Before L.A., Orlando Was a Club Culture Capital

The music of legendary DJ Sasha "fit perfectly with the sound of Orlando — this uplifting feel-good music with an edge to it."
The music of legendary DJ Sasha "fit perfectly with the sound of Orlando — this uplifting feel-good music with an edge to it."
Courtesy Sasha

In the contemporary history of club culture, New York (from David Mancuso's Loft to Twilo), Chicago (the Warehouse), Miami (Space), London (Fabric), Berlin (Tresor) and Ibiza, Spain (Pacha), play prominent roles.

Los Angeles, home to the organizers of Electric Daisy Carnival, to those behind the Hard festivals and to just about every other superstar DJ you can name, is the new de facto capital of the electronic dance music industry. But there was a time when a much smaller city dominated domestic EDM and influenced the global emergence of the DJ as a superstar performer.

That place was Orlando, Florida.

The nation was in shock over the weekend after 29-year-old Omar Mateen fatally shot 50 people at a gay club in Orlando early Sunday, turning a festive Latin night into a massacre and entering history as the worst mass shooter in the United States.

The city has been an uncompromising and beloved party mecca for nearly three decades. The sadness is epic.

Orlando had the right elements — clubs (the Firestone, Aahz at the Beacham Theater, Metro), drugs (ecstasy, LSD) and an unusually exceptional pool of DJ talent (DJ Icey, Chris Fortier, Kimball Collins, Jimmy Van M., AK1200, Dave Cannalte, Tim Skinner, Bill Hamel) — to become one of America's greatest club towns.

Collins and Cannalte were residents at Aahz at the dawn of the '90s, Fortier told us in a 2005 interview. Before he joined them on the turntables, Fortier, "barely 18," says he would watch Collins on the decks.

"What he did and how he put the night together, I started to realize what was going on — how he would construct the music and sets and how he would introduce new music," Fortier said. "I didn’t care about the technical part. I was watching the dance floor and how he was taking the energy up and down. I didn’t care at all about, When does he bring the mix in? I watched how the crowd would react."

In the early 1990s, British DJ duo Sasha & John Digweed formulated a post-disco sound composed of sublime synths and funky house and breakbeats. Most just called it "progressive." In 2005 we asked Digweed if the duo's early trips to the United States helped the two create that influential style.

"New York just seemed untouchable, you know," he said. "It was like, we’re not going to get to play New York, 'cause it’s Danny [Tenaglia] and Junior [Vasquez]. It seemed like a closed shop. 

"And then coming back to the States, I’m playing with Dave Cannalte and Kimball Collins, and I’m meeting people like Chris Fortier," Digweed said. "You all find this common ground. We’re all into the same thing musically. They’d be showing me stuff that I hadn’t heard of and vice versa."

Collins had traveled to England to "make connections" and invite Sasha to come to Orlando, Fortier said.

"We heard a couple of Sasha’s records," he said. "It fit perfectly with the sound of Orlando — this uplifting feel-good music with an edge to it. Someone had a live tape of him from a rave in England. We were blown away."

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Fortier and a group of friends started one of the earlier, more influential DJ talent agencies, The Collective Agency (TCA), in Orlando in the mid-1990s, when things were starting to blow up for the city's EDM artists.

In 1995, Tampa group Rabbit in the Moon, a fixture in Orlando, saw its track "Out of Body Experience" appear on Hardkiss' album Delusions of Grandeur, a digital masterpiece built on the ruins of California hippie culture. It was the Pet Sounds of the rave generation.

About that time DJ Icey was creating a one-man genre, "funky breaks," with his gigs and with his record label, Zone. Soaking up Miami bass and London progressive, the sound put EDM on a break-dancing drive train.

L.A.'s DJ Dan once told us he stopped playing funky breaks because it became associated with young white men in backward-facing baseball caps behind the wheel of lowered Hondas.

The next year Sasha & John Digweed's Northern Exposure, which practically defined the DJ mix CD, featured two Rabbit in the Moon tracks. The duo opened up the mix format as a wide-open, storytelling palette.

By the late 1990s, Orlando's heroes, including Jimmy Van M. and Fortier, were regular DJs at the world's most influential dance music club of the time, New York's Twilo. Van M. also went on a groundbreaking rock-style tour, Delta Heavy, with Sasha and Digweed in 2002.

Fortier produced mixes of Delerium's Sarah McLachlan–sung "Silence" in 1999. The tracks represented a breakthrough, introducing pop audiences to the long builds and breakdowns that would come to typify EDM more than a decade later.

Collins, Fortier and Jimmy Van M. were perhaps the biggest names to emerge from Orlando, and they remained top-of-the-bill DJs for well into the '00s. AK1200 has been a mainstay of American drum 'n' bass for more than 20 years. Bill Hamel was nominated twice for Best Remix Grammy Awards. But few of the Orlando veterans survived EDM's shift from clubland to massive festivals fueled by what essentially has become pop music.

Those originators helped create what we know as American EDM, however, by touring and circulating mixtapes across the land. "We were traveling so much outside Florida," Fortier said.

Though it's little consolation to the families of the weekend's victims in Orlando, the city is a special place for American nightlife.

"Like everyone in the country, I am devastated about the horrific events that have taken place today," Barbara Poma, the owner of the club targeted in the weekend's violence, said yesterday. "Pulse, and the men and women who work there, have been my family for nearly 15 years. From the beginning, Pulse has served as a place of love and acceptance for the LGBTQ community. I want to express my profound sadness and condolences to all who have lost loved ones. Please know that my grief and heart are with you."

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