The cruise industry has worked hard to shed its senior-citizens-and-shuffleboard image over the past few years, launching pop-culture-themed cruises aimed at a younger crowd. But even with boats helmed by heavy metal bands, country singers, and, of all people, Paula Deen, the Mad Decent Boat Party floats alone.
Hosted in November by DJ/producer Diplo—an in-demand beatmaker for the likes of Beyoncé, Usher, and Madonna, and a dance-culture icon in his own right—Mad Decent offered 90 hours of music, possible mind-altering substances, and one very enthusiastic guy in a pizza romper. Grab your life preserver. Three ports of call, 1,200 gallons of Fireball, 21 DJs, 2,700 EDM fans, and one wild cruise director later, here’s EW’s breakdown of our five days on the high seas.
We’re not even on the boat yet and there’s already a rave happening. A prerecorded DJ mix is booming from our Port of Miami terminal, and attendees in the check-in line—many costumed in animal masks and Power Ranger-like Morphsuits—are dancing. There is a lot of whooping. And a lot of Instagramming.
Apparently not content with the DJs spinning upstairs, multiple rooms are booming with their own EDM mixes. The ship’s 11 bars are doing brisk business in Fireball (a kind of cinnamon-flavored whiskey) and beer buckets. Despite rigorous customs inspections and a “no tolerance” drug policy printed in hot pink in the guidebook, more than a couple of cruisers’ pupils appear well dilated. (Also in the guidebook: “If you need medical help, just ask! No one will be mad at you.”)
Thursday and Friday nights have costume themes (“Animal Style” and “Suit and Tie & Ladies Night”), but this crowd doesn’t need prompting to dress up. Predictably, there are a lot of pirates, as well as elaborate homemade outfits, like the group wearing coveralls outlined in LED lights. A sprinkling of rain during Diplo’s first set feels like a benediction, and the blessed crowd just dances harder.
There’s a genuine—if extremely unconventional—bond forming among the ship’s 2,700 passengers. Ravers are an intensely social folk, and the Mad Decent crew are vocal (and effective) promoters of the old-school rave philosophy of PLUR, an acronym for “peace, love, unity, and respect.” You can’t ride an elevator without making new friends (usually via an a cappella sing-along of the “Goin’ up on a Tuesday” refrain from the Atlanta rapper ILoveMakonnen’s oddball hit “Tuesday”). Boat Partyers grind on each other amicably, not only on the ship’s dance floors but in its hallways and buffet lines.
Diplo is backstage during a set by Toronto duo Zeds Dead, and as usual he’s surrounded by adoring, minimally clothed women. He steps away to tap at his phone, distractedly caressing the leg of his very expensive-looking sweatpants.
Arena-rave-meets-jam-band outfit Big Gigantic hit the stage. No one is headed for bed.
A female voice politely announces over the PA, “Just a reminder, clothing is required in the dining areas.”
On my way to the midship atrium, I am wrangled into a photo with a group of strangers who talk to me as if we’ve known each other for years.
Pretty much every DJ set on board seems to include Kanye, and the most popular track of the week is, curiously, Ludacris’ 2002 crunk hit “Move Bitch.” During back-to-back sets by producer Lunice and rapper Travi$ Scott, ILoveMakonnen appears in the crowd for a moment but vanishes when sighted, like a unicorn.
DJ Snake begins a set that the dance floor hopes will be a continuous hour-long remix of his inescapable summer anthem “Turn Down for What.”
During a performance by Major Lazer, Makonnen reemerges, alongside enigmatic rapper Riff Raff—famously an inspiration for James Franco’s character in Spring Breakers—to roars of approval. Despite the general outrageousness of the scene, the vibe between the artists on board is surprisingly collaborative, not unlike a folk hootenanny or jazz jam.
The boat docks in Nassau, Bahamas, for the day, and life on dry land is awkward and drab. Many reboard quickly, happy to be back where underwear counts as an outfit and the thumping soundtrack never stops.
At this point in the cruise most people have been dancing and partying for 48 straight hours. The new elevator conversation: “Have you slept yet?” My quads burn like I’ve done a hundred squats.
A couple from Charleston, S.C., get married on the sundeck. The officiant: a guy the couple met through the cruise’s Facebook page. The witness: a guy holding a homemade sign that reads “TURN UP THE BASS,” with a large inflatable fish standing in for the last word.
The ship wakes from a nap-time lull when the PA crackles, announcing the imminent surprise presence of superstar DJ Skrillex. The glee that erupts is like a bunch of kids just realized it’s Christmas morning.
The pool-deck performance with Skrillex and Diplo begins, but there’s no sea of smartphones held aloft to capture the moment. Wi-Fi on board is obscenely expensive, and its absence makes the trip feel almost like time travel back to pre-iPhone days.
The bride and groom are now walking around in underwear and suspenders. They attract a steady stream of congratulations, which jibes with the sense of small-town conviviality. The ship we’re on hosted a cruise built around Florida Georgia Line right before us, and the crew tells me that the ravers, wild as they are, are significantly better-behaved than the country-music fans.
We’re now on Vegas time. The crowd’s energy shows no sign of flagging, even though we’re cut off from the outside world, perpetually sleep-deprived, and constantly exposed to repetitive music, which is not unlike how cults work. It occurs to me that if Diplo started a cult, it might be worth joining.
Norwegian Cruise Line owns a small island in the Bahamas called Great Stirrup Cay, and today it’s the setting for a beach rave. The normally turnt-up duo Flosstradamus play a chill set while Boat Partyers—powering through on a combination of sheer willpower and Fireball shots—dance, lounge, and drift in bath-temperature waters. It’s the hedonistic peak of a week devoted to pleasure, and through the blurry filter of exhaustion, sun exposure, and piña coladas, the whole scene feels blissfully primitive. If our Pleistocene-epoch ancestors showed up, even they’d get what’s going on.
Makonnen, wearing yellow goggles and floating up to his shoulders in turquoise water while a Major Lazer track thunders behind him, takes a handful of the Caribbean Sea and pours it over himself. “I get it,” he exclaims with delight. “I figured out the secret of life!” When someone asks what he’s on, he replies, “Everything.”
Diplo was scheduled to close out the cruise with one final set, but he had to fly home early when word came that his former girlfriend had given birth to their second child, named Lazer Lee Louis Pentz. Word gets around the ship quickly, and people seem more happy for Diplo than upset that he’s gone. Instead, Flosstradamus, Skrillex, DJ Snake, and a cast of guests play back-to-back. But if the hundreds of Boat Partyers raving through their visible fatigue are disappointed at all, they’re hiding it expertly.
Sometime during the early morning the ship docked in Miami, 88 hours after we left. The after-party didn’t start until 4:30 a.m., so a 9 a.m. checkout time seems excessively cruel. Slowly the ship empties out. In the long customs line, endorphin-free people doze on piles of luggage or stare blankly behind sunglasses. Blinking in the relentless morning sun, Boat Partyers hug each other goodbye, pile into airport shuttles, and pull out their phones, finally texting each other pictures. The real world comes crashing in on us with the weight of its responsibilities and the masses who don’t understand PLUR. We’ll need these photos to hold on to the moment, and to prove this ever even happened.
BONUS: Diplo and pals aren’t your crowd? Check out these other options for floating pop culture. —Isabella Biedenham
1. The Kiss Kruise
Can you still get a sunburn if you’re wearing eight layers of face paint? No reason, just wondering. (Oct. 31–Nov. 4)
2. Kid Rock’s Chillin’ the Most Cruise
The redneck rock star’s cruise has sold out for six consecutive years—and returnees get “veteran” tags. (March 2–6)
3. Holy Ship!
Hopefully, when Baauer and Skrillex drop the bass at this EDM-fest, the whales won’t confuse it for echolocation. (Jan. 3–6, Feb. 18–21)
4. Dancing With the Stars at Sea
If Carlton Banks dance lessons are on the program, count us in! Otherwise, maybe your aunt wants to go? (2015 TBD)
5. Motörhead’s Motörboat
This cruise isn’t on a motorboat. But imagine how many people would get motorboated if it were. (2015 TBD)
6. Steampunk Cruise
“Tropical cruise” meets Victorian gowns, top hats, and long-sleeved swimwear. (April 25–May 3)
7. Mayercraft Carrier
The John Mayer-helmed adventure is “taking some time off,” but if this lime green beauty is still in his closet, it should return by popular demand.
This article appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Dec. 26/Jan. 2 issue.