The world of hip hop is all about boasting. Who’s the biggest, who’s the best, who’s wearing the most expensive labels possible on their body. So it’s not so out of place for Toronto’s Yes Yes Y’all crew to stick out their chests and big up themselves in light of their thriving hip-hop and dancehall jam turning five this month. The five members of the posse have a lot to be proud of. Their monthly dance bash has been a firecracker since its inception in 2009, and thanks to their belief in community, queer talent and bubble butts, the party shows no signs of slowing down.
Xtra: How did Yes Yes Y’all come to be?
Ila: We DJed parties in Toronto together before . . . Sticky Fingers, Hump Day Bump.
L-Rock: We all DJed separately and were already friends.
Nino Brown: Then basically, we ended up in a relationship together.
L-Rock: Yeah, a five-way poly relationship . . . It’s a small queer world.
Did you have a mandate for the bash in the beginning or did it evolve?
L-Rock: I think we had an intention for the party and what we wanted it to be.
Sammy: But we didn’t have any expectation about the party growing to what it’s become.
Ila: It wasn’t contrived.
Sammy: I remember the first party, we thought 50 people would show up, then there was a lineup around the block.
Yes Yes Jill: Then our biggest worry was “Oh no, we need more coat-check tickets!”
L-Rock: Back then we were renting the equipment ourselves and setting the party up —
Sammy: — in a youth hostel at King and Spadina called Global Village Backpackers. We would trash the fuck out of the place.
Now that baby is grown up, how do you think it turned out?
L-Rock: I think it’s one of the most diverse queer parties in Toronto because of gender, race and all sorts.
Nino: I haven’t been to a party anywhere in the world that seems as diverse, and we really tried hard to have a specific type of person come, and all that was was an open-minded person. Of course it’s queer-friendly, but we are also straight-positive.
Ila: That was our mandate from the beginning. We were straight-friendly but with zero tolerance for any kind of homophobia or transphobia — anything aggressive.
Nino: And it’s nice to have a party that’s got such a huge demographic of people of colour. It’s hard to find queer parties anywhere that do that.
L-Rock: And I think strategically, we did it at a place in the city that was easily accessible for the east end and west end.
Nino: And we can see that it’s reaching out to the GTA now, too. We have the suburbs coming out; there’s double the amount of people if you include them. And that happens to be very diverse out there, too, and luckily for us, people caught on, and in five years the numbers aren’t really dropping.
Sammy: It’s actually growing still.
Why hip hop and dancehall always and forever?
Nino: We lied when we said we didn’t set out with a specific agenda, because we most certainly did. And that was to have a queer, safe-space party that didn’t have to rely on pop, house and techno. We like hip hop and dancehall, and a lot of queer people look down upon that because there is a lot of homophobic content in it. But if you love it as much as we do, then you can find the good stuff.
What about the homophobic artists and lyrics in so much of the music?
L-Rock: It all depends on what the lyrical content is. For the most part, we’re careful about listening to the lyrics and hearing what’s actually being said, and we’re not going to necessarily play it if the lyrics are explicitly violent or homophobic. There’s a bit of room for what you can play with, because there’s a song like “Ramping Shop,” by Vybz Kartel, with the lyrics “Man to man/gyal to gyal/dat’s wrong.”
Sammy: But we cut the lyric and all yell out “That’s bomb!” instead.
Nino: Hip hip and dancehall are very much a part of Toronto’s culture. So you can’t really deny that music because most of us grew up with that being our guardianship. For me at least, dancehall and hip hop were so much a part of my upbringing that I needed to find the stuff that I identify with, because most of it I do.
Tell us about your favourite guests. Y’all bring in some amazing queer talent to the city.
Sammy: That’s also what sets us apart from other parties, is that we bring in international talent, like Angel Haze, Lady, House of Ladosha, Yo Majesty, Bonjay.
Jill: Zebra Katz, Le1f, Mike Q.
Nino: For the fifth anniversary party, we have Princess Nokia, who I think is going to blow up. She’s from Harlem and raps like Lil’ Kim.
Why these artists?
Lila: We’re fans, and we do our research. We’re paying attention to what is happening.
Sammy: I think there’s a total zeitgeist of queer hip hop happening right now.
Nino: There’s a lot of queer and queer-ally hip hop and dancehall happening right now. We even see it with Beenie Man apologizing for his past comments. You can see a shift happening in the culture, and I think we knew that all along.
Sammy: We have a good pulse on that shift.
Nino: It’s got a long way to go, but it’s happening.
How does this shift reflect in the people who attend?
L-Rock: Where is there a space that’s ever proven to be a good balance of queer and straight? You just don’t find that. Things are generally queer or straight-based.
Ila: If they go too straight, shit goes down. We’re really mindful about our crowd and their safety. Anybody can come, but no bullshit.
Jill: People want to dance to hip hop and dancehall, but they can’t go to a regular club in the city because they don’t feel safe.
Ila: Straight people love our party.
Nino: They can take their top off and not care; no one will bother them.
What do you see for the future of Yes Yes Y’all?
Nino: I think we’re all riding on the momentum.
Sammy: Right now we’re able to afford to bring in bigger names and talent, especially with WorldPride coming.
Nino: We have some nice surprises, so I don’t feel like we’ll be shutting down anytime soon.
L-Rock: Maybe we’ll do our second Xtra cover for the 10th anniversary!