Booking a DJ to play electronic music in the Frank Sinatra Showroom, in the Cal Neva casino on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore, might seem like a sacrilege, or maybe a farce. Sinatra himself called it the Celebrity Showroom when he owned it in the early ’60s, and for good reason — he billed Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Marilyn Monroe on a regular basis. That sort of mainstream star wattage has never been emitted by a DJ, and probably never will.
Despite a hard sell of electronica and DJ culture as the Next Big Thing in the late ’90s, no one much buys the idea of the superstar DJ anymore. Shadow and Cut Chemist still shift units, whether online or in the Bay Area’s resurgent underground party scene, but the figure behind the turntables arouses little intrigue now. The notion that DJs might one day share dressing rooms with rock stars has pretty much come and gone. That a DJ might share ones once occupied by the Rat Pack just sounds absurd.
What, then, to make of the sold-out DJ show at Cal Neva one Saturday night last month? The headliner was Bassnectar, a 28-year-old Berkeley resident most widely known as DJ Lorin. Before the doors opened, a couple of young men in beards and knit caps stood expectantly in front of will-call, hitting people up in line for a “miracle,” Deadhead-speak for a free ticket. Snowboard types and girls with clumpy dreads sat next to veteran gamblers at the card tables. One young woman clad in Burner couture — platform boots, G-string, and a tiny swatch of netting across her breasts — elicited disapproving looks from the cocktail waitresses.
Quite a few in attendance had followed Bassnectar from San Francisco, where he had topped the bill of a sweaty Chinese New Year party at 1015 Folsom. Some fans took the two-show weekend as an excuse for a bender, but any Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas feeling was tempered by a certain crunchiness in the crowd — as if next morning’s hangovers were going to be treated with buckwheat pancakes.
Inside the three-hundred-capacity showroom, the performer was holding court on the fabled stage. As he cued up tracks behind a bank of gear (rather than turntables, he uses a laptop to mix audio files) Lorin jumped, shook, and headbanged behind a curtain of cascading, waist-length hair. Acting more as a conductor than a DJ, he conjured the music, not from the machines in front of him, but from the audience itself. He raised and lowered his fist in sync with the modulations of his trademark deep, wobbly basslines, telegraphing to the dancers when the next plunge was due.
At moments he seemed to be choreographed by Jim Henson. When mouthing Princess Superstar’s goofy lyrics from one of the rapper’s tracks he frequently plays, he raised an eyebrow and bounced his head like Grover. During a full-tilt drum-‘n’-bass buildup, he headbanged with the fur-flying gusto of Animal, the Muppets drummer. But then he would wash out the breakbeat rattling through the woofers with a soft ambient section and address the crowd on the mic, one of many dance-music DJ no-nos he regularly commits.
“We’re in the Frank Sinatra Ballroom, everyone,” he said with a wholesome grin. “Just think about all of our grandmas coming here to dance back in the day. You should go home, call her up, and say, ‘I fucking love you, Grandma!'” Pause. “Well, maybe not the ‘fucking’ part.” Then he went back to quaking like the rock star he’s not supposed to be. Bassnectar’s stage presence is intentionally, even defiantly antithetical to the stereotype of an aloof DJ dispassionately perched beneath a pair of headphones.
As they often do at Bassnectar’s gigs, the women responded to this enthusiasm in kind. Maybe it was the ghost of Ol’ Blue Eyes haunting the building, or the spell cast by the loop the DJ had specially prepared of the legend crooning same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine, but two women in front screamed, teenybopper style, and mimed throwing their panties onstage. Men whooped when he dropped a particularly grinding breakbeat. After his set, fans surrounded him.
Twenty-eight-year-old fan Jon Epsteyn had come from Reno for the show and said Lorin personalized the experience. “Right before he went on … [my roommate and I] went up to him, and I said, ‘Thanks so much for New Year’s, man. You rocked it!’ He gave me a hug and he was so rad. We thanked him, he thanked us, and the whole show just felt like a personal session with him.”
Such excitement, while perhaps not at the level of celebrity reverence for the man the showroom was named for, is still unusual for a DJ, especially a homegrown one. Celebrity DJs typically hail from Europe — the Bay Area’s most popular ones have typically been nonpersonalities. But Bassnectar’s sets consistently draw the largest crowds at Burning Man, a momentum he has carefully parlayed into a formidable presence in San Francisco’s aboveground club scene. For the last two years, the readers of Nitevibe.com, a local nightlife guide, have voted him the best DJ in the city. Many fans interviewed for this article reported having seen him more than twenty times, and a gaggle followed him on the biodiesel bus tour for his new album on OM Records, set for release next month.
A Bay Area DJ for seventeen years, Dutch co-owns the syndicated dance show Thump Radio and co-organizes Opulent Temple, a Burning Man camp that regularly books Bassnectar. Dutch says he has watched from the inside as every wave of local electronic dance music culture passed through the Bay Area. “If people get excited about one out of a thousand DJs,” he says from his home in Berkeley, “Lorin is the one.”
But he added that being a DJ for life is a career dead end: “It will get you there, but it won’t keep you there,” Dutch says. That’s a sentiment to which Lorin, last name Ashton, is keenly, perhaps obsessively attuned. When The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed him for an article on DJing, he went to great lengths to explain how he was not a DJ, befuddling the journalist and risking his inclusion in the piece. Indeed, Ashton is as media-conscious and pigeonhole-wary as any dance music artist today. He once sent me an e-mail of spirited objections after I referred to him to as a “raver-celeb” in an SF Weekly story — “rave” was an inaccurate description of his scene, and carried too much stigma these days, he said, both points that I conceded.
Lorin has a precise vision of where he needs to go next after eleven years as a successful (read: no day job) DJ, but when he tries to explain, it comes out more like the map of the London Underground than a simple arrow. He wants to play more with bands, but he doesn’t want to be slapped with the hippie label that afflicts the String Cheese Incident, the jam-grass band he’s been opening for. He wants to continue to produce dubby breakbeat dance-floor tunes, but his new CD, Underground Communication, features lots of straightforward hip-hop, complete with MCs. He yearns to shed the Burning Man stigma, but he doesn’t want to alienate his fans, either, the bulk of whom are hardcore Burners. And he wants to get political while playing the club circuit, that great shrine to apathy and indulgence. Oh, he also wants to get famous along the way.
“I know I’m kind of shooting myself in the foot for having so many interests,” Ashton adds after giving what he warned would be a fifteen-point answer to the question of what he set out to do on his new album. “I’m basically a marketing nightmare. I want to stay underground and still reach as many people as possible.”
The entertainer’s development from a hippie commune kid to a Jesus freak to a metalhead to a raver is as heterogeneous as his current career goals. Born in 1978, he was raised in San Jose’s Koinonea commune. “It was a bunch of conscious kids who were very open, sensitive, and theoretical, and they had a very charismatic leader,” Ashton says, sitting in a Berkeley park where he sometimes does yoga. But like many similar experiments, Koinonea took a dramatic turn when the ’80s hit. “The leader took them down this extremist Jesus path. When it broke up, my parents became born-again Christians.”
At twelve, Lorin was “hardcore into spreading Jesus,” so by high school, he says with a laugh, “It’s no surprise that the music I got into was thoroughly satanic.” After ditching Nirvana for being too accessible, he dove into Metallica, Slayer, and Pantera, followed by the death metal of Exhumed and Cannibal Corpse.
At least as alluring as the making and promoting of the music — he played guitar in a band called Pale Existence — was the subterranean network by which death metal spread. Sort of a pre-Internet Napster and MySpace, this “underground tape-trading and flier exchange movement extremely affected me,” he says.
His parents freaked out, but he was a gentle metalhead (“if not a straight-up pansy,” as he puts it) and he got good grades. On September 5, 1995, at the start of his senior year, he walked into a rave called The Gathering and before the first song ended, he’d stripped off his Napalm Death T-shirt and begun to dance. Not knowing how, he banged his head and flailed his arms wildly. Early in the evening, he bumped into a guy and, used to the machismo of mosh pits, braced for the worst. “Before I could apologize, he gave me a hug, said he was sorry, and walked off,” Ashton remembers. As the most effeminate of his friends, the one who left parties in tears after someone got beat up, he was “so ready to feel welcomed in a new scene. The music was foreign, but it was so loud and bassy, I didn’t need it to be any more hardcore. I loved the freedom.”
Ashton was born again, for the third or fourth time. But again he wanted more. He recorded techno versions of a few of his death-metal tracks after that first night. By his third party, he was a promoter.
Six months into his two-parties-a-week lifestyle, his friend suggested he give DJing a shot. “The thought of being a DJ had never entered my mind,” he recalls. Still, he found it surprisingly easy. Since he was throwing his own parties, his first gigs spinning were in the main room at peak hour. By the time he started college at UC Santa Cruz in 1996, almost exactly a year after his first rave, he had opened a psy-trance record store in downtown Santa Cruz, and his party crew, named Koinonea after the commune, was pulling off successful parties in the woods and in San Francisco warehouses.
Although Ashton loved the music at the time — psy-trance makes him cringe now — he ultimately saw it as a means to an end, a shibboleth that people with shared values united behind. But over the four years he spent immersed in the Santa Cruz scene after graduating with a major in community studies (think utopian activism), he became increasingly ambivalent about the rave scene and its relevance.
“The scene was very celebratory, and in that way kind of clueless,” he says. “It was a bunch of privileged people having a privileged party.” At the same time, DJ gigs were paying his rent, and because he was eager to play as many as possible, his schedule became grueling. What had started as a cultish devotion — he once thought it sacrilege for a DJ to accept pay — had become a career. In 2003, he moved to Berkeley to be closer to airports because he was often playing out-of-state multiple days a week. These days he plays mostly in clubs and festivals, and on the jam-band scene, but as recently as February he played a candy rave in St. Louis — sixteen-year-olds, warehouse, glow sticks — and afterward was touched to find that he had received more than two hundred messages via MySpace.
“As cheesy as I think the term ‘rave’ is now, and as much as I want to steer away from that entire concept, I’ll never forget my roots, and that’s where they are,” he states firmly. “The San Francisco and Santa Cruz scenes touched me so deeply, in a way that will never go away. I can see in 2007 being written off really quickly saying my roots are in the rave scene, but I wish every human could have experiences like the ones I had, because they opened me up. They transformed me completely.”
Until last summer, Ashton played his most infamous Burning Man sets at El Circo, a sound camp, a party-within-the-party allowed to turn the decibels up. Sound camps compete over which can create the most bacchanalia each night of the week-long festival, but getting a crowd to truly go off there is harder than it sounds. Sure, there’s a captive audience of more than fifty thousand Burners, many of them drugged up, hungry for dance music, and in various states of undress. But consider the competition: At any given moment, Dr. Megavolt could be using his eight-foot Tesla coil to shoot lighting bolts at a robot, or a six-story mausoleum built out of wooden dinosaur bones might be burning. That’s in addition to the dozens of other DJs spinning the same night on concert-grade sound systems flanked by open bars and trampolines.
Ashton, who has been playing at Burning Man since 1998, endeared himself to the El Circo crew when he first “smashed the dome,” as co-organizer and music producer Random Rab puts it. The dome in question is a massive wood and canvas structure that feels like a hot-air balloon being inflated, especially when women in gypsy garb wave fingernail-like torches around on its center stage. The dominant aesthetic at El Circo favors snakes, dreadlocks, fedoras, leather cuffs, exotic bird feathers, and elaborate eye makeup on girls and boys. Ashton often dresses down in a T-shirt and cargo pants, with a tangle of black bracelets on one wrist and just a touch of eyeliner. He nevertheless quickly became quite the androgynous sex symbol on the playa. “Time stops when the guy plays out there,” says Chris Smith, a longtime Burner and president of OM Records.
But beyond his look and the physicality of his performance, how exactly did he carve a steady following out of such a clusterfuck of distractions? Chris Wiedmann, a DJ aficionado who has seen Ashton play more times than he can count, thinks it’s as simple as “letting dancers rest.” Instead of churning out an endless series of peaks like many DJs, Ashton often brings the beat to a stop for extended beatless or downtempo stretches. On a desert afternoon that might register in the triple digits, that goes a long way toward keeping people on their feet. “He can really control a crowd,” concurs Tyrone Miller, a fan and fellow DJ. “One of the hardest things to do as a DJ is to switch up the tempo, and Lorin is a master of that. It often means switching genres, and it’s very hard not to lose people that way.”
Ashton also offered a new sound at a crucial moment. The desert festival had long been ruled by trance, the main rhythmic pattern of which is a frictionless glide that feels thoroughly white and unsexy. As the ’90s clubs went trance, he began experimenting with something quite different. Breakbeat is where he turned, a kitchen-sink genre that takes the syncopated drums first lifted from funk to drive hip-hop, then accelerates and mutates them a bit.
Breaks had come through the Bay Area party scene in various waves before, but Burning Man had been in a peculiar trance time warp for years. Ashton tailored a sound he called psy-hop to fit the mood of sub-parties like El Circo — lush synthetic melodies suggested consciousness expansion, but samples from nostalgic rap songs invited newbies in and offered a merciful ebb-and-flow pacing to keep them dancing. He first based it on tracks by British breakbeat artists Freq Nasty and Tipper, but soon was producing his own music.
“One thing that sets Lorin apart is that he’s always trying to read trends and follow what he thinks people are feeling,” says Random Rab, who plays with Ashton on occasion. “Sometimes before a show, we’ll have dinner and he’ll ask me what I think people are into right now, what the vibe is. He’s constantly trying to supply music that people desire at a given time, whereas someone like me, I’m coming from a more personal, what-I’m-feeling-like-playing-that-day mentality.”
As breakbeat became the de facto Burning Man sound, attendees who wanted to keep the flame lit between Labor Day weekends would follow Ashton to his frequent club gigs in and around the Bay Area. At 1015 Folsom, one could often smell when he was about to go on — hardcore Burners often shower infrequently even when back in civilization. Ashton’s MySpace page can feel like an online playa reunion.
DJ Lorin rode this wave, built on unpaid Burning Man gigs, into a billing at the top of the local club scene. Sam Khedr, owner of Nightvibe, recalls the showcase event for the site’s Top 10 DJ awards in 2005. Bassnectar had been voted number three, while Miguel Migs and Mark Farina, stalwarts of silky, upscale house music, took the top two slots. “The party was in Ruby Skye, which is this very glossy club — basically the house of house — where people go who dress up and are well-manicured and pedicured. And then you had the breaks people, who are more about the hippie love. You couldn’t imagine more different crowds,” Khedr says.
Because of Ashton’s schedule, he had to play after the top-ranked Migs. “Miguel was finishing his set,” Khedr recalls, “and I told Lorin to get ready. He seemed nervous — he had only played at grindy warehouses, and this was a big stage in a fancy place, and his people were dissing it. But he came out with force and Lorin’s fans went nuts. Miguel looked at me with the look of, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I thought I was witnessing a changing of the guard at that moment.”
Ashton harnessed the momentum from Burning Man expertly, albeit reluctantly. “There’s a notion in some places that I’m the Burning Man DJ, or the DJ for the girls with the strings in their hair and the guys with the cuffs and the leather hats, and that’s not what I stand for,” he says. He’s contemplating sitting it out this Labor Day, a move that would surely appall many of his devotees. But once you’re the biggest DJ at Burning Man, where can you go from there? Prince is the biggest star in Vegas, but is that something he puts on his résumé?
The easiest answer for Ashton would be to reign over the breakbeat movement, which is reaching the sort of hegemony in the West Coast party scene that trance held five years ago. When he shares a bill with colleagues Freq Nasty and Tipper, attendees number in the thousands and pay as much as 25 bucks a pop for the privilege. But, as Ashton’s manager Mark Davenport points out, “The electronic music scene in America is ultimately a very finite thing.” Judging from the pant legs of today’s cool kids, beat-fiend billows have been replaced by the skin-scouring tug of Ramones denim. The pendulum has swung from turntables back to guitars.
He might also become the DJ for guys who don’t listen to DJs. Since his performance at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, the jam-band scene has started to welcome him, which is a bit puzzling since he doesn’t jam and the tracks he plays aren’t composed by anything resembling a band. But here, too, he balks: “I kind of wish I didn’t have to care and people could accept it as music.”
People might accept it, but the industry will not. Contemporary products need a bold tag on the package. Of the markets on his list, hip-hop is the closest one to the mainstream he intends to access. It’s also by far the least plausible — a skinny, white, self-described pansy could have trouble getting into a hip-hop club, let alone playing it. Nonetheless, at least a third of Underground Communication has rapping on it, and its first video, “Bomb the Blocks,” features urban dancers of many colors strutting and breakdancing in the foreground.
Gunnar Hissam, vice president of marketing at OM, has wrestled with how to push Bassnectar since signing him a year ago. “You could put him on a trance bill and he’d be fine. You could put him on a jam-band bill and he’d do better. You could put him on a breaks bill and he’d do even better. But put him on a straight-ahead hip-hop bill? He could pull it off because he’s good, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. Unless it was a really progressive lineup, those guys wouldn’t know what to do with him.”
Ashton, though, has other reasons for following the road more taken. Hip-hop has long allured him as a once-pure form of protest music. And since he has a proven pedigree in beat science — a 2006 mix he did for the BBC was one of the rare electronica variations on hip-hop that hip-hop heads might actually respect — the approach could hit two birds at once. Through a re-empowered hip-hop, he could tackle politics while steering out of the lifestyle-specific cul-de-sacs of his other scenes.
Before Ashton comments on his intentions, he carefully provides a disclaimer. “It could be taken wildly out of context for some middle-class, white-boy, hippie DJ to be saying anything critical about hip-hop,” he says. “It can be turned into a race issue and a class issue really quickly. I am extremely aware of that, but I feel very serious about it, and I do want to contribute to hip-hop.”
His beef is that reactionary corporations have transformed this music of protest into what Ashton calls “this ridiculous circus of buttcheeks and shiny objects by misplacing the source of aggression. When you think about this music based on this African beat, and it’s not this silly white beat, it’s a heavy, disturbing, sexual beat, and then over that you have not singing, not making melody, but rhythmic, aggressive yelling. That genre could have done anything, but instead it’s become so goofy.”
While the bulk of Underground Communication is not overtly political — he says he doesn’t think of his CDs as activism — one of its main topics is “reinvigorating hip-hop as one of the ultimate forms of resistance music.” His mission to get hip-hoppers to actually hear this message does seem a bit quixotic. The rappers and vocalists he enlisted — Souleye, Persia, Seasunz, and Nibu, among others — are utterly unknown to the rap mainstream, and the organic grooves he lays down for them are many milieus away from what gets play on urban radio.
Ashton does plan to leverage any success garnered with this foray to attract rappers with more street cred for his next album. He particularly has his eye on Boots Riley from the Coup. But until then, most people who pick up the album will know him from Burning Man, the festival circuit, or the jam-band scene — he’s been playing with String Cheese Incident and Sound Tribe Sector 9 recently. Each of those niches is as middle-class, white, and hippie as he is.
Granted, hip-hop these days largely is, too, but what Ashton yearns for is a return to its era of pregentrification defiance. He’s not talking about joining the swelling ranks of “progressive” white producers and rappers carpetbagging to save the lost hip-hop inner city. He envisions a hip-hop driven once again by black anger turned outward. How Ashton will facilitate this is uncertain, and he concedes that he’ll have to proceed carefully because “I don’t want to flack gangster rap and then have gangster rappers come flack me.”
No one, though, can accuse him of lacking ambition. For Ashton, subcultures have always been movements to bleed for — from his death-metal one-upmanship to his rave-culture Puritanism, he has chosen obscurity over concession. Now that he has the attention of record labels, reporters, and his zealous fanbase, and the possibility of being the first Bay Area dance music DJ to cross over, he’s unwilling to put his agenda aside, no matter how much it might confuse, delay, or even jeopardize his career.
“I don’t want to seem like some dumbass hippie idealist who just thinks that we should all be saving the world,” he says, “but that doesn’t change the fact that I am trying to change things.”