In this excerpt from hew new book, NEVER BE ALONE AGAIN: How Bloghouse United the Internet and the Dancefloor, Lina Abascal tells the story of how the music spread through the Los Angeles area in the late ’00s via a network of local parties and promoters that included an important, and often ignored, Latino component.
There are concerts, there are bars, there are raves — and then there are parties. They may all exist under the same umbrella, but when you’re at a party-party, you know it; it’s the kind of night (or morning) you’re still laughing about with your friends years after the fact. The internet might have been what united the music of the bloghouse era, but the constant hunt for new tracks was a means to an in-person end: what good was a folder of the week’s hottest bangers if you couldn’t enjoy them out in the world?
Without an existing infrastructure in place to support the growing dance music underground, building an in-person element of the buzzing sound was crucial. While for years the scene flew under the radar of the industry at large and it was up to self-starting DJs and promoters to create space for it themselves, venues with capacities of a few hundred were consistently packed for non-ticketed weeknight parties, where the special guests could be anyone from DJ Medhi to a rare helmetless Daft Punk.
Of course, alternatives to traditional raves or Top 40 clubs had existed before the emergence of this rogue wave of dance music — mostly in the form of indie rock nights, ’80s throwback weeklies or the occasional DFA Records-style blend of post-punk and disco. But for the most part, these nights lacked the punk-inspired edge that informed the era’s harder, louder, messier sounds. Though this was hardly the first time parties transcended the status of an event to become more like a lifestyle (from Studio 54 to Paradise Garage to CBGB), social media 1.0 took digital promotion to a new level for over five years of “you had to be there” moments. Whether the lineup included bands like Shiny Toy Guns or The Presets, DJs like Kavinsky or Acid Girls, or a combination of anyone who happened to be in town, people trusted the promoters’ curation and showed up automatically, knowing it would be popping regardless.
The mid-aughts dance music scene felt like a rebel stepsister to everything that was happening in Hollywood, even if some of its best parties were just down the street. While loud, low quality MP3s blared on club speakers at both scenes, the styles and industry gatekeeping of the spaces people were two-stepping in varied. Left-of-mainstream magazines like BPM, Spin and Nylon began to crown new micro-celebrities and hot spots in Los Angeles and New York, but underneath what often felt like the same 200 people leading the party all over the world were groups of equally passionate, if less magazine-ready, promoters, DJs and party people outside of the urban hubs. One of the most overlooked of these was the Latino-dominated community thriving a few miles north and east of Hollywood. “Latino kids in L.A. get overlooked in so much of this, but they’re such huge parts of all of it,” said DJ Skeet Skeet, who grew up in Los Angeles.
“Latinos are at the forefront of every new underground dance music genre or scene, introducing it to the local scenes of Los Angeles and the Inland Empire,” said Cesar Ríos, DJ PAPARAZZI and co-founder of club DANCE. In suburban cities like Norwalk, Southgate, Covina, Downey as well as neighboring San Bernardino and Riverside counties, there were even more fans ready to dance to the same buzzing bloghouse hits than in Hollywood.
Bryan Linares, the marketing director of Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak label, watched this scene thrive both as a member and a spectator. Moving west from his hometown of Norwalk to work for Aoki, Bryan focused on the label’s two long-running events: Dim Mak Tuesdays at Cinespace (the venue would later go on to be called Dim Mak Studios) and Banana Split Sundaes at LAX. Dance music culture was not new to the Latino community; soon after the party crews within electronic music subcultures like the Groovers, Rebels, and Ravers popped up in the baggy pants rave scene of the ’90s and early ’00s, a new generation of dance-focused Latino party goers was born in the bloghouse sphere. “With Latinos, we just grow up dancing,” said Linares, “so we’re not afraid of that. With L.A. being so full of Latinos and the huge dance music scene, it makes sense: Latinos just flock to dance music.”
One of the most notable exports of this scene was a signature heel-clicking dance move that multiple DJs trace back to these wildly popular bloghouse parties. “You would go to a club, there would be a Mexican kid with a lip ring, doing this sort of shuffle dance. Then all of a sudden, everyone was doing it,” said BLOW UP San Francisco’s Jeffrey Paradise. Eventually making its way to the boots of every American Apparel model turned Cobrasnake muse, the move was a quirkier, more informal cousin to the tutorial-rich Melbourne Shuffle. It was unofficially dubbed the “I.E. [Inland Empire] shuffle” by DJs, promoters, and the dancers themselves.
“There were little clubs popping up. All the DJs would go out there [the Inland Empire] one day out of the week and DJ for clubs like Club Red. On Fridays we sold out the Fox Theatre in Pomona for a club we did called Matinee. Then on Saturday, we sold out the Gotham at Hudson which was a 7,000-person venue,” said Ríos of the bloghouse expansion into the Inland Empire. “They had their own Charlie Chaplin-like shuffle. All the shufflers came from I.E., and they would come out to DANCE and spread that movement, and a lot of L.A. people caught on.”
If attendance by pre-fame Lady Gaga or post-“Stars Are Blind” Paris Hilton were the barometers for success, then these parties would have been considered a failure. But minus the celebrity factor, parties like The Heist, founded by Mark Rodríguez, then known as Hyphy Crunk, drew in hundreds of dance fans weekly across the multiple venues they inhabited over the party’s run from 2006 to 2009. Rodríguez, a party promoter and DJ from East Los Angeles, started The Heist in Long Beach at Mensa Lounge, a 150-person capacity, 21-plus venue, as an alternative for people who didn’t want to make the trek to Hollywood. Quickly, it moved to The Airliner in Highland Park, miles away from Long Beach — leading Rodríguez to worry his audience wouldn’t make the commute. But just as he had always intended, The Heist’s brand was strong enough to get the fanbase driving northeast to wait in line at the 400-capacity venue.
Rather than attract one-off attendees with a headliner, partiers at The Heist came because they knew what they could expect every Thursday night. Like the most successful of its peers, The Heist was truly a party, not a concert or a club night. It wasn’t for a girls’ night out or a once-a-month bender; it was built into the weekly routine of its patrons. In 2007, The Heist moved from The Airliner to its final home, Florentine Gardens, former ’30s dinner theater turned Latin nightclub, right in the thick of the Hollywood the party was never concerned with.
“We turned it into an entire experience because we were finally able to financially survive,” said Rodríguez. The party’s combination of resident DJs and out-of-town guests attracted curiosity from locally buzzing acts like Moving Units, the dance-punk band featuring Blake Miller who collaborated with Steve Aoki as Weird Science, Shiny Toy Guns, a female fronted synth-pop band that made as much sense playing to small rooms as soundtracking pivotal Gossip Girl scenes, international acts like MSTRKRFT and big names like Kid Cudi.
“The Heist and DANCE don’t get the credit they deserve,” said Dim Mak Records’ Linares, “those parties were the reason Steve Aoki got so many fucking fans.” Linares insisted that Aoki perform at the buzzing parties, knowing they were hotbeds of fans waiting to be blessed with what their white, Hollywood or 21-plus counterparts were getting weekly. “Aoki never would have done it otherwise, because [The Heist’s Mark Rodríguez] wouldn’t have been able to afford him,” Linares admitted. “I never adjusted my door fees based off of a headliner, like, ‘Hey guys, we have Steve Aoki tonight, so I have to charge everyone $25,’” said Rodríguez. Tickets were sold at the door and if you got there before a certain time, The Heist was free. Early entry was $5, general admission was $10.
Often, artists approached Rodríguez asking to be involved. “Artists actually came on their own to catch someone or see them play their track, and then would look over like, ‘when can I do this?’ And we’d be like, ‘tomorrow,’” said Rodríguez. This was exactly how the late DJ AM came to perform at The Heist. AM lost his stage-diving virginity during his Heist debut and it wasn’t hard to see why: the party had the careless energy of a punk show mixed with the freedom of a house party, set to hard-edged dance music, for next to free.
Cesar Ríos, an East Los Angeles native (and one of the original roommates in the Los Feliz house nicknamed The Bloghouse), created his club night, DANCE, in 2007. The all-ages weeknight party, despite its Hollywood Boulevard location, attracted a less posh crowd that was willing to wait in an endless line, pass through metal detectors and do the I.E. shuffle on sticky floors. Ríos and the DANCE promotional team were never allowed to blatantly state it was an all-ages event, but word spread anyway. While adults didn’t want to party with the kids, plenty more kids with not many other places to go made DANCE their Tuesday night ritual. For every partier choosing Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak Tuesdays (21+) or Franki Chan’s Check Yo Ponytail (18+) down the street, hundreds of kids waited in line at DANCE. For the first six months, doors broke 500 attendees and before the first year was over, DANCE was seeing crowds in the thousands. To accommodate the eager attendees, doors opened at 8 PM and would usually reach capacity a half hour later. Headliners ranged from vibey deep-disco duo Classixx to glitchy electro producer Le Castle Vania to Trouble & Bass crew member AC Slater. “When we started DANCE, there wasn’t anything like it in the States. We were putting DJs on big stages and flying in artists two years before similar parties around L.A.,” said Ríos.
Compared to the notorious debauchery of Dim Mak Tuesdays or Banana Split Sundaes, the energy at DANCE and The Heist was fan-centric and unpretentious, leading the parties to slip under the press’ radar, both at the time and in bloghouse retrospectives. “When I’d go with Steve when he’d DJ at DANCE, it was 90 or 95 percent Latino. The Heist was like 90 percent Latino,” said Linares. “DJs that were doing the mostly white Hollywood hipster parties like Cinespace would get booked at these massive all-ages or 18+ Latino crowds. White kids weren’t going to dance clubs yet.”
Outside of the constraints of legal club venues, backyard parties were thriving; music fans of all ages could shuffle all night, drink cheaply and while underage and avoid commutes by staying in their hometowns. In Los Angeles neighborhoods from Compton to Downey to Pico Rivera, modest suburban homes were hosting DIY parties featuring dance-leaning bands and DJs playing simultaneously in their living rooms and backyards. “You didn’t have to be some rich white kid from Hollywood, which is hard for some white people to understand,” said photographer and Downey native Demian Becerra. “You could be someone that lived in a neighborhood that only spoke Spanish and still feel included in what was going on.”
“The backyard parties were wild — the music was raw and you pretty much saw everyone that lived in the surrounding areas,” said Michael Melwani, a photographer known then as Locotorp and native of Los Angeles suburb Huntington Park. Melwani was immediately sucked into the scene after attending his first party in 2007; a year later, he started a warehouse party called NuRave in Montebello, though it would later move to Highland Park. During the week, he would use a fake ID to mix with the older crowd at L.A. parties like Dim Mak Tuesdays and Moscow; but the weekends were for backyard parties or events his friends would throw at nearby banquet halls usually rented for quinceañeras. Using MySpace bulletins and profile photo flyers, DJs and promoters rounded up masses of high school kids to pay a small cover and buy jungle juice from somebody’s cousin in the kitchen. Soon, even outsiders were coming to the suburbs to party, a phenomenon born from MySpace and the instant intimacy of what still felt like a small scene.
Though The Heist was the favorite night of the week to regulars, the industry never seemed to have its eyes on what was happening inside Florentine Gardens. “I’m sure booking agents would look at the high DJ booking offers and be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ But they didn’t need us. So many kids were coming out, [The Heist] didn’t have to book anybody,’” said Linares. Rumors spread amongst promoters that industry reps were making fun of the Latino dance underground, condescendingly othering them as “those Hispanic kids.”
Eventually, outside competition and lack of industry recognition became overwhelming to Rodríguez; alongside the shifting landscapes of nightlife and the music industry, keeping The Heist alive in its purest form felt impossible. “It felt like the pressure was on us to deliver bigger talent, and that’s not how we wanted to handle ourselves,” said Rodríguez. “That was not how we ran our operation. That was never the point.” Even with its thousands of paying attendees, DANCE felt the effects of the scene’s growing saturation and eventual corporate industry demands, too. “EDM started to happen. And I hated EDM,” said Ríos. “Agents started to get more power over who we booked. Plus, my partners were like, ‘We got to start playing this stuff, it’s what the people want,’” he said of the stadium-ready sound that began to dominate soon after 2010. In its final years, DANCE was booking — and reaching capacity — late-era MySpace rappers T. Mills and DEV and Chucky mask wearing DJ BL3ND. Meanwhile, the world of backyard parties and illegal warehouse raves was suffering from similar frustrations. Suddenly, Melwani noted, some artists seemed too cool to play a warehouse when they could schmooze at Cinespace instead. Wealthy white industry types and people outside of these marginalized communities didn’t seem to recognize the value or legitimacy of the spaces they had created.
What was once a realm of pure fun suddenly needed to act like a business in order to survive. Attempting to counter the oversaturation, The Heist and neighboring parties caved and changed their focus towards headliners — less of a party, more of a concert. After booking the most expensive deal of his career with three major artists, Rodríguez recalled the agents mysteriously cancelling out of the blue. “It felt like my money wasn’t green enough,” he said. “Then out of nowhere, I would see the same artists booked at big venues for high-priced events produced by Insomniac. You look back and think, ‘Man, remember when we didn’t need headliners?’”
It’s something of a cliché to say that if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand — but the feeling of I.E. shuffling after hours in line for one of these dance parties was cherished by its few thousand underage regulars and the DJs and promoters who saw their potential, even if the scene remains underwritten. “No matter who we booked, there was a line at 7 PM. Artists and agents assumed all parties in L.A. were like that,” said Ríos. But they weren’t.