Monster Massive DJ Steve Lawler on the mainstreaming of rave (again)
This summer was supposed to be the Summer of Rave in L.A. But the death of a young dance music fan after attending the Electric Daisy Carnival in June threw a bevy of high-profile events into a tailspin, leading to cancellations and logistical scrambling to meet new city-authority attention.
This Saturday's Monster Massive at the L.A. Sports Arena is one of the few major electronica events to come in the aftermath of EDC. The success or failure of the concert, which features a top-shelf lineup including Carl Cox, Moby and U.K. house vet Steve Lawler, could indicate whether the bustling L.A. rave scene is in recovery mode, especially considering that the sounds of four-on-the-floor beats and scintillating synths are now the default mode of most of rap and pop radio today.
We talked with Lawler about rave culture's second wind, and how it's still misunderstood in the mainstream.
So much of American pop and rap music is informed by the sounds and structures of techno and electronica today. How has that mainstreaming influenced or changed the ambitions that longtime dance music artists want from the genre and culture now?
I’ve never been drawn to the more commercial side of music. What excites me about music are things that are new and creative; the birth of something is always where it is most exciting, in my opinion. What tends to happen is artists ... start music trends and fashions and they go on to become commercial. By the time it has become commercial, we usually have been a part of developing and creating something new. Pushing a new direction.
And that’s the pattern that I’ve always found myself falling in. The whole idea of the R&B and hip-hop scene using elements of house, techno, and electro, I don’t really know how to view it. In one breath, it’s a good thing because it’s introducing new people to electronic music, but on the other part I feel like something has been stolen, because something that we have nurtured and created in the basements of the world is now being capitalized, marketed to death and commercialized and used solely to make money.
What this crossover has done [is] opened up electronic music to people who might have never listened to it before. What that means is, big events like Monster Massive and Electric Daisy Carnival will become busier and attract a much broader audience. You will find, in some cases, people may go to these events in search for their commercial fix and stumble across an arena with someone like myself or Carl Cox, Digweed, etc. playing and think, “I really like this, actually I prefer this than what I heard on the radio.”
I remember when I stumbled upon house music for the first time it was by accident back in 1989. Just by pure accident I heard this music and I then spent the rest of my life following it. So if this does open that door and bring more people in, then it’s a positive thing, in my humble opinion.
Obviously, dance music has had a much longer run in popular culture in the U.K. and Europe than its recent turn in the States, but it’s picking up at a rapid clip here. What do you find both challenging and exciting about performing for the younger mega-rave attendees in the U.S.?
I just find performing exciting full stop. It’s an addictive thing to perform in front of an audience, especially now, when you can be more creative as a DJ almost to the point of being live with loops and sound effects. So the whole point of performing -- whether it’s a crowd to 500 or to 5000 or to 50,000 -- the whole aspect of it excites me.
What you have to do as an artist is just be yourself. You have to be who you are and play the music you play and believe in it. You’ve got to present who you are. But what I would say for Monster Massive and every other festival -- when you’re playing a multi-line-up arena, and you’ve had people on before you bangin’ it, and you’ve only got two hours to perform…the difference between playing five hours in a club to two hours at a festival is that the two hours at the festival would be the last two hours you’d play at a club.
You know, you have to go in there with no messin’ around, no building up. Just get straight in and deliver for a big room, you know, a big crowd. Rather than build the whole night organically and take the crowd on a journey, festivals are about hands in the air, just go crazy.
Do you feel that the rise of the producer-as-superstar a la David Guetta or Tiesto is a good thing for the genre’s popularity, or a stumbling point for its musical development, or a bit of both?
Basically, I would hate to think that when people look back on this scene in 20 to 30 years time, it's remembered for the commercial crossover elements that were pop-dance. What David Guetta and Tiesto do works for them and they are happy, I’m sure. Their scene is pop dance now, but that is only a very small part of electronic music, and what I and many others do is not even considered the same scene in Europe. What I hope is that electronic music is remembered for all the sub-genres and artists of its colorful spectrum, and not solely the commercial area. That would be very sad.
What do you think has been both gained and lost in dance music’s transition from more impromptu, unsanctioned shows in off-the-grid venues into an arenas and mega festivals over the years?
One can’t survive without the other. You can’t just have a scene built around 100- or 500-capacity venues because it will disappear into obscurity. Our scene needs these big events so we can perform to bigger audiences. Introduce people to our music, sharing the music we are passionate about is what this is all about at the end of the day. We want people to hear our music. But we also need these smaller events so creativity can breathe. It’s where things begin. The basements of this world is where the creativity breeds.
How has music blogging (and instantaneous sharing of new tracks) changed the way DJs find and relate to new music? Is it more challenging to spin creatively knowing that everybody has access to the same tracks and are all reading sites like Discobelle for new material?
Well, the way that I have confronted that is I believe I have my own individual sound and Viva Music has its own individual sound, and when I perform, my set will be entirely either Viva Music, my own singles or re-edits that I’ve done of other people’s tracks on other labels. So even if I take a Radioslave track, for example, and I’m playing that, I will have done something different to it that makes it unique. And on top of that, when I’m playing live now with my controllers, X1 and Machine, and also Traktor, I’m introducing new loops over new tracks.
And if I choose to put a certain loop over a certain track, no one else has done that in that same order, which is going to make that track sound individually different. And that is what is really important for a DJ now. It’s the only way now that you can stay a cut above the rest and stay different, because years ago you could have a record or an acetate press that nobody else had, and that way you could stay different. But those times are gone.
This summer, many electronic festivals in L.A. had huge difficulties after a young girl died from an Ecstasy overdose. Raves had a reputation for encouraging drug culture in the ‘90s. How have you seen the role of narcotics change? Do you feel it’s still a prevalent aspect of the scene or do fans approach that element differently now? Do you think electronic music’s reputation in that regard is overblown or undeserved today?
These kind of questions are really hard to answer because first and foremost, it’s really sad to hear that somebody has passed away from a situation like this. And my heart goes out to her family. That whole aspect of this is terrible and very very sad.
I think, to be honest, anywhere you have big crowds of people you will find drugs. At football games in England, you’ll find drugs. Anywhere there are large groups of people there is going to be a drug problem. Drugs are just in culture today. Not solely associated with electronic music, they’re associated with music; with rock, with R&B, with hip-hop, with electronic. They are associated even with some sports. I think they are associated with gatherings full stop, and that’s something that will always be there. My view is I think there should be more help in giving people information.
If more effort was spent on that, making it safer for people, providing people with a safer, cleaner option, rather than just making it illegal, and trying to stop it, which they will never do. I think things would be very different.
-- August Brown
Photo: DJ Steve Lawler. Credit: Steve Lawler