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No more parties in N.Y.: A view from inside the Kanye chaos

Kanye West
The writer finds a ray of daylight outside Kanye West’s aborted New York show.
(Steven Zeitchik / Los Angeles Times)

The first indication came from a friend around 11 p.m. Kanye West would be playing a pop-up show somewhere in New York later in the night; would I know where it is?

I didn’t. The expected online news sources had no information, and the few music-industry folks I was acquainted with either would have no idea or had already nodded off to “Game of Thrones.”

I decided to do what any good 21st century journalist might do. I checked 2 Chainz’s Twitter account.

The artist formerly known as Tity Boi, after all, has been a veritable hot springs of Ye information. Surely he could succeed where Reuters would fail.

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Nothing. Was this show really happening?

A few minutes later, some online rumors had started. One had pinpointed the concert at Webster Hall, a makeup engagement of sorts for West’s Governors Ball gig washing out earlier in the day, as well as a follow-up to his surprise appearance at Hot 97’s Summer Jam in New Jersey earlier. It was all, per West’s creative director Virgil Abloh, apparently going down at 2 a.m., when he’d perform his most recent release, “The Life of Pablo.”

I should pause at this point to say I’m not the world’s most versed Kanye fan. I know the hits, essentially, and I follow the spectacle and social-media jaw-droppers with the same mixture of fascination and eye-rolling ennui as most of us. This concert would not be a musical make-or-break for me, though it would be of some cultural-studies interest. Also, it was taking place three blocks from my apartment.

As I was walking back from the grocery store a little later, I noticed several people sprinting up what late on a Sunday night would normally be a desolate 2nd Avenue and turn the corner onto 11th street toward Webster Hall.

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A moment later, another group of people sprinted past. Then another. From their demeanor and attire, which leaned toward scraggly red facial hair and Birkenstocks, one might have guessed a Phish pop-up show was in the area. But no, one portly fellow said as he huffed past, it was Kanye.

I clicked on 2 Chainz’s Twitter page on my phone. It was indeed happening at 2 a.m. at Webster Hall. The Chainz had spoken. I deposited the groceries upstairs and headed over.

As I entered the block where the venue was located, long lines had already begun to form, stretching toward and around the corner. Though boisterous, the vibe was, for the most part, still good-spirited. (The crowd was also by my estimation about 90% white, a function of the broad popularity of Kanye but perhaps even more of the nature of Manhattan below 96th Street these days.)

My friend was on the line about halfway down, engaging some new friends in a Prince singalong. Those attempting to chat-and-cut their way onto the line were good-naturedly jeered away.

But there were some troubling signs too. There seemed to be, the very occasional bouncer aside, a notable absence of any Webster Hall security and barely any kind of police presence, just a patrol car at the end of the block. This was either going to be the world’s most remarkable example of self-governance or it would get messy.

After combing the front and back of the line looking for someone official to speak to about the show, I concluded that such a person, much like restraint in a Kanye tweet, was nowhere to be found. I sidled up to my Prince-trilling friend and stood with her posse. (Desperate times call for Larry David-like measures.)

The next half hour or so was reasonable. Some pushing and crowd surges, and one slightly scary moment against a parked car, but nothing too grim. That changed, however, when a truck was allowed to back into a garage of a large post office next door. For some reason, that caused the crowd to spill into the street and swell forward. A period of soccer-riot madness then ensued.

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Bodies and limbs were pressed up from all sides. I looked behind me and could see nothing but heads and torsos rushing forward. Ahead of me, in the tangle of extremities, people were moving forward, slightly. If they stopped, there was nowhere to go, and certainly no turning back the hundreds of people behind. Any actual space was nonexistent. Oxygen wasn’t in long supply. Thoughts of becoming a statistic, on the other hand, abounded.

At that point I’d lost sight of my friend. Just to my left, however, a trio of young and rather slightly built women were in danger of being completely trampled by the crowd. My own survival wasn’t any more assured. Uncomfortable was one thing, dangerous was another. Also, of all the ways to go, “waiting for a Kanye show that will likely not happen” wasn’t terribly high on the list.

 I could see a sliver of daylight to the side, at the far sidewalk. It was like trying to swim sideways against an onrushing ocean wave, only with more sweat and yelling, but I eventually fought my way through to (relative) safety.

I made my way down the block and away from the crowd. My friend texted; she had escaped too and was coming to find me. Soon there were effectively two circles – the mad crush in the middle, and others, those who had something to live for, on the perimeter. Those in the latter group chatted among ourselves – a lot of “Are You OK?” and “This is insane.” At one point we saw a woman being carried by three people to an ambulance that had just arrived on said perimeter.

The former group, meanwhile, got more unruly. People climbed atop dumpsters, trucks, the occasional fire escape or building facade. My phone-snapping couldn’t fully capture the dangerous frenzy, but those overhead shots, if you saw them, might do the trick. I noticed the half-dozen cops just leaning against patrol cars. Clearly they had been told not to get involved. Understandable, but I wasn’t convinced those instructions were such a good thing in this case. Finally, about half a dozen firetrucks made their way through the melee, creating some space, temporarily.

Meanwhile, on social media, the rumors were flying.The show was either sold out (yet had a ticket actually ever been available, to anyone?), not taking place, taking place outside, taking place outside and inside, or taking place right now at some undisclosed location. Around the corner was a gutted store, awaiting a new tenant. What if Kanye was just performing in there at this moment, by himself, as a soccer riot broke out nearby? That would have been very... Kanye.

Shortly after, at about 2:30 a.m., West did eventually show up in the middle of the insanity. He popped out of the car, met a few people and drove off. No show was ever played. (Who canceled the show, or if there was really a show in the first place, remained a mystery.)

As I chatted with my friend and other refugees, the questions flew.

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Was this debacle a case study in mob mentality? A sign of poor planning by the city? The latest example of Kanye speaking first and thinking later, without anticipating how sending people to a spot without any further preparation might result in chaos? After all, if your pop-up concert features a half-dozen firetrucks but no microphone or other musical accouterments, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Ether way, I knew one thing: I was never taking direction from 2 Chainz again.

@ZeitchikLAT

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