It’s nearly impossible for Gary Richards to avoid nostalgia in the downtown Arts District. After all, we’re eating lunch a hundred yards away from the site of the first HARD festival, which took place on Dec. 31, 2007.
Only seven years ago, both neighborhood and nightlife enterprise seemed unlikely financial bets. The now-vibrant streets were sketchy after dark; the prospect of an L.A.-based, globally touring, dance-music powerhouse seemed remote.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Richards recalls of the first HARD, at which he performed along with Justice, A-Trak and Steve Aoki. “I had to get a motion from the City Council to shut down these streets. The fire marshals had to explain the importance of fire lanes to me. Our VIP section was in the middle of a warehouse.”
It’s easy to infer that Richards rode the wave at the right time. Daft Punk’s 2007 Coachella performance stirred a West Coast dance music revival that’s never crashed. But the reality is that Richards spent a dozen-plus years waiting for everyone else to catch up.
In his first act, the former Fairfax High student helped usher in L.A.’s first electronic awakening in the early ’90s, promoting raves and DJing under his Destructo alias. The name for the Electric Daisy Carnival came from a legendary party that Richards threw on a farm, complete with Ferris wheel and fire breathers.
Later, Rick Rubin handpicked Richards to run the electronic division of his Def American Recordings. Richards eventually went on to found his own imprints, 1500 Records and Nitrus.
But outside of Moby, The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, Americans largely refused the synthesized trends that swept Europe.
“All the things that stopped us from being able to get ahead, like radio and MTV, aren’t all-powerful anymore. The iPod era made everything blurred,” says Richards, wearing a gray T-shirt and Ray-Bans on an overcast afternoon.
“I used to tell the record executives that computers and digital technology would fundamentally change the way that people would make and consume music,” he adds. “They looked at me like I was crazy.”
His HARD bills have consistently reflected Richards’ diverse tastes. There’s a balance of big- and small-room techno and house, concussive bass, hip-hop and all drum machines in between. At last year’s HARD Summer, Disclosure and DJ Mustard simultaneously warred for most frenetic dance floor on opposite stages.
Selling HARD to Live Nation in 2012 freed Richards to more deeply pursue his first loves: DJing and original production. He remains the CEO, presiding over his company’s continually expanding slate of festivals, cruises and tours, but also plays dozens of solo dates as Destructo.
His most recent trek came in support of his West Coast EP, released on Insomniac/Interscope last fall. For vocals, Destructo recruited left coast rap legends from past and present: Too $hort, Warren G, Kurupt, Y.G., Problem, Ty Dolla Sign. It’s technically hip-house, but unlike the candy-colored house/hip-hop hybrid of the early ’90s, this version is much harder.
“There was no agenda to get on Power 106 or have a pop hit,” Richards says. But the EP’s raunchy tracks are precision-targeted to turn raves ratchet. He displays a picture of the crowd pandemonium from a recent sold-out tour date in Charlotte, North Carolina. In Auckland, New Zealand, songs from the record have become some of the region’s “most Shazamed.” Over the last seven years, few have so successfully brought West Coast parties to the world.
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“We just wanted to make stuff that we dig, that I could play at the club and at our shows,” Richards says. “Something sexy and smooth that gets people getting down, hooking up and having a good time.”