The cobblestone meets brick meets concrete on the winding streets of Downtown Crossing, Boston. At around 10PM on any given night, the streets are littered with discarded fast food wrappers and debris from the bustling crowd of tourists and locals during the day. The homeless set up for the night. The faint scent of urine wafts from the corners where drunken frat boys, having finished their beers on Tremont Street, have relieved themselves publicly.
Boston, Massachusetts is a historically rich city in the United States, where the country’s first revolutionary meetings and battles were fought. But in the last few decades, the city has offered little in the field of artistic and cultural capital aside from the graduates of the rigid institutions that reside there (i.e. Harvard, MassArt, SMFA, etc.). In the face of rapid gentrification, rising rents and lack of jobs in the Arts, many of the city’s creative types have left for neighboring metropolitan destinations like Providence, Hartford, and the artistic mecca of New York City.
But defiantly, there are bastions of creative expression here, where residents have pushed and invested to maintain artistic integrity. One such place exists on Kingston Street, an alley type one-way street a few blocks from the Downtown Crossing intersection, where a black sign illuminates a letter G, styled to look like an olive in a martini glass. This is the Good Life, a club that once a month is the home of Picó Picante, arguably one of the best club nights on the entirety of the East Coast.
The club itself is home to many dance nights and events, running the gamut from bachelorette parties, politician meetings, dubstep nights, you name it. The restaurant/nightclub, complete with a subterranean-feeling basement ‘Vodka’ lounge, has existed in Boston for quite some time now. Truth be told, I’ve never actually drunk any vodka when I go there.
In recent years, promoters have marveled at the basement lounge’s concrete floor and the impressive sound system, which feels welcoming and womb-like. However, it wasn’t until two individuals, Sara Skolnick and Ernesto Morales aka Pajaritos, came to the club with a party idea that it would cement its place as a destination for dance music enthusiasts from around the country and the world.
My first time at their event was legendary… if I remember it properly. I stepped into the club while the party raged in the club’s top floor dining area. Below, another event was going off but without the same kind of fanfare as above. Ernesto was passing a box that spit out multicolored yarn, twirling it throughout the club, creating a festive, if hazardous, air of carefree revelry. Sara was DJing from a table pushed close to the wall, her brightly-lit midi controller blinking while she chose the next track in her arsenal. Kingdom, the founder and CEO of the then-newly minted Fade to Mind record label, was set to DJ that night. The rest was a blur; there are fuzzy photos lurking somewhere of the internet of me throwing a peace sign in the midst of dancing to reggaeton, dancehall, grime and other low frequency focused music the URL community would come to refer to as Global Bass.
Picó Picante started as a club night for the Latinx/Caribbean/African diaspora, but it’s become much more.
After the first few years, Ernesto and Sara put their Pajaritos project to rest, and Ernesto moved to Mexico City to try other artistic pursuits. Sara soon after linked up with Colombo-Venezuelan DJ-musician, cultural producer, and artist-hacker-curator Ricardo De Lima a.k.a. Oxycontinental. Collaborative efforts with visual/performance artist Vela Phelan a.k.a. HEXbeam, led to a new era of Picó, where the growing team started to create a more unhinged, rave-like experience. Not long after that, they were joined by Ethan Kiermaier a.k.a. Ultratumba, a Boston-based DJ and visual/installation/performance artist and Xo.E.Ling, a cultural curator who had been organizing projects in music and arts in Boston for the past 10 years. Together as a unit, they’ve sought artists to play Pico who weren’t just producers or DJs of particular genres, but were also activists in their own right.
As Sara explained to me once, the artists chosen are more often than not “a part of global/diaspora communities,” and, if not, are “aware of power structures implicit in cultural production.” “This is admittedly an outgrowth of the global bass/tropical bass movement/world music 2.0 blogging discourse that was our starting point,” says Sara. “We’ve learned a lot from that, but now it’s also time to take that discourse and add to it. One of those big things we learned is that much of the beauty of that music, straight & from the source, was mediated & flipped by producers that didn’t give credit where credit was due, and were not a part of these original communities, and the power structure stayed the same.” The long-term goal for Picó Picante, however, is to build a platform to move beyond that.
The list of artists who have graced the booth of the Goodlife for their event is expansive. Chancha Via Circuito. Venus X. Los Macuanos. Chief Boima. Murlo. MPEACH. Princess Nokia. DJ Spoko. Cakes Da Killa. And the artists tell their friends, too. Time and time again, artists have praised the event as one of the best small scale events they’ve played. The energy of the crowd, the music selection, and the intimacy of the venue have created a hotbed of creative energy, even after the night is over.
Picó’s Ricardo De Lima was the recipient of the Foster Prize this year at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. As part of his exhibition, he collaborated with artists like Ximena Alejandra Izquierdo Ugaz & Bryan Rodriguez of the Sweety’s collective, regulars at Picó events and managers of an informal gallery space dedicated to people of color and multimedia art. Each member of Sweety’s reached out to one to two other artists as fans, creating a dialogue that culminated as a show at the Museum. The final exhibition, which was this past May, featured art from Nate Hill, Bunny Michael, Mojuicy aka Mohammed Fayaz of the Papi Juice collective, and Zahira Kelly. In an interview with Big, Red, & Shiny about the show, Ricardo emphasizes an ethos agreed upon by the Picó team, tweeted by Picó alumni and Fade to Mind/KUNQ artist Rizzla: “amplify voices, share power, respect boundaries, decline ownership.”
While Picó Picante may have first started as a club night for the Latinx/Caribbean/African diaspora within Boston, the party has grown to encompass so much more. The club night has experimented as a roving midday bike run through the city, stereos blaring everything from Cumbia to Kuduro. They have also worked with Together Festival, the first electronic music-focused festival of its kind in Boston. In the process, people from a variety of ethnicities, sexual orientations, genders, and politics have become aware of Picó’s presence, and have pointed their friends in its direction.
In its four year run, its dedication to the immigrant/first generation/whatever generation hybrid kids, the “ni de aqui, ni de alla” has never wavered. This month, the team sets out to conquer the entire weekend, with events celebrating their four year anniversary in both Boston and New York. Both nights are headlined by DJ Blass, one of the pioneers and innovators of the genre of Reggaeton, while the New York show features La Mega’s 97.9 AJ El Kallejero and reggaetonero Marvelous Fame on hosting duties. DJ Blass probably is the most appropriate headliner for this kind of audience: his early mixtapes like the @ria51 compilation and the Reggaeton Sex series, complete with precursors to net art (evident in the mixtape cover images) speak to the aesthetics of today, and how ahead of the curve one tends to be when the intent to push creative boundaries is strong.
So what’s next for the Picó team as year four kicks off this week? As Sara explains to us, the heart of Picó will always be making deep connections with local communities. “We love having higher-profile guests but we love just as much having a strong platform to amplify the voices of local artists, and contributing to creating more visibility for perspectives that are often under-represented (and underpaid) in club culture. It’s about having a deep respect for the communities that our favorite club sounds originated in, and making an intentional space for artists to weave in their own personal narratives; it’s doing our part with whatever resources we have to change the power structure to favor these voices, to give credit where credit is due.”