A fundamental force in L.A.'s dance music underground since the early ‘90s, antediluvian days of rave, DJ Santiago Salazar is still making bodies move.
Salazar, known to friends and loyal fans as Santi, is admired by techno cognoscenti in SoCal and beyond as a world-class talent with a big personality. He is also considered by some to be a little underrated, despite his longstanding relationship with legendary techno collective Underground Resistance and numerous releases on respected labels like Planet E and Rush Hour.
As a kid growing up in Bassett (near La Puente, 20 miles east of Downtown L.A.), his earliest exposure to dance music came from the backyard parties that are a ubiquitous part of life in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.
“Every weekend there would be maybe three backyard parties on my block or the next block down. Back then, they were playing everything from Italian disco to high-energy early rap music, and I was engulfed by all of those sounds,” Salazar remembers, speaking by phone.
“We were too young to actually go to the parties, so we would just peek from the back fence. That made me want to be a DJ, because I saw how the DJ would make all of the people dance.”
Later, he discovered house and techno through mixtapes that his older brother brought back from gay clubs in L.A. Inner City’s “Big Fun,” a genre-defining Detroit techno track and an international hit for Kevin Saunderson in 1988, made a particularly lasting impression.
Soon, Salazar started to DJ at after-hours clubs around the city, including the Beverly Room, the Studio and Graveyard Shift.
In 2002, he relocated to Detroit to study the finer points of music production with Mike Banks of Underground Resistance.
“I basically sat in a studio with him for about a year, being kind of like his engineer. But, at the same time, he was teaching me everything he was doing,” Salazar says.
“And he was doing stuff the old way, with the reel-to-reel and ADAT — stuff that I wouldn’t use now. But seeing the way he’d build a track and the way he’d edit it, I applied his teachings.”
Salazar returned to L.A. in 2006, where in recent years he founded several labels: Major People, Ican (as in Mex-Ican, with Esteban Adame) and Historia y Violencia (with Juan Mendez aka Silent Servant). His latest project is a forthcoming debut full-length album titled Chicanismo.
The album, Salazar says, is informed by Detroit techno, but also uniquely influenced by Latin music — and fond memories of those backyard parties — with tracks named “Sucio Beat #3,” “Mama Paz” and “Varrio2Varrio.”
“Growing up here in Los Angeles, around a lot of Mexican-Americans, growing up like a Chicano … that’s what I’ve always been about,” explains Salazar.
“I think [the album] stands out from the modern style of techno. Everybody is making their stuff really cold, with a technical aspect to their project. I wanted to give my first album a Chicano feel.” Originally slated for a May 19 release, Chicanismo was delayed but will be out September 7.
Salazar has come a long way, from daydreaming of DJing those backyard parties to playing trendy nightclubs around the world, like Berlin's Panorama Bar. But he has kept a low profile, which suits him just fine (a recent video profile showed Salazar at work in his studio — and also at his less glamorous job as an elementary school custodian).
At a time when waves of commercial EDM are cresting from coast to coast, and DJs of questionable talent are raking in six-figure booking fees doing little more than pressing play, talking to a normal albeit gifted guy like Santi is a bit of a relief — and a reminder to know your roots and always respect them.
Santiago Salazar appears with Svengalisghost and Sage Caswell at 331 S. Boylston St., Downtown, on Thursday, June 4. Tickets and info.