Countdown to Labor Day: Q+A with NYC Soca Promoter Natalie

August 29, 2011

Words by Rishi Bonneville

The annual West Indian-American Day Parade down Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway is the central event of Caribbean life in New York City. For Caribbeans in NYC and the many visitors who pour in from across the Diaspora, Labor Day Weekend isn’t just about the parade: it’s also several days worth of pre-carnival fetes and concerts. As we head into carnival this week, LargeUp will be profiling and chatting with some of the personalities who organize the madness that is Labor Day Weekend–as well as Caribbean events in NYC throughout the year. To kick things off, Rishi Bonneville caught up with Trinidad-born promoter Natalie.

Trinidadians have always played a leading role in New York’s version of Carnival. In the 1930s, a Trinidadian woman, Ms. Jesse Waddel, first introduced Carnival to Harlem. After a mixed reception, the event was eventually relocated to Brooklyn, where today an estimated 75,000 people of Trini ancestry now reside. (Among the countries feeding New York City’s insatiable appetite for new arrivals, the tiny island nation ranks in the top 10). Known simply as Natalie to partygoers, Trinidad native Natalie Lamming’s legendary series of pre-Labor Day Brooklyn summer fetes transform empty lots into otherworldly locations for soca revelry. Natalie began this summer with a dramatic appearance by 2011 Groovy Soca Monarch Kes & The Band at her “Sshh” party on Memorial Day. As Labor Day approaches, she has lots more in store…

LargeUp: How did you get started promoting in Brooklyn?
Natalie: Many people know me from working at the restaurant Sugarcane in Downtown Brooklyn. But I actually got my start at Porknockers, a similar place which was further down Atlantic. It no longer exists. I had come up from Trinidad–Diego Martin–for school when I started working there. It was owned by a Guyanese but it catered to a wide variety of Caribbean people. I was well known with my Trinidadian customers. In 2000, the owner let me throw a party there, and I booked Machel Montano. He had just disbanded Xtatik, so I pulled together a band for him here. It was a success.

LU: And then you moved to Sugarcane?
Natalie: After a while, I needed a change, and I stumbled upon Sugarcane.ย  People would ask me to hold tickets for their fetes at Sugarcane. I never charged, because I felt like it kept me in the scene, but eventually it was like I was endorsing their parties, and people would start using my name without asking, which I didnโ€™t like. Sugarcane is a big part of my development. Although I no longer work there, some people still affiliate me with them. They are like family. But now Natalie is an independent thing. My company is NatKen LLC.

Kes at Natalie's Sshh party

LU: You are known for your unique outdoor parties where you transform empty lots in remote parts of Brooklyn and pan yards into unique entertainment experiences. Tell me about the first outdoor fete you threw.
Natalie: In 2005, there was a popular party in Trinidad called Cribs. I knew the guy who threw it, and I asked him if I could recreate the party in Brooklyn. I was living in East New York at the time, and everyday I would look outside and see this huge lot next door to my house, which was also owned by my landlord. So I printed 800 tickets–the printer told me that was the best deal–and I gave ten each to all of my friends to sell. I redecorated the whole yard, outfitted a number of my prettiest girlfriends to help me for the night, and asked an Italian friend of mine who is an ex-cop to assist with security–he looks the part. My old boss from Porknockers gave me the liquor on consignment. I knew it would be successful, but I didnโ€™t know exactly what to expect. But all 800 people showed up! In those days, East New York was bad. The last thing the police was worried about was a party–they left us alone. And I collected on every one of those ticket sales.

LU: How has it developed from there to now, where you had Kes for Memorial Day?
Natalie: Eventually Cribs grew too big to keep in my landlordโ€™s yard, so I moved it to the Volume II Mas Camp, in Flatbush.ย  I also wanted to do a Memorial Day event, but my friend Ricardo aka Back2Basics, was promoting his annual Shine breakfast fete that day. But I felt like there was enough of an audience for both of usโ€”Marshalls is next to Target, after all. I took an old name I used to use at Porknockers, โ€œSshh,โ€ and ran with it.

LU: How would you describe your audience?
Natalie: Iโ€™ve argued with some of my promoter friends who want me to do events in Manhattan. I do my parties in Brooklyn, where the people are. That having been said, nobody wants a problem. I am very selective in how I promote. I never print flyers, everything is digital and word-of-mouth. My crowd are people who work and want to have a good time. I never thought I would use the backyard of a venue like C-PAC, which has a reputation as a rough Jamaican dancehall, but the opportunity was right, so I did. And I was able to carry my crowd there. I warn my DJsโ€”donโ€™t talk too much on the mic, and no Babylon this-and-that or batty man bashing. Thatโ€™s not for me. All types of people come to my events and I want them to feel comfortable.ย  To get the theme right, I order all kinds of props: trees, fog machines, lights. I have a very crazy method and I donโ€™t know how it works, but it does.

LU: Your fliers and themes are elegant; they stand out from other parties. For example this CRAVE flyer. The woman in the picture is in costume, sheโ€™s beautiful, but its not overly sexed-up.
Natalie: My flyer designers hate working with me. I am very particular. One of our upcoming events is Santi Manitay: โ€œso it shall beโ€. Something I heard growing up.ย  I like to be different. With the CRAVE flyer, I actually called up the owner of the image to get permission. Nobody usually does that.

LU: What is it like being a woman in the business?
Natalie: There are only a few women in the promotion thingโ€”it’s dominated by men. But most of the fight is from women. Small talk and bacchanal and thing. But I am supportive of women doing anything creative. I wish women would be more supportive of women.

LU: Who are your mentors?
Natalie: I would have to say Chris Quarles, the former owner of Porknockers. I remember walking into to work one day and finding the bar on the other side of the venue. He felt like switching it around and hired someone to work through the night with him to drill it. He taught me a lot. Also my mother, in Trinidad. She is an empowerment coach who is into Rekhi. We talk over the phone and she helps me to see things in a different light.

LU: What do you actually do on Labor Day?
Natalie: I usually jump up with Sesame Flyers. This year I think Iโ€™m going to go with Ramajay. I might play with Sugarcane: they have a section.

Natalie Presents CRAVE (Carnival Rave) 9/2, 10pm-?,ย  1020 E. 48th St. Brooklyn NY

Natalie & Shorblu present Santi Manitay, 9/3/11, 6pm-Midnight, Tiki Village, 5811 Kingsway Place, Brooklyn NY