In February of 1995, the first Nocturnal Wonderland hit Los Angeles, with a flyer referencing Lewis Carroll's tales of Alice and featuring “Tea Party Info Lines” to serve curious ravers across L.A. and Orange County.
For Joel “Mojo” Semchuck, one of the DJs at that first Nocturnal, his memories of the party are vague. But he does remember that the Boyle Heights warehouse was packed beyond its 1,000-person capacity and that there was a room upstairs where the floor got “wobbly” from the combination of heavy bass and heavy dancing.
Today, the bash, which takes place Labor Day weekend at San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino, is a three-day festival packed with a global talent that includes bona fide superstars like David Guetta and Afrojack. For that first incarnation, though, Nocturnal existed for one night, and its lineup was heavy on the locals.
To celebrate Nocturnal's 20th anniversary, the promoter that started it all, Insomniac, is bringing back some of the DJs from that inaugural event. Among them are Semchuck, Jason “DJ Trance” Blakemore and Lester “Fester” Flores. (One DJ from the '95 party not making a return appearance: Jason Bentley.) The DJs were there not only for the birth of an event that has since become a Southern California institution; they were an integral part of the L.A. rave scene in its early years.
Raves were nothing new in Los Angeles at the time of the first Nocturnal Wonderland. In fact, Semchuck describes it as a “resurgence” of the warehouse parties that took place earlier in the decade and had already faded in favor of proper nightclubs.
In the early 1990s, Semchuck started going to underground parties with his friends. “I don't think they were even called raves at the time,” he says. “They were just called underground warehouse parties.” He was into synth-pop and industrial music at the time and quickly gravitated towards techno. By 1992, he was playing the new sound at a party called What.
Meanwhile, Blakemore and Flores discovered the DJ world through another route — hip-hop. Blakemore grew up in south Orange County and recalls meeting a kid from New York in middle school. Through the new friend, he learned about breakdancing and other elements of East Coast hip-hop culture. By the time he was in high school, he was landing gigs playing records at house parties and school dances. But it wasn't until he was in college at Loyola Marymount University that he started raving.
“Some guys I was friends with said, 'You want to go to an underground?'” Blakemore remembers. “I didn't know what they meant.”
Flores, who is from Carson, hung around with DJ crews. He didn't have his own set of decks, but practiced on his friends' turntables. He started playing various styles of dance music, like funk and disco, and had no idea what techno was until one day when he was hanging out at a friend's house. The friend, Eric Davenport (E-Zone), dropped a jam called “Dominator” and Flores was smitten with the sound.
By 1992, all three were DJing L.A. parties. To say that the dance scene at the time was different from today would be an understatement. For starters, there weren't oodles of hyper-specific sub-genres to master. “We used to call it house or techno back then,” says Blakemore.
More importantly, this was still a few years before the start of the superstar DJ phenomenon. “Back in the day, kids would dance [facing] the speakers. We would have these big walls of speakers,” says Semchuck. While someone might stand close enough to the decks to get a glimpse of the DJ's technique, the person on the turntables wasn't the focus. “People didn't worship the DJ,” he adds.
The DJs themselves weren't always overly concerned with promotion either. “I never really promoted myself back then,” says Flores. “I didn't know how. It was all new to me.” Still, he managed to get some sweet gigs. “It was all word of mouth.”
Prior to Nocturnal Wonderland, promoter Pasquale Rotella had started Insomniac as a weekly party. Semchuck, Blakemore and Flores all played there and that's essentially how they ended up at the first Nocturnal Wonderland.
The party came at the start of a new era in the dance music world. By 1995, sub-genres like breakbeat and progressive house had emerged from the scene. Two years later, Insomniac would launch Electric Daisy Carnival, which of course would go on to become the company's best-known event.
The DJs' career paths have taken different turns over the years. Blakemore still plays frequently, typically under his full name as opposed to DJ Trance, and is studying psychology in grad school. Flores took a break from the decks for school and other priorities, but is now getting back into it. Semchuck went back to school, too, where he studied computer systems and recording arts. About six years ago, he delved into music production and has since released three full-length albums under the name Mojo Rising. His latest, Moving Forward, was released in July.
It's a whole different scene these days. For Semchuck, there are mixed emotions about the rise of dance music. Although he laments the era when DJs were semi-anonymous behind the decks, he's still amazed by the lasting impact that those parties he played in the '90s had. “I'm very happy that Insomniac is doing as well as it has,” he says. “I don't think any of us saw that coming.”
Nocturnal Wonderland celebrates its 20th anniversary at San Manuel Amphitheater Sept. 4-6.