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Beat Freaks

Photo by Wild Don Lewis

Stroll through any record shop and you’ll see the flyers. Scan this very publication and you’ll spot the ads. Visit any club around town and witness the promoters buzzing around the door, descending like paparazzi as they hype you on their Latest and Greatest Event. These days, seems like everybody’s hosting a dance party, with the Best and Baddest DJ. No one knows for sure how many clubs — licensed or illegal — happen every week in the city of Los Angeles, but one thing’s for certain: We’re finally on the map when it comes to dance music, thanks to some amazing turntable talents and the atmospheric spaces that showcase them.

Whether it’s house music, trance, retro, hip-hop or disco, from Hollywood to Santa Monica to the Valley and downtown, seven nights a week, L.A. dance clubs blare a unified anthem across the city: There’s No Time Like Party Time. But are local clubs and parties actually any good? And how do we really rank on the international scale? That’s a question we posed to some of the local dance scene’s biggest movers and shakers, and their answers reveal that when it comes to making people dance, Los Angeles deserves a second glance.

Trance in your pants

 It’s 2 a.m., and a gigantic, steamy room throbs with thunderous, manic yet oddly controlled waves of sound. Like a king on his throne, a DJ perches at one end of the room, his followers gazing in awe while succumbing to the blissful chaos he creates on the ’tables. The music is trance, and the scene is the weekly megaparty called Giant. And if nothing else proves that L.A. has finally come to grasp the glories of electronic music, then this club’s success does.

Open just half a year, the aptly named Danceteria attracts all types, from aging ravers who no longer have the stamina for map points and secret locations, to dance-music aficionados who consider people like Paul Oakenfold and Sasha & John Digweed veritable gods, to bored Saturday-night riffraff just looking to be where the action is. This place has three rooms offering topnotch DJ talent, but inevitably it’s the pumping trance room that draws bodies like a magnet.

“Over the past 10 years, the second wind of trance and progressive has ignited a new generation of clubbers and international interest in up-and-coming American DJs, and rekindled the mature veterans of the L.A. scene,” says Dave Dean, Giant’s creator and a club impresario who opened the Limelight in London in ’88 and Sound Factory in San Francisco in ’93.

But why has this particular form of electro — mesmerizing, repetitive beats that build upon layered melodies — become the preferred dance music of the moment? Veteran local trance guru Christopher Lawrence is part of the reason. “When I started deejaying here, the dominant sounds were house and breakbeats,” says Lawrence, who came to L.A. from San Francisco in ’94. “I was considered on the fringe.”

But Lawrence, who spun at early-’90s raves like Electric Daisy Carnival and Organic, saw the effect this intense, driving music had on young, whistle-blowing dance fiends, and he continued to incorporate the whirling grooves into his sets. Over time, the sheer vitality of the music began to grow on people (and the presence of drugs like Ecstasy and LSD â didn’t hurt either).

“Since it doesn’t have vocals, the same record can be heard around the world,” says Lawrence, who cites L.A. as one of the first cities to popularize trance. “It has universal appeal.” Trance’s pumping rhythms have been favored by diverse groups (at least in L.A.) for quite some time, notably at the long-running fetish club known as Sin-a-Matic. Latex-clad deviants are a far cry from candy-colored ravers, and yet the aggressive sounds fit here. “We started playing ‘industrial’ bands mixed in with ‘new beat’ stuff from Belgium, and that grew into early techno and eventually trance,” says Sin-a-Matic co-creator James Stone, whose legendary Club Fuck led the way back in ’89.

Local spinmasters like Lawrence, Taylor, Sandra Collins and Doran also deserve credit for exposing the first ultrahypnotic trance beats to L.A., but now that it can all be enjoyed aboveground at a mainstream metropolis like Giant, what does that mean for rave culture? “Although the line between the two has faded, the more educated audience seeks out the sounds they like, regardless of the location,” says Dean.

But Lawrence prefers underground gatherings to club gigs. “You’re accountable to a younger audience that’s even more passionate about the music.”

 

Rave, don’t behave

 

“My first rave was in the early ’90s, and it was called Willy Wonka. We bought $20 tickets (and some X) at a record store that night and then went to three different map points for directions. We eventually ended up downtown, in a deserted industrial area. We parked, walked through two fences with holes cut in them and finally made it there. We were pushed in with a stampede of people when the police showed up. Inside it was dark except for the glow of black lights everywhere. There must have been thousands of bodies moving to the most dramatic, intoxicating music I’d ever heard. I was enveloped in the magical energy of it all, and I felt like I had discovered this forbidden world full of love and happiness. I knew I’d never be the same again.”

 

—Anonymous former raver

 

For those who experienced the L.A. rave scene in its infancy, it was a time and place that can never be duplicated. Acid house and techno were the buzz words, but the kids craved the persistent thumps, the drugs and the unity and freedom they felt when they were dancing together. Promoters like Tef Foo and Devin the Mad Hatter tried to outdo each other with wilder, wackier events, from Mickey’s Big Top (which featured real circus acts) to Under the Paw Paw Patch (on a ranch), to events at water parks and even one on the boat to Catalina Island.

“I hear some older, jaded ex-ravers talking about how great the scene used to be, but if you go out there and talk to the kids now, they’ll tell you it’s still great,” says Brian McNelis, manager of Cleopatra/Hypnotic Records and producer of the recent rave-culture film Better Living Through Circuitry. “Law enforcement and mainstream media really make it hard — they don’t understand the culture, and they’re shutting down parties, which in an ironic way still makes it exciting, because it’s not completely homogenized.”

Even with more and more clubs showcasing electronic DJs, the underground — now led by groups such as Go Ventures (Circa, the Love Festival) and B3/Cand.E Productions (JuJuBeats) — is still the major catalyst for dance music in L.A. “The underground will always be king,” says Mike Messex, who has deejayed at raves and hot spots like Power Tools, Impala and Saturday Night Fever, and currently mixes rock & roll with popular big-beat artists at the dance orgy known as Cherry. “That is where the fresh, undiscovered talent grows.”

 

House of style

 

Thanks to the open, experimental atmosphere of the rave world, and a gradual growth in the number of clubs, house music (like trance) has enjoyed a renaissance in L.A. in the last couple of years. Promoters like Albert Castro and his Melodic events showcase out-of-town turntablists like Chicago’s Green Velvet and DJ Diz, and local jocks like Juan Nuñez and Little Chris (both also resident DJs at Doc Martin’s weekly Wednesday-night club Release). Long-standing parties like Tony Largo’s 7-year-old after-hours Does Your Momma Know? at Coconut Teaszer serve up classic house beats for a demanding new generation of four-to-the-floor connoisseurs.

Promoter Danny B, who in addition to his long-running Saturday-night event High Society currently produces no less than seven after-hours clubs at parties around town, has seen the evolution of house and continues to celebrate the power of soulful, layered grooves. “Before, we were doing after-hours clubs at undergroundlike warehouse locations that were really cool but we didn’t have the permits,” he says. “It’s legal now, and that’s great, ’cause trance is starting to take off in L.A. like house music has over the past couple of years.” From its house scene alone, L.A. has developed an international reputation for having a battering-ram crew of first-rate jocks, such as wax-wonder Marques Wyatt. â

“House music is as strong as it’s been in a while,” says Wyatt, whose bi-monthly Sunday-night Deep event (formerly held at the Viper Room and currently at Vynyl) features a diverse palette of house-music legends including Juan Morales, Mark Farina and Kerri Chandler. Wyatt also credits the music’s renewed local popularity to the collaborative efforts of DJs like himself and Doc Martin, with their Body ’n’ Soul–ish Sunday-afternoon affair called Revival, whose sustained momentum owes to the combined drawing power of the DJs, each having his own established following.

“The scene is really focused,” says Jamie Thinnes, who heads house-music label Seasons Recordings and also has a residency at the roving house-fest called Dynagroove.

Another local fave, house-specialist DJ Dan, ranks L.A. supreme when it comes to house-music parties: “I’ve played raves in Scotland and London, and in comparison, the raves that I play here kick ass. The people here are so much more energetic.” Fellow globetrotter Doc Martin, who not only owns Wax Records on Melrose but is one of the most respected DJs in town, has lotsa local love too. “Every time I play here, it’s amazing for me,” he says. “I’ve played all over the world, and I definitely think L.A. has something very special that people tend to overlook.”

 

Whether it be via the Internet or by local clubgoers trafficking overseas nightlife havens like London and Paris, the city is slowly and surely becoming an international electro mecca. And while worldwide influence plays a big role in L.A.’s club scene, it’s the city’s polyculturalism that makes it unique among other dance-music scenes around the globe.

“That’s one cool thing about L.A. — it’s got a mix of people from Europe, Spain, Brazil or wherever,” says British transplant DJ Mark Lewis. “Dance music is global now, so it’s really hard not to know what’s going on in places like Ibiza, Prague and Berlin. We’ve got a very solid base in the international underground.”

 

Mixolicious meltdown

 

The hyperactive buzz of house and trance may be the sound of the moment, but there’s a consensus among both DJs and promoters that the diversity of the music here is what really makes our nightlife so exciting. Ambient, old-school, Latin, dub, jungle, trip-hop, world beat — there’s something for everyone here if ya know where to look.

“The music scene mirrors Los Angeles itself,” says Jed Wexler of Ritual Productions, an event and marketing company that meshes fashion and music with happenings that feature world-class DJs and performers from all points on the musical spectrum. “People take pride in discovering what’s up here . . . and it’s a lot less about commerce than most people think.”

Like Ritual, the publicity group known as Green Galactic has turned a love for the music into a successful business. It helps promote dance-music events around town and has been providing a downtempo electro experience for six years at its gathering called Public Space. “It’s totally different here from Europe,” says Lynn Hasty, the club and company’s creator. “It’s not part of pop culture like it is over there.”

Jason Bentley, who hosts two dance-music radio shows, KCRW’s Metropolis and KROQ’s After Hours, as well as his own club, Bossanova, and has a day job as an A&R guy for Maverick, agrees. “There’s a surge of talent here pushing up from the underground,” he says. “And we’ve developed it on our own terms.”

At the Bud Brothers’ Monday Social at Louis XIV, the crowd is as varied as the performers who play there, and the vibe is always original. “We’ve been growing stronger and stronger for almost five years now,” says Freddy Be, the club’s co-promoter. “We’ve created a place that supports tomorrow’s rising stars.”

Bud Brother Mick Cole (who also deejays at the Viper Room’s electronic night, Atmosphere, and serves as music editor for Lotus magazine) shares his partner’s enthusiasm for both the underground and legit events like M.S. “Clubs cater to a more crossover audience,” says Cole, “and clubs have bigger budgets, so they can bring in a lot more international talent.”

By both broadcasting and signing these talents, Bentley has helped make the crossover happen as much as the clubs themselves. His personal passion may be house (he connected with it during “the summer of love” in the U.K. back in ’88), but he realizes that tastes, especially in fickle L.A., are always evolving, even if one thing remains the same. “People want to feel like they’re part of a cultural movement,” he says. “The message here is that we can all come together and dance and plug into the rhythmic experience.”

 

Love conquers all

 

“We have a very colorful culture that’s not like anywhere else,” says Urb magazine publisher and DJ Raymond Roker. “It’s kind of neat when you go out to hip-hop parties like Firecracker or Malathion and you get a cross-section of people that you’re not going to get anywhere else in the world.” DJ Dusk, in residence at Gabah’s Thursday-night hip-hop event the Root Down and at Nappy at the Roots at Fais Do-Do, credits the mixed crowds to local underground hip-hop DJs’ commitment to splicing genres like salsa, soul and rare groove for their dance floors.

Starting out as a house party for like-minded friends and eventually moving to funky spots like downtown warehouses, Gabah’s Chocolate Bar has emerged over the past three years as a hip-hop institution in Los Angeles. “Someone came up to us the other day and said, ‘You should call this place Diggin’ in the Crates,’” says the club’s resident DJ Daz. “And that’s what we do — we dig in the crates and bring out everything you haven’t heard and everything you’d like to hear, from hip-hop to funk to reggae to house music to jungle — whatever we feel like we want to play.” But what’s striking about Chocolate Bar is the across-the-board ethnic mix of its clientele, which ranges from Asian to black, white and Latin, a stewpot similar to that witnessed at Medusa’s Nappy at the Roots and Chinatown’s bimonthly hip-hop party Firecracker.

 

Lisa Yu, co-promoter of Firecracker, â feels that a social consciousness within the hip-hop community lends itself to a mixed-culture togetherness in the hip-hop club scene. “Hip-hop draws lots of different people together. The music speaks to people across color lines, people who obviously enjoy what hip-hop brings and fuses together.”

 

Crosstalk

 

It may cater to a completely different crowd, but Paul V.’s Dragstrip 66 features music that, like Firecracker, appeals to more than just the obvious faction of clubsters. The format for the monthly dress-up party, now in its seventh year, ranges from ’70s pop, disco and classic rock to soul and ’80s new wave, and it attracts an eclectic mix of both gays and straights.

Catch One’s DJ Ben, who also spins at Circus Fridays, says he has no problems attracting a varied clientele to the predominantly black gay club, either. “Things are going great at the Catch,” he says. “Lately I’ve seen more of the straight crowd partying here with gay folks. A lot of them come here just to check out the music.”

With the opening of new dance palaces and events like the Playground, Circus Fridays and the Factory, along with other established clubs and haps around town like BoyTrade, Catch One, the Men’s Room and Rage, La La Land (which has the second-largest gay population in the U.S.) offers an abundance of clubbing events for local gay culture . . . and they just keep comin.’ Since opening earlier this year, Jeffrey Sanker and Manny Lehman’s event Saturday Night at the Factory has played host to dance-music giants like Victor Calderone, Mark Anthony and David Knapp. “There’s just more activity going on in both the straight and gay cultures right now,” says Factory resident DJ and top circuit-party mixman Lehman. “Now you can get a space and fill it with 2,000 people.”

 

Time stretchers

 

Looks like L.A.’s clubgoing masses are finally wising up to the rapturous rhythms of electronic dance music — yet there’s still a large portion of ’em who just don’t “get it.” No sweat: For those who find the spacy, synthetic sounds of techno cold and soulless, there are more than enough alternatives to get jiggy to.

At Café Bleu, it’s like mod London in the ’60s, with everyone decked out in go-go boots and retro wear, shaking rump to soul tracks, “6Ts” and Britpop. And at Bang! it’s a veritable history lesson on the music from jolly olde England. “Our appeal is nostalgia,” says Bang!’s Jason Lavitt, who hosts a dance club spotlighting every era — the ’60s (Shout), ’70s (Makeup), ’80s (Fashion) and ’90s (Bang!). “Each decade has its own special flavor, and we reproduce that with visuals, go-go dancers and music.”

His partner, Joseph Brooks (a pioneer in the dance-club scene who’s also involved with Sin-a-Matic and goth haunt Coven 13), sees the success of his clubs as a natural thing. “It reminds people of places and events in their lives,” he says. “And those who were too young to experience it the â first time have an affection for the look and style of a particular era.”

That affection is no surprise, considering the fact that Britpop bands like Blur, Suede and Pulp borrow heavily from the past. But many of these groups have begun to look to technology when creating new material (Oasis’ collaboration with the Chemical Brothers, etc.), so even L.A.’s retro kings like Lavitt and Brooks offer an electronic “future beats” room at Bang!, while Michael Stewart and Bruce Perdew (owners of Blue and promoters of Velvet and Clockwork Orange) incorporate techno, house and trance into their mostly ’70s/’80s promotions.

“There’s always new stuff to play,” says Lavitt on why electronic music is seeping into the retro scene. “There’s some incredible new music flowing in, and a lot of it isn’t as shallow and empty as it was. It works with old stuff, because it combines familiar sounds like disco and new wave with great beats, giving it a whole new depth.”

 

Rhythmopolis

 

While local club culture is definitely enjoying a boom, L.A. still faces a few handicaps — we don’t have enough outlets for the music, namely radio stations (the Internet excluded), and the city is still too spread out for clubgoers to know what’s happening and where.

 

“The main problem with L.A. is that we don’t have a true metropolis,” says Carlos Guaico, co-promotor of Rootdown at Gabah and member of the hip-hop band Breakestra. “It takes a while to let people know on the Westside what you’re doing in Central L.A. A lot of the time, it’s just a matter of getting the message to them.”

The massive sprawl of the city and lack of a full-time electronic-music radio station may be drawbacks, but the inspiring minds behind L.A.’s turntables and nightspots are more concerned with making things happen than worrying about what we don’t have. Savvy promoters aim to provide Angelenos with good music and a great time. Promoter Sandy Sachs, owner of the Factory, is a good example. Her enthusiasm about her events is as contagious as the music that vibrates inside the club each week. “Wednesday night is the most fun night of all — that’s ’80s Night — my favorite. People just have a blast. There’s no guest list — you just get in line. I make it cheap, so everybody can get in. It’s a scream. What’re you doin’ tonight?”

That’s the question forever on the minds of DJs, promoters and club owners across the city. When it comes right down to it, it’s all about having a good time, checking out and letting go. Dancing is one of mankind’s most ancient and honored ways of releasing and giving energy. L.A.’s club scene reflects the city’s own need to interact with this energy, whether it’s on a mammoth scale, like the 28,000 ravers at the How Sweet It Is event earlier this year, or a few dozen or so gay square dancers hee-hawing away at Oil Can Harry’s.

So, exactly what are you doin’ tonight?

 

See Dance Clubs in Calendar section for dates, times and locations.

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