In 2003, longtime WXPN-FM (88.5) DJ and Kids Corner producer Robert Drake was turning 40 nd feeling nostalgic for the music of his youth: 1980s new wave.
So Drake, now 54, did what any good longtime DJ with a profound love for all things new wave would do. He threw a dance party.
“People came up to me that night afterward and were going on and on about how great it was to hear that kind of music again, and that it’s been so long,” Drake, a Philly native who spun new wave music as a DJ in clubs in the ’80s, says. “So I decided that I would roll out a party that would celebrate all that new-wave stuff.”
Ultimately, that party would become Drake’s monthly Sex Dwarf parties, held every second Friday at Club Mousai. Still going strong, the party this year is preparing to enter its 15th season, and Drake is celebrating with a weeklong series of ’80s-themed events to celebrate longtime partygoers — or, as Drake calls them the “Sex Dwarf family.”
Even more than nearly a decade and a half into the party, Drake has to tell folks it has nothing to do with sex — or dwarfs, for that matter. Rather, the party’s name is a callback to a song of the same name by new wave group Soft Cell, best known for the track “Tainted Love.”
“People always think there’s something else going on,” Drake says. “It is definitely just a dance party — there are no extracurricular activities.”
That, in part, is by design. After launching the party as a regular event in August 2003 at the now-closed Fluid Nightclub, Drake says he hoped to create a comfortable space for people to dance and enjoy music together — much like the clubs and parties of his youth. In fact, Drake says, in the early days, if he sensed someone had “ulterior motives” aside from dancing, he had them removed from the venue. “If anybody was put off by somebody positioning themselves or fluffing their feathers a bit, those people were not invited,” Drake says.
These days, the Sex Dwarf parties are something of a safe space, so long as you’re into ’80s music. Drake says the parties often have a mix of people in their 40s and 50s dancing alongside twentysomethings who had never heard new wave music before, which shows “unity on the dance floor.”
That philosophical unity has turned literal for several members of the Sex Dwarf family. Several regular attendees have formed relationships with one another — and, in some cases, marriages, Drake adds. “It gave people the opportunity to get to know somebody, and that’s a lot better than a website where you have to type in all your interests and hope somebody matches,” Drake says.
While it may sound old-fashioned, for Drake, the throwback to the music of his teens and 20s actually put him ahead of in vogue nods to nostalgia. When he started Sex Dwarf, it was something of an anomaly — a weird, one-off ’80s night that seemed quaint. Now, however, Drake says “everybody is doing an ’80s night.”
He also credits his Land of the Lost radio show with some of Sex Dwarf’s staying power. The monthly program, launched within a year of the start of Sex Dwarf, features Drake spinning music similar to what is played at the party, allowing the DJ a second outlet to cultivate his love for the ’80s in others. “I got the freedom to go as deep and obscure as I wanted to go,” Drake says. “Having a show like that has helped because people who listen to it who may not have respected the ’80s genre are now respecting it because they have a chance to learn due to the things I play and the stories I tell.”
Now, with its 15th season set to kick off this week, Drake’s Sex Dwarf appears to be as vital now as in 2003. Rather than just one party, however, Drake this year will hold several events with an ’80s bent starting on Saturday with a DJ set at the PHS pop-up garden on South Street. From there, Drake will spin at Union Transfer on August 8, when new wave band The Selecter, which formed in England in 1979, headlines. On August 9, meanwhile, Drake heads to the Roxy for a screening of music documentary Urgh! A Music War, plus pre-movie Quizzo. On August 10, Drake will follow that event up with a guest DJ set at Martha Graham Cracker’s 12th anniversary show at the Trocadero.
Then, on Aug. 11, Drake will officially welcome the 15th season of Sex Dwarf with a special anniversary party at Center City’s Club Mousai. While he remains tight-lipped about details, Drake says that a longtime Sex Dwarf family member will give a special midnight performance.
Finally, to wrap up the anniversary celebrations, Drake will host an ’80s-themed brunch at Tattooed Mom on Aug. 13.
Despite that hectic-sounding schedule, Drake says he couldn’t be happier to run around in the name of music. After all, he basically has been doing that since he started working at XPN in 1988, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Next year, he will celebrate 30 years at the station.
“I feel like I’m totally living the dream,” Drake says.
Sex Dwarf celebrates 15 years
4-8 p.m., Sat. PHS Pop-Up Garden South Street, 1438 South St., no cover.
12th Anniversary of Martha Graham Cracker, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, The Trocadero Theater, 1003 Arch St., $15-20. thetroc.com.
10 p.m., Sex Dwarf, Friday, August 11, Club Mousai, 1227 Walnut St., $5, www.facebook.com/groups/SexDwarf.
80s Brunch, 1-5 p.m., Sunday, August 13, Tattooed Mom, 530 South St., www.tattooedmomphilly.com