It is difficult to think of any ongoing event with more stigmas attached to it than Burning Man. Considered a humble haven for hippies, the annual event is both abhorred and adored by countless individuals internationally. Says one long time “Burner,” “This experience of a weeklong experiment in society and community can only be properly explained by experiencing it firsthand.” Given this counsel, I accepted the challenge to head into the Black Rock City desert myself and see with my own eyes what all the fuss was about.
What fascinated most about the event was the abundance of world class music producers and DJs who had an overwhelming presence. Not only were renowned fan favorites like Thievery Corporation and The Crystal Method slated to perform, but an eclectic horde of talented underground musicians as well who allegedly spend a majority of the year honing tracks just to debut at Burning Man. Could it be true that the next musical revolution was happening off the radar, in the middle of the desert?
The Playa (pronounced ply-ah) is the word used to describe the environment at Burning Man, and the closer you come to your destination, the more pronounced the changes are in the atmosphere. Surrounded by distant, barren hillsides, a drive on the flat dirt path to the structures barely visible on the horizon is not unlike an alien planet. Upon entry, greeters at the gate will determine if any caravan has the proper necessities to survive before having them ring a gong as they are welcomed into this alternate reality.
The initial culture shock of finding the elaborate theme camps and highly decorative art cars is daunting, with so much to see that it becomes an impossible task to investigate everything in entirety. Giant scaffoldings tower over some parts of the city as its bizarrely dressed citizens ride their painted up bikes from place to place. Wacky and wild art instillations occupy a stretch of empty desert, adding oddity to an already surreal atmosphere. At a glance, it becomes impossible to turn in one direction without being inspired by something incredible.
The city (and make no mistake, it is a city) is set up according to the position of The Man. Streets are thusly named, from 2 o’clock to 10 o’clock, with adjacent streets named for major cities. A square block can include anywhere from one to four different theme camps that boast a multitude of activities from batting cages to roller disco, porn theaters to karaoke, slip ’n’ slides to an authentic Thunderdome. Incidentally, nearly every camp has an open bar.
It’s also a harsh, unforgiving environment (people have died in the past). Aside from the blazing sun beating down on campers for twelve hours out of the day, you have dust storms that strike when you least expect it. Cyclones are often sighted slowly making their way across the uninhabited portions of the desert, obliterating anything that dare thought it would remain clean. Undercover police also roam the crowds of Burners dressed just like the natives, ready to pounce on anyone in the vicinity of a cloud of pot smoke or shuffling menacingly in their pockets. The best way to avoid all of this, of course, is to never leave the comfort of your camp – but what fun is that?
As an exercise in experimental society, there is no monetary system in the city. Instead camps give away food, drinks, and other gifts (some begrudgingly) to all citizens. Then there is a place called Burners Without Borders. Founded in 2005 during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, this non-profit is made up of thousands of Burners across the globe that specialize in bringing creative new ideas to their various activism campaigns. Have an idea for a way to help your fellow man? Submit it to BWB, who can give you the manpower, and maybe a few bucks, to properly execute it.
A single uniting facet of Burning Man is the nightly musical performances happening across the city. Talented musicians strut their stuff after feverishly fighting over the best time slots at the best stages. While musicians do not receive any sort of funding for the event, they graciously return to the stage in order to entertain a dehydrated, sleep deprived, yet captivated audience knowing full well that any equipment they bring out will likely be destroyed by the elements.
Amongst the plethora of camps that make up Black Rock City there are several main music oriented venues which boast expansive dance floors, giant stacks of speakers, and elevated DJ booths. Roots Society was easily the largest of the music camps in the city. A small dome, maybe 50 feet in diameter with a dozen large speakers and subwoofers in addition to the lounging recliners set up along the back of the venue, housed smaller DJs and artists and was dubbed the “Underground” dome. Ironically, some of the best acts played here on an elevated platform, including Freq Nasty, for whom a crowd of people spilled out into the surrounding area, unable to fit into the crowded dome.
Playing primarily his own original tracks, as opposed to most other DJs who played exclusively remixes, Nasty demonstrated his ability to use a sound system to its full capacity. His blend of bass heavy hip-hip and speaker demolishing dubstep got the entire room jumping while he plays dub and glitch-hop inspired thumpers with old school rap samples. Though he played a favorable set of songs, his mixing and crossfading in between them was a little rough and could have been smoother. Playing an extended set, longer than most performers that night, the audience nodded, jumped, and waved along willingly as bass reverberated through their bodies.
In a similarly set up dome the Yoshiwara stage, twice as large as the Underground and filled with elevated platforms in the back and large crimson cages adjacent to the stage where exhibitionist dancers took the liberty of dancing within. Here, musicians played atop a four foot platform elevated from the dirt bellow. This dome showcased faster, disco dancey electronic musicians.
A man by the name of Robb G hopped onto the turntables Friday night to lay down driving breatbeats and house style remixes. Coming all the way from Canada to rock the socks off of audience members, he delivered fidget infused builds and breaks to the pleasure of all in attendance. His keen ability to read the audience and feed on their lustful mindset was as apparent as his ability seamlessly mix tracks into one another.
Another gentleman from Toronto, Canada playing at this area was JELO. He played club thumping loops of electronic samples using unique sound patterns. The result was a highly danceable beat saturated with glitch stutters. While slightly original, there was nothing that especially stood out during his live set.
A friend of both aforementioned DJs is Hatiras whose weekly radio show showcases some of the freshest dance beats available. His deft ability to play live remixes of hot tracks, making them even hotter, was impressive if overhyped. Still, he did manage to provide electro house goodness in the form of speedy breaks, well timed samples, and the occasional glitch loop pattern.
The main stage at Roots Society, “The Tower of Babel,” was a four story high scaffolding with a DJ booth in the middle and what seemed like a wall of subwoofers on the lower level, all wrapped in a canvas on the front for the giant screen projection. The videography displayed random graphics and visualizations from cartoon characters to exotic dancers, all immersed in lightning and flickering colors. It was here that Roots Society saved their best acts for, and since it would be their last year with a presence at Burning Man, they had to push the envelope.
DJ Dan took the stage here as his many fans flooded the surrounding street, elbow to elbow. His catchy electro house and breakbeats were very well received by an audience dancing up a dust storm. Dan’s ability to tweak live tracks and seamlessly integrate one into another is nothing short of impressive. Although playing a very crowd pleasing set, it lacked a form of creativity and originality to make it stand out as something special, not dissimilar from most club DJs.
Art cars and part busses stooped in their tracks behind the throng of people with their gaze stuck on the Tower of Babel when The Crystal Method took the stage for a Burning Man first. Starting off their set with some of their newer songs, the duo slowly built up the tension in their music like a fine theater production. Playing primarily tunes with a few remixes peppered in, The Crystal Method illustrated why they are platinum selling musicians by remixing their own content live. With a face melting bass line during the crescendo of their act on “Trip Like I Do”, their hour and a half long set seemed to fly by, much to the chagrin of the mob of dancers watching.
One of the larger music camps is Distrikt, supplying the best fist pumping, feet moving beats during daylight hours. The theme of the music playing here was high energy house and breakbeats to beat the heat during the day. While very fun, it was nothing groundbreaking. The standout amongst these seemingly similar electronic dance music sets was DJ Icon. Continuing with the club banger trend, Icon artfully laid down track after track of popular and catchy remixes, including a bit of dubstep, for auditory pleasure of all. She is sufficient in all the parameters a DJ should be including mixing, accurate time signatures, and reading the crowd. Otherwise, the transition from one DJ to the next was so smooth, and indiscernible in the music, that it became difficult to tell who was playing at any given moment.
Another open air, block spanning stage is Syndicate. Set diagonally facing the corner of the street is the DJ tower, a tall scaffolding draped with cascading tile banners in a conventional Metropolis theme. LA Riots was present here for a set backed with bass heavy percussions and over the top breakdowns. The echoing loops they often employ in their remixes add a good variety to the snare and kick consistent with every dance song ever. Their moderate use of the recently popular sample stutter effect was well executed and not over done, as so many artists often do. Their unyielding pace of electro house practically moves your feet for you as you are swept to the dance floor.
The wobble aficionado Bassnectar made an appearance at Bass Camp. His slow to fast tempo dubstep has the ability to go from chill one minute and then shoot the energy level through the roof the next with a very smooth level of transition. Still, the constant change had a tendency of throwing off one’s groove and could be a little frustrating at times. His bass soaked breakdowns spoke for themselves in songs like his Beatles remix of “Strawberry Fields”, which is full of so much dirty dubstep beats that you would think a Transformer were singing it. Regrettably, he was unable to perform at any other scheduled sets due to his equipment being ravaged by the elements.
Boasting three stages, by far the largest quantity of quality music could be heard nightly at the Hookahdome. While not as large or elaborate of a set up as some other venues, it provided an intimate and relaxed environment where people could seek shelter from the cruel desert and relax in the air conditioned lounge.
With long, scraggly hair, Oakland musician Ra So played a unique brand of remixed classics tracks with built in breaks, using his music to send listeners into a zombie-like trance. His mid tempo music was a welcomed change from the stereotypical fist pumpers DJs often find themselves playing. Using a range of tempo that can subtly go increase or decrease as needed, this performer is someone to watch for in the future.
Chlorophil played both a chillout set with very mild, meandering soundscapes and a DJ set using very danceable breaks, cuts, and bass, Chlorophil incorporates world music influences to produce an intriguing style.
Love and Light found themselves in the pool of the most talented musicians in attendance at Burning Man. Consisting of DJs Probiotik and 4centers, Love and Light brought a dirty brand of filth covered dubstep with well executed glitchy samples and bass wobble. Performing both original tracks and their acclaimed remixes, such as a dubstep version of The Beatles “Eleanor Rigby”, the dance floor outside of Hookahdome grew and grew well into their late night set. Offering up samples of their previously unreleased tracks sent the audience into a frenzy of jumping and writhing not unlike what bobble heads must feel like during an earthquake. The attendance for their set was unusually high given the late night (or early morning) playtime, but dancers continued to appear throughout the performance as if the music were a magnet. Watch these guys closely as they rocket into stardome very shortly.
Playing an improvisational chillout set inside the ‘dome was Auditory Canvas, lead by hotter-than-sin singer Jillian Ann. Her improvised free verse and sexy singing stylings were very well done given the lack of preparation for their set. The ambience was very relaxed as this group flexed their creativity muscles to the auditory pleasure of dozens of Burners smoking hookah and lounging about. Although they didn’t get a chance to play all of their original material using the set-up they available, the set they executed was still very inspirational.
Another dance floor flooding DJ was Feral. His choice of electro with dub and world music influences produced a uniquely palatable sound that practically moved your feet for you. The heavy raga and percussion use in his music can become repetitive or stale over time, but the concept was still sound, and the sound made it difficult to sit still.
The great David Starfire played multiple sets at multiple stages throughout the week, mixing it up with something fresh every time. From high tempo breaks to low and mid tempo fusion world music and even a little bass heavy trip-hop, watching Starfire perform is a true pleasure. With his dubstep remixes of modern, old school, and underground with a touch of glitch, Starfire clearly put a lot of time and thought into his sets. From a distance it would appear as though he catered his music to the vibe of the dance floor and adjusted his music live, an ability few DJs posses.
Another DJ who fed off his audience was the amazing Jef Stott. Similar to Starfire, Jef played multiple sets around the Playa all week, all of which were vastly different. A majority of his set was downtempo chillout dub and world fusion with a dancey beat backbone and bass wobble effects, which was well executed and mixed. Using the careful application of Indian, Arabic, and other world fusion into modern dance music trends, Jef created a unique, and maybe esoteric, sound.
The Chi town DJ Radiohiro was another musician to be accompanied by MC Zulu on the mic. The pairing couldn’t have been more perfect; Zulu would spit the rhymes while Radiohiro spun in time. His fusion of world inspired electro, dub, and dubstep made for an interesting combination that dancers ate right up, enhanced by Zulu’s rhythmic freestyle, making for one of the better performances heard at the ‘dome.
Modern electronic dance music is almost exclusively without lyrics, save for the occasional sampled lines from popular movies. That’s why it was odd to find an MC at some of the DJ sets at Burning Man. MC Zulu hopped on the mic for a few DJ sets to provide the quick witted raga freestyle. Paired nicely with dub or dubstep music, Zulu took performances that were already awesome and gave them a glossy veneer of lyricism.
Overall, if you’re looking for originality in the form of music, it’s difficult to come by out on the Playa. Besides the ceaseless cars passing by bumping their own tunes from an MP3 player, a majority of the live performances are remixes of popular or underground songs. That’s not to say that these remixes weren’t any good. Few musicians had an abundance of original content to select from and the ones who did seemed reluctant to do so, opting to play entire dance sets instead of showcasing their new CD or demo. Although much more than a music festival, Burning Man will always host an array of talented musicians.
Perhaps intentionally designed to be open to interpretation, the ideas and concepts behind Burning Man seem to evolve with its nomadic inhabitants. Combining different elements into an orgy of new experiences, anyone with an open mind will find a home within the Burning Man community.