In East LA during the early '90s, Latino neighborhoods were home to a thriving party circuit that laid the foundations for the city's dance music scene. Matt McDermott charts the history of this overlooked community.
This vision of LA is what's most often beamed around the world by film and television. Thom Andersen's landmark documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself, exhaustively traces the systematic manner in which the city's working people of color have been left out of the (motion) picture.
A cursory look at prominent dance producers from LA—Moe Espinosa (Drumcell), Vangelis and Vidal Vargas (Raíz), David Flores (Truncate), Martin Mendoza (Doc Martin)—reveals a surfeit of Hispanic surnames. This is no coincidence: the city's club and afterhours scene has its roots in the Latino community. The Latino east side scene of the early '90s was a training ground for many of the artists making moves in LA today. Yet no one outside of this community seems to know much about it.
One night outside Cole's, a saloon that's been serving French dip sandwiches in downtown LA since 1908, Juan Mendez, AKA Silent Servant, tells me about the Map Pointz Project. L.I.E.S. boss Ron Morelli had contacted Mendez about the Instagram, which colorfully documents the thousands of party crews formed by Latino youth in the early-to-mid '90s. "Ron asked me if I knew about this stuff," Mendez says. "I lived it. My first DJ gig was at a ditch party."
In LA, many Latinos caught onto DJ culture far earlier than their white counterparts. The disco, hi-NRG and freestyle scenes of the '80s, coupled with Latino DJs breaking house music at gay nights at clubs like the Mayan, laid the groundwork for a wild, highly competitive scene. Italo, new wave and freestyle led to house, techno and trance, backyard and ditch parties led to club residencies. Yet it seems this scene has eluded even serious students of dance music history.
"Why has this never been covered? Well shit, we're in fucking LA," says Gerard Meraz, a DJ, academic and host of the long-running radio show Power Tools. "How many Mexicans do you see on TV or film? Or do they just go ignored? They don't want us here. To admit we're here is to admit you're on a stolen fucking land… They don't want to hear from the natives because it's too authentic, and they'll never catch up to that authenticity. We've been doing our shit for us and not caring about anybody else... Because if you go out into the big picture, yeah, we're just invisible. Here, we can be stars."
Meraz, who wrote his thesis on the East LA DJ scene, is working on a documentary about the explosion of Latino dance music culture in the '80s and '90s, but Map Pointz Project founder Guadalupe Rosales has taken a more informal approach. Rosales, formerly a member of the party crew Aztec Nation, posts photos, flyers, music and ephemera from the scene to the Instagram. On Map Pointz, you'll see snapback hats emblazoned with party crew names like SGV Kaos, Madness, Operation X, Acid Slave, The Wanderers, Seductive Ladies, East LA Q-teez, Midnight Pleasure, Freak Show, Swing Kids, Brown Authority, Cartel and Magnifique; footage from raves; YouTube videos of tracks that were big in the backyards; and '90s fashion that signified an alliance with various subcultural cliques: the cha chas (party crew members), the cholos (gangster style), the rebels (in the James Dean-meets-The Smiths sense) and the groovers (house dancers). Together, these posts lay out an intricate landscape of early '90s Latino cool.
Most of the DJs at the center of these party crews have since moved on or remain known only within their neighborhoods. For a select few, though, the east side scene was a pivotal step towards a career in dance music. Developer's mother bought him a turntable and let him throw parties at his childhood home to keep him off the streets. Santiago Salazar learned to mix in a cul-de-sac that often exploded into raucous parties or gunshots. Esteban Adame and Nomadico went on to find kindred spirits in Detroit's legendary Underground Resistance crew, who grew up with the same music, backyard parties and racism faced by east LA natives.
In Detroit, the Electrifying Mojo laid the building blocks for house and techno with his Midnight Funk Association show, fearlessly mixing funk, new wave, Italo and freestyle, and capturing the imaginations of the young black kids who would go on to invent techno. The Latino DJs of '80s Los Angeles were mixing the same records. "If you were lucky you had older siblings and cousins who came from the previous generation," says Nomadico, whose sister was part of a hi-NRG party crew in the '80s. "You didn't just start buying records and teach yourself," he says, describing the technical prowess prized within Latino DJ culture. "You actually observed some old-school '80s DJs who knew how to mix disco with live musicians… they would keep that shit locked."
Isela Salazar, Santiago's wife and collaborator, was a member of the Ladies Of Eternity crew. Sitting down with tacos in Highland Park, the Salazars reminisced about the '90s. "Your uncle Willy was a DJ… he was part of the Teddy Boys," Santiago remembers. "They were a big party crew when we were kids."
"Every weekend we got together at our house and Willy would play everything," Isela says. "He was playing freestyle, new wave and house and soul."
"I interviewed a lot of DJs from the '70s," Meraz says. "At that time, everyone was in a band in LA. The next moment everyone was a DJ." This cultural shift came with the rise of disco, which led to the hi-NRG and freestyle scenes, as well as Latino DJs like Fabian playing house music at gay parties. The dance floor also offered a temporary reprieve from the gang violence that plagued east side communities. "LAPD records show that gang activity was at an all-time low between '81 and '88, because everybody was disco dancing," Meraz says.
Meraz began his rigorous academic study of the scene after years spent DJing and hosting the Power Tools radio show late nights on Power 106. He started off as a member of the Wild Boyz DJ crew in the latter-half of the '80s, as hi-NRG and disco moved aside for house music. In Chicago, innovators like Mike Dunn got their start playing parties in their high schools, which was also true of LA's first generation of house and techno DJs. In the mid-to-late '80s, east side high schools were so besotted with DJs that some established a new position: dance commissioner. At Lincoln High School, Meraz served in this role. At Franklin High School in Highland Park, now home to Stones Throw, the record shop Mount Analog and the LA outposts for Warp Records and NTS Radio, Richard "Humpty" Vission served in that capacity. "We controlled all of Highland Park, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and parts of City Terrace," Meraz says. "If you wanted to throw a party in that area, you had to include us."
This territorialism would give rise to the party crew culture of the '90s, a second generation of house heads who looked to Vission, San Francisco transplant Doc Martin and Tony Largo for inspiration. It was a generation that was left behind by the public education system.
"I was a substitute teacher in the early '90s at the high schools up here in the east side," Meraz tells me. "The schools were totally corrupt, ready to crumble. I was in a classroom in Hollenbeck, they hadn't had a regular teacher in months. They just had a series of substitutes. I was like, 'What the fuck, have you guys learned anything?' There were a lot of people that didn't even show up, I was like, 'Where are they at?'" A lot of times, the answer was ditch parties.
A 1993 Fox News report sensationalized ditch parties as being full of youths skipping school to get high. In the broader context, these were kids walking out on a dysfunctional school system.
"It's a bunch of kids who just do whatever the hell they want because the public school system sucks, and their parents are both working full time," says Nomadico, whose crew was called High Fidelity. "My mom was gone eight hours a day. My sister was older, so she was doing her own thing. It's like, 'OK, I can cut out at lunchtime, go to the ditch party, and still be home at four o'clock or 3:30 and be like, 'Yeah, I was at school.'"
"Girl party crews, guy party crews dancing to [Lewis Lovebump's] 'Mallorca,'" says Santiago. "It's 12 o'clock in the afternoon and we're having a big party in a backyard, all the party crews are there repping their hats and shit."
"These things would never last more than two or three hours," Nomadico says. "If it was a successful one it might go on to four or five in the afternoon, and then it's like, 'OK, my parents are coming home, you guys have to go.' Or the cops would show up if it was really successful."
Because ditch parties and weekend backyard parties would frequently get broken up, DJs would crowd the decks angling for sets, leading to a high-pressure, sink-or-swim feeling if you managed to play. DJs would play 15 or 20 minute sets, blending as quickly as possible, chop mixing, and unceremoniously getting the boot if their mixes went ropey or their tracks weren't doing the trick.
Nomadico says, "Yeah people were standing there like, 'What's up? Ain't nobody dancing, dude. No one wants to hear this shit right now, come on, man. You better change the music.'"
In the early '90s, classic New York house, a genre created in large part by blacks and Latinos, ruled the east side backyard scene. Adame recalls hearing Armand Van Helden's "Move It To The Left" immediately after walking into his first party. The scene would move from Nervous Records and Strictly Rhythm into UK rave, hard house, trance and gabber and hardcore.
"When early rave songs like T99's 'Anasthasia' came on people would climb speakers," Santiago says. "Everyone would throw their hands in the air. It was all those old UK jams. That and the Todd Terry tracks, [Masters At Work's] 'I Can't Get No Sleep,' these became anthems to us."
"Suburban Base. All that proto-jungle stuff was huge," says Nomadico, describing the eventual subtle shift to breakbeats. "Or anything you could speed up. At one point I remember [Suzanne Vega's] 'Tom's Diner' would play at 45—duh-duh-der-der-duh-duh-der-der—and everyone's like, 'What? What are you doing?'"
Meraz refers to playing records on 45 and pitched down as "LA style." "We'd call it 45 minus," he says. "'I Can Feel It' by Rex Abe, 45 slow. 'Plastic Doll' by Dharma, this is all Italian shit, Italian or French and Canadian. 140, 150, 160 BPM—we were into it, we didn't give a fuck."
The drama behind the decks reflected a chaotic scene that could explode into violence or transcendence, depending on the day. Meraz's thesis, written in 2004, names the various subcultures represented in east side backyards: "The Rebels, Wildstyle, Mods, GQs and The Cha Chas."
"The atmosphere of the party was such that there'd be gangsters in the corner, there would be rebel guys that looked like Morrissey," says Developer, real name Adrian Sandoval. "The hippie guys on this corner, the graffiti guys on this corner, the new wave kids—it was this mix of people at your party, there were these little huddles. And then you have ravers—and the gangsters always fucked it up. They'd be there and they'd start shooting, and then everybody would go down."
For Sandoval and many other young Latinos from neighborhoods permeated by gang violence, the parties and crews were a safer space, despite these violent interludes. "As cliché as it sounds, I'm one of the people that falls into the 'techno saved my life' group," he says. "I was really into graffiti. When I was like 14, a lot of my friends were getting into gangs because that's where you go if you're a graffiti guy, and the gangs just start to recruit you in. So I was in and out of jail a lot when I was really young. My mom didn't want me to get shot in the streets, so when I was able to save enough to get a turntable, my mom helped me out to get another one. She said, 'You can do the party stuff, but you gotta do it here.' So that's what I did."
For many, joining up with a party crew was a way to rep one's clique away from the violence. While gang culture tugged at the periphery of the '90s backyard scene, it was mostly initiated by gang-affiliated "Cholos" drawn to the backyards by loud music and girls. The lifeblood of the scene—the party crews promoting, DJing and dancing 'til the police came—saw the scene as a way to go out, dance and hook up while avoiding the gang lifestyle. But growing up in East LA in the '90s meant growing up surrounded by violence.
"I got my shit jacked at gun point," Adame tells me. "Yeah, by some gangsters. They saw me rolling up with my car and my bag. 'What you got, man?' 'Just some records, man.' 'They're my records now, dog.'"
For Mendez, the gang element in the scene was enough to make him keep his distance. "I was coming at this from an outsider's perspective, from a strictly music point of view." Mendez was traveling to bigger raves in downtown LA from his home in the east side while checking out the backyard parties. "It was this romantic era," says Mendez, who was a Morrissey-obsessed "rebel" long before the look caught on with the party crew scene. "It was something that people could pour themselves into."
Rosales, meanwhile, gained a crucial sense of identity from her membership in Aztec Nation. "I got in the van and there's like 11 heads in there, and everyone's just listening to house music, screaming Aztec Nation," she says about her first trip out with the clique. "We get to the party, and it's the same thing, everyone's screaming out their party crews." Aztec Nation would sometimes break into warehouses in the desolate section of downtown LA that's now been rebranded as the Arts District.
20 years later, Rosales, an artist and accidental party crew historian, is able to contextualize the era. "We were creating these spaces because the world wasn't giving them to us," she says. "It didn't matter how long they lasted. What mattered was that we had that moment. It's something that to a lot of us was political. It was a way to survive. I think a lot of people ended up taking it to extremes, whether they moved on, or they went and they got involved with gangs or drugs. There were also people who became successful DJs or amazing graphic designers, who are businessmen because of that, you know?"
"The main virtue to it is that it took resourcefulness and it took initiative," Nomadico says. "It's just like graffiti, it's just like hip-hop—what are you gonna do, just sit there and be bored out of your ass cause the teachers suck and everything's underfunded? You charge two dollars at the door, then you're charging three dollars for the nitrous balloons. It's where entrepreneurship comes from."
The scene arguably peaked, musically and as a cultural phenomenon, in '92, though it hung on in some form until the late '90s. Everyone has a different answer as to how it fizzled out. Many recall the taggers, who were a fixture of the backyard parties, becoming more violent and territorial as time went on, eventually indistinguishable from actual gangbangers. This made the scene dangerous. Adame attributes the end to a decline in the quality of music played—Strictly Rhythm led to Dance Mania, Dance Mania led to unremarkable hard house. The young ravers who had experienced the ditch scene's early-'90s apex were soon old enough to attend clubs and warehouse parties that wouldn't get shut down just as the night was getting started.
There were also promoters who became emboldened by their success and went on to throw larger, better-organized events. Similarly, established outfits took notice of the east side's momentum—URB Magazine even had a "west side" and an "east side" column—and sought to pull both scenes together, bringing blacks, Latinos, whites and Asians onto the same dance floor. As Meraz points out in his thesis, this is the mestisaje, or "mixed" sensibility, an "ability to accommodate many different identities at the same time," a cultural characteristic that may explain how those who weren't directly involved have little notion of the east side scene's importance.
Of course, many just moved on, dismissing dance music as a fad, a teenage preoccupation. Adame says he runs into old classmates, tells them he's still producing music and DJing, and is met with responses like, "Oh, I remember techno."
Still, the backyard scene gave each of the producers interviewed here the bug. They'd soon crisscross the city, heading to record shops like Beat Non Stop on Melrose, the center of Los Angeles rave culture. Eventually, these lifers would sniff each other out at record stores and radio shows, teaming up to book the likes of Rolando, Regis and Surgeon, before making their own inroads into the Midwest and European scenes.
Nomadico, Adame and Salazar all ended up heading to Detroit to work under the tutelage of "Mad" Mike Banks at Submerge. "Rolando specifically came out of the old freestyle sound, so he knew a lot of the same records that we knew growing up," says Nomadico. "Different cities, but we're all brothers from another mother in that sense."
Sandoval, who honed his DJ skills in his own backyard in Pomona, eventually talked his way into a radio show on the college station in nearby Claremont and started getting booked for college parties. He'd mix Belgian hard techno with Detroit records, sometimes playing 45 records in an hour. Sandoval befriended some well-connected Brooklyn producers while stranded after a show in LA. The connection led to him starting a shop and distribution company before he turned 20, becoming the exclusive West Coast and Central American distributor for Jeff Mills' Axis Records
After a lengthy stint as one of LA's most well-known techno DJs, Sandoval would follow the lead of Mendez and Salazar, who were already touring Europe off the strength of their records. In the mid'-00s, he locked himself away in Altadena, learning to produce and eventually releasing tracks on his label Modularz. When he took his first trip to Berlin with an armful of 12-inches, he discovered his records were already being rinsed all over town. Sandoval now splits his time between Europe and Los Angeles. "When you come from the east," he says, "you learn how to hustle."
Rosales would go on to attend the School Of The Art Institute Of Chicago. For her thesis show, she recreated a high school bedroom, full of the flyers and clothing that defined her Aztec Nation days. "I had the monitor playing Fox News, and the walls covered with flyers. My mom used to rip the flyers from our walls. [After the thesis show] she helped me remove these flyers from the wall, and she was being so careful." During a stint in New York, she longed for the east side culture of her youth and started the map_pointz and veteranas_and_rucas Instagram projects. The Map Pointz Instagram is now a meeting place for thousands of former party crew members, who contribute their own photos, flyers and memories, and use it to track down long-lost friends.
For the DJs who honed their craft playing 20-minute sets on dodgy equipment, the backyard mentality never goes away. Mendez tells me about a recent BPM afterparty, where Maceo Plex asked him to play back-to-back. "I wanted to see what his chops were like, and yeah, homeboy's a good DJ, it was fun as fuck," he says. "That's how it used to be: 'How well can you mix and what can you pull off?' It's what made you good."
"There were loads of us who kept on pursuing it, and even though you left the backyard behind, the central spirit of it stayed with you," Nomadico says. "Santi told me that when he played with Laurent Garnier one time, Laurent started egging him on. They were doing a tag-team set, and Garnier yelled, 'What you got, Santi?' Santi was like, 'Dude, Laurent's pushing me like some backyard DJ!'"