts. “We have DJs ready to get your party started at the drop of a hat! (Subject to availability. Must forfeit this card upon DJ's arrival.)”

The room party Austin crashed starred Justin Jay back-to-back with Golf Clap. The funkmasters rolled in at about 1 a.m. with small entourages in tow, music already blasting, complete with turntables, speakers and moving lights all self-powered on a roaming cart.

“The way Friendship set up these mobile booths was a feat of renegade DJ engineering,” Jay says. “My favorite memories of DJing early on were the times I would set up janky sound systems in friends’ living rooms and backyards. The house party vibe is still my favorite because of the intimacy and insanity that happens when you don’t have a stage/security/barricades.”

Fans raved about the Dial-A-DJ cards for the rare intimacy it provided. If seeing RÜFÜS DU SOL in a 1,115-person theater was spellbinding, imagine cramming 20 people into a four-person room, jumping on beds to the beat of dream-weaving melodies. Parties lasted about 30 minutes or however long the DJs felt like hanging out. Jay and Golf Clap came through heavy. When the power died on the rig, Jay scrambled to find more plugs and kept the party going. No one missed a beat.

“Ship has always put a big focus on the B2B sets, but this was on a new level,” Golf Clap's Hugh Cleal says. “Even though I’ve done many tags with Justin Jay, option4 and Dillon Nathaniel, it’s very rare we all get to do them together. The room we played in was a friend who I met on Shipfam Island in Croatia -- we were cabin neighbors -- so that made it extra special. I vaguely remember looking up at one point to see EPROM wearing a purple wig in the crowded room. Maybe it was pink.”

The roaming parties weren’t relegated to just rooms. They moved through elevators, between hallways and situated themselves in the Equinox’s grand library. That’s how the final night get down with Busy P, Boys Noize and 2ManyDJs started before moving to its final home outside the 12th floor elevators.

The rules were simple because there were none, but while it was easy to get lost in unplanned side adventures, it’s worth remembering that these tall-tale moments were made possible because of the full-scale festival unfolding all around them. A collective 65 hours of musical programming was offered across five venues, makeshift and otherwise.

The boat deck played host to Friendship’s main stage, a 360-view DJ booth topped with two layered LED box arms that spiraled over each other like twisted spider legs. It had a late start on day one, forcing openers 2ManyDJs to forgo their sail-away moment in the breeze in favor of a sweat-inducing club set in the window-lined Sky Observation Lounge, an environment that proved perfect for their mid-aught bloghouse energy. It was hot foreshadowing for Giorgio Moroder’s closing night performance there as the suit-wearing duo dropped decade-spanning gems. When Moroder touched the decks three nights later, audience members would be dressed in their sequin best for the ship’s thematic “disco night.”

The Quazar was a cool technicolored fever dream wherein DJs mixed inside a UFO-like pagoda as revelers danced under flashing circle lights. Miami’s techno titan Danny Daze was spontaneously joined by Berlin boss Boys Noize for a back-to-back session on the first night, while Russian youngsters Volac let loose a monstrous one-and-a-half hour mix on the third night. Richards was quick to call Volac’s back-to-back set with fellow Russians Phlegmatic Dogs on the boat deck the night before his favorite of the sail. He calls these young men “the future.”

Alongside Rufus’ opening night ambience, the Equinox Theater hosted a rowdy night of back-to-back bass sets from gnarly pairings, including a closing trio from Kill the Noize, Funtcase and Cookie Monsta. It was also home to the cool electro grooves of Felix da Housecat and Claptone, not to mention two titillating burlesque shows from the Queen of cream, Dita Von Teese. It was a reprisal for Teese, who helped christen the maiden voyage of Holy Ship in 2012.

“I love Dita,” Gary says. “I’ve known her since I was like 18. She went to the first Electric Daisy Carnival. I knew her when she had blonde hair.”

Perhaps the coolest stage, though, was the one erected in the middle of the Equinox’s grand atrium. Fans peered over balconies from five floors up or through glass elevators to catch glimpses of the beautiful pop-up. People slidnked down shining crystal stairs and collected in a pool on the ground floor, shimmying across the tile to the sounds of DJ Tennis, Moon Boots, Rory Phillips and more. Friendshipfam shone brightly on the second night when the bill was stacked with partiers who’d won a mix contest for their chance to play official sets.

All this glitz, glamour and controlled chaos was bolstered by two private island day parties. Fans splashed in aquamarine surf or drank cocktails in the sand as Âme, Dixon, Rufus and more played sunshine sets on idyllic Coco Cay. A group of loyal Shippers offered a chance to write love letters to Richards on pineapple-shaped notes. Everywhere he goes, Richards is showered in calls and handed little rave tokens. He proudly showed off a “World’s Best Dad” medal.

“I’ve traveled the world, and I’ve never seen people write love letters to the promoter,” Boys Noize says with a laugh. Later, as he talks with Richards on a tender boat back from Coco Cay, a crowd begins chanting “Friendship.” Richards’ eyes get a little misty. “See,” Boys Noize says, “that’s the magic right there.”

“I always feel like I carry the weight of the world on my back, and I’m glad they appreciate it,” Richards beams. “Being a promoter is, a lot of times, a thankless job, because when all shit goes to hell, artists go to another city, everyone goes back home and I’m there dealing with the police and the fire.”

But there were no fires on the Friendship. A first-night turn around for medical services and a couple trashed rooms were relatively minimal pock marks on an otherwise glowing reception. Everywhere you turned, crew members smiled, danced and high-fived wild-eyed partiers. It was relayed to us that Celebrity handpicked the top tier of its members to take on what employees see as “the fun job.” It was a small privilege for them to meet with young, fresh-faced Shippers instead of their usual elderly crowd, and though crew are not technically allowed to get in on the fun, a few of the ship’s DJs saw to it that they had their turn.

“We’ve spent so much of our lives on tour buses,” 2ManyDJs’ Stephen Dewaele says. After he and his brother performed alongside Busy P and Boys Noize in that roaming room party, they took the energy below deck for a private crew-only reception. “The people who drive your bus, and the people who drive this boat, they’re the people taking care of us. They’re almost the same size as the amount of people paying. It’s almost one person in the crew for two people paying, so it’s good to give something back.”

Perhaps Dillon Nathaniel understands the notion of giving back more than most. The up-and-comer met his current management team, the same as bass house heroes Fisher and Chris Lake, on Holy Ship! 2018. He wasn’t scheduled to perform there, but his friends Golf Clap brought him on as a plus one, hoping he’d find some kind of break aboard. Nathaniel returned as an official performer on Friendship, and he stole the show with a quick-work remix that sampled the Equinox’s real-life Captain Dan, later performing the track live with the Captain on the boat deck main stage.

Inside jokes mingled with a spirit of creative spontaneity fuels loyalty from fans and participating artists alike. It’s a tall ask to stick DJs and ticket buyers together on the same boat for days at a time, but even the most hesitant of performers become repeat offenders.

“Every time I go to back Paris, I think, 'Okay, maybe that was the last time, maybe it is enough’ -- then I come back,” Busy P says, his words echoing those of Austin the SoCal Shipper. “The lineup is open minded, and this is courageous for a promoter like Gary to compete against big EDM. We met a Canadian girl, and we asked if she comes often. She said, 'Yeah, it’s my third time on the ship.’ We asked who she wanted to see, and she said, ‘I don’t know. I’m coming for adventure.’”

Even 78-year-old Italian disco icon Moroder can’t resist Richards’ siren call.

“It was a very easy decision,” he says. “He asked, 'Do you want to perform on one of my cruise ships?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I thought maybe he was joking, but we are here.”

He speaks from the bench of a beautiful piano in his VIP suite, then turns to Richards with a smile.

“He's a genius,” Moroder says. “I mean, didn't he invent HARD and all that? The Holy Ship, and this one? That’s not a little thing -- and Electric Daisy Carnival. So in my mind, he is a genius and a legend.” Richards may have gotten a little misty-eyed at that moment, too.

The final night was flush with fantastical happenings as mobile DJ rigs roamed the decks and fans decked out in wigs and glitter squeezed every last drop of excitement from the air. Australian Lucky Girl Nina Las Vegas had the distinct pleasure of giving the final set. Starry-eyed fans crowded into the theater for the big finale.

"It was an honor to close the first-ever Friendship," Nina Las Vegas says. "My first gig in the US was for Gary Richards, so it was nice to be given such a fun slot."

When the last beat rings and the Miami skyline comes back into view, Shippers make their way back into real life with heads full of cherished memories. Part of the adventure never dies. It lives on in Facebook groups where fans ID tracks, dissect sets and share favorite pictures throughout the year. The absolute dedication and wealth of memories is shared among each member. That’s why there are no acquaintances on the boat, only close friends you haven’t met yet. Just ask Ashley Graden, a long-time shipper who met with new Friendshipfam days after disembarking back in her native Seattle home.

“Flash forward one week, and I'm picking her up from her Airbnb heading to an Indian restaurant,” she says. “We order drinks and are laughing, getting to know each other, when a server walking past us stops and says, ‘Did you have as much fun as I did?’ We realized he was referencing the Friendship sticker on my phone. Then we tell him that we had met on Friendship, and this was the first time hanging out post-ship. We all laughed and hugged and really couldn't believe the serendipity of it all … This is really why I continue to ship. Gary doesn't just curate great music, he's also curating the best community.”

As the memory of Friendship’s maiden voyage moves into bleary legend, those who were there cling to each other to remind themselves, "Yes, that really happened, and we were there.” The good news is, it will happen again. Richards just announced the sophomore sailing scheduled for Jan. 6 to 10, 2020.

“At the end,” Gary writes of his Friendship mission, “when I look back and reminisce about the these times had and the experiences that molded me and watered me enough to grow, I’ll think about all the friends I made along the way and how I am a part of their story, and they are more than all my friends, they are all my family.”