​New Orleans' Electronic Music Scene is Decadent and Depraved

I went on a three-day bender spanning warehouse raves to EDM clubs in search of NOLA's oft-overlooked dance music scene.

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Dec 22 2015, 10:23am

A reveler at a Mardi Gras party (Photo by Mark Louque)

Ever since its early days as a thriving port in the 18th century, New Orleans has been a wayward paradise for roving packs of wild men and women looking for a good time. Live music like jazz, blues, and folk is everywhere, seeping into your skin as you step out of Louis Armstrong Airport, and when the sun sets, the streets tilt sideways, as if sliding to a saxophone wail. This is a city where silence is an interlude to the husky voices and guitar twangs curling out of windows left ajar, and balconies brim with people laughing and spilling cheap whiskey on your hair.

Yet, when it comes to electronic music, the cool stuff feels so underground it's almost invisible—at least to outsiders like me, poking around for clues in the usual go-tos like Resident Advisor's event listings, where just three parties are listed for the entire month of December. Bigger events are easier to find, and the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience (October 30 - November 1) is one of the city's most long-running festivals, founded on Halloween in 1999 with Moby on the opening bill. 16 years on, it's become embedded into the city's cultural fabric; after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, instead of moving it to Memphis as they'd planned, organizers decided to stick it out at home, inviting the National Guard, police, and firefighters to join in.

So when I got an invitation to check out the festival over this year's Halloween weekend, I said yes, because A) I'm not a dumbass, and B) I was invited as a guest of my favorite vape brand PAX Labs, who was an official sponsor of the festival this year. They flew me out and gave me a custom PAX 2, their extremely sweet new vaporizer.

I wanted to learn more about electronic music in New Orleans, which seemed buried and forgotten under the hefty legacy of the city's live music scene. Prior to the trip, I wasn't even sure if the dance music scene in New Orleans even existed outside of one-off events. So I decided that my mission of the next three days was to throw myself into as many types of DJ-led parties as I could find, sacrificing sleep once again at the altar of the rave gods.

My bender actually started two nights before I left New York, with a decadent blowout in the Bronx on Thursday that turned out to be one of the most controversial parties of the year. On Friday, I jumped from DJ New Jersey Drone at local label Swim Team's warehouse party, to the opening party for local artist "collaboratory" POWRPLNT with Junglepussy, and finally got pulled into a cab with a gaggle of French men, who took me to a friend's house for some early morning stupidity. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that by the time I arrived in New Orleans on Saturday afternoon, I didn't have much sleep to sacrifice to begin with.

I got off the plane and dragged myself to the sprawling fields of City Park, where Voodoo Fest has taken place every year with the exception of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit and they moved it to Audubon Park.This year's eclectic lineup was a mix of indie-pop stars (Florence and the Machine, Modest Mouse, Santigold), hip-hop icons (Joey Bada$, Chance the Rapper), electronic faves (Jack U, Duke Dumont, Destructo, Eric Prydz, Tchami), and bands that I admittedly gave very few shits about (Third Eye Blind, Jane's Addiction).

The balcony of PAX's booth at Voodoo Fest (Photo courtesy of PAX)

The sky had darkened with storm clouds, which cracked open with lightning and started pouring within minutes of my arrival. I took shelter in the PAX booth—which had a rooftop balcony complete with a cheeky "Get High With PAX" slogan—to watch Nina Las Vegas and Brenmar wallop the courageous, poncho-covered crowd with energetic sets of Jersey Club, hip-hop, and house. Once the rain slowed to a sprinkle, I trekked through the mud to catch some of Giorgio Moroder at a stage fittingly called "Le Plur," but ended up ignoring his procession of cookie-cutter EDM and house hits to talk to a local kid about BUKU, another electronic music-focused festival that takes place over two days in March. (Crystal Castles, Baauer, Cashmere Cat b2b Trippy Turtle, and Tokimonsta are playing next year.)

Diplo and Skrillex at Voodoo Fest (Photo courtesy of PAX)

The rain had turned the festival into a muddy wasteland, so I took off to have dinner at the kind of Creole restaurant where you want to applaud when the heaping bread bowls come out because they look so goddamn good. Then, I took a quick nap at the house PAX had rented for us, falling asleep while swiping on Tinder (as one does). I woke up at 2AM with a message from a guy inviting me to a Halloween party called "Journey to the Moist Abyss," where the drag queen rapper Christeene was slated to perform her deliciously entertaining brand of trailer park camp. It was too tempting to resist, so I threw off the covers, hopped into an Uber, and found myself in a desolate stretch of town next to run-down train tracks, staring at a giant unicorn sculpture at the entrance of a warehouse called PORT.

Slinking in through a side door, I discovered a fantasyland unlike anything I'd ever seen back in New York: under a makeshift canopy of plastic sheets sheltering us from the rain, towering queens vogued next to leather-clad bears and svelte nymphs, all surrounded by ocean-themed props like jellyfish streamers, a seashell throne, and an upside-down boat. In a back room thick with fog smoke, the tinkling notes of a piano drifted from a treehouse tucked within jungle-like foliage.

The crowd at queer Halloween warehouse party "Journey to the Moist Abyss" (Photo by the author)

Making my way to the DJ booth, I introduced myself to the two DJs manning the decks—local legends Ms. Swamp Thang (Mark Louque) and Bouffant Bouffant (Brett LaBauve)—who were littering their back-to-back set with cheeky, Halloween-appropriate 70s disco tunes like Sarr Band's "Mephisto," Manhattan Transfer's "Twilight Zone," and Cerrone's "Supernature."

The dancefloor at "Journey to the Moist Abyss" (Photo by Mark Louque)

After twirling around the dancefloor, I gave up on finding my Tinder boy and decided to head to the next stop: Kompression—a house and techno party started in 2010 by resident DJs Unicorn Fukr (Erik Browne) and Herb Christopher (Chris Gomez). At 4AM, the party was just getting warmed up at Dragon's Den, a grungy two-floor bar where UK house OG Eddie Richards was lording over a pitch black main room packed with fresh-faced frat boys, seasoned music heads, and ravers still damp from dancing at Voodoo.

Downstairs DJing by the bar, I met Browne, who also throws an infamous bass and dubstep party called Church on Sunday nights. "We're going till 8AM—maybe later!" he cheerfully told me. But exhaustion was sinking into my bones, so I bid him farewell and ducked into a cab.

Dancers at Dragon's Den (Photo via Dragon's Den)

On Sunday afternoon, I woke up to the news that for the first time in its 16-year history, the last day of Voodoo Fest had been called off due to the bad weather. Luckily, the official afterparties were still happening, so I made my way over to Republic, a 1000-capacity club where PAX was slated to throw a gig with Matt Robson-Scott of UK garage duo Gorgon City. Republic turned out to be one of the more elegant venues in town; in 2010, the club made headlines when it enforced its dress code with a sign that read: "If it's on the Jersey Shore, It's Not Coming Through the Door."

Gorgon City at Republic (Photo via PAX)

The velvet ropes, cushy banquettes, and chandeliers inside confirmed that this was the kind of place where rolling up in flip-flops or a tank top probably wouldn't be the best idea. Climbing up to the wraparound balcony, I found a VIP booth in the corner and curled up on a couch next to a table stacked with bottles as Robson-Scott marched out a parade of house and garage bangers—including some from their debut album Sirens. Kids in neon sweatshirts and other colorful festival garb channeled their pent-up energy on the dancefloor below.

When the show ended, I chatted with two guys in the early 20s smoking cigarettes outside, who told me that Eric Prydz was headlining at a club down the street called The Metropolitan. I decided to give it a shot, and was promptly ushered backstage by the club's managers to meet the venue's bigwigs. Surrounded by carts of Red Bulls and bottled water in the fluorescent-lit room kitchen was Rob Brunet, a rave scene OG and one of the cornerstones of electronic music in the city. A hulking man with gruff smile and the seasoned guile of a nightlife veteran, Brunet was a reservoir of behind-the-scenes stories and an expert on the industry's up and downs. Meeting him meant getting an invaluable history lesson on New Orleans' dance music heritage from an old pro.

Rob Brunet and Mike Ibarra backstage at the Metropolitan (Photo by the author)

Brunet told me that he was the co-owner of the State Palace Theater, a legendary, now-defunct club that was the beating heart of New Orleans' rave scene in the mid to late-90s—until it was raided by the DEA in 2000 under the crack house law. State Palace was originally a rock venue, but in 1994, Brunet met a fresh-out-of-college Disco Donnie (AKA James D. Estopinal Jr.), who eventually became one of the biggest dance promoters in the South and Midwest. "Donnie and his crew came and said they wanted to do a frat party" said Brunet with a chuckle. "I came in that night and thought, This ain't no fucking frat party. The show didn't do great—it got like 500 or 600 people—but it got my attention."

Seeing how much money there was to be made off raves, Brunet teamed up with Donnie and his crew, with Brunet handling production and Donnie taking care of the bookings. In 1995, Donnie launched a party called Zoolu (named after the famous Zulu Mardi Gras parade) with Mystic Bill, Terry Mullan, and Kevin Saunderson (as Reese) on the bill. The following year, the party grew to two nights, was headlined by Rabbit in the Moon, and brought in a whopping $12,000. (Zoolu continues today with a more EDM-leaning lineup; Tiesto headlined their Mardi Gras party in 2011.)

How Disco Donnie went from a New Orleans promoter to the American South's rave king

Donnie continued to bring in the era's top talents, including the Crystal Method, Paul Oakenfold and Thievery Corporation. In 2001, the Crystal Method's Scott Kirkland credited Donnie with ushering in a booming era for dance music in the city in the online magazine New Orleans Electronica Digest, saying, "[Donnie] is always willing to do something for New Orleans that no other person in the country is willing to do, to make a connection to the people that go out and pay $20 and $30 a night to get into an event."

But the State Palace's winning streak ended on August 26, 2000. According to local newspaper Gambit, the police shut down the club just before a party—imaginatively called "Phuture Phat Hong Kong Phooey"—was supposed to begin, leaving thousands of ravers stranded on the street. State Palace was prosecuted under the Crack House law—a precedent to 2002's controversial RAVE Act (now called the Illicit Drugs Anti-Proliferation Act). It was the first time the federal government had used the 1986 law to prosecute venue managers and promoters for drug dealing and consumption on their premises, rather than targeting the perpetrators themselves.

Read more about the RAVE Act and a mom's fight to change the policy after her daughter's death

"It definitely put a damper on the scene when the cops came in and raided the place," Brunet told me. "Events were getting canceled and DJs were not getting paid. We spent $300,000 in legal fees, then Katrina happened in 2005, so that too put a damper on it [too]. We closed [the State Palace in 2007] because the theater was flooded and we had 12 feet of water in the basement."

Now, Brunet said, Republic and Metropolitan are the last surviving venues for big EDM acts. "Republic does trappy, bounce, and bass stuff. We do the Vegas acts here—the electro house and progressive stuff," he explained. New Orleans has a small market for dance music, and everyone has to be careful not to oversaturate it, Brunet said. "It's hard for us to compete when you have Vegas, LA, Miami, and New York offering so much money to these DJs."

Eric Prydz at Metropolitan (Photo by the author)

Suddenly, an angry man with purple veins burst through the door, and Brunet rolled his eyes. "I have to take care of this," he said, and left. So I slipped out and found myself behind Eric Prydz, in a VIP area filled with sleazy older men rubbing up on women in lingerie and bunny ears. Worried about the possibility that I would become their next victim, I ran to the dancefloor. Maybe it was Prydz's unbridled enthusiasm, the contagious glee of his adoring fans, or my own weakness for the sweet trance synths of his recent anthem "Generate," but I danced the hardest in that moment than I did all weekend. With dawn approaching, however, I had to hightail it to my final stop of the night, a locally beloved dive bar called the Saint.

I walked in at 5AM to find a handful of kids dressed in unicorn horns and rave lights thrashing around a small dancefloor adorned with skull-shaped disco balls. Taking a seat by the bar to charge my phone, I heard Daft Punk's "One More Time," Jammin Gerald's "Hold Up Wait a Minute," and Usher "You Don't Have to Call" within the space of fifteen minutes—played by a trio of DJs named Le Gamin, DJ SKB, and YRSTRLY.

Le Gamin, a charming French DJ who holds down a day job as a chef and photographer, took a seat next to me and explained that the dive bar scene is dominated by trap and hip-hop—"Everyone is playing Cash Money," he said, referring to the New Orleans supergroup of Big Tymer$ and the Hot Boy$. "New Orleans is really small, and there's a very small market for open-format DJs. So playing a house set is a challenge. I know I can play this stuff in New York or LA, but here there are like, five people you can call for a party like this."

Diplo playing at an Obsession party at the Saint (Photo via Obsession/Facebook)

Le Gamin credited Musa, a New Orleans and NYC-based DJ who was the talent buyer and marketing coordinator for the Saint, for throwing some of the best dance parties in the city. Musa's weekly throw-down, Obsession, brought in Diplo, Dillon Frances, Soul Clap, and TV on the Radio, establishing the Saint as the beloved late-night hangout that it is today. But another local party kid I spoke to named Akrum Salem said that the vibe of the Saint has changed in recent months, with a more collegiate, frat house crowd taking over. "The Saint was our treehouse—all our friends ended up there," Salem said. "Now, we show up [there] and it's packed with basic people with ugly attitudes that don't jive with us. But other [bars] have things going on: Always, Siberia, Sydney's... there's still cute things happening around town."

Around 6:30AM, the bartender started yawning, so the boys packed up their gear and headed out. I cast a longing glance at Le Gamin's motorcycle, hoping for a pre-dawn joyride—but alas, he had piled it high with his stuff. Pressing a bag of party favors into my hand as a parting gift, he waved goodbye and left me standing under the shadows of the street lights, sunlight starting to poke through the rooftops.

I managed to squeeze in a couple hours of sleep before I had to head to my final stop. Mark Louque, who I had met at the warehouse rave DJing as Ms. Swamp Thang, had graciously invited me over to his studio, and I arrived an hour late, unshowered and wild-eyed, my first question through the door if he had any weed for me to smoke with my new PAX vape. "Sorry guys, I'm low-key partying right now," I announced to the group of bemused DJs and gay queens in the room. "I need to smoke something if I'm going to survive." Luckily, they obliged.

Local DJs Mark Louque (Ms. Swamp Thang), Akrum Salem, Johnny Sanders (Five/Babygirl) and Brett LaBauve (Bouffant Bouffant) at Louque's studio (Photo by the author)

I quickly deduced that, unsurprisingly, the gay and queer circles that Louque and his friends ran in were behind the dopest parties in the city. This New Year's Eve, for example, they will be returning to that epic Halloween warehouse for a blowout with The Carry Nation, a duo that consistently throws some of New York City's best gay parties. Louque and his crew have also done parties on abandoned rooftops—complete with a drag queen on acid manning the elevator—and voodoo raves with local covens at a remote outdoor spot they call "The End of the World." "It's going to get real witchy," he said with a wink.

"The thing about New Orleans is that it's really approachable, but it's kind of a sleepy, seasonal city," Louque said. "In the summertime, people check out and go somewhere else. We could curate a sick party, but no one wants to pay $20 cover to go dancing." However, Louque continued, "I think there's a lot of room for a house and techno scene. Big Freedia is getting really boring."

"New Orleans is a bar city—you go to bars and sit and drink," added Brett LaBauve, AKA Bouffant Bouffant. "In a small bar, kids are like, 'You gotta play Beyoncé!' But I started throwing a party called Give Me A Reason in these warehouses, and people are like, Whoa, this is fun, this makes sense. They go the fuck off to house and techno and don't worry about the new Beyoncé song."

Glancing at the clock through a plume of vape smoke, I discovered that I was dangerously close to missing my flight. "Get in my truck; we'll drive you," Louque said with a smile. So I piled in with the rest of the crew, and we sped off to the airport, bumping disco with the windows open the whole way. Even through my haze of exhaustion and body odor, I finally figured out what makes New Orleans dance scene so special—the effusive kindness of total strangers, the fact that gay and queer kids are leading the pack, and above all, a spirit of resilience that is perhaps a defining trait of the city as a whole.

For more bender-fueled rave journalism, follow Michelle Lhooq on Twitter

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