My flashlight cuts through the incinerated debris, revealing that my collection of rare, hardcore rave records is a molten glob of vinyl on the ashes of its shelving. The burnt husks of my Technics 1200 turntables crown the top of the fiery ruins, victims of a SoCal Edison transformer explosion the previous day, May 15, 2014.
“Hardcore will never die,” I mutter sarcastically through my respirator, and turn off the flashlight.
I spun those records when I instigated a Pittsburgh rave scene, headlined with Daft Punk at Even Furthur ‘96, ushered in a new millennium at the L.A. Sports Arena. I blasted them at illegal French teknivals and London squat parties over two decades. But I gave up that life years ago.
I thumb through the charred remains of family photos, letters and personal debris. I miss my history as a rave DJ, my lifestyle and my friends. Deep in my heart I’m still a raver, a hardcore raver. And at that moment, I make a promise to myself: If my history was just burned to the ground, I’ll make a new one, and this time I’ll do it right.
Complications immediately arise. Everything about DJing has radically changed during my hiatus. For starters, I’m a hardcore DJ, and no one listens to hardcore anymore.
“Hardcore” was the term ravers adopted once we fused the sounds, sensibilities and do-it-yourself ethos of psychedelia, hip-hop, house, techno and industrial in the early 1990s. Hardcore was a product of Generation X, a ray of hope erupting from that generation’s ingrained nihilism. In the U.K. they called it “hardcore breakbeat.” In America we called it “hardcore techno” and recognized its birthdate as when DJ Lenny Dee’s Industrial Strength Records released Mescalinum United’s “We Have Arrived.”
Now that I’m paying attention again, I discover that the music is better than ever — just not many people know about it. I start publishing The Hard Data magazine. Like Mercury navigating through Hades, I will deliver the news of hardcore’s return to its proper place in the rave universe — the fucking top.
Kari Lambou wants to buy a two-page spread centerfold for “Trauma Live’s Harder Styles Tour,” a seven-city tour featuring more than 20 of the hottest hardcore DJs and producers from Europe.
“This is insane!” I think, but Kari and George Ruseler of Hardtunes.com have been advertisers in The Hard Data for the past year. I know if they say it, they’ll do it. The global hardcore community knows it, too, and the buzz is deafening.
Boom or bust, I vow to document every aspect of the soon-to-be historic tour. I angle onto the tour lineup and make a promo mix for college radio stations. This is gonna be big.
Feb. 12, 2016: Edmonton, Alberta
Mollie, the tour’s VJ, is being held in customs. My cellphone doesn’t work. My debit card declines after I withdraw Canadian dollars from the ATM. Angry taxi drivers insult me as I enter an Uber. It’s minus 11 Celsius and snow whips in the wind as I near the venue.
Happy hardcore legend Scott Brown is busy bringing the gleeful, spasmodic attack his genre of music promises. As its name implies, “happy” hardcore is hardcore that isn’t particularly dark, brooding and distorted. Brown is his music: his gait, body movements, style of speech. After his set, he practically bounces off the walls, meeting fans at the bar as they gather for …
The Prophet, founder of Scantraxx Records and arguably the king of “hardstyle.” Hardstyle is the younger, cuter, 10-times-more-popular brother of hardcore. About 30 beats per minute slower, the kids love it. The Prophet’s driving, tough-as-nails performance delivers the goods Trauma promised: top-name talent at the top of their game.
“I felt that hardcore at the time, and even now, is the most interesting, futuristic-sounding music out of all the genres.” – DJ Mad Dog
Mad Dog epitomizes modern hardcore. His sound design is crafted with knowledge of hardcore’s earliest days and a commercial polish aimed squarely at a younger audience.
He drops his latest release, “Not My Tempo,” a kick-drum-smashing extravaganza of hardcore fury. The young hardstyle crowd, blindsided, dances dumbstruck, embracing sounds previously unknown.
Feb. 13: San Francisco
“This is the most genuine in the panorama of EDM music. If people go to a hardcore party it’s because they love the music. EDM is like fashion — they go dance because they get drunk and see women. But hardcore is because people love this music.” –The Melodyst
The Melodyst are actually two young gentlemen from Milan (one translated the above quote for the other), rising stars on the Traxtorm label. The Regency Ballroom blissfully resonates as they launch into “New Dawn.” With dissonant minor chords and sped-up Nina Simone vocals, “New Dawn” elicits an eerie yet strangely uplifting effect. It’s a track that might only be made by the young — when they hear a sound so sweet it must be pursued, though it conflicts with the conventions of their genre.
The crowd, a melting pot of young, vanguard members of various rave cliques alongside dedicated old-schoolers clad in black (but many surreptitiously sporting kandi bracelets), dances like there’s no tomorrow. I see the spark of a new scene developing, that perfect moment when a crowd recognizes its common interest and delights to the new sounds and sights before it. It makes me reminisce about my first rave: Mondo 2000’s Cyber-Spyder Ball, right here in San Francisco in 1991.
Back then, everyone spun vinyl. On the Trauma Tour, I haven’t seen a turntable yet.
Feb. 14: Los Angeles
As Marshall McLuhan observed, the medium is the message.
The modern rave DJ plays music on USB drives stuck into two Pioneer CDJ-2000-NXS “digital turntables” or “CDJs” as they are commonly referred to. The actual turntables, the kind that play records, have been relegated to “Back to the Old School” parties, the modern equivalent of sock hops.
This stop is my first performance on the Trauma Tour, and I'm in the “old-school room” with DJ Mindcontroller. We play his vinyl and it’s bittersweet mixing records I once owned.
Back in the day, it took so much effort to mix beats, you rarely had time to interact with the crowd. Now, a simple press of the “Sync” button on your CDJ lines up the beats for you. All that extra time DJs used to spend beat-matching has given rise to the practice of “DJ cheerleading.” Cheerleading the music was always an important part of disc jockeying, but now it’s critical. You need “cool moves,” or at least you have to pretend you are freakishly excited, or the crowd won’t know what’s going on.
Rob Gee has adapted to this new reality. The American hardcore techno pioneer mixes instrumental versions of his new works and classics like “Ecstasy, You Got What I Need” and has the crowd sing the missing lyrics. A constant blur of motion in front of and behind the decks, Rob triumphantly closes the L.A. show, playing to a crowd that refuses to leave until the final note.
I pass out copies of The Hard Data outside Club Nokia and get a text from my crew. A kid who drove from Texas bought a VIP pass but never met any of the stars. When I find him, he's trembling in anger, almost in tears. I see that embarrassed rage you feel when something or someone that means so much in your life lets you down. Here is that new fan we’re fighting so hard to reach, and he was about to drive back to Texas cursing the day he ever heard of hardcore.
I rush back in the venue. Rob Gee’s in earshot! About to leave for his hotel. I brief him on the situation. He hops off the stage and dashes outside. The kid’s eyes light up as he shakes Rob’s hand.
Feb. 16: Santa Monica
At home, I practice my “DJ cheerleading” moves. My 6-year-old daughter laughs at me.
Feb. 19: Mesa, Arizona
Kari rings as I exit the airport. “Can you rent a van?”
Like a frazzled soccer mom, I navigate a minivan filled with Trauma DJs through the hot desert night. The venue is patrolled by security guards wearing bulletproof flak jackets and rubber gloves. Are we going to a show or Camp X-Ray?
Veteran MC Ruffian introduces Tommyknocker to thunderous applause. From Rome,the producer’s music and style seem classically Italian to me: fighting to retain life’s beauty while dodging the rise and fall of tyrants and charlatans. He spins his masterpiece, “Nobody Stopping This,” and the crowd erupts.
“Can you feel my motherfucking kick drum?” MC RTSier of Rotterdam Terror Corps asks the crowd as he faux-grinds into dancers Nadia and Joyce, who are busy licking and writhing on each other, clad in makeup and discarding their leather garb as DJ Distortion pumps sonic mayhem. At the same time, I observe the flak-jacketed security guards and make a mental note to check if this combination of scenery is mentioned anywhere in the Book of Revelation.
Feb. 20: Denver
Rocky Mountain winds greet my plane, and lingering contractual disagreements between Kari and George have become turbulent. The tour could shut down any second. Everyone is nervous.
Earlier today, co-promoters Denver Hard Dance blasted Dr. Peacock DJ mixes from a boom-box as they passed out flyers to the curious and bemused on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder.
Dr. Peacock launches his world music–inspired “Trip to Turkey.” The neo-hippies respond with a combination of pogoing and a jig. I too, hop on the dance floor. If this is the last stop, I’ll enjoy it.
Feb. 26: Pittsburgh
In 1991, I organized Pittsburgh’s first rave and owned its first rave record store. Outside the plane window, old glories and resentments form in the clouds, and I crave reconnection.
Making tracks is required now for any DJ who wants to be a headliner. For better or worse, gone are the days of DJs headlining simply because they select the best tracks for the dance floor. So prior to the Trauma Tour, I arranged remakes of tracks from my old Playing Echoes in Your Head 12-inch by some young up-and-coming producers. Audio Science’s Nikolai made a rawstyle version of “My Theory” and Nutype a crossbreed (a subgenre combining drum 'n' bass and hardcore techno) version.
Subterranean, a gifted producer who currently goes to my old high school, North Allegheny, remixed my track “Housewrecker.” His grandma, Echo, accompanies him to gigs. I promised him I’d play his remix first. I blast it as he enters the venue, screaming victory and dancing all the while. His track sounds pro and we’re off to the races. Soon some of my old high school chums, guys that went to my first rave and hung at my record shop, join the young crowd as the Trauma DJs fill the Rex Theater to the end with glorious noise.
Feb. 27: Brooklyn
Upbeat cheer continues on the flight and presales are high. Arriving at the hotel, I learn I’m officially added to tonight’s lineup. I walk to the club.
Four Pioneer CDJ-2000-NXSes are set before me. I can’t help but reminisce about my days after the fire, loitering in the pro audio section at Guitar Center, pretending to buy CDJs so I could practice my sets. Now I'm rocking four CDJs, popping from one to the next. The club is already packed and the crowd dances. I make some DJ cheerleading moves I think won’t embarrass my daughter (with varying degrees of success), spin my remixes and lay the fucking hammer down! Whoo!
At the end of my set, MC Voyce announces that some of the artists won’t play tonight.
Daniel Rodriguez, a writer from Vice's Thump dance music website, introduces himself. I invite him backstage and learn what transpired during my set. Kari and George’s contract dispute had peaked. Practically none of the European talent would play tonight. Hard-earned gains were being destroyed in a matter of hours — and would be documented in Rodriguez's article.
Lenny Dee of Industrial Strength Records, the aforementioned undisputed pioneer and legend of hardcore techno, arrives and will be playing on the mainstage. Brooklyn is, after all, his home turf. Nobody’s stopping this.
Lenny Dee unpacks a wallop of fresh on the crowd, and Rob Gee, perhaps overcompensating for the missing lineup, performs maybe the best set of the tour. Despite all the drama, the crowd stays until 6 a.m.
Feb. 28: Brooklyn
We’re getting kicked out of the hotel. I arrange to meet Lenny Dee for an interview for The Hard Data, then secure a hotel room with the displaced European talent.
Feb. 29, Brooklyn
Lenny’s on an overseas call, discussing Trauma. We walk to his favorite pizzeria and catch up on the last decade. I mention my desire to make a track featuring samples from the classic hip-hop documentary Style Wars. He’s intrigued. We head to the studio. We’ll call it “King of Style!”
March 1: Brooklyn
In the hotel lobby, Nadia from Rotterdam Terror Corps is talking about a magazine with a cover story touting the “Sexiest Dad Alive.” Too exhausted from the past days’ events to muffle my subconscious, I utter what every dad knows deep in his heart. “Pfffttt ... I’m the sexiest dad alive.”
“Let me be very direct: You are definitely not the sexiest dad alive,” she says. Unfazed, I think, ”Yeah? Just wait ‘til you hear 'King of Style.'”
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My jet takes off, and I realize that despite Trauma’s drama, we — the DJs, MCs, VJs, dancers, promoters, staff, writers and fans old and new — have accomplished our mission. Hardcore is still here, and it will never die.