WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Last night, an invitation-only group of pioneers of internet marketing, the affiliate sector and long-time members of the adult industry gathered at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub on the Sunset Strip to commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Players Ball party, and to celebrate the publication of David Kushner’s new non-fiction book “The Players Ball — A Genius, A Con Man and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise.”
The event was organized by Darren “D-Money” Blatt and co-hosted by his brother Kevin Blatt. The Blatt brothers are long-time marketers active in the internet sector since its inception.
Between 1999 and 2011, D-Money threw massive parties around tech, adult and online marketing conventions that became legendary in the fast-growing industry. Blatt’s parties thrived through a winning formula: exclusivity, big name hip-hop acts, techies flush with new fortunes and the beautiful, party loving talent the adult industry is best known for.
Pimp My Millennium
The turn of the millennium was a different time, an era when bling-obsessed Puff Daddy was a megastar, Jay-Z was singing the praises of “Big Pimpin’” and R. Kelly believed he could fly.
It was in this Y2K cultural environment that Snoop Dogg helped underground phenomenon of The Players Ball cross over into the mainstream. Snoop, who had always boasted of a youthful pimping past in the mean streets of Long Beach, now became the protegé of Bishop Don Magic Juan and started sporting extravagant “pimp outfits” complete with bedazzled custom goblets (aka, “pimp cups”).
“You have to understand that the whole pimp thing was huge back then,” an attendee, who like many people there asked not to be identified told XBIZ. “It was more of a ‘having fun’ thing. Like Halloween.”
D-Money may have borrowed the name and the concept from an African-American tradition from the “Super Fly” era, but two years after he organized his first ball, the whole thing had mushroomed, fueled by the first internet boom.
“It was June 29, 2001, at the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and the biggest party in Sin City was under way,” writes David Kushner in his book about the year when D-Money booked Snoop Dogg himself for a truly massive private event in Vegas. “The Players Ball was an homage to the notorious party for pimps in Chicago that dated back to the early 1970s.”
At the Whisky, twenty years later, the setting is more intimate — and the audience more settled and less rowdy.
The iconic Whisky stage (hallowed music history boards on which The Doors broke on through in 1965) has been decked with a possibly ironic, late-1990s-clip-art banner celebrating D-Money. There’s a DJ booth and room for dancers, but at first the stage is only occupied by a singer-songwriter in the Jewel or Alanis Morissette mold.
The Blatt brothers take the stage. They wear dapper dark navy blue suits and matching fedora hats. D-Money only tips the hat to the event’s pimpin’ origins by carrying his customized goblet all evening. Still they look more like the Blues Brothers than Pimp Daddys.
“We’re different people now,” he told XBIZ. “We do mainstream marketing now!”
D-Money addresses the crowd, most of whom are decidedly not decked out to party like it’s 1999. It’s after-office outfits for the largely Gen-X crowd, though some show affluence in an understated, non-blingy way.
Some of the younger attendees are treating the ball less as an occasion for debauchery than as a game of speed networking. “Hi, who are you?” a gregarious young fellow in a polo shirt asks me in rapidfire bursts. “What do you do in the affiliate space? Neat! Here’s my card.”
Onstage, D-Money is on the nostalgia tip, as befits an event timed to Kushner's book release. Lots of talk of “back in the day,” referring to the internet millionaires in the house as “some of the OGs” and “these old-schoolers.” Even the now controversial word “pimp” is smartly repurposed for the age of Sex Worker Rights and visibility. “I’m all about marketing,” D-Money clarifies, so, in a sense, “I’m a pimp.”
“These parties were legendary,” he says. “But eight and a half years ago we stopped doing them. We’re mainstream now!”
Wielding his goblet, D-Money hypes the announced appearance of Too $hort, members of Digital Underground, and DJ YTCracker, whom he describes as a legendary hacker who once defaced the NASA website, among others. “YTCracker also invented a whole music genre—nerdcore!” he tells the Whisky, “which my son is into.”
“Now I’m just a digital marketer,” D-Money says. “But The Players Ball used to be the biggest private event for the biggest marketers online!”
More recently, moving away from the adult industry focus, Darren Blatt’s events may have less pimptastic names like “The Affiliate Ball” and “The Marketer’s Ball," but he is still successfully bringing Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to large venues full of marketers.
“How many of you guys were online in ’97?” he asks the crowd before telling them about his nerdy 1990s passion for “browser-compatible video.” The crowd seems a little baffled.
“Alright, I’m old,” D-Money jokes, leaving the stage to YTCracker and a couple of sexy, black-bikini clad dancers.
Computer Nerds and Porno Kings
The two guests of honor of the early part of the 2019 event, before the party cranks up a little with the surprise appearance of TV-ready pimp Bishop Don Magic Juan, are serial entrepreneur Gary Kremen and noted author David Kushner.
Kremen is the quirky protagonist of Kushner’s new book “The Players Ball,” published by Simon and Schuster last Tuesday. Local bookstore Book Soup has set up a table sidestage where ball invitees can purchase their copy to be signed by Kushner.
The book, currently being excerpted by Wired and Fast Company, purports to tell the “secret history of the internet’s rise,” but its actual scope is much more modest.
Though it gives the book its title, D-Money’s original Players Ball only appears once, briefly, in the book, referred to as “an invite only soiree” co-hosted by “Darren “D-Money Blatt” and “his brother, the adult marketing schmoozer Kevin Blatt.”
Kushner's ready-to-be-optioned book is about a rivalry between two contrasting characters and it is structured in terms of Hollywood storytelling.
On one side there is the protagonist, Gary Kremen, an unkempt, Grateful Dead-loving obsessive genius who sees the potential of gobbling up internet domain names in the mid-1990s, right before anyone else has figured how to monetize the new technology.
On the other, there’s Stephen Michael Cohen, a seedy, sex-obsessed character who serves as Kremen’s foil and antagonist.
The late 1990s-early 2000s fight between Kremen and Cohen, the real subject of “The Players Ball," is over the ownership and exploitation of the domain name Sex.com.
Kushner really loads the dice in Kremen’s favor. The entrepreneur, who made his fortune “inventing online dating” with Match.com, is interested in “girlfriends” and “love.” Meanwhile “career con-man” Cohen is obsessed with sex and kink and runs meetups for swingers.
The story takes place in what Kushner repeatedly refers to as “the Wild West era” of online adult, the now mostly forgotten period between Leisure Suit Larry and the rise of tube sites. This was a time of adult internet conventions like AdultDex, mega paysite operations like Cyberotica and visionary pioneers with nicknames like Fantasy Man.
It was also a time of transition between phone sex operations (audiotext) and early adult sites like Seth Warshavsky’s Club Love, which was the site of a milestone moment in the history of online adult context. In late 1997, Warshavsky helped broker the deal that gave the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee sex tape legal online distribution.
By Spring 1997, Kushner notes, even the Wall Street Journal was reporting that “Cyberporn is fast becoming the envy of the internet.”
“There are a lot of computer nerds emerging as porno kings,” Penthouse’s Bob Guccione told the WSJ.
This for Kushner is the context of the early Players Ball events. They showed that “the real players on the internet,” he writes “were the misfits and outlaws.”
The second part of the book reads like a cross between a Hunter S. Thompson substance-abuse Western and an episode of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”
By 2003, Kushner writes, Kremen “was living what many guys would imagine to be the ultimate life for someone turning forty: sex, money and the most valuable site online. Kremen was the Sex.com king, and everyone wanted a piece of him. The pornographers wanted his business. His old Stanford buddies wanted to date the porn stars.”
Eventually, Kremen tired of that lifestyle and became a clean-energy advocate in Silicon Valley. From “dirty” websites to “clean” energy would be his story arc in Kushner’s book.
“I’m in charge of clean water for two million people in Silicon Valley!” a joyful Kremen told the Whisky crowd last night, after D-Money brought him onstage to reminisce about their role in internet history.
Top photo: D-Money and dancers last night at the Whisky a Go-Go (l.). All photos by Gustavo Turner.
Gustavo Turner is the News Editor at XBIZ. Twitter: @GustavoXBIZ