Traveling to further one's career in dance music is a regular move these days. In Berlin, for instance, bohemian neighborhoods are populated by hordes of foreign artists drawn by cheap rents, packed clubs and easy access to other European cities. Most of these ex-pats pay lip-service to Detroit, but it's not often that you hear of someone actually visiting the Motor City beyond the odd tour date or for Movement festival. Salazar's pilgrimage began in an unlikely place: a dead-end block in Bassett, a struggling Latino suburb outside of Los Angeles.
When Salazar and I cruise through Bassett, he wipes his brow with his bandana and looks nervous. He left this town in his late teens and never looked back. It's not hard to see why. Growing up on his block was "kind of like living in fear," he says. "The neighborhood that I grew up in, a couple of my friends got shot, there was a local gang there. I was the first kid from my whole block to graduate."
The streets weren't always mean. In the evening, Latino neighborhoods are often full of music, and though Salazar says his block was "riddled by gangs," there was also DJs throwing parties every weekend, playing everything from cumbia to early house music, R&B, funk and hi-NRG disco. "There was always something going down," he says, "whether it was a gunshot or a party." While his associates from Detroit were getting an FM education from Electrifying Mojo, as a youth Salazar stayed up listening to KDEY-FM, where DJs like Tony G and Julio G mixed up LL Cool J with bouncy electro like Soul Sonic Force.
This heady mix of gangs, block parties, DJs and radio jams inspired Salazar's first interaction with music. He started off as a B-boy, and it wasn't long before the vinyl bug bit. "I didn't start DJing until my sophomore year in high school," he says. "I got a job as a bag boy at a local market. I saved my first couple paychecks for my first set of Lineartech turntables and started spending all my paychecks on records. I'd spend like $200 or $250 a week, I had a bad habit, I didn't save nothing."
In a way similar to fellow Angeleno Dâm-Funk, local gangbangers gave Salazar the hood pass thanks to his involvement with music. As we drive through Bassett's back streets and cul de sacs, he tells me how his mother would let childhood friends who had entered the gang life come over and listen to records, as long as she recognized them from back in the day. But getting on the decks took guts. After an early DJ gig during his high school lunch hour, Salazar sought to muscle into the outdoor parties that happened in his hood every weekend.
"Whenever I would get a gig, there would be 20 DJs on a flyer and each DJ could only play like two records a piece," he says. "As soon as you picked up your vinyl, the next dude would just pick it up, unplug your headphones and plug their shit in, unless you were dominant."
Salazar's high school years also brought about his initial encounter with Underground Resistance. After he bought his first car, a Hyundai Excel (widely regarded as one of the least reliable models of the '90s), he drove to a record store in Hollywood. The shop didn't have many dance records, but they'd chosen their selection well—the electronic section was made up entirely of UR and Plus 8 12-inches. "I remember the first UR record I heard was X–102's 'The Rings Of Saturn,'" he says. The record blew him away. "They had infinite loops in there, each loop meant a different ring, and I remember the flipside played from the inside out. I was like, 'Who does this stuff, what is this?' I was just stuck. Anything UR or Submerge I had to at least check out. I was first on the list."
In a rare interview, Banks once revealed his dim view on European interest in Detroit techno. "I wasn't in no hurry to get over there, and I still ain't," he said, "cause ain't nobody reaching back and doing shit for us or our kids. So it's up to us to do and make them high tech. We got whole neighborhoods, the neighborhood Submerge in, nobody got internet, nobody got cable... ain't nobody reaching out to them."
Banks's interest in music as a vehicle for the betterment of minority neighborhoods made him take note when Salazar, by then a deep UR obsessive, rang up Submerge in '96. "I was one of the first Latinos to call from LA," Salazar says. "We just clicked, so I started to be his Submerge guy out here. They would send me all the promos and I'd go into all the shops slanging the new releases. They started to call me 'the Detroit guy.'"
Meanwhile, Salazar scored his first DJ residency, one that made Bassett block parties look tame by comparison. He took over a 12 AM to 6 AM shift at the Beverly Room, located in LA's Rampart Police District, a division so synonymous with corruption it served as the basis for the 2001 Denzel Washington film Training Day.
"I remember my friend and I used to roll down to the club on Monday night by 11 o'clock, we'd park anywhere we could find," Salazar says. "We'd buy Boone's or cheap wine, we'd just sit and drink there. One time the Rampart police came, we weren't doing nothing illegal, nothing crazy. They came and just ran up on me, pushed me to the floor, put a gun to my head, got my wallet, checked my ID. The other guy had a gun on my friend, then he said, 'OK, let's go.' That was the Rampart police, they were known to do crazy shit like that for no reason."
Inside the Beverly Room awaited another group of shady characters. The Monday night shift was never very crowded, with about 25 to 30 tweakers for whom the weekend never quite ends. Salazar says the decidedly sketchy residency, especially the tendency of regulars to threaten him when he wasn't playing to their tastes, sharpened his skills behind the decks. One well-behaved denizen said, "If you don't get off the decks, I'm going to kick your ass." Salazar recounts: "I remember just being scared like, 'OK, I'm going to go home and practice!' I'd literally be playing scared, this guy is in front of me like, 'C'mon! Make me dance!' Finally, this guy came in and he was like 'OK, woo! You're doing it!'"
Around this time, Salazar formed a tight bond with fellow Latino techno freaks and made his first forays into production. He began working with Esteban Adame (with whom he works as ICAN) and Gabriel Ortega (AKA Aztech Sol and Dex Nomadico, who would also make the move to Detroit to work at Submerge). The connection with these producers and other Latino artists from LA often goes deeper than an affinity for 4/4 beats. Salazar's new album has a track called "Varrio 2 Varrio" (Varrio translates to "the hood"), a concept he brings up when talking about the close-knit community of Chicano producers.
"Esteban grew up in East Los, which is like Bassett, so I think that's why we all click," he says. "Silent Servant grew up in a little varrio called Westminster which is like a Vietnamese-heavy gang area, so he kind of grew up in that same thing... Developer grew up in Pomona which is notorious, so we all grew up in these areas that were just gang-ridden, and kind of made us."
Being used to down-on-their-luck neighborhoods, Salazar didn't blink when he arrived in Detroit in 2002. He moved in December, the deep of winter, with his wife and young son following six months later. Soon he'd woven himself into the fabric of Underground Resistance's faceless collective. Having never played a gig outside of LA, he quickly toured Japan as part of Marc Floyd's Chaos project.
"Right when I got to Detroit, Marc Floyd's band needed a keyboard player," he says. "I had my keyboard with me and they asked me if I wanted to practice. I said, 'I've got nothing else to do, my family's at home, let's do it.' Before my wife came I had already traveled with UR. I couldn't believe that I went to Japan as a UR member, but even then, I was just a keyboard player with a mask on."
When he wasn't doing his daytime duties at Submerge distribution, Detroit techno legends taught Salazar to mix and make tracks, a long tutelage that brought some harsh criticism. "I was doing video work for Submerge, janky, ghetto video stuff," he says. "I remember I'd submit tracks to Mike and he told me, 'I'm sorry man, I don't think you have it, I don't think you have the sound to put out music, you should stick to video.' I don't know if he said that on purpose or if he was being serious, but it pushed me to get more serious about music. He had already written me off. I had this track that I had just done I wasn't even going to show Mike it because he told me to stick to video, so I gave it to Ray 7 for his new label. Ray put it out, as soon as he submitted it to Mike for release, Banks called me up and was like, 'Yo, what's up, how come you didn't show me this track?' and I said, 'Well, you told me I don't have it, stick to video.'" The next day, Salazar met up with Banks and signed to Underground Resistance over breakfast at IHOP.
This crucial co-sign would precede releases on other respected labels like Rush Hour Recordings, Seventh Sign Recordings and Planet E. "If it wasn't for Mike, I don't think I'd be at the level where I'm at," Salazar says. "During my last year at Submerge I started to see my productions really take off, and I remember I did a remix of 'Raiders Of The Lost Arp,' which really got my sound out even more because it was labeled as a DJ S2 Los Hermanos mix." Listening to the 2007 remix, it's not difficult to understand why the version was a turning point in Salazar's career. It's techno soul of the highest order. Rhodes chords dance around an unfussy Roland pulse, with a hands-in-the-air synth breakdown demonstrating Salazar's knack for dramatic musicality.
In 2006, after signing to the label, making headway as a producer, and serving as an integral part of revered UR outfit Galaxy 2 Galaxy, Salazar and his family moved back to LA. His techno journey has become so associated with UR and the Motor City that LA locals sometimes forget where he's from. "It's crazy, I think a lot of people think I'm from Detroit," he says, "but I don't rep Detroit, I rep La Puente, Bassett." Just as Detroit legends like Derrick May became superstars in Europe while remaining unrecognizable on home turf, Salazar returned to life as normal in LA, albeit with a thriving solo career and the skills to run his own record labels.
The next few years saw Salazar signing ICAN tracks to Planet E and starting a label of the same name with his collaborator Esteban Adame, coining the Historia Y Violencia label with Silent Servant and laying down online mixes at a prodigious rate. All the while, he was out in Alhambra, a city not far from where he grew up, but a considerably less hectic place to raise his son.
In a short documentary from earlier this year, Santiago's Theme, director Alvaro Parra and Heyjin Jun capture Salazar using a Korg Volca Beats while on lunch break at work—for years he's been a janitor in his local Public School District. "When I worked at Submerge, my job there was mail order and uploading audio to the website for our releases," he says. "I would go home and the last thing I wanted to do was work on music. I think having the job that I have now as a custodian, even though I'm not in love with it, when I have time off, all I want to do is work on music. So in a weird, kind of sick way, the job has helped me be creative. If I did music 24/7, it'd be hard for me to have the original ideas that I think I have... Working as a custodian kind of helps me out."
Salazar's debut album, Chicanismo, traces his journey from Bassett to Hollywood to Detroit to the Rampart District to Alhambra. Its ten tracks were made over the last decade, pulled off DATs from his archives. Salazar met Love What You Feel label proprietor Tom Cox, one-third of Pittsburgh Track Authority and an outspoken advocate of Detroit dance music, back in 2002 in Detroit during what was then called DEMF, and they've stayed in touch for over a decade. After traveling to LA for one of their gigs last year, Cox and fellow PTA member / Love What You Feel label boss Preslav Lefterov realized that Salazar, who has about 50 12-inches under his belt, had never released a full-length.
The reason for this was quite simple: no one had ever asked. Around the time of the offer, Salazar had scored a DAT machine off Craigslist and was going through archives spanning back to 2005. The day after Cox and Lefterov asked for an album, Salazar sent them 25 tracks. He was happy to let the PTA guys, accomplished selectors in their own right, pick and sequence the tracks.
His description of the process is typically self-effacing. "I remember I heard Levon Vincent's album being teased and I was like, 'Wow, that's an album, I could never do something like that.' When PTA asked me I was just backing up DAT tapes from like 2005 or 2006, and I was like, 'Yeah, this can fly, this one could be released.' I remember I said, 'OK, I'll send you guys tracks by tomorrow.' I must have sent them 25 or 26 tracks and they picked the whole album from it, so I was like 'perfect.' They had the vision for it, I went into this album trusting them completely. It made it simple."
Though Salazar was comfortable handing over the reins, the record feels more like a proper album than most house LPs. He was able to take his time with these tracks, the oldest of which sound fresh after ten years and evoke an uncanny sense of time and place. Opener "Mama Paz," a syncopated Detroit-meets-East-LA roller, was recorded a decade ago. "UKB 2 LAX" was recorded during a 2006 UR Japan tour, UKB being the airport acronym for Kobe, Japan. That track has a peacocking synth solo that lends it an epic feel worthy of Galaxy 2 Galaxy, the group Salazar was touring with at the time. "Clark Park," named after a 104-acre expanse in Fullerton, and the title track were made earlier this year.
Chicanismo roughly translates to pride in the Mexican-American identity, which feeds into a political movement striving for increased respect and equality. For Salazar, the concept is more personal. When I ask him what the word means, he says: "LA, just like the culture here. I've been to a few cities in America and LA's unique, and I don't mean like Hollywood, to me there are just certain patches... especially the neighborhood that I grew up in. To me it represents that feeling, you know?" He's taken the gang violence and parties of his childhood, his pilgrimage to Detroit, his blue-collar jobs washing dishes and cleaning schools, and used these experiences to further the Latino dance music tradition. LA is often said to lack a house or techno style of its own, but maybe people haven't looked in the right places.