In Vegas, everybody hates Matt Damon. Pablo, our taxi driver who’s taking us to the SLS hotel, is having a hard time and is upset. Half of the four-way is closed because of the shooting of the new Jason Bourne movie. The whole Strip is blocked, i.e. the half south of Las Vegas Boulevard, and that’s where all the hotels are. Last night was even worse. A guy took his gun out and shot someone right in the middle of the Bellagio’s game room. As we walk through the giant corridors of the SLS, we’re reminded of scenes from Ocean’s Eleven and Casino. Everything here is a cliché. The fluorescent lights, the golden decorations, the curvy waitresses, the over-excited rednecks wearing Stetson at the roulette, the not-so-discreet hookers, the old ladies addicted to the slot machines. Leaning on an empty blackjack table to have a cigarette in between libanese dishes, Cleo, a tall black guy in a suit, with a salesman smile on his face, hollers: « Yo guys, what’s up? There’s a huge party tonight for the AVN Awards and I can get you in. Are you up for it? ». « Sure, yeah, who’s the DJ? » « Who cares who the DJ is? It’s the damn AVN Awards, man! »
He’s right: no one really cares. In Vegas, the DJ is only an accessory for the casinos, no longer under the reign of the mafia but taken over by lawyers who are now in charge to get the big bucks. DJs have been the key to success and money for the past few years. « There was a time, at the XS, one of the city’s biggest clubs, where you had to look closely to find the DJ, they were almost hidden behind plants or something, says Mike Prevatt, from Last Vegas Weekly. Now, the DJ is right in the middle, like some sort of capitalist Jesus trying to get his apostles to make the believers spend money.
There’s no way you can ignore how the clubbing madness has taken over the city. There are gigantic posters just outside of the airport that advertise Saul Goodman-like lawyers to help you sue for anything that can happen in a club, and all over the highway, there are digital panels praising EDM stars. Calvin Harris at the Omnia, Tiësto at the Hakkasan… Clubbing lies now at the heart of Vegas, and is making enough money to become real competition for the casinos, which are not as lucrative as they used to. For instance, the XS made 105 millions dollars in 2014… It makes sense: more and more kids come to Vegas to party and they’d rather spend money on bottles in clubs with pretty girls, than spend the night blinking to a slot machine and never get lucky.
Diplo @ XS
Our driver, in his premium sedan, knows what it’s all about: his daughter is a model and he tells us how models have it easy in Vegas. Agencies offer crazy amounts of money just to wear miniskirts and look pretty for a few hours so that clients will buy them drinks. Once we get to the zoo that is the gigantic MGM Hotel (almost 7,000 rooms), with Tiësto’s face on the wall next to David Copperfield and his golden lion, we head for the Strip. As we cross paths with Batman, Captain America, and three topless girls handing out flyers, we are being called out by a few guys : « Hey, wanna see Steve Aoki at the Hakkasan, tonight? I can get you a VIP access » « Sebastian Ingrosso, from Swedish House Mafia, tomorrow at the Omnia, do you want to be on the list? » No thanks… These people work all day long to make some money out of the Vegas stars.
Outside the Strip
Right next to the EDM crap that clubs from the Strip provide, a few people try to bring back authentic club culture, with DJs who actually mix with real records, which is far from being normal in Vegas. Two streets south east of the Strip, on Paradise Road, stuck between an Indian restaurant and a City Bank, the Mexican bar/restaurant Tacos & Beer is the place where you can find the coolest underground parties of Sin City, each tuesday they have a Techno Taco party. No girls in miniskirts here, no bouncers at each corner of the club, no guards in the bathroom, no $5,000 tables or parades to deliver bottles of champagne. Just regular people, a bar, a dance floor ans DJs playing good house right, with biblical paintings behind their back.
« You know the black spots on the Sun? That’s us, the underground community in Vegas. »
Tino Gomez, a.k.a DJ Bad Beat, a bearded 31 year-old Mexican, came to Vegas when he was 13 as his family crossed the Rio Grande. He started these parties two years ago, without a plan. He fills the place up with 200 people, almost on a weekly basis. It’s peanuts compared to the 2000 people haunting the XS every night or the 5,000 square meters of the Wet Republic pool parties at the MGM hotel. However, it’s essential for the locals who endure this madness 365 days a year. « You know the black spots on the Sun? That’s us, the underground community in Vegas. It’s not easy to see us here with all the light around us, but still, we’re here », says Tino, who also works for Apple. It’s getting really hard to be out there for the underground community, in a city where it’s all about excess. With 37 millions tourists a year, Vegas has become, in the past few years, the Ibiza of North-America, in an XXL version. There were only a few night clubs at the beginning of the millenium, but today about 30 are to be found in the resorts’ basements, the hotels, casinos and brothels. This is without considering all the day clubs and the pool parties opening in April when it's getting hot in the desert.
It all started at the end of the 2000s. At the time, people came to Vegas for casinos and strip-tease joints. DJ AM was the king of the night. Nicole Ritchie’s ex-boyfriend was a notorious drug addict and a plane crash survivor. He built his reputation on his ability to mix U2’s "Sunday Bloody Sunday" with Beyonce’s "Crazy Right Now". The king of mash-up, also known as open format, will end up dying from an OD in a NYC apartment in 2009, just before the clubbing scene exploded. It’s exactly when EDM became mainstream. On the Strip, inside the Cosmopolitan, the Marquee opened its doors in 2010 and was the first to offer EDM on Friday and Saturday nights, while the competition was still having doubts. Yannick Mugnier, a French guy, general manager for the XS, recalls : « When the Marquee opened, we barely had a few months to decide if we wanted to do something with them. We thought about it and decided to just go with it. In 2011, we wondered what we could do and we stroke hard with Deadmau5 in February. After that, we booked tons of DJs and EDM was all over Vegas. » This new tendency hit it off a few months later with Electric Daisy, the biggest electro music festival in the States.
How to maximize bottle service
Mike Prevatt, a journalist in charge of the music pages for the Last Vegas Weekly, has seen his job change completely since the turn of the millenium. « Before that, there were only three or four clubs on the Strip. Then it just exploded, because all you heard on the radio was EDM. I was really excited at first because, at last, people would listen to electronic music in clubs. I thought they would grow tired of EDM after a while, and that we’d get back to real house or techno in no time. But it didn’t really go that way. » For a good reason: casino managers couldn’t care less about music. To them, DJs are just a new way to make money and to lure clients. « The most important thing about this evolution is that clubs quickly understood how to maximize bottle service depending on who was booked for the party, explains Mike. They did the math and started giving residency to DJs according to the numbers of bottles sold the night they played. » The whole night industry now depends on the booking of tables and bottles. And the strategy is just obvious.
Steve Aoki, sober
We grabbed a cab to go to the Caesar’s Palace (he too was mad at Damon), to go see the Omnia, a huge club, opened in 2015 with a suspended ceiling and dancers hanging from cables. We walked through the first access point with at least 200 people waiting in line. Then came another line, as big as the first one. And a third one. It takes at least 2 hours to get in, unless if you buy a bottle, and we’re talking $1,000 to $10,000, here. The club's hosts make regular appearances in the lines to make sure you know about it and sometimes it works, like that night, with a group of guys, tired of waiting and mesmerized by those gorgeous girls passing them by, bring out their credit cards and share a bottle, for starters. « Fuck it, it’s Vegas, let’s do it ! »
Those were good times…
On the next day, while driving his car, Tino Gomez talks about the past, the parties at the Utopia and the Ra, which where big deals a few decades ago. « Back then, we got to see really good DJs, like Carl Cox, John Digweed… and then it got all messed up. Afrojack, Tiësto, Chuckie, the top 40 on and on.. Today DJs are pop stars and don’t even know how to mix ». With a sullen look on his face, he explains how this is organized : « You’ve got to understand that Vegas is not your regular city. It’s all about the money. If you make money, they don’t care who you are, you’ll be hired. It doesn’t matter if what you do is crap. People want crap? Then let’s sell it to them. The club programmers just want their boss to be happy. And what makes them happy is to see table reservations and bottles sales go up. They’ll do anything for that. If it turns out that boxing fights are the next thing, they’ll find a way to put them in clubs, because they just want to sell as much as possible. »
«They’ll do anything for that. If it turns out that boxing fights are the next thing, they’ll find a way to put them in clubs»
« I don’t think it’s worth it. I believe in good music and in all the culture behind techno and house. I don't want to play the music they want in order to be popular, I'm not interested in that », he says, as he’s parking in a Wisteria Lane type residence, in the West Ends. We’re at his buddy Brett Rubin’s cosy house, a 36 year-old DJ who likes deep house and who’s been around for a decade in the Vegas parties. When Carl Cox, Loco Dice or Claude VonStroke are in town, he’s the one clubs call to do their warm-up. He also plays at the Burning Man every year, where he was building camps for a long time.
Sitting in his kitchen with his poodle on his lap, Brett puts his homegrown weed inside his pipe. He goes on about the blessed times before the « big boom ». « It was fragmented, back then. Famous DJs would play radio hits and those into electronic music were in the underground scene. We had our after-hours (from 3am to 8am), we were the only ones who played electronic music, and that was fucking cool. Now it’s getting harder to schedule after-hours, because clubs open their doors earlier and they all play electronic music! There’s so much competition, it’s hard to make people come to our events. And the pool parties kill us all summer. »
Even though he was booked on a regular basis at peak time, now his schedule is much lighter. « Clubs spend crazy amounts on headlines, there’s no money left for warm-ups and local DJs. Also, the programmers are becoming lazy. More than often, it’s the same DJ who opens up all week long. We’re just one in a million. Even hip-hop DJs had to adapt and now they play electronic music. I would never mix hip-hop, but they don’t care, as long as they get paid. »
Brett is not comfortable working for the big clubs anymore. « If you want to open a party, managers give you specific rules about what you can or can’t play. It was really weird : I can open up for Richie Hawtin or Carl Cox, but I’m being told what to play? No way. To be honest, I just can’t play crap right before some DJ I respect. What will he think of me after that? » He started his own parties, in small lounges or in the desert. Intimate parties, with 100 guests and no one to comment his playlist behind his shoulder. No bouncers, no dress-code, no guest-list, just good music.
Someone knocks at the door. It’s Rafael Laguerre, whom Brett met at the Burning man and who’s in charge of the Cymatic Sessions, a house party hosted every Tuesday at the Downtown Cocktail Room, a cocktail bar on Fremont Street. That’s where Old Strip and casinos from the 60s and 70s are, outside the megaclubs area. He came here 7 years ago, from NYC where he worked for an audio material company. Rafael is now part of both worlds. He books authentic DJs for 150 people parties (for example David Herrero and his « mentor » Danny Tenaglia), and is also stage manager for Wet Republic, the biggest pool party in Vegas at the MGM resort. Every week, he prepares the booth for Calvin Harris, Hardwell or Steve Aoki. The gap between his two jobs is not an easy one to deal with : « It really bothers me that these guys make shitloads of money and some of them don’t even mix. We, on the other hand, spent years in our bedroom, in the ghetto, putting aside each and every dollar to buy records and decks. »
Rafael Laguerre (Cymatic Sessions)
« It’s a like a melting pot here, we all come from big cities with big underground scenes. We’re trying to bring that spirit to Vegas but it’s not easy. It’s a small city for underground culture, make no mistake. » Small it is. Underground parties here mean 200 people, 600 on big occasions like Halloween, new year’s eve or holidays. There’s no way it can compete with the clubs’ money. Underground headliners are not here often, not that they make more people show up. « If I mix all night with locals who play for a few bucks or for free or if I book a $5,000 headliner, the same amount of people will come, it’s quite depressing », Brett says, upset to see that even stars come to the desert. « Diplo? He’s a good DJ, but I don’t like that he’s at Burning Man. Last year, when he came, I thought : « These assholes have already invaded my city and now, they’re coming to my festival ! » It’s sacred to me, I’ve been working on it for years and there he comes, saying bullshit on the mic like he does at XS? »
What would it take to make the underground scene come into the light? First of all, some consistency. Tino and Rafael’s parties are only two years old and they’re already thinking of changing their location. It’s as if the city had influence on them, everything changes quickly here. They may need to draw attention in a different way, too. Thom Svast, who created the AFTER parties, managed to do that when his DJ Rules bacame viral in 2014. In the booth, he had hung up a notice that said things like « Don’t play pre-mixed sets », « Don’t you say a fucking word on the mike », « Say no to every request », as well as a list of forbidden artists such as David Guetta, Hardwell, Avicii, LMFAO or Martin Garrix who even had the word « douche » next to his name.
This got them tons of messages from a delighted audience. « In the end, it was a good thing, because it drew attention to our scene, Rafael recalls. It showed that despite of the tidal wave of EDM, there would always be a group of people fighting to make the underground scene survive. Who knows, maybe that coup will have consequences and we’ll soon start booking like crazy. » But the truth is that the AFTER parties are in stand-by. It takes us back to the issue of stability and consistency. « The city is under the radar with the EDM boom. If the different underground crews stay united, we can start a revolution, or at least a rebellion. When the bubble explodes, we’ll be the only ones left », hopes Rafael.
Can't get in without my girls
Back at the hotel, we’re getting ready to go to Drai’s, one of the hottest clubs these days, for the Sunday night party with Waka Flocka Flame. On the road, our Uber driver, an Afghan who claims to have once shared a basement with Commander Massoud, is relaxed. The shooting of the Jason Bourne movie is over and everybody loves Matt Damon again. We’re meeting DJ Franzen, the club’s resident. In the 90s, on his radio in San Francisco, he was one of the the most respected DJs for breaking underground rap, including Notorious BIG, following up with a show with Snoop Dog that was broadcasted in 30 radio stations in the States back in 2001.
DJ Franzen @ Drai's
As we’re sitting in a bar next to the club entrance and listening to a singer – probably a fan of Adele –, wrapping up her show, we get the feeling that Franzen left his artistic integrity at the doors of the city when he got here 15 years ago. It’s probably what allowed him to last and to become one of the important figures of the night. « I just adapted to what I saw. Music changes, so do trends, and you have to move with them. I’m turning 40 this year and I’m still in the game », he explains, while texting frenetically on his phone. « I’m waiting for my girlfriends to get in the club. I have to set an example ! »
Franzen has figured out the permanent show in Vegas, and he’s playing the game. He tells us how Travi$ Scott was banned from Vegas after he jumped in the crowd during his last show. « I say this to all the rappers who come here: keep your head low. You can’t slam in the audience. What happens if you hurt someone? Bosses don’t want people to sue », he says, before admitting he’s sorry Jazzy Jeff was kicked off of the decks at Encore because his set was not mainstream enough. He doesn’t linger on the mutation of his job from DJ to party host : « Honestly, I've been dreaming about this all my life. I often take the mic and dedicate songs to people. Like if someone celebrates their birthday, I’ll go and say it because they’ll remember this moment their whole life. If they’re happy and I’m happy, there's nothing wrong with that. » As we’re ending our interview, 15 girls in party dresses have shown up. It’s all good, DJ Franzen can get inside the clubs.