R.C. Lair: House Keeper
Time to get ill? Nah--time to get sik, on location in the Sik Bay, creative den of R.C. Lair, underground DJ and premier graphic artist for the Valley's dance-club and rave scenes. R.C. (the initials stand for Ryan Christopher) is a bit nocturnal. Sik Bay--actually one room in the Tempe apartment R.C. shares with his rave-angel fiancee Skye--is dark, except for one dim, glacier-blue light bulb and the LED displays from a rack of synthesizers and drum machines in the corner where they twinkle like a miniature version of the radio towers on South Mountain at night. One of the pieces in R.C.'s arsenal is an original Roland TB-303, arguably the most crucial piece of hardware in the evolution of underground dance music. It's about 10 inches long, five inches thick, with a cheap, nickel finish and plastic knobs. It looks like something you could have found next to the Speak 'n' Spells in Toys "R" Us, circa 1978.
R.C.'s equipment is patched through an amplifier that, for some reason, intermittently picks up a local country radio station. This seems to annoy R.C. to no end. He doesn't care much for country music. He likes a lot of other music, though, especially deep house--the postdisco, sunny, floral electronic dance music that emerged from Chicago in the mid-'80s and provided the soundtrack for the dawn of rave culture. Until he moved to Phoenix in 1994, R.C. was strictly a house DJ. He's Canadian, and grew up in Regina, a small town in the middle of Saskatchewan. A classically trained pianist, he began studying the instrument when he was 5 and continued through high school, taking classes at the World Conservatory of Toronto. After he graduated, R.C. went to graphic-design school in Montreal, where he discovered that city's rave scene in its nascent stage. A few months later, he began DJing under the unfortunate handle "Big Bird."
"Those were happier, more carefree times," he says today. "I was tall, I had yellow hair. . . . What can I say?" After Montreal, R.C. spent a few months as the resident DJ for the Empire, a gay club in Calgary, then moved to the Valley to be with Skye, who left for Arizona State University a few weeks after they met. When he arrived here, R.C. was in for a rude shock. In Canada, he was a well-known DJ with a healthy following. Here, he was a nobody. Not only that, he was a nobody who spun house music. By that time, the Phoenix rave scene had turned up its nose at the more soulful house in favor of speedier, more ominous styles of dance music, and R.C. was forced to adjust. Since then, he's established himself as one of the best--and most popular--turntablists in the Valley underground, and the artist who puts out the freshest rave and club fliers on the street. And now that he's known, R.C. has a mission--to educate the glittered, baggy-pantsed masses. To teach rave kids--and promoters--respect for house music and its formative role in electronic dance culture. To make sure it's not forgotten. And to get people off the hard-core tip, already.
I spent a few hours in the Sik Bay recently, rapping with R.C. and playing with his dog Knuckles, a pug who kept bringing us the same order of objects to throw down the hall: teddy bear, sea urchin squeak toy, small stuffed cow. Teddy bear, sea urchin squeak toy, small stuffed cow. Knuckles seemed unaware of his prestigious namesake--godfather house DJ Frankie Knuckles--but if he could comprehend, I'm sure he would feel duly honored.
New Times: So where did it all start for you?
R.C. Lair: Montreal. It was 1990, and a friend told me about this club he'd gone to where there were lots of girls and this wild music, and everyone was on Ecstasy. So I went to check it out. There was no rave scene in Montreal then, just this one club, which was called Crisco. It was in a converted black box theater--black walls, black ceiling, a few risers and a killer sound system. The first night I went there, the lighting was minimal--just three or four red flashers and a light man in the DJ booth who had this huge truck headlight, powered by a motorcycle battery, which he'd just sort of chaotically wave all over the place. The place was thick with fog, and when I first walked in, my hair just stood up on end, because the energy was like nothing I'd ever felt. There were all these beautiful people in cool clothes, just losing their minds, dancing and laughing and sweating and screaming so loud you could barely hear the music sometimes. It's all been downhill from that night, but, man, what a night.
NT: So that was it--you were like, "My people! I've found you!"
R.C.: Yeah, I mean, every weekend after that, I went to the same club, and started meeting the people there, and buying that kind of music, and the scene was growing fast, and pretty soon I was a professional club kid. Basically, I got paid to just hang out at the club five nights a week--the owners picked people they knew help provide the energy, image and atmosphere they were going for. Also, I helped promote the first actual rave in Montreal. It was called Solstice. This was summer of 1991, before the split between the gay, house-music club scene and what would become the ravers--the younger club kids.
Back then it was all good, and the first warehouse parties in Montreal, well, I've never seen anything like them since I moved away. They were fresh, minimal, always in secret locations, a lot of times in these gutted, 10-story warehouse buildings. You'd go in through the docking bay, and there'd be a bunch of guys in black tee shirts wearing little headsets, and they'd pat you down, and you'd be thinking, "Okay, what's up?" because there was no party in sight, just an empty warehouse. Then a freight elevator would open up, and they'd load you on 20 at a time, and--bang--the doors would close, and the elevator would start to go up. And as you passed the second floor, you'd start to hear this faint beat--boom, boom, boom. And it got louder with every floor, until you got to the top, and the doors opened and it was like--BOOM, BOOM, BOOM--you walked into this incredible, packed party, with all these drag queens and kids with glitter and all these futuristic clothes and slides on every wall of some African tribesman or two dogs having sex or whatever, and flashing lights and a pumping sound system and people--all different kinds of people--just losing their minds to positive, happy house music. I miss that. It's not like that anymore.
NT: What do you mean?
R.C.: Well, last year I read an interview with [superstar DJ] Moby, who has basically dropped out of the scene in disgust, and he described my emotions perfectly. He said that in late 1993, maybe early '94, something fundamental in rave culture began to shift. For one thing, the music got darker. No pianos. No vocals. No certain types of happy noises. Now, I don't want to come off like I'm just pining away for the past, but, again, Moby put it exactly. He said what drew him into the scene was less the music than the love and community and the atmosphere of acceptance, which was reflected in the music. Now, the most popular rave music is much darker, faster and harsher than deep house music. Now, if you play house at a rave, a lot of people are like, "Excuse me--vocals? I don't think so."
NT: That seems especially true here. It's like Phoenix is taking its cues from L.A., where the scene's all about hard-core, rather than, say, San Francisco, which is still a stronghold for house music.
R.C.: Right, it's a general pattern that's even worse in Phoenix. In other cities, maybe there's a house scene, a hard-core scene, a jungle scene, and the raves bring them all together. Well, here, you're never going to see [formative Valley house DJ] Pete Salaz's name on a rave flier, because of this strict, discriminatory mentality. People here seem to feel that deep house music has no place at raves. When I first moved here, I spun house and got this totally negative reaction, and I couldn't believe it. I was like, "What are you talking about? This is house music. The only reason you're listening to any of the music you're listening to now, little raver, is because of house music." Raves didn't come from alternative bands. They came from warehouse parties. Ware-house. House music. See the correlation? It's fundamental. Everything in the scene evolved from house, and it deserves way more respect, here and everywhere.
NT: You sound like a crusader.
R.C.: Well, I am on a crusade, dammit. I want to bring house back into the house that house built. And I'm making progress. I don't spin strictly house anymore, but I slip it into my sets, and I've got kids coming up to me all the time, saying, "R.C., I never liked house, but I like the house you play." So many times I've heard that. And it's because they haven't ever listened to good house; maybe they just heard a few booty house records, with some 300-pound gospel woman wailing all over the place, and they just wrote it off. I just want everyone to give house a real chance. At the very least, in my opinion, when the sun's coming up, you better be spinning house. The phattest parties in the world, no matter how hard or jungly or breakbeat or electro you get, at the end of the night, the party needs to slow down a little and ease into a gentle, come-down, smiley-face groove. I mean, at Musik [a March 29 megarave at Firebird raceway], they put Kevin Brown on as the closer, at 5 in the morning, playing happy hard-core, which is fast as hell. The next day on the Internet, no one had anything nice to say about anything, because they were all so grumpy, because after having hard-core shoved down their throat all night, what do they get at 5 in the morning? [R.C. does a reasonable imitation of automatic-weapons fire.] More hard-core. Blech.
NT: Any turntablists you'd like to cite as influences?
R.C.: Yes. [French Canadian DJ] Robert De La Gaultier, and I credit him to this day with being my mentor. He was the epitome of the bomb DJ, because he could rock any crowd, anytime. If it was a gay, older crowd, he had the queeniest house music. If it was a rave, he had German trance and Detroit techno. He went to Berlin one summer, I think it was 1992 (and he was an older, gay DJ himself), and came back with all these hard techno records before that sound was even breaking out, and he played them in mainstream clubs. People didn't even know what the hell was going on, but they liked it. And I'm like that.
Before I moved to Phoenix, in 1994, I was strictly a house DJ. I was only into deep house in Montreal, and when I moved from Montreal to Calgary [in 1993], the kids all looked like the rave kids here--the baggy pants and the floppy hats--but they all liked house, so, no problem. I continued to accrue house records. Then, once I got here, I realized house-only wasn't going to cut it. I just wasn't going to get work. So I started buying any record I liked. Now I play jungle, hard trance, electro. My policy now is, if it sounds good, it is good--and even though, again, house is my first and foremost love--I try to be all over the place, because I can't decide who I like better--the gay, older, clubby house crowd, or the little lollipop-sucking, drug-infested ravers. I love them both equally. If they're dancing, it's good for me.
NT: What makes you a good DJ?
R.C.: Well, I'm not a strong DJ in the same sense as a DJ like Z-Trip. I don't get up there and scratch the shit out the turntable. But I can mix two records so you won't notice the move. In my opinion, though, picking out records is harder and more crucial than mixing them. Once I reinvented myself as a DJ, shopping got harder, because now I go through all the bins. Some days I buy some drum 'n' bass and an old house record. Some days it's trance. Some days it's all progressive house.
NT: What records do you avoid?
R.C.: Well, I try not to be too current for current's sake, because that shows. I can always tell when a DJ is playing records he just bought, because he doesn't know them well enough and, while they may all be brand new, they don't go together. I mean, you shouldn't go out and buy a set. At a Saturday-night rave, nobody wants to hear 18 records you picked out Friday afternoon. And some DJs here do that.
NT: Well, there's that credo among DJs that if you're not on the crest of the wave, you're sunk. They all want to be the first to drop that phat, new track.
R.C.: Yeah, and so do I. But at the same time, there's records in my crates that have been there for two years, and will be there two years from now, because they're great records. There's no reason for this terrible fear some DJs have of playing a track twice in the same month, as if it's this horrible problem if people recognize you for playing certain songs. It's this common overreaction in the rave scene to avoid anything associated with mainstream pop music, like repeat play of a song. And I don't agree with that. You just have to make sure it's a damn good song.
NT: This summer, you started playing the hell out of a track off the new Chemical Brothers album, "It Doesn't Matter" [also on Rumble Fish]. And I was surprised by that, because that was a major, Billboard Top 10 release. One night I heard that track in a bar on Mill Avenue, and the next night, you spun it at a rave.
R.C.: Well, a lot of people criticize the Chemical Brothers, but it seems like they're only getting criticized for being successful in the mainstream and hitting the charts. And that criticism is unfair, which is why I have no problem playing their music. I mean, the Chemical Brothers, two guys with samplers who create a full-on sonic assault. I'm sorry, but they're on it. Platinum records aside, you cannot deny these two guys have a gift for making in-your-face beats. They're one of the most copied breakbeat acts in the world now. They're so, so solid. And because they're solid, I'll play them, hype or not.
NT: What about Daft Punk?
R.C.: They put out the best album of the decade so far. I bought one copy to play and another I keep still in the plastic, and I never do that. What it comes down to is, I just don't believe in snobbery, like, "Oh, we're underground, we're rave, so anything that people outside our sanctum like, we shun." This is going to become more and more of an issue within the underground scene as this music gets more and more popular in the mainstream. But again, my belief is simple: If it's good, it's good, no matter how many people listen to it. The Chemical Brothers are one example of that. Daft Punk's another.
NT: What about Prodigy?
R.C.: Prodigy is horrible. Prodigy is the Spice Girls. They've got more image than talent, and a better marketing scheme than beats. And I'm speaking from an educated stance, because I've listened to their albums, old and new, and I saw them back in 1993 in Montreal. The music was coming out of the speakers, but all four of them were dancing, with that one guy just sort of going, "Yo, yo, yo." It was pitiful. And they're still pitiful. They just have better clothes.
NT: Change of topic. How important are rave fliers to the success of a party?
R.C.: Well, no flier equals no people equals no party, so I'd say they're vital--right up there with DJs and the sound system. Also, when you remember a great party from a couple years ago, a few things will come to mind--who you went with, DJ, a couple of particularly vivid moments from the experience, and the flier, because it's so visual. I can spend 60 hours designing a flier, easy, because rave culture is about cutting-edge. The music comes out, and, two weeks later, DJs start throwing it on their turntables. And the design of the fliers has to keep up.
NT: What do you think of drug references on rave fliers?
R.C.: Well, I've done them. My opinion is case to case. It depends on how blatant they are. Like, on a flier for a party called Planet of Drums, I put a little marijuana leaf in place of a star in the sky, and most people probably never noticed. But you get these fliers where there are little "E"s everywhere, and, you know, the promoters would have you believe they stand for "Entertainment" or "Energy," but, come on, right? Basically, I have a problem with drug references that are obvious, just because they're crude.
NT: But you did the flier for FryDay, which showed a sheet of blotter acid.
R.C.: Right. Well, first of all, design-wise that was one of the best fliers I ever did. Second of all, I had nothing to do with the name of that party. And thirdly, the promoter insisted I put a sheet of acid on the front.
NT: So you advised against that?
R.C.: Oh, God, yeah. I mean, after that flier came out, there were police calling Swell [records], trying to be all hip, saying, "Hey, man, can you get acid there, or do you have to bring it yourself?" So, whenever the situation arises, I lobby against it, but in the end, it's the promoter's call. I don't like them because I think they're just sort of childish. On the other hand, the scene in Phoenix is very young. I've never seen 14- or 15-year-olds at parties in other cities. Here, ravers think they're over the hill when they hit 21.
NT: What's the scene like in Canada now?
R.C.: Well, Montreal is massive now, and the age range is wide. The scenes in Vancouver and Victoria are thriving as well, and they're still very housey. They all have hard-core scenes, and jungle, but it's still predominantly housey. Just like the West Coast. L.A.'s all about hard-core, but San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, it's this lovey-dovey, hippy vibe. I played Canada in August, and it was fabulous. I performed at Connect [a three-day outdoor rave in Saskatchewan's Oyama Regional Park], and the crowd was exceptional. It reminded me a lot of the old days, not that it was a sexual, older, gay vibe, but just in the way people went off and enjoyed themselves. I mean, first of all--and you rarely, rarely see this at parties in Phoenix--everyone was dancing. If people are standing around the edges at a party, it draws away from the energy. But when everyone's on the floor, it explodes. Also, everyone was hugging, and it was a very tribal vibe. There were tiki torches on the dance floor, and DJs playing all kinds of music. At one point, they cut out the music entirely for 20 minutes and had an MC rap over a live drum circle, then went back to the DJs. I haven't been able to stop talking about that trip since I got back, because it was just so refreshing to know that somewhere, things aren't getting stale. Kids around here, you know, if their E isn't good, they're not happy with the party. If the DJ who's on is playing drum 'n' bass, well, then, they're not dancing, until the DJ who plays their style of music comes on. We all need to forget about all this division and labels. It's like we've reached a point where we know too much about the music. It's like we gained all this intricate knowledge and fell from grace somehow, and we've forgotten what this was all about in the beginning, which was just pure-hearted celebration. You know--just shut up and dance.
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