Kids. We’re talking barely-teen children sporting braces, bleached hair and underwear their moms just bought them, wall-to-wall, and striking sassy poses in overgrown bangs, skinny jeans, Technicolor T-shirts, striped tights and checkered Vans. There must be a gallon of unisex mascara in the house. Neon punks dance in every nook of a sparse warehouse in Hollywood. You round a corner: kids. Gyrating. If they were bugs, you’d run for the exits and call an exterminator. In the center of the venue, a human circle forms on the concrete floor, where lanky, rubbery young men perform a hyperkinetic dance that’s part Chicago “jacking,” part crumping. There’s not a drop of alcohol in the venue. And if anyone had a joint, we sure didn’t smell it. But something turned them on.
The musical shaman for the night is 23-year-old Cesar Rios, a.k.a. DJ Paparazzi, who has made an industry of hosting club nights and promoting and spinning records.
“I grew up in the house-party scene,” says the Montebello native. “Now, club promoters in L.A. — myself, Steve Aoki and Franki Chan — are setting the bar for the United States. Bands and DJs in the U.S. look to L.A. for this type of movement.”
At the party, which he calls “Dance,” he plays Daft Punk’s “One More Time” and then interrupts to announce that “I love you guys, I really do.” He goes on to play a historical mash-up, all synched via the Serato Scratch Live program on his laptop. The jackrabbit bounce of his bass lines echoes the energy of ’90s-era “hard house.” Paparazzi even drops “Show Me Love,” a 1992 tune by house diva Robin S.
If you think this nu electro youthquake feels a little like electronic music of yore, it does. Its aesthetic is borrowed directly from the failed, ’80s-flavored contrivance called electroclash (Larry Tee, et al.), which came and went with the turn of the millennium. And still, the playbook — take punk-meets-electronic new wave and add it to the linear groove of DJ culture — is the bible for nu electro stalwarts like Paparazzi. The reincarnated scene is stronger in L.A. than anywhere else in the states.
“This notion that New York is always at the forefront was slightly true at the beginning of electroclash,” says DJ Paul V., host of “Neon Noise” Saturdays on Indie 103.1 FM. “But now it’s the opposite. I don’t know if you could find the amount of clubs and DJs and fervent attendance anywhere else.”
While nu electro’s superstars — Daft Punk, Justice, Digitalism, Simian Mobile Disco, the Black Ghosts, MSTRKRFT, Boys Noize — are from outside the U.S., L.A. has a cadre of acts and DJ duos that seems to grow like fungus in the wet: Guns N Bombs. L.A. Riots. Sam Sparro. Acid Girls. Casxio. All Neon Like. Weird Science. Classics. Afrobots. Dan Oh. DJ Skeet Skeet. Them Jeans. Ad infinitum. The movement is L.A. to its core, from its Hollywood glam to its Echo Park base, from its Latino adherents to its American Apparel uniform, from its image-is-everything bands to its use of locally based MySpace to spread the word.
It all started fairly recently, in 2006, when legions of indie-rock fans were exposed to posthouse act Daft Punk’s electrifying performance at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. “Daft Punk at Coachella was an epic moment,” says former Coachella festival director Shalyce Benfell, who recently partnered with DJ Paparazzi for the club promotion and artist management firm they call 1017 Events.
“A new generation of kids was born.”
Follow-up shows by Daft Punk, along with appearances by Justice and MSTRKRFT — all adherents of the crunchy, loopy, nu electro sound — galvanized those fans and inspired many indie clubs (Check Yo Ponytail, HangTheDJs, Bang!, Le Disko, Moscow) to go electronic. Similar evolutions were happening in New York (LCD Soundsystem) and London (the Klaxons). Indie flavor even began to seep into the fiercely electronic world of superclubs, with the likes of L.A. Riots deejaying at Avalon and Vanguard.
“Initially, a lot of people came from a rock background, and there’s sort of a rock feel to this music,” says the Riots’ John O’Brien, 29. “It’s riff-based, and a lot of the tunes are shorter. They’re not epic eight-minute techno songs. It’s a fresh new twist on dance music. A lot of the indie-rock kids really jumped onboard because it was familiar but fresh and new — and theirs.”
The success of L.A.’s nu electro economy — DJs such as Paparazzi are booked solid, clubs go off every night of the week, and events such as HARD Haunted Mansion host thousands of fans — suggests a new model for the music industry. Outside of acts such as Shiny Toy Guns and the more-rockist Ima Robot, none of the local nu electro artists has record deals. And yet they thrive. Unsigned Guns N Bombs recently opened for top nu electro act Digitalism on its North American run. The label-less L.A. Riots went on a four-day tour sponsored by carmaker Scion and is currently touring the world. Who needs a label? Guns N Bombs gives its singles away on MySpace — the better for fans to get a taste and become paying customers at shows, where the real money is.
“I have a label,” says Gary Richards, head of Nitrus Records and promoter of the upcoming HARD Haunted Mansion, featuring Justice, Boys Noize and Paparazzi. “The problem is, as cool as this music is, what are you going to do with it? The kids are getting it for free. Many of these acts don’t have a label, and the kids all know who they are. They’re making money playing live and doing remixes. They don’t need a label.”
Some acts have even been accused of using “ghost producers” to get their sound out. L.A. Riots has a solid following, but it’s still working on its first single. Most of the other local bands don’t even have original music. “Besides a MySpace page, have they released anything,” asks Columbia Records talent scout Kevin Kusatsu. “For a label, what’s in it for them?”
Indeed, as with any cultural gold rush, there are legions of new kids, from newbie laptop DJ duos to fashionable bands torturing audiences with Casio keyboard solos. Electronic music outsiders such as Steve Aoki, once an “indie DJ” content to spin rock and hip-hop, have appropriated the sound. Many of the locally based artists are from out of town. L.A. Riots, whose motto is “Where were you in ’92,” is from North Carolina. Nu electro is a new wave of millennial youth that demands success and praise, often before it’s earned.
“Kids say, ‘Hey, you manage Guns N Bombs, can you manage us,’” says longtime band manager Alexis Rivera. “They have like 300 friends on MySpace and they’re like, ‘Let’s get a booking agent and a manager.’ I tell them, ‘You need to work on the music first.’”
Rivera also laments that they often fail to explore the roots of contemporary dance music. Electro is something large black men sporting Jheri curls, silken garments and gold chains (Afrika Bambaataa, Egyptian Lover, Arabian Prince) invented in the early ’80s. It’s hard to whitewash that history by calling this newer sound, as so many tend to, simply “electro.” Still, the resurgence of an ’80s aesthetic has inspired some fans to dig, triggering a resurrection for the likes of Egyptian Lover and Arabian Prince (he recently released a retrospective of his 1980s work, Innovative Life, on Stones Throw Records).
Guns N Bombs, for one, has 20 album-ready t racks in its vault. And with singles out on Kitsuné, Digitalism’s French label, the duo of 31-year-old Filip “Turbotito” Nikolic and 25-year-old Johnny “Love” Dal Santo seem poised to break through. At its foam-lined warehouse-loft studio, a stone’s throw from the L.A. River downtown, the pair presses play on “Riddle of Steel,” due next month via Kitsuné. It’s an improvised exploding device full of punklike energy. Trunk-busting bass lines and acidic squelches take over, leading to a drumroll worthy of the Love Parade. Needless to say, the guys think theirs is the sound of success, if only they continue heading back to the future.
“The whole scene is heading for a next step,” says Nikolic, to which Love adds, “I can finally buy that DeLorean.”
DJ Paparazzi performs as part of the HARD Haunted Mansion party at the Shrine Expo on Friday, Oct. 31. Casxio opens for West Indian Girl at Spaceland on Thursday, Nov. 6. Guns N Bombs’ new “Riddle of Steel” 12-inch comes out on Kitsuné Records on Nov. 10.