The party scene is an ever-evolving, ever-changing beast.
But the basic ingredients for throwing a successful soirée are fairly consistent: good music, good drinks, and lots of dancing.
CJ Milan, the founder and mastermind behind Reggae Fest, knows this. As the creator of one of the largest and fastest-growing dance parties in the U.S., she cares deeply about each and every one of her partygoers, regardless of whether or not they’re wearing a VIP wristband or have the means to purchase an entire bottle of Hennessy.
Milan and her company Epic League Entertainment take a holistic approach to event-throwing. While the music selection is certainly key, it’s really the sum of all its parts — the production, the venue, the crowd, the vibe — that Milan believes determines the overall success of a party.
“You have to think of it this way: Out of every other event in the city, these people chose yours. They’re here. They want an experience,” she says. “Forget about the door and how many tickets you’re selling. Forget about the bar and how many drinks are being purchased. If you just focus on the crowd and the music and make sure that everybody’s dancing, you’re going to have a lot of success.”
What’s a party without good music?
Milan, who is based out of New York City, first began Reggae Fest in 2015 on a local scale. But that didn’t last long. Within seven months, she had brought Reggae Fest to the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., for Homecoming Weekend, selling out the venue despite the fact that many big-names in hip-hop were also performing on those dates, and there were torrential rains from a hurricane.
Since then, Reggae Fest has extended its scope to include Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles, taking place in venues such as Irving Plaza and PlayStation Theater in NYC, The Georgia Freight Depot and Believe Music Hall in Atlanta, and The Globe Theatre and The Belasco in downtown Los Angeles, with future events being planned in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Houston, Boston, and Toronto.
Reggae Fest has also ventured off land and onto the water via its sister party, Yacht Fete, which takes place on the Hudson River aboard the Hornblower Infinity.
An increasingly popular calendar date for the brand has been Halloween, with partygoers enthusiastically welcoming the chance to cut loose in costume. In fact, demand for their Halloween parties has grown so high that Milan now throws no less than three different Halloween bashes every season in multiple cities. This past October, Reggae Fest hosted its first-ever costume contest in Atlanta, which came with a $5,000 cash prize. One attendee arrived riding a life-size, fire-breathing dragon — and the craziest part is he didn’t even win (the “Trinidadian Grim Reaper” won) because that’s how steep the competition was.
More than anything, music is key to Reggae Fest. Ensuring that the crowd is dancing and responding favorably to what the DJ is spinning is always top of mind for Milan. It’s why she spends every event on stage, standing next to her team of DJs, watching the crowd, trying to anticipate what they want to hear next.
“I’m paying attention,” she says. “Reggae Fest is so massive, we have no idea who’s showing up that night, which is why crowd response is everything.”
Making sure DJs play the kind of music attendees want to hear that night is crucial. Because that’s the thing about reggae: it’s not just one style of music. Since its birth in the 1970s, reggae as a genre has grown to encompass myriad offshoot subcultures and styles, each with its own phonetic differences and regional backgrounds. From dancehall to reggae classics and Afrobeats to soca, the DJs at Reggae Fest constantly try to intuit the desires of the crowd on any given night.
“What we do is try to musically entertain everyone in the building,” Milan says. “There are a lot of different cultures that enjoy Reggae Fest, and they all have their own musical preferences.”
Legend, the Head DJ who has been with Reggae Fest since 2015, puts it this way:
“We have a very eclectic group of people that comes through our doors, and we always try to keep it inclusive and not leave anybody out. We cater to every city, every age group, every demographic. Because of that, no party is ever the same, and that is one of the key factors to our recipe.”
Even the biggest of parties have to start somewhere
Milan is no stranger to throwing events, having done so for the better part of a decade. But unlike the current array of parties she throws under her company Epic League Entertainment (which includes Reggae Fest), Milan’s earliest endeavors were strictly underground. From the legendary Electric Warehouse in Brooklyn to airplane hangars to renting out commercial buildings, Milan began building a name for herself in 2012 as a promoter who threw fun, well-organized raves throughout New York City.
Electronic music, with a little bit of hip-hop, was her focus back then, but Milan always made a point of keeping the musical selection broad and inclusive. During the height of her underground reign, she created one-night-only nightclubs in SoHo by renting out multiple floors of commercial buildings. Each floor had its own DJs, focusing on a specific style of music, such as dubstep, techno, and hip-hop. Milan even hired her own staff and security team for each event.
Back then, those who came to her parties learned of them through word-of-mouth or simply by luck if they happened to pass by. Milan remembers one night when a crew of sailors whose ship had recently docked showed up and stayed until the wee hours of the morning. Up-and-coming celebrities, described by Milan as “people who were known but not yet big,” also used her events as regular stomping grounds.
“We have a very eclectic group of people that comes through our doors, and we always try to keep it inclusive and not leave anybody out. We cater to every city, every age group, every demographic. Because of that, no party is ever the same and that is one of the key factors to our recipe.” — CJ Milan, founder of Reggae Fest
Milan turned her attention away from the underground to legitimate venues starting in 2015, throwing the first-ever Reggae Fest at B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square that March. But though her musical selection shifted away from EDM, Milan was committed to incorporating elements from her rave days into her new parties. A big fan of production, she says she made a conscious decision “to be extra” when masterminding the vibe of Reggae Fest and to give her partygoers “a different experience” from what “they were used to.”
Now no matter what city you attend a Reggae Fest in, you’re bound to see those influences. It’s apparent in the giant LED screens flashing images on the stage; the massive, synchronized stage lighting; the free light-up glow sticks being handed out to the crowd; the CO2 cannons spilling dense clouds of fog over the dance floor; the balloons floating in the air; the confetti falling from the sky; and the presence of Marley, a 6-foot tall custom-designed lion mascot with dreads who reps the brand and revs up the crowd from the stage.
“I try to stay ahead of the game and create an experience that is memorable so they come back again,” Milan explains.
Her goal of creating unique parties extends beyond the aesthetics, as well.
“I don’t care what color you are, what your sexual orientation is, or what you look like: all are welcome. I even have a large following from the hearing-impaired community who come so they can stand by the speakers and feel the vibrations. It doesn’t matter who you are, these parties are for everybody.” — Milan
She’s keen on making each of her guests feel comfortable and she does so by enforcing her own set of rules. At every Reggae Fest, there is a light dress code enforced (“I’m not asking you to wear a three-piece suit,” Milan says, “I just don’t want the jerseys, fitted hats, hoodies, and sweats. Just look decent, come with good vibes, and have a good time.”) Reggae Fest’s DJs also don’t over talk or curse, and make it a point to stick to the music and not chit-chat too much on the mic. Because in the end, it’s all about the music.
The benefits of Milan’s rules go beyond simply excluding casual attire. Over the years, she’s heard from partygoers who’ve thanked her for keeping a measure of order during her parties and for creating a space where all walks of life feel safe and accepted.
“There’s a culture to these parties that’s almost like a family,” she says. “I don’t care what color you are, what your sexual orientation is, or what you look like: all are welcome. I even have a large following from the hearing-impaired community who come so they can stand by the speakers and feel the vibrations. It doesn’t matter who you are, these parties are for everybody.”
The future of Reggae Fest is bright
As a female event planner and promoter in a predominantly male industry, Milan has faced plenty of challenges (and doubters) to get where she is today. Early on, she discovered she had to work a little harder than her male counterparts and do things differently so she could set herself apart from them. Even though she no longer encounters those same hurdles, she’s grateful for them because they forced her to develop the confidence and leadership qualities that have helped her take Reggae Fest to where it is today.
As Reggae Fest continues to grow, hosting an average of 75 events a year across the country, Milan has had to expand her vision for the brand. With tickets for events routinely selling out, she’s constantly scouting for bigger and better venues to throw her next parties at.
Plans are in-the-works to bring Reggae Fest to more locations across North America (particularly in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Houston, Toronto, and Boston), and a 2023 New Year’s Eve bash is nearing finalization in either NYC or LA. Taking Reggae Fest overseas is also on the books, starting with events in London where a previously-planned Reggae Fest was forced to postpone earlier this year due to the ongoing COVID pandemic.
But though she continues to hit milestones, Milan is careful not to lose sight of the mantle she holds as one of the top female event organizers in the country. She’s hopeful that her success will inspire other women to follow their dreams, as well as give them the strength they may need to overcome the obstacles and naysayers they might encounter on their way to the top.
“Sometimes, I think we’re put in positions for others to follow,” she says.
“I’m the type of person that wants to prove people wrong. If someone says I can’t do something, that’s the kind of thing that really puts a fire under me. And when you’re a woman in this industry, you’ve got to go harder than everyone else because you have so much riding against you.
“That’s why I make sure to tell other women: ‘Hey, you can do more. You don’t just have to be in the background — you can be the front of your own thing. You can be the next generation. You can do this, too.’ ”