Popstar Benny live at Mi Sabor Cafe

The anatomy of a good night.

Photos by Gustavo Marinho. Art by Srikar Poruri.

In my last year exploring nightlife in Brooklyn, I’ve had the best times at Mi Sabor Cafe. Many a night has led to this Dominican restaurant/venue nestled near the intersection of Myrtle and Broadway in Bushwick. Sabor is quaint yet lively, mostly unobserved by the shady oligarchs taking control of nightlife one tech-infused wristband at a time. Stroll by one night and you might see a bunch of furries standing outside for a themed party. Or maybe it’s baile night, the scorched-earth bass reverberating throughout the neighborhood. Or, if you’re really lucky, it’s Eldia Summit: gum.mp3, Swami Sound and dazegxd’s at-this-point legendary dance music night. 

When you step outside for a smoke, you might catch a glimpse of the roaring J train that you’ll later take home. A plate will run you about $10. A ticket to most shows, $15-20.

Sabor is where we decided to throw our second show. It just felt right.

It’s funny how this came together. I’d reached out earlier in the year to Sabor’s event organizer Marvelito about something totally different. Something you may find out about soon. But we soon converged on the idea of a Popstar Benny headline show. We were both longtime fans of Benny, and crucially, we shared a similar understanding of the texture of his music. 

Benny has constantly joined together sounds and scenes in unexpected ways. One day he might announce a Rod Wave placement, the next he’s teasing a tape with Bear1Boss, a few blunts later he might post a big playlist of 2000s mall rock. It’s hard for me to point people to a specific Benny song or album, because being a real fan of his means seeing all of these things in motion.

Event curation feels to me like music criticism. Like a good review, how you put together a lineup can inform an audience’s understanding of an artist. So to accentuate Benny’s stew of influences and reference points, we brought on Atlanta rapper Vayda and Brooklyn producer/DJ dazegxd as support. Together, Vayda’s snappy dance-rap, daze’s effervescent jungle and Popstar Benny’s tasteful pop-rap felt like a snapshot of where hip-hop, pop and dance exist right now, as different components of the same substance.

Millz kicking things off at Mi Sabor Cafe. Photo by Gustavo Marinho.

The way Sabor is set up, a few hundred people can pack in, but it still feels homey. No matter where you’re standing, turn around and you’ll see the glass casing behind which hearty plates of chicken, rice and beans are assembled. The DJ/performer is elevated about 5 feet on a stage so that they overlook the intimate space, allowing everyone to see them. This also makes the DJ look like a religious figure who could part the Red Sea for some sweet dance moves with the right blend.

So there was Millz, perched behind his laptop, kicking things off with a smooth set of rap and club that got the crowd moving early in the night. Then Atlanta stalwart Nogumhundo picked up a mic and got to rapping, closing his brash set with his collab with one of the night’s shining stars, Vayda. 

Nogumhundo performing at Mi Sabor Cafe. Photos by Gustavo Marinho.

When Vayda went on, immediately I could feel the energy shift. Dressed in a sparkly green top with matching shorts and sandals that glimmered like emeralds, she commanded the room, song after song, shaking ass and switching up her setlist to match the vibe. All day, I’d received texts and DMs asking, “What time is Vayda going on?” and I saw those same fans scattered throughout the front rows, rapping and singing and dancing along to her bigger songs like “bingo” and “primadonna” as well as deeper cuts like “emo on the beach.”

Vayda performing at Mi Sabor Cafe. Photos by Gustavo Marinho.

Standing 6’10” and dressed in a bright red hoodie and candy-cane Uggs, Popstar Benny had your attention no matter where he was lurking that night. When he went on after Vayda, it didn’t matter that he was DJing using just a laptop and VirtualDJ. Matter of fact, it made his set feel even rawer.

When it comes to DJing, Benny is trigger-happy. If you’ve listened to any of his mixes, you’ll know what I mean. There’s the volley of tags that bombard you like mushroom power-ups. Then there are his dizzyingly chaotic blends, stitching little snippets of songs like a flamboyant sampler. Benny rarely sticks to a song longer than a minute or so. When most other DJs try to squeeze as much music as they can into a set, it scans as uneasiness or nervousness. But Benny seems to do it from a place of necessity. It feels like his music brain is brimming with ideas, and he needs to give you as many of them as possible before they flow out into the ether.

Popstar Benny headlining at Mi Sabor Cafe. The Atlanta DJ brought out Niontay and Mercury (pictured here) for special guest performances. Photos by Gustavo Marinho.

As he ran through songs, Benny brought out a bevy of special guests that helped flesh out the world he’s created the past few years. Niontay expertly weaved through his blistering single “Ain’t Shit” (he might be the best live rap performer rn), Surf Gang’s Moh Baretta checked in for University cut “feelbadcorps” and rising R&B singer Lucille Ghatti popped in as well. My personal favorite was Mercury, who performed her gleeful single “Run It Up” with the full strength of the crowd chanting the chorus (Merc taught the non-Black attendees their own version don’t worry).

Popstar Benny’s Mi Sabor set.

dazegxd closed out the night with a typically staggering set of jungle, Jersey and club tracks. The handoff between Benny and Daze felt like history to me:

dazegxd spinning at Mi Sabor Cafe. Moh Baretta and Chris Chance (madeintheurl) sightings. Photos by Gustavo Marinho.

I’m not gonna lie, at this point I was getting tired (maybe I’m not cut out for a true Nightlife Arc) but daze impressed, even bringing out Moh Baretta for a furious Jersey song they’ve got in the chamber, and reminded me why he’s probably my favorite DJ in New York right now. 

Compared to the Rx Papi show in December, I felt oddly calm at Sabor. Maybe it was because I knew there’d be something for everyone on that lineup. (Don’t get me wrong, the Pap show was great but it was definitely one for the #heads.) Maybe because a big chunk of the No Bells team was there, visiting from the DMV and LA, helping me with whatever we needed. Maybe cause it was just a constant, seamless good time! How can you complain about being a few drinks deep listening to Sexyy Red and Cash Cobain and Ice Spice at Mi Sabor Cafe?

Every time I looked around Sabor, I felt a little dumbfounded. Never would I have thought that Benny, Hundo, Vayda, Mercury, all these Atlanta people; MIKE, Sideshow, Niontay, their whole universe; fans of the artists; random Brooklyn people out on the town; journalists and publicists; and readers of No Bells Dot Blog, would converge in such a harmonious way. Also did I mention that everybody was so pretty? We’re really pushing the blog agenda with the pretty folk! 

Love to everybody who made this possible. Benny Daze Vayda Hundo Niontay Millz Lucille Moh Mercury Marvelito 89 Silky (definitely forgetting people I’m sorry). Late that night, as we all gathered outside the venue sharing joints and conversation, it felt like we’d done something special. Like come on, a Popstar Benny headline set in Brooklyn! Benny doesn’t really have any deep ties here besides, as he told me, “thinking it’s cool.”

All night, everybody kept talking about how Benny and Bear and all them built their shit from the ground up in Atlanta. Even though we’re supposed to be Objective Journalists Covering This Shit, I honestly felt a bit of kinship with him that night. In our own separate ways, we’re both trying our hardest to create the timelines and foster the communities that live in our imaginations. When you’re feeling disillusioned, whether it’s the state of your music scene, music journalism or your scene’s nightlife, find some like-minded friends and take things into your own hands. It’s not easy, but it’s real. No bells.