The Downtown Illuminati

Art by Dominique Evans.

Someone had to say it!

This was the big New York City show. The word on the street was that Lil Uzi Vert was gonna pop out because the headliners posted a photo of him holding the show flier. It was set to be a legendary night, one for the ages alright, a moment in New York music. 

Surf Gang hosted the show, but the performers were Snow Strippers and Damon Rush, both pegs in that “Indie Sleaze” thing that the Powers That Be have been whippin’ up for close to a year. It is an inescapable “music scene” in New York fronted by artists with a few songs under their belt, a healthy 10-20k followers on Instagram, and glossy features on Interview Mag. They all share this incredible talent of levitating up the music industry by making unremarkable music.  

I suppose the proper name for it, and what the press have been calling it, is the “Indie Sleaze Revival.” What’s happening now is a cultural callback to the fashion, music and vibes of NYC’s early 2000s era of the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s about having fun and getting sloppy. This scene came to life during COVID, spawning just after the hoity-toity “Dimes Square” art-faction drew headlines for their reactionary pleas for relevancy. It also overlaps with Surf Gang, a record label and production unit that is a pillar of New York underground rap music. If none of those proper nouns mean a thing to you, just think of Andy Warhol’s Factory in reality-TV form with a blunt-puffing group of rappers and skaters making occasional appearances. 

When I moved to New York in October, I heard all about this scene, specifically this guy “The Dare”–music’s supposed savior–from what I thought were disconnected whispers in the wind. Three powerful industry figures of different occupations and companies told me I gotta check it out, that he’s at the front of the next New York “thing.” One explained to me in detail how he signed a huge deal to Republic Records and was flown to Europe to DJ and model in high-profile fashion shows, all off the strength of his first–and at the time, only–song, “Girls.” I listened to the song and thought, “Wow, this is dumb.” Nonetheless, the mystique around this lanky suit-and-tie wearing figure, along with turbulent visions of uncovering the pulp of New York elitism, were enough to pull me in. 

What I found, in short, is a music scene still in its infancy that was worked on by plastic surgeons mere days after its birth. The bones are good: there are artists with impressive musical repertoires, and a fanbase glad to be a part of something. But where its heart should be lies a ball of yarn with diamonds carelessly glued on. Much of this music is wrapped in a facade that ignores the need to tell stories or push sonic boundaries because what they do is, by default, fun and cool. If you don’t get that, you’re obviously out of the loop.

My first experience was unnerving. It was a fashion week party thrown by The Dare on the 38th floor of a Manhattan hotel. When I pulled up with my girlfriend, the line for the guest list was much longer than the line for tickets, and most everyone seemed to be young, white, rich, and proudly dressed like Studio 54 cosplayers. There was something inhuman about their…stature. It looked like every movement they made—readjusting their shoulders, reaching for a cigarette, gazing at the sky—was practiced in solitude to ensure that they would look Instagram-ready in case a camera ever flashed. A band of private school prodigies dressed like vampires, rocketing up 38 floors for a chance to witness Gen Z’s newest prophet, who at the time had one song to his name. 

Not long ago, The Dare was a substitute teacher and the leader of Turtlenecked, a band that drifted down rock’s subgenres, never managed to pick up much steam commercially, and has led me to believe that The Dare’s music is, up to this point, entirely soaked in irony. A ploy, basically. During quarantine, Harrison Patrick Smith made “Girls” as a joke, a purposefully stupid club banger that you can’t help but bounce around to. (Though the No Bells Research Team™ has concluded that it is a carbon copy of Cake’s “Short Skirt / Long Jacket.”)  It blew up and effectively birthed The Dare, his new artist moniker which he has admitted is a character. I tried to interview him but was given the runaround by his publicists, who were alarmingly difficult to locate. 

The venue was so pristine that it was eerie. A wedding-reception-ready ballroom with 30-foot tall glass walls that offered astonishing views of the city, and a bar worked by suit-and-ties shamelessly selling bottles of water for $7.50 a pop. The crowd was split 60-40 between 20-somethings having their “alt” phase a decade too late and worn industry sharks swimming through the crowd in Tom Ford suits, sinking their teeth into whichever young studs they could for lengthy conversations. The lighting was exceptional: expensive strobes and lasers ricocheted off the windows, creating a complete sense of delirium. The music stunk–hours of bland club tracks, no heart, no feeling. It sounded like one long factory-made Garageband loop. The crowd was dancing but in a very “everyone is sober at prom” type of way. Someone wearing a hot pink top that spelled “WHO ARE YOU TRYING TO IMPRESS?” tried to impress everyone by galavanting throughout the crowd while shrieking. Oh and everyone was on their phones—funny ‘cause The Dare’s new mantra, “I’m in the club while you’re online,” was projected onto a wall—nah, they were in the club to be online. 

The Dare.

My girlfriend is the direct descendant of a late 19th century Italian witch and we’ll leave that at that. I felt a strange force from the beginning, but I wanted to stay and play ball with it. She didn’t. She was on edge the whole time, later saying that it didn’t feel evil, but that it felt fake, like nobody was being their true selves. That the whole thing seemed contrived and artificial–especially with all the label execs lingering around. To me it felt like an Illuminati gathering. We bolted before 1am and called it a night.

A few weeks later I went to another one of The Dare’s parties, this time with Mano. He has a DJ residency at this sweaty dive bar called Home Sweet Home, a much cozier venue than the previous one, so I came in optimistic. It was more of the same, just with less sharks and lower drink prices. They again purposefully created delirium, this time through blasting a fog machine the whole night, and the music still stunk. Mostly mid-2000s pop hits arranged in no interesting way with some new-wave 80s sprinkled throughout. A frat party fueled by singalongs from the bygone Bush-era. It wasn’t forward thinking—it was a bathhouse for nostalgia, a TikTok trend gone too far. The Dare did play “Girls,” and yeah, it’s a hit.

As a last resort, Mano and I tried cornering The Dare at the bar for an interview, but he grabbed his shots of tequila and hit us with a smooth spin move. A pro-press evader at work. (This elicited a great deal of personal shame, for I had momentarily become a shark. I apologize for the blunder.)

The Dare at Home Sweet Home.

That same night I met Joe Kerwin, who writes You Missed It, a popular newsletter in the scene. He was smoking slim cigarettes and is a friendly guy who’s just trying to figure it out. Essentially, Joe is friends with many of the Downtown Illuminati’s artists and figures, the “micro-niche internet celebrities,” and just writes about his day, which happens to include interactions with them. I like Joe’s writing–he’s very deliberate. I learned that this is because writing is hard for him and he doesn’t even like it; he is a musician at heart! He told me that two years ago he was one of the only people showing up to see The Dare’s DJ sets and that he “bullied” The Dare into becoming his friend. I asked how he felt about the scene starting to blow up, and he told me that things are starting to get weird with all the industry attention. He also told me that the Illuminati hotel event was paid for by a company that is attempting to build a Utopian city on the Mediterranean sea. 

Later, I struck up a conversation with a random guy outside. His parents run one of the biggest entertainment PR firms in America. At midnight I walked down the still-massive line and found out that 75% of this crowd were NYU students. Then I met a few people who showed me their cryptic Instagram pages that have 6,000 followers and no posts. Mano asked a group of girls why they like The Dare so much and there was no coherent answer or thought, really. After that he and I took an apocalyptic-looking-walk through a deserted Chinatown and I asked Mano whether he thinks the Downtown Illuminati have a legion of assassins working for them.[1]Since reporting and editing this piece, we’ve gathered some evidence that this scene has ties to right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel. Praxis, a company that wants to “build a city from … Continue reading

The goal of these events, clearly, is to induce the audience into a trance with smoke and the charade that they are all “living in the moment.” Really though, it’s just a bar that wealthy young Manhattanites flock to, not because the music is good, but because the organizers have positioned themselves as “the cool thing,” and leverage their cultural capital to draw huge crowds of college kids & affluent wannabes hoping to be a part of it. It’s a ruse! The Instagram engagement rates of the event flyers are more important to this scene than the actual music. 

The next outing was my favorite. I hit up Ian Maverick, an artist and model who’s been around the NYC art world for a hot minute. I knew of him from following the work of his circle in Rochester, NY and having various Atlanta music-scene mutuals. We had beers at Whiskey Tavern and he gave me his take. Our conversation really expanded my perception of the scene, and even dulled my cynicism of it for a brief moment. Here’s the gist:

Behind the masquerade of IG handles and cryptic substacks, sits a community hungry for, well, community. These people are hungry for things to do, for people to meet, for life to be lived. Call it a reaction to isolation during COVID if you want, but it really boils down to this–everyone moves to New York for a reason, and that reason, at least in this community, is never really that different. It’s just creative people wanting to congregate with other creative people. 

From the Tavern we walked over to a dignified pizza joint, where this guy Quiet Luke was hosting a chess club. No strings attached to that–people were playing chess and hanging out, everyone was friendly, everyone was a creative. Designers, photographers, drone musicians and rappers all congregated. Ian’s words had come to life. We hung out on the back patio next to marble statues of lions and talked to strangers all night. I had a very nice time. 

This taught me that there is no one thru-line. It is not only a group of mega-rich white kids being groomed by the industry. These are people we’re talking about, there is duality, there is good, there is bad, there is a muddy middle. Yet from outside, it seems like a completely polarizing topic.

On Twitter, you’ll find harsh negativity; commenters seem to loathe the mere existence of these artists. On the other hand, major publications write glistening praises that come off as surface-level primers and pseudo-PR profiles. Save for the Rolling Stone and Pitchfork slams on The Dare’s EP, no articles have approached this scene like a human being. Dazed, GQ, NME, Spin, Nylon, i-D; all of their coverage makes me think that they’re in cahoots with the Downtown Illuminati, either through social connections, label obligations, or making the mistake of taking “the hot new thing” out of NYC at face value. 

To get some clarity on this, I met up with one of the hardest working managers in music. This person, who I’m choosing to keep anonymous, witnessed the scene spawn from the inside. Over dumplings in the Lower East Side, I asked this person, who groggily informed me that they had been working for the past 20 hours due to SXSW preparation, what they thought of the whole thing. The answer was a tangented ramble that displayed impressive neutrality for someone who works directly with these artists. Paraphrased here:

For one, the scene didn’t appear out of nowhere. Its roots were grown during COVID at secret parties that were mainly fronted by club artists, which is a reason why there’s such a strong club element in the production and DJ sets. Second, every artist in this scene is given an inherent advantage. They all start at the top floor of the industry simply because they’re in New York. They are going to the same parties as the writers, the photographers, and the record execs who have the power to put them on. This is, however, a double-edged sword, as it can put newer artists on a pedestal before giving them time to incubate and experiment with their sound. Still, compare that with Detroit’s rap scene: incredible artists there have been grinding for the better part of a decade but many haven’t received half as much shine as the artists in this scene. 

With privilege comes entitlement. There is a lot of that here. If enough people within the major label oligopoly tell you you’re gonna be the next big thing, that you’re part of the scene that’s about to POP, it’s easy to believe it. On the night of the Snow Strippers and Damon Rush show, this was crystal clear.

Snow Strippers and Lil Uzi Vert.

I pulled up to the venue on Cinco De Mayo after learning that a lot of people in this city don’t celebrate the Mexican town of Puebla’s unthinkable victory over the mighty French back in 1862. It was a chic basement location in Alphabet City, and lines to the various clubs all collided, creating a chaotic cluster of partygoers on the sidewalk. I found my people smoking outside, then Eera of Surf Gang guided me and hyperpop star midwxst to the stage. The line went down a hefty flight of stairs and a triage of girls gasped when Eera walked by, one exclaiming “Oh em gee, that’s Eera!” He led us to the third row of the jam-packed mid-sized venue then drifted backstage.  

I staked out a good spot next to the wall that divided the VIP section from the peasant section. I was positioned in the latter. The VIP section had tables and booths, and they must’ve been really nice because everyone wanted to check them out. Though we were already packed in shoulder to shoulder, no less than 25 people scooched by me to climb over the five foot barrier that established them as elites. Eventually, a fella behind me said, “Alright, no more people are getting through, I’m standing my ground!” I concurred and we held it down until one guy holding a camera wouldn’t stop pushing. 

“I’d like to get through please!”

“Where do you expect us to move?” I asked. 

“The Snow Strippers literally ASKED ME to be up front, please move, I’m so serious, I NEED to be up there. The SNOW STRIPPERS themselves requested it.” We stood our ground but he crouched down and squirmed past. 

The DJ set was quite alright, some new Chief Keef and Future, some twisted EDM. Matt Ox stuck his face out from backstage and flashed us a big “rock on” sign with his hand. A group of girls in the VIP section screamed, “Speed it up! Faster! Faster!” and the DJ obliged, turning what I think was an Eem Triplin song into an extremely fast Eem Triplin song. After his set, the VIP section was overflowing to the point that one booth cushion had three people stacked vertically. And people kept trying to get in it! 

There was a long delay. Technical difficulties. Eera and some others troubleshot. Erroneous screeches were the result. They eventually calmed it down, then Damon Rush took the stage. The lights turned off then he hunched over the laptop and soundboard for another ten minutes before taking the mic, yelling, “I need everyone to SHUT THE FUCK UP!” Blistering feedback followed. Another five minutes of tinkering. He issued one or two more “Seriously guys, if you want me to perform, you need to BE QUIET!” More feedback. He ruffled his hair in frustration then walked to the front of the stage. “Alright! I want STROBES! FLASHING LIGHTS! And NO TALKING!”

I whipped out my phone to take a note, then a sassy lady in the VIP section said, “Oooooo, he’s taking notes. What notes are you taking?” 

“Well, I’m sayin’ that he’s bein’ pretty mean.”

“Yeahhhh, you know what, he is being mean!”

Damon Rush eventually started performing, with electric rays of red shooting through his skin tight leather jacket. Maybe it’s just my association with his artist last name, but he looked very similar to Carlos from Big Time Rush at that moment. The thing is–I was captivated by Damon Rush beforehand, one of my best friends randomly grew up with him (I take this as a good omen) and I think his production is inventive. But it did not translate live. Maybe it was the sound in the venue, which I later learned had been perfected at soundcheck, then ripped apart during a Salsa dancing party that happened immediately before this show. More likely though, it’s because this music just ain’t that good.

Damon was on stage for a good 8-10 more songs, so I got to talking with the guys who helped stop the VIPs from shoving past us. They were four rowdy white boys with a much gruffer energy than the rest of the audience. One had a digital camera and told me he was a vlogger, then said, “Bro, I’m not actually a vlogger, I just take pictures on this thing.” They got bored and started feening for cigarettes. They knew they’d lose their spots if they went outside to smoke, so we built a wall of protection for one guy to crouch down and light the cig right there. The mission was successful and they inhaled three or four of them, each smoker rotating within the wall we built. Damon Rush was still performing. After every song, he shouted, “Should I make it louder? Should I turn it up?!” And each time these guys responded with bellowing “No!”s. “Sounds like sterilized Shanghai hype music,” one said. Another: “I wish they would play some advertisements right now. This is the only time in my life that I’ve wished I was watching an ad for a Swiffer Wet Jet.”   

I learned that they’re from Canada, currently live in Vancouver, and were in New York to visit. They were going to the Veeze and Babyface Ray show the next night. And insanely, they go way back with Sharpie Covers, friend of the blog, underground cover artist, and creator of Crazy Bastard Magazine. I learned this when I left and a deep bond immediately permeated between the five of us. What a world!

The Canadians.

Before leaving, I asked them if Snow Strippers, an abrasive, Detroit-based duo who have received much critical acclaim, were worth staying for. “I guarantee you they will be 100x better than this.” They weren’t. I wasn’t opposed to Snow Strippers; “Under Your Spell” is awesome and again, some inventive production, but it didn’t translate live. Maybe this is because it’s…not that good? Like, at all. Any of it really. I don’t trust any music that sounds bad live, that can’t be performed with at least some level of competency. This wasn’t. I left after two songs. 

Look, I’m not writing this piece to say all the music is bad. It’s not that simple–things rarely are. There is some good music in this scene, some really cool artists. But in its current state, yes, the music is mostly bad. For instance, The Dare: he now has four songs out. “Girls” is good, “Good Time” is alright, “Sex” is bad and “Bloodwork” is boring. Frost Children, a popular duo labeled as “hyperpop,” have remarkable production chops, but their songs often sound bloated and confused, like a wonderful landscape painting ruined by illegible stick figures. It’s easy to make a grandstand and say “this whole scene sucks.” The evidence is overwhelming. Yet a few acts give me hope. 

  1. The Hellp. They are the gold standard. Their show in NYC on May 31st was one of the best I have ever been to. It gave me the same freeing, awestruck feeling I had when I was 15 years old in Downtown Atlanta, fending for myself in the pit of a hardcore show for the very first time. Though they are L.A.-based, have been a band for over 5 years, and have denounced the claim that they are “Indie Sleaze,” thanks to tastemakers and Spotify playlist puppeteers, they are grouped in commercially with it all. Their music is just leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else’s. I truly believe they are ushering in the next evolution of punk. 
  2. Club EAT. One of the few acts doesn’t feel like it’s funded by people with human rights abuses. They’re weird and cheeky, self-aware and fun. The textures in producer Chicken’s beats are rich & versatile, and Ren G lays down beyond-quirky teen-dream-type verses that manage to come off as sincere. 

Even with the bright spots, the majority of it stinks. The music in these anecdotes did not make me feel anything other than regret for leaving my apartment, regret for not spending time with the people I care about. (Not in the deeply emotional way that great country songs can draw regret, but in a “why am I wasting my time on this” way.) The most interesting part about it was the pretense that there is some whimsical inner-mechanism driving the whole thing; some mysterious aura around this forcefully “insiders only” group. From the outside, it looks like Gen Z’s post-COVID movement, an artistic statement that says the kids are having fun again, they are reclaiming their stolen youth! Bogus. It’s cultural manipulation thanks to a hefty industry push (plus $$$) and the fact that many of these artists can’t turn down a one-way ticket to the sun. This is not the next big thing because it is good, this is the next big thing because they said so. 


1 Since reporting and editing this piece, we’ve gathered some evidence that this scene has ties to right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel. Praxis, a company that wants to “build a city from scratch,” is backed by Pronomos, a venture capital firm that Thiel has a stake in. In an exposé published by Curbed, writer Nevin Kallepalli describes their mission: “the society aims to create a community of members who will live in an autonomous charter-state built on a decentralized crypto economy ‘somewhere in the Mediterranean.” Praxis has hosted multiple free concerts featuring artists from the scene. They position themselves as Utopia-seeking crypto-purists who want to break free from America’s unfixable mistakes–i.e., horrible public transportation, our society being a “dog eat dog” world. In reality, they are using intellectualism to mask the fact that their plan is an updated version of Manifest Destiny. It is unclear why Praxis is investing in this downtown scene. We may investigate this in a follow-up piece.

10 thoughts on “The Downtown Illuminati”

  1. The Wizard of Oz does not exist, and even if he did you have something that he does not – youth and talent. Don’t sell yourself short, you’re in charge. Peter Thiel doesn’t have the power to trick everyone into liking the Dare, I assure you.

  2. A few months ago I went to see Lucy at Baby’s All Right and The Dare happened to be headlining. I sat down with some friends at a table, and was tapped on the shoulder by a woman. I looked up at her and she said, “Oh! I thought you were Harrisson!” I asked, “Who?” and she, acting surprised replied, “You know, The Dare? I’m his publicist. You look so much like him, you must get that a lot.”

    I do not.

  3. From someone who experienced the first wave of “indie sleaze” as an underage girl with a fake ID in Atlanta, dancing every weekend and having a blast, this deeply disappoints me. RIP fuck Yesss Thursdays, oh snap kid, & fools gold records ):

  4. great read …. i find it really interesting how this scene has forced discussion and reaction from people. for better or worse, i think its exciting when that happens. the whole ‘we’re IRL and we’re cool and we’re building community’ thing is interesting because while i agree the core idea is supposed to be a yearning for community (likely as a reaction to the pandemic, as you mention), these kids and artists can’t seem to part from their even greater yearning for status and approval and ‘i’m cool and valid in this cool space and i’ve earned that’ mentality. and to be honest, they have earned that. whether you hate or love the cool kids club, it’s something that takes work to gain acceptance in, and a small subculture of people value that token of acceptance while most people roll their eyes at it. it’s high school all over again. i saw the hellp live in LA, and i agree that they’ve felt like the only ones truly having a good time and caring about the art in this more than the social hierarchy of it. equally interesting is the fact that there’s a real argument to be made that they were on this whole wave years before any of these other kids, and by finally leaning all the way in on the hellp (building out the live show, signing with a major label, etc), they are essentially taking the credit they deserve for this influence while rejecting the spotify editorial titles that come with it. at the LA show, i felt some of that energy. super refreshing show, one of the best i’ve seen in years and with far more focus on fun and boldness than playing it cool. i’m still trying to figure out how to phrase why the hellp feels better than all the other things in this scene; my only working idea thus far is that where most of the indie sleaze kids fall short, the immediate defense is ‘this is a cool scene and you just don’t get it’. they use their relative cool as a crutch. meanwhile, the hellp seems to genuinely want to be bigger and better than this scene. and where they fall short, they look to grow and use that feedback. i suppose the difference is perceived intention between these artists. realistically, the sceney discourse and cool kids club only lasts so long. if no one from that scene really jumps out and is able to become bigger than it, none of this will mean much in a few years. but for now, it’s new york and it’s cool and it has money behind it. so we wait and see while they swipe up all the big press looks, the editorial playlists, and the exclusive parties where being in the cool kids section is more important than having air to breathe. i’m rambling, but great read. keep fighting the good fight

  5. also worth saying that with artists like damon rush, for example, even if it doesn’t translate live right now – he deserves the time and space to get better before being judged. hate or love this scene, hate or love the idea of ‘coolness’ feeling like its at the center of what they do, being in new york and playing at parties with the powers that be significantly stunts the scene’s ability to fail and get better without anyone watching. in a way, it’s like going straight from high school to the league. the cool kids probably deserve empathy too, even if they’re annoying in some ways lol. i bring up damon, in particular, because i’m pretty sure he worked on that hellp EP and has been closely tied in with them in the past. idk, i keep going back and forth on all this which means no bells did its job 🤝

  6. For the record, The Hellp is also pocketing that Peter Thiel money.

    Milady, a NFT project backed by a insane ultra online pro-anna groomer that’s in the same scene, hosted a bunch of live events with the Hellp headlining.

    • super late reply but pretty sure The Hellp has only played at shows organized by Remilia Corp, an esoteric art collective that sometimes associates with Milady shit. don’t think noah and chandler actually endorse any of the milady rhetoric.
      plus Milady is 99% just annoying hyper-online larpers, honestly not even worth the effort to scrutinize