Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.
A few weeks ago, I found myself experiencing that rarest of L.A. occurrences. No, it was not a thunderstorm. And no, there was still an ungodly amount of traffic gumming up the 110 and I10 interchange. It was instead an installment of the long-running underground dance party, Harvey Sarcastic Disco, which at the most occurs twice a year in Los Angeles. As the cagey website announcement (or email invite) will tell you:
“Tonight’s Harvey Sarcastic Disco is a private event. If you don’t know, you better ask somebody that does. The DJ as always is Harvey. The event goes from 11PM to 7AM. For the sake of the event, we ask that you do not hang out in cars or on the street.”
Harvey — in similar fashion to other one name wonders like Madonna, Willie, or Charo — hints at a deep history within that single name. Born Harvey Bassett in England, Bassett originally made his name as a punk drummer.
“Someone dressed as a cowboy whispered something to Harvey situated behind the decks, eliciting a toothy grin from the man. Near a giant bass cabinet with a sign announcing ‘No Smoking Inside,’ someone fired up a spliff.”
But after hitting a few hip-hop parties in the Bronx during the mid-80s, Bassett returned to England with two Technics in hand and set about initiating the modern UK dance music scene, bringing over the heaviest of New York’s DJs of that era, from François Kevorkian to the legendary Larry Levan, and having an influential residency at London’s Ministry of Sound (his Late Night Sessions mix from 1996 remains a watermark of 90s deep house). At that time, Harvey remixed everyone from Brand New Heavies to Electronic to the Police.
Shortly after 9/11, Harvey found himself stuck stateside. “My family and I came over to America shortly after 9/11 on cheap tickets to live the California dream or whatever,” he says. “In our enthusiasm though, we overstayed our visas without realizing the consequences.” No matter, as Harvey soon brought the spirit of London underground raves to bear on the stagnant L.A. scene, the result being Harvey Sarcastic Disco. While in the 90s, L.A.’s underground dance party scene emphasized the illegal substances that fueled the party, Harvey’s party foregrounds the music.
A moveable feast so to speak, the party takes place at a different venue and in far-flung neighborhoods each time around, staying one step ahead of the LAPD, who would otherwise shutter such proceedings. Many other underground dance parties in L.A., from Music for Dancers to A Club Called Rhonda, follow this template now to great success, so much so that a trend story recently appeared in the New York Times.
Near 9 p.m., an email announced the party’s location and I soon found myself speeding towards a derelict section of the City of Angels. The only sound to be heard on the street was the whirr of warehouse ventilators, the drone of invisible machinery. No less than three baseheads panhandle change from me as I make my way towards a non-descript gate. Only at the warehouse’s entrance did the telltale kick of bass become audible. Hundreds of dancers were already inside, worked up into a lather. Demurely to one side of the space was Harvey. There were dudes in three-piece suits, cute girls in leotards rarely glimpsed outside of a jazzercise class, dreadlocks swinging, Christmas light necklaces. Someone dressed as a cowboy whispered something to Harvey situated behind the decks, eliciting a toothy grin from the man. Near a giant bass cabinet with a sign announcing “No Smoking Inside,” someone fired up a spliff.
Two hours of warm-up ambient music had now transformed into hours of pulsing techno, interspersed with some disco flourishes and interplanetary electro. A vocodered voice hissed out a slurred command to dance. Oft times, Harvey gets labeled as “the DJ’s DJ,” of being eclectic for the fuckall of it, dropping in soft rock, countrypolitan cuts, obscure private press tracks and the like just because his reputation precedes him and such moves won’t clear the dancefloor. Tonight though, he sounds focused and intent, revealing new realms of electronic music that neither I nor any of my other DJ friends in attendance could trainspot. (Later on, DJ forums will reveal everything from a Newcleus b-side (the group that brought you “Jam On It”) to Laidback (also responsible for “White Horse”).
The downside of an illegal dance party became evident only when a step outside for a breath of fresh air turned into a crush of people attempting to bumrush the lone entrance to the party. Hundreds of people got turned away and someone in the crowd murmured: “Even Beyoncé can’t get in.” (Which is never confirmed.) It’s well after 4 a.m. (still early in Sarcastic time) when I finally left the party. A few steps down the sidewalk and soon the only sound to be heard was the hum of machinery.
DJ Harvey brings Harvey Sarcastic Disco to Santos Party House this Friday, February 10.