January 2011

WEB EXCLUSIVE On the House

The music DJs play to get clubgoers up and dancing is always evolving—but fans know it when they hear it by RAHA LEWIS

ALEXANDRA GORCZYNSKI

Defining house music is a tricky thing. Usually, it depends on one’s perspective. For those whose musical libraries ended circa 1978, house sounds surprisingly like disco. In the late ’80s, it turned electronica and, during the first decade of the 21st century, hip-hop segued into mashups of songs from decades past.

The term house music traces its origins to DJ Frankie Knuckles spinning (vinyl in those days) in the late-’70s heyday of the Warehouse in Chicago. Now it’s the mixes of Robin S., Armand Van Helden and Inner City that send die-hards onto the dance floor.

So, what exactly is house music to the DJs currently practicing it in L.A.? KCRW music director Jason Bentley defines it as “up-tempo in a pure form, like R&B.” Dave Dean, nightclub owner/promoter uses the catchall phrase electronic dance music. Marques Wyatt, L.A. godfather of the sound, says its “experiencing God through the four-to-the-floor beat.” Because there are so many subgenres—electro, techno, acid and indie—to cut down on confusion, Steve Aoki, DJ and founder of Dim Mak Records, just calls it dance music. But all of today’s top spinners agree on one thing: House music is, at the risk of sounding cliché, a leave-your-troubles-at-the-door genre of music that doesn’t discriminate.

What is spinning in L.A. clubs now evolved from the work of locals like Wyatt, Bentley and Dean. Wyatt was one of the first to start a house-music night, in 1988 at MAC’s Garage, a club that looked like a rec hall. Even without a liquor license, it “blew up and attracted everyone from Keith Haring—RIP—to Madonna,” says Wyatt. A decade later, he started the popular Deep nights at the Viper Room. In 1991, Bentley, at Loyola Marymount station KXLU, was playing what he considered indie music but which people would now consider house. And by January 2000, Dean started house-music club Giant, where fans came to hear top DJs—including Tiësto, Sasha, John Digweed and Deep Dish—spin them into nirvana.

“Ten years ago, house music was almost entirely at raves, for a very specific crowd of people,” recalls Matt Colon, partner at Deckstar DJs and former marketing director of the industry-staple BPM magazine.

Raves were huge then, but they were “illegal warehouse things,” says Bentley. “You had to get map points and figure out where they were. This was well before texting and emails. It was always an adventure.” Because of that, house had an elitist, “inside” tinge.

Then things started to shift, with larger raves bringing new audiences to new places. Daft Punk made its first U.S. appearance in almost 10 years in 2006 at Coachella. A bootleg DVD and YouTube clips were so widespread that the Coachella show became a viral phenomenon. So much so Daft Punk decided there was no need to release an official DVD.

Aoki and the late DJ AM experienced a meteoric rise as celebrity spinners in the know. AM started playing mashups—in which the likes of Joan Jett met up with AC/DC and Will Smith—and called them house music. Aoki started Dim Mak parties that became known as the hub of up-and-coming underground sounds. Partnering with AM, he started the dance-music night Banana Split at LAX in Hollywood. The public was ready, and the music exploded.

According to Kim Roussel, nightlife expert and owner of the popular post-club snack spot Kitchen 24, in the mid 2000s, celebrities were still stuck on hip-hop, while she was trying to introduce them to house music. When she opened club Cinespace in 2002, house nights were a flop. “The trendy Hollywood set didn’t mix with that crowd,” Roussel says. She credits U.K.-born identical twins Marc and Allister Blackham—aka the EC Twins...as in, Eye Candy—with bringing house music to the “trendy, trendy Hollywood scene” around 2008.

It was Jennifer Rosario, then at SBE, who linked the company’s senior vice president of nightlife, Costas Charalambous, to the EC Twins. In 2008, Hyde—once the axis of the A-list fast lane—was dwindling in popularity, and Charalambous thought, Let’s see if this house thing takes off, and he gave the club over to the DJs for one night. It went over so well, hundreds were turned away. Charalambous handed over other hot spots to the pair. They went from Hyde to Foxtail to Mi-6...and they made SBE’s XIV 2010’s Sunday-afternoon summer dance spot.

Wyatt attributes the genre’s growing popularity to major labels like EMI finally “having the balls to sign someone like David Guetta, who made his name as a DJ and is still a DJ.” To EC Twin Marc, the popularity of house is simple: “When there’s a recession and wars and political and religious unrest, nobody wants to hear negativity anymore. We want to just f--king party and be uplifted.”

Brother Allister confirms: “It’s okay if you’re a billionaire and you want to act a like big gangster in a club, but if you are actually living that crappy lifestyle, you want to go out and forget about it.”

In skinny jeans and T-shirts, the EC Twins crank out tracks by artists like Swedish House Mafia, Grum, Riva Starr and their own “Say Yes,” featuring Remy Le Duc. Club owners can’t get enough of what the two deliver: Beautiful women preening like supermodels, cannons that blow ice-cold air and confetti and fireworks that go off when $20,000 bottles of champagne are ordered. Las Vegas also recently cottoned on to the EC Twins. They were invited to perform at Haze and Surrender and recently signed an exclusivity deal for 2011 with the Tao group, which manages Vegas’ newest member of the club scene, Marquee. “We were the poster boys for dance music in L.A., and now we are going to turn Vegas into the Ibiza of the U.S.—starting January first with Kaskade at Marquee,” says Marc.

Even hip-hop artists are leaning on house for hits. Lil Jon is now collaborating with Aoki, Laidback Luke and LMFAO. “With hip-hop, we have to start pushing the tempos back up again,” he says. “Dance music makes you party...that is not going anywhere.”

So, what’s next? Bentley, who spent Thursday nights this past summer spinning at Drai’s Hollywood, says, “One sound that’s really exciting me right now is Wolfgang Gartner. He has just the right combination of elements—it’s hard enough, house enough and progressive.”

Still, what’s in vogue is very cyclical. “For a while,” he says, “dance culture will be the big thing, and then it’ll kind of wane.” Still, that decline might take a while, because clubs will continue to play music that defies classification and is hypnotically enticing.