Christopher Lawrence opens his most recent DJ mix CD, Exposure IV (Hook Recordings), with a repeated sample of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix asking blankly, "You ever have that feeling . . . where you're not sure if you're awake or still dreaming?" The computer-processed sounds sliding along underneath are arranged according to the druggy grandiosity of trance, the music with which Lawrence's name has become synonymous.
In that context, the quote comes off like the confused 7 a.m. musings of a clubber rounding his umpteenth lap of last night's chemical marathon, and that's probably the effect Lawrence and the track's producer, Transa, intended. But the mantra might also be read as an assessment of the dance music scene's overall well-being -- uncertain of where it lies between last night's rush of hedonism and this morning's looming come-down.
Lawrence is a product of rave, the '90s experiment in late-night boundary blurring that provided him his first gigs. He began spinning records in San Francisco "back when there weren't even categories for electronic music -- it was all just techno." Of course, rave never remolded the mainstream here like it did in Europe, but still, there was a moment when any large city in America on any given weekend supported numerous large warehouse parties. At its high-water mark in the mid-'90s, a headlining DJ like Lawrence could flirt with five-figure paychecks for one two-hour set.
Now, the renegade warehouse scene has all but dried up, which has forced artists like Lawrence to draw on their most resourceful instincts. Lawrence, from his Los Angeles home, says, "Just a few years ago, I was playing 50 percent raves and 50 percent clubs. Now it's 90 percent clubs. There just aren't the warehouse parties and festivals anymore."
The shift is not merely a matter of different locations -- from illegal spaces to permitted ones. A rave by definition was underground, perhaps a little risky, and it had its own guiding principles. A DJ spinning in a club is just that -- an entertainer performing in the same milieu as rock bands and strippers. The novelty is gone, and because of that, Lawrence is crestfallen. "The really sad thing is that there are people who will never get to experience the magic that was once there," he says. "If you're younger and just getting into the scene, that underground vibe is something you might possibly never get to experience. It's unfair."
Who's to blame, according to Lawrence, is the federal government. In 2002, a bipartisan front to specifically curtail raves, led by U.S. Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware), introduced a bill cutely dubbed Reducing America's Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE Act). The legislation was a little too flagrant in its targeting of a specific subculture to make it on its own -- its original wording suggested that electronic music was an indicator that hard drugs were on premises -- but the meat of the bill recently made it into law as a rider on the popular "Amber Alert" bill. Even before it was, the Drug Enforcement Agency clearly had raves in the crosshairs, making numerous large busts and educating agents on the specifics of ecstasy and club culture.
"The government, for whatever reason, has decided that the war on drugs is going to move to the war on electronic music," Lawrence laments. "What they've done in effect is ruin a major part of the electronic music scene."
As such, the careers of artists like Lawrence hang in the balance, in that bleary-eyed limbo that Keanu's murmuring about. When rave and the trance productions that came to epitomize it were riding high, Lawrence maintained his fair share of superlatives, many of which are plastered on the full-page magazine ad for his United States of Trance mix, such as Muzik magazine's claim of his being "America's top trance DJ." He's the only DJ to have headlined all the big three British superclub tours -- Ministry of Sound, Gatecrasher, and Cream. But today, two of the three institutions have folded, and Ministry of Sound has closed its main room. Lawrence can still find the occasional oasis, such as Southern California's massive Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, but for the most part, trance has ebbed back to its underground origins.
Trance was actually on the skids well before Capitol Hill got hip to the national threat of glowsticks. In some ways, trance is the hair metal of electronic music, long on overly self-important epics and short on soul. Easily identified from other forms of synthetic sound by its expansive, often sentimental whooshes of melody and frictionless 4/4 cadences, trance became the highest grossing dance floor sound on the weight of its ability to make kids on drugs very excited. One industry insider once described trance as "the art of making kids rush on their [ecstasy]."
Lawrence has prided himself on not being lured by the excessive frivolity of the music in its glammed-out phase. "And that's the great thing really about the current state of the music," he enthuses. "Trance got a lot of negative attention because the commercial side of it got really popular for a while, so then producers started going a lot deeper and darker, which fed the underground scene well. There's a lot of producers in the U.K. that used to make what was called hard house -- another genre, like trance, that got kind of cheesefied -- and they've started moving towards a more stripped-down trance sound."
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Indeed, Lawrence has been cutting a lot closer to the bone since the progressive house aesthetic he was pushing on early mixes like Around the World (Moonshine), which is long on anthems and throw-your-hands-in-the-air drum rolls. Exposure is fairly bleak in the production values it favors, and he acknowledges that this darker sound is what he's been playing out recently. A common undercurrent chugs below tracks like Dre Stortion's "Bent Revolution" and Nuw Idol's "Touch the Lazer," an elastic band of ominous distortion that pulls the listener back down to the churning of his or her stomach. There's also a noticeable paranoiac vibe throughout that's hinted at in the track titles -- Transa's "Nightstalker" and Illuminati's "Bohemian Groove," a cheeky spin on the semi-secretive circle of power brokers that meet at Bohemian Grove. Throughout, the buildups are subtler and less punch drunk than those of Lawrence's prominent British colleagues Sasha & Digweed and Paul Oakenfold.
Lawrence is hoping to turn the corner from DJ to artist as a means of surviving this lull in the rave scene. He's already produced a few tracks that were widely played by other trance heavyweights -- top among them was "Rush Hour," which earned him a Grammy nomination last year. Early 2004 will see the release of his debut album, a work four years in the making that he says spans a far wider swath of styles than his DJ mixes have. In addition to his signature hard underground trance, he'll include down-tempo breakbeat tracks and even "an emotional, piano-ey, melodical song that no one would expect from me," he says.
So Lawrence knows that the dreamy era of dance music culture is coming to an end, but he also knows that the sun is rising on a new day for expression through turntables and synthesizers. He figures that if he continues to avoid the easy dance floor gimmick and increasingly turns his attention to production rather than DJing, he'll stay relevant to the clubbers of tomorrow.
"The scene seems to be in turmoil in Europe and in lots of places in America," he states. "What happened was the commercial side of the music got too big, and to get the big numbers, of course, the clubs have catered to that side of things. But the clubs and the DJs that are going to last are the ones with integrity and a real dedication to putting out good music ... and in the end, the underground is way more loyal to you anyway, so I think I'll be okay for quite a while."