Last night I found myself at an event called The Hilfiger Sessions at the Highline Ballroom here in New York City. It’s a thing they were putting on at various European venues for awhile but had never done stateside: a Hilfiger-branded evening of music in the round with a semi-relaxed atmosphere and free liquor. I had the good fortune to come by an invitation for this menagerie of musicians, the Hilfigers, beautiful people, starfuckers, average Joes, and boozehounds where a house band of scattered but mostly all-star lineage started the evening off placating the crowd with karaoke-grade standards, but turned up the temperature and talent as the crowd density increased and the hour grew late. There was an audible turning point when Secret Machines’ drummer Josh Garza got behind the kit. That guy swings monstrous lumber at the skins. He got up on the stage for a song, working along with the drummer who was already up there, and suddenly the feeling of the whole event changed from one of “Oh, well, at least the booze is as free as America,” to one of “I’m going to get another free beer and find a dark place to pinch that haute couture blonde on her hot culture.”
Rock music. It’s where babies come from.
It was a school night, though, so I trimmed my revelry to a pleasing yet manageable magnitude, much like one would trim a… a decorative shrub, say, or a bonsai. Before I had rendered my time spent at the event yesterday evening in the miniature and departed the assembled fantastic décolletage display, however, a crew of dudes in Black Sheep fades, chains, shades, and pastel polos took the stage and screwed my eyes and ears tight to the front of the room with fantastic plastic sequenced synth lines and new wave dance soul. How to put this? These guys were up there wearing the uniform of a false nostalgia- the whole ’80s/’90s getup- but somehow unironically. The whole thing, the mutant MC Hammer/Step choreography and the late ’80s/early ’90s revival look and sound (complete with 50 pound ghetto blaster), all of it was pulled off with finesse, energy, and an array of synth sounds no one had available back when this music was first made. It sounded good and these guys were into it. I was into it. It obviously was just another schtick, but it didn’t feel like it was just another schtick. Who was it? O’Neal McKnight. I had no idea who that is. As it turns out, he’s someone associated with P. Diddy (his “main protege,” as he claims in one YouTube video ) and DJ Cassidy. This I gather from a YouTube search and the pictures on McKnight’s MySpace page.
I suppose an act that’s associated with mainstream mogul Sean Combs can’t lay too heavy on the blatant meta stuff, can’t be too ironic and self-aware in the hipster, laugh at yourself mode and still hope to break out to cheers among the masses. A guy would have to be either straightforward and un-self-consciously and sincerely compelled to do what he’s doing as a musician or just be a good showman to make it with that crowd. I’m not used to being around musicians who are showmen before they are artists, so maybe my bullshit radar is jammed, but O’Neal McKnight knocked my socks off. Try as I might to find things to dislike, as I would do with any nostalgia act, I found I could not- my socks, along with my music snob senses, had been flayed with heavy ordnance. They were gone. I now have no socks and nothing but good things to report. His show was awesome. The production was slick and synthetic and mechanically step-sequenced with a synth patch palate close to my heart, he seemed to be having a great time, and the delivery and the lyrics and the image were fantastic. Even if it was all schtick, it was great.
My night was made, my breath was beery. That’s when I nipped the evening’s little bud and made my way back for some soused sueños.