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Can DJs put a political spin on things even if they want to?

EDM has gone mainstream, but performers who want to take stands face the instrumental nature of the music and venue owners who may disagree.

October 06, 2012|By August Brown, Los Angeles Times
  • Lawrence K. Ho,  / Los Angeles Times
Lawrence K. Ho, / Los Angeles Times (m8zyq7pd20121012114240/600 )

Last September, the DJ and electronica artist Adam Bravin (who performs as Adam 12) spun a set of hip-hop and soul at an Obama fundraising event at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. It was his second time DJ'ing a campaign event, and Obama's staff wanted him to come backstage to meet the president.

But on the way to the receiving line, a guest spilled a cup of coffee all over his white clothes.

"The only extra shirt I had in my car was one for a friend's drug charity that said, 'The only coke I do is diet,'" Bravin recalled. Fortunately, he also had a jacket that buttoned over the text, and when the Secret Service whisked him off to meet the president, Obama had nothing but compliments on his set.

"He said, 'Thanks for being my DJ,' and it struck me that we have a president who gets it, who understands what a DJ actually does," Bravin said.

Amid an explosion of DJ culture in America, that America has a hip-hop fan (the genre that invented turntable wizardry) in the White House is hugely appealing to many DJs and dance-music producers. Years after their craft found an audience at decadent festivals and high-rolling nightclubs, some DJs are joining with the Obama 2012 campaign and other activist causes.

But unlike rock and hip-hop cultures of past decades, today's DJs have different obstacles when it comes to musical activism. Given EDM's hard-partying culture, DJs worry that partisan stands might alienate escapist fans and compromise huge paychecks — especially when those checks come from mega-club owners in Las Vegas who are donating heavily to groups supporting Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

The question remains — if dance music is the new rock 'n' roll, is it even possible for DJs to effectively get political?

The origins of DJ culture and dance music are seeded with rebellion. Hip-hop artists from Public Enemy to NWA to Odd Future have challenged government, society and its structures. House, disco and techno were forged in black and gay subcultures in urban centers like Chicago and Detroit. The now-ubiquitous concept of "swag" — artists dressing and acting with peacocking confidence — came from the Harlem drag-scene "balls" in the '80s.

But in the late 2000s, dance music forged with pop and hip-hop to become a gyre of escapist, clubby fun. Most songs spun by mainstream DJs are paeans to the idea of living big, which for club owners means buying four-figure bottles of Champagne. DJ culture is now about facilitating a party, and no one wants to be lectured about politics on a rowdy dance floor. But much of that early, radical legacy has been lost on the younger and mainstream audience.

"One conversation DJs are having is 'Where's the punk? Where's the rock and roll?'" Bravin said. "A lot of dance music today is about getting caught in the moment, 'Tonight is gonna be the best night, the DJ's making us fall in love.' There's no stance on anything, when there's this huge energy and potential in the music."

Some of them are beginning to challenge that, both on record and in their lives. A popular Web video, "DJs for Obama," circulated over the summer, where in-demand performers like Bravin (who spun a set to close out the Democratic National Convention and at Jay-Z and Beyoncé's New York fundraiser for the president), DJ Cassidy (who performed at the DNC festivities and Obama's 50th birthday) and Dim Mak Records founder and Ultra Records artist Steve Aoki touted their affection for Obama and gave their imprimatur to his reelection campaign.

Kode9, the dubstep artist and owner of Hyperdub Records, wrote a book, "Sonic Warfare," on how music and sound can be used as instruments of torture and warfare (as Britney Spears' music was used in Guantanamo Bay in 2010). Longtime leftist activist Moby dedicated profits from a 2009 tour to the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence to combat California budget cuts affecting domestic violence shelters.

"When Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan talked about the drain of welfare moms on society, it was so obvious that neither of them had ever been to a women's shelter," Moby told The Times in 2009. "This was one time where people told them that yes, we are paying attention."

Aoki is even taking it local, hosting a fundraising campaign for L.A. mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, a Silver Lake resident who has long supported L.A. music scenes and redevelopment spurring artistically thriving neighborhoods. Aoki filmed a video for his single "The Kids Will Have Their Say" using footage from last year's Occupy L.A. protests.

"Everyone's got their own beliefs, but I'd say the [EDM] scene on the whole is pretty liberal," Aoki said. Dance music's values of acceptance and community support "mesh with what Obama's been saying, and I can't see any connection between my world and Mitt Romney."

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