A June super-moon hangs over the Las Vegas Strip as the futuristic ECO-Star helicopter cruises above the world's greatest neon canyon. On board are The Girls Next Door veteran Holly Madison, who once dated Hugh Hefner; superstar DJ Afrojack, who once dated Paris Hilton; best-selling author James Frey, who once embarrassed Oprah Winfrey; and electronic dance music's most powerful man, Pasquale Rotella.
The pilot wants to impress the boss en route to Rotella's annual Electric Daisy Carnival, a three-day, 115,000-attendee festival of lights and bass, so he asks if we should buzz the Stratosphere Hotel, the tallest observation tower in the United States. Soon we're floating by like the Jetsons, close enough to wave to the psychos trying out Stratosphere's vomit-inducing SkyJump ride. The pilot's next move is to take the chopper sideways, which produces a terrifying, weightless feeling, conjuring imaginary headlines of boldface names perishing. Maybe it's not a bad way to go: Rotella's hero, legendary stadium-rock promoter Bill Graham, perished in a postshow helicopter crash in 1991.
We survive this one, enjoying sublime Kaskade tracks in our headsets for the night's pièce de résistance: a low-flying, circular tour of the vast, 1,500-acre Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where EDC is about to peak for its third night.
Electric Daisy Carnival is the happiest place on Earth ... for adults. Below us are two Ferris wheels, a roller coaster, a mega slide, a Tilt-a-Whirl, Burning Man–style art gardens, clown-faced dance troupes on stilts, seven main music areas — including what organizers say is the largest festival stage in North America — and a lineup that includes more than 200 of the world's biggest DJs, including Avicii, Afrojack, Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren, Calvin Harris and Fatboy Slim. During EDC, the 20-minute drive from the Strip to the Speedway can take two hours. It's a massive, outdoor Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, a party dreamland come true.
Rotella's rise as rave master has been meteoric. Ten years ago, nearly half a dozen Southern California promoters were vying for the electronic dance music festival dollar, and Rotella's was just a face in that crowd. Today EDM is on an American high. Acts like Calvin Harris are getting radio play, Deadmau5 and Skrillex are performing at the Grammy Awards, and Avicii's "Levels" is heard in every other TV commercial.
And now there's just one EDM concert king from coast to coast: Rotella.
"If I had to pick one person at the top of the game, it would probably be him," says Gary Bongiovanni, president of concert-industry publication and data service Pollstar. "Pasquale really was a pioneer in helping to bring raves out of the warehouses."
But with Rotella's rise has come controversy.
The 39-year-old has been under indictment for more than a year, facing six counts of conspiracy, bribery and embezzlement. Together the charges could bring nearly 14 years behind bars, although a hearing to weigh arguments for dismissal is set for Sept. 18. Rotella remains free after posting bond, but he must ask for the court's permission to jet to his far-flung events.
Meanwhile, when a 15-year-old girl died after taking ecstasy at a 2010 event thrown by Rotella's company, Insomniac Events, some L.A. leaders seemed genuinely scandalized to learn that raves were happening on public property under their supervision. The combination of the death and the bribery accusations were enough to get EDC unceremoniously booted from its home at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
So what does a self-made man from a hardscrabble, Westside background do in circumstances like that?
He takes EDC to Nevada and, beginning in 2011, transforms his 160,000-person, two-day L.A. party into a three-day rave with twice as many clicks of the turnstiles at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He fends off mainstream concerns over drug use at his parties to take on the most mainstream of corporate partners, Live Nation, which this summer reportedly bought a 50 percent stake in Insomniac for a whopping $50 million.
He fights the criminal charges — welcoming a reporter into his helicopter at a time when many criminal defendants would be ducking. Importantly, Rotella beats a civil suit brought by the Coliseum, which includes allegations similar to those still pending in the criminal case. Last month, the court dismissed all civil claims against both Rotella and Insomniac Events.
He travels to New York and London. He lives large, even as he maintains that he has stayed true to his roots. Of the criminal charges, Rotella told a reporter last spring, "I don't lose sleep over it because I didn't do anything."
Oh, and he gets the girl: He and Holly Madison welcomed a baby girl, Rainbow Aurora Rotella, into the world on March 5.
Take that, Los Angeles.
Pasquale Rotella was a comer even when he was a "16-year-old with a fake ID, just going out to the undergrounds," Tef Foo, one of L.A.'s veteran rave promoters, recalls. Rotella says he went to his first rave in 1990 and never looked back.