Chicago house icon DJ Heather is working the crowd, dropping one bumping track after another. Her set partner, Colette, a fellow Chicagoan now based in Los Angeles, dances behind her. A happy assemblage of partiers — some dressed for maximum dance-floor comfort in thick-soled trainers and loose-fitting T-shirts, others to impress with sparkly hats and, in one case, a full bumblebee costume — lose themselves in the beats.
As Heather fades up her final track, a familiar figure in tinted glasses comes up behind her, greets her with a hug and plugs in his headphones. She leans into the DJ booth microphone and introduces him: Doc Martin, a man who's probably played more raves and warehouse parties in L.A. than any other DJ. The crowd on the intimate dance floor greets him with whoops and hands raised in applause.
In L.A., you might assume this scene was taking place in one of the city's more underground nightclubs: Couture, maybe, or Lot 613. Instead, it's happening at Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, at the 10th anniversary of HARD Summer, a festival more synonymous with the harder, shinier sounds of EDM, trap and dubstep than the slinky pulse of old-school house music.
Despite its EDM-rager reputation, HARD and its founder, Gary Richards, have long booked a smattering of artists and DJs who represent dance music's roots. The very first HARD event, a New Year's Eve party in 2007, featured one of the SoCal rave scene's earliest breakout artists, Uberzone, and subsequent HARD Summer lineups have included the likes of Erol Alkan, Josh Wink and Felix da Housecat — all veteran DJ/producers who have been active in dance music for 20 years or more.
Still, such bookings at HARD Summer, and other major EDM festivals across America, have typically been rarities — until recently. Some festivals have begun adding entire “old-school” stages to their lineups, and booking the veteran DJs with the biggest followings on their larger stages, alongside artists who in many cases weren't even born when rave culture first swept America in the early 1990s.
For the HARD 10-year — which, it was revealed just last week, will be Richards' last, as he's parting ways with his brand's parent company, Live Nation — the festival has opened its stages to more veteran acts than ever. On Sunday, the second of the festival's two days, Detroit-born house producer and remix specialist Marc Kinchen, aka MK, will play the mainstage; his first major club hit, a remix of Nightcrawlers' “Push the Feeling On,” dates from 1995. On Saturday, Richards enlisted New York–based DJ/production team Soul Clap to curate HARD's smallest stage, Corona Electric Beach, under the banner of their House of Efunk parties, “paying homage to the old school,” as the duo's Charles Levine puts it.
“I think Gary's got a real sensibility and a real appreciation for the history and the lineage,” says Levine, speaking backstage at Corona Electric Beach. “He's able to bridge gaps, which I think is so vital.”
It's at Corona Electric Beach — sponsored by the beer brand, which means giant EL wire beer bottles frame the DJ booth and the dance floor–adjacent bar sells only water and $13.50 Corona tallboys — that fans endure the sweltering San Bernardino sunshine to enjoy the house triple-threat of Heather, Colette and Doc Martin. Later, '80s electro legend Egyptian Lover takes the stage and brandishes his 808 drum machine like a sacred relic, tapping out clattering drum beats and leading the crowd in a chant of, “8-0-motherfuckin'-8!” Then, following a funky set by the Soul Clap guys (accompanied by some dancers in literal “house head” costumes, wearing house-shaped helmets and matching onesies), German legend and BPitch Control boss Ellen Allien closes out the night with the kind of sinewy, propulsive techno seldom heard at American EDM festivals.
Such scenes, Colette is quick to point out, once were common at larger raves and dance music festivals; it was only with the rise of EDM over the last eight years or so that veteran artists (“I'm not mad at the word 'veteran,'” she says; “I like it better than 'old-school'”) became scarcer on the big lineups. “When I first moved to L.A. in 2000, I played all the raves all the time. I played EDC eight years in a row,” she says. “In clubs this music is still really relevant, but for whatever reason, the big raves, the big festivals are not paying as much attention to it.”
Her tag-team partner, Heather, echoes this sentiment. “When we were asked to play this event, we felt like it was out of the blue,” she says, but notes that when she found out the Soul Clap guys were behind it, “It made sense.” And she agrees that in just the last couple of years she's noticed more festivals “have tried to give a nod or an homage to what got them started in the first place.” The previous weekend, she played an “old-school house” stage at the Panorama festival in New York, alongside fellow Chicagoans Derrick Carter, Honey Dijon and Miles Maeda. “It was nice to have a stage that was dedicated to solid house music.”
Such bookings are a promising sign not so much that EDM is falling out of fashion — despite many think-pieces and articles pointing to an “EDM bubble,” the continued success of events like HARD Summer and EDC Las Vegas, not to mention the maddening popularity of Marshmello and The Chainsmokers, strongly suggests it isn't going anywhere — but that it's a maturing scene that's starting to acknowledge its own history. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on flavor-of-the-month producers and sounds, and letting older fans age out of the scene, mainstream dance music finally seems to be catching up to the idea that there's some value in recognizing a diversity of sounds, and catering to audiences who aren't simply waiting for the next drop.
“You don't want to live in the past, but it's nice to pay remembrance to it,” says Colette, who notes that her own sets favor more recent material, including her own productions, but that she'll mix in the occasional “modern” rework of a classic house track. “Dance music has been around for 40 years and it has this great history, and it's so rich. It's almost overwhelming how much music is out there now. So I think it's great more promoters are offering a broader look into what's out there.”
This is Colette and Heather's first time playing a HARD event; for Doc Martin, it's his first HARD Summer but Soul Clap had previously booked him to play Holy Ship!, HARD's annual party cruise. Since 2015, Richards has split Holy Ship! into two departures, one of which leans more toward house and throwback bookings such as Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx.
Even though it's his first HARD Summer, for Martin, bringing his veteran's skills and sensibilities into this setting makes perfect sense. In the Southern California rave scene, “We all came up together: me, Gary, Pasquale,” he says, referencing both Richards and Insomniac's Pasquale Rotella, the man behind EDC Las Vegas. “To see two of the most powerful festivals in the nation come out of our circle of friends is incredible.”