Rialto, California, sometime in the early '90s: Steve Vasquez’s sister, Jen, was at her wit’s end. Her brother had barricaded himself once more in his bedroom. The only evidence of life therein were the grating bleeps, boops and repetitive bass beat of techno/acid rave records seeping and pulsing through the door cracks.
“You’re a fiend for that music!” she screamed at the door, accidentally naming the guy who would become one of Los Angeles’s most widely respected international producers of industrial, hardcore techno.
Vasquez's path began in seventh grade, when he went over to his friend Danny Hernandez’s house. Danny was one of those “advanced” kids for his age. His room was covered with rave fliers bequeathed to him by his older cousins, Jesse and Javi. Danny then revealed more treasures from the elders: bootleg rave mix tapes from Ron D. Core, Tron, Delta 9, Demigod and Double D.
A few weeks later, Steve told his parents he was going over to Danny’s to watch movies and eat pizza. Once he got there, he and Danny jumped into the back of his cousins' truck and sped to their first-ever rave at the National Orange Show, Bigwig Thumper. They broke in just in time to hear Adam X.
Steve and Danny, like a lot of '90s kids in the Inland Empire, found themselves obsessed with rave music and hunting for more. They dug deeper into the dark, arcane realms of electronic music. One of their friends, Ray Duran (now owner of the downtown chic comic shop A Shop Called Quest), discovered a vein of U.K. hardcore techno that gripped their attention like nothing else: Crapshoot Records and one of their artists, DJ Freak. The records sounded like a wall of industrial noise barely held together by a beat. It opened up a world to them of what would come to be known as “industrial hardcore,” on labels such as Strike and Industrial Strength.
“That’s all we lived for," says Vasquez now. "You would go to school because you had to, and when you got home you listened to mix tapes from Pure Acid Mix Tapes and Dr. Freecloud. You kept finding more. New stuff kept coming out.”
His peers in the IE would showcase hardcore techno at house parties called “rebels.” Usually they would play mix cassettes at the parties made by Fontana’s DJ Mindcontroller. “If a party got busted, we would end up just hanging out at someone’s car and start bumping tapes anyway,” he recalls, laughing. Among the sounds he got turned onto during this period were Australian hardcore techno outfit Nasenbluten and Delta 9's Deep 13 EP. "I said, how do they do that? I have to do that.”
At the end of high school, Vasquez started playing with a software program, Fast Tracker 2, in an attempt to make the music he loved. “I would sample off my VCR, Nintendo, TV receiver. Everyone else was out partying and I would be trying to sample Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! or sync my drum machine with my computer. My dad would say, 'Get a real job! Don’t be a DJ. This will fade out.'
"But I just kept going. Back then, I didn’t know people who made music. There was no YouTube for lessons. You had to read the manual or keep messing with the equipment until it sounded cool. I would try to figure out how someone was making a certain sound, but it turns out they were just trying to figure it out, too. Everyone was just making a guess at it.”
Vasquez started showing up at parties with records even if he wasn’t booked. He’d socialize, give people tapes of his mixes, and later they’d book him or they’d join forces and throw a party. He became a mainstay DJ with Mashup Soundsystem and later Darkmatter Soundsystem (a long-running association that continues to this day). He would send mix tapes to Industrial Strength Records, who in turn sent him their promo records. Soon, he was selling their records out of the trunk of his car when he went to parties, becoming part of the underground rave ecosystem.
His first official release was a 2001 collaboration with the late, legendary DJ Tron and his MC, Ob Sean, on Tron’s mega-mix album A Sort of Schizophrenic Feeling released by Pure Acid Mixtapes. Then disaster struck. “I came home one day and my computer was smoking. Everything I did was on the hard drive.”
It took him three years to rebuild his battery of tracks, but he then unleashed an onslaught of material on the hardcore techno world. Releases on Industrial Strength, Hong Kong Violence, Apocalypse, Sadistic (his own label), Rebel Scum, Devil’s Brood, Bloodshed, Needle Needs, PRSPCT, Motormouth, Blast Beat, Darkmatter and Corrupt, among others, would burn bass-bins worldwide.
“I’m not a musician. I’m a noisemaker, an … audio collagist,” says the Fiend. “I end up distorting everything. I always throw in sounds that shouldn’t be there. I like the lo-fi, punk-rock, from-the-bedroom-on-bad-computers sound.”
The strength of his releases brought him to some of the biggest hardcore festivals in Europe. He played Berlin’s famed techno club, Tresor, and the main stage with Delta 9 at Ground Zero festival in Holland for over 15,000 people. “As I was going up the two flights of stairs to the DJ booth at Ground Zero, I’m thinking, man ... I’m from Rialto." He laughs. "What the fuck?"
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He’ll revisit his roots when he plays this Nov. 18 at the Industrial Strength Records' 25-year anniversary party at Union Nightclub (full disclosure: I am also one of the DJs on the bill). “Industrial Strength Records were a thread through my whole hardcore life," says DJ Fiend, "from the age of 14. They had a T-shirt I would always wear to school and get in trouble for it. It said, 'Industrial Strength Records: Harder Than Your Husband.' My Mom hated that shirt!” He laughs. “They were the biggest label in my record crate. So I’m going to play all my favorite I.S. stuff. The stuff that helped make me who I am today.”
Hard Electronic L.A.: 25 Years of Industrial Strength Records, presented by Trauma Live, happens Friday, Nov. 18 at Union with Art of Fighters, The Sickest Squad, Unexist, Tymon, Lenny Dee, Rob Gee, Cik, Fiend and Deadly Buda. Tickets and more info.