Hardpop is an unassuming, 500-person club in a highway-adjacent shopping mall in Ciudad Juarez, a city on the US-Mexico border that was long considered the most dangerous in the world, due to bloody turf wars between Mexican drug cartels over key smuggling routes to the US. In 2010, during the peak of the violence, there were nearly 300 murders per month in Juarez—about as many as New York City gets in a year.
Yet, the club regularly attracts house and techno DJs like Tale of Us, Roman Flügel, Nina Kraviz, Solomun, and Frank & Tony; it will celebrate its nine-year anniversary in September with Sasha. Sometimes, these DJs even skip larger vacation cities in Mexico like Cabo and come straight to Hardpop, drawn to its younger, vibrant community of hardcore dance music heads.
Although Hardpop today is thriving, its story is tangled up with Juarez's troubled history. In 2010, it even closed for a stint when the owners decided that operations were too risky. This week on NPR's Latino USA, producers Marlon Bishop and Max Pearl (also a former THUMP editor) investigate the rise and fall—and rise again—of the storied club, and how it drew together a community that often risked their lives to go out dancing as people around them were dying.
You can listen to the segment here—or below on their player. We spoke with Pearl to dig deeper into this fascinating story.
How did you find out about Hardpop?
A lot of what I do is write about DJs that are touring, and I kept seeing Hardpop come up. Bigger tech-house DJs like Dixon and Tale of Us—people who play thousand-person parties and major festivals—would go there. So I was talking to [Latino USA producer] Marlon at a party, and he brought it to my attention that it's wild how Juarez not only has a reputation as a dangerous city, but also sort of a provincial city. Of all the cities these DJs are going to play, this is it.
What drew these DJs to this club?
When I think of that music, I don't think of people who are super engaged. But Hardpop wasn't about going to the club and drinking cocktails. When I interviewed the DJs and promoters, and they were all like, these are mostly young kids between 20-25 who are freaking out cause they're so excited to see these people and smash the dancefloor. They're super super psyched.
Was there still drugs and hard-partying element, given the city's reputation?
Well, the organizers had an anti-drug campaign, because they were painfully aware of the effect that had on the country. I don't think it was a very druggie place.
Can you tell me a bit more about why Juarez was such a dangerous place, especially at night?
There was a war between cartels who were trying to gain access to the routes to bring drugs across the border to the United States. They sent in the army and federal police force but it didn't work out because the cartels are more powerful than the government. The cartels had a strong social media presence, so they would put out a tweet that said: don't go out on the streets tonight. Basically there would be these nights of martial law where the city was on lockdown, and the threat would be if you go out, you're gonna get shot.
But people were defying that.
They were. The main character in our story—her name is Alicia Fernandez and she's a photojournalist for a newspaper down there—told us that on a night that they had Lee Burridge at the club, her friend was pre-gaming at a bar. Wrong place wrong time, cartel members showed up and shot her friend. Nobody knew what happened until the afterparty, when they saw the tweets and realized that their friend had been caught in that shootout. There were also kidnappings, beheadings—the gnarliest things would happen.
Wow, that's crazy.
Violence had been a problem for working class people for a long time. If you read [Roberto] Bolaño's 2666, he writes about Juarez and the problem of poor, working class women disappearing into the desert. This is the moment when it bleeds into the middle class, when they're like holy shit, this is happening. Whereas if you were working class you'd already been intimately familiar with this violence for a long time.
Eventually the promoters were faced with this decision of: should we close the club or not? And people were begging them like, please don't close the club, we have nothing else to do.
It's about more than just having something to do, right? I feel like the act of going out clubbing also represented something greater to these people.
It represented that "we're normal people and we have normal lives." Alicia was photographing all these dead bodies by day for her job, but still trying to live her life as a regular 20-something at night.
Was there material that you had to cut that you wish you could've included? The stuff I had to cut was around them talking to me about benefitting from the loose money that was flying around and feeling guilty about it. In 2005, there was a boom with new businesses and cars and fancy rich guys walking around. All of a sudden they were making hella money, and they started to realize where that money was coming from—people were laundering their money into new businesses. I remember hearing one of the guys who founded the club telling me that... well, it's almost like signing a contract with the devil. We can have these customers throwing around this money and get rich off it. Or we can stay on the down-low and not advertise our parties, because in the end, yes it's a lot of money, but that money comes with consequences.
It's blood money, basically.
You don't want those people around your businesses. There was also a lot of standard mafia shit—if you didn't pay money for protection your business would get burned down. Hardpop was one of the last businesses to stay open because so many were afraid that the cartels would come around. I don't think they directly received a threat, but that's what they were really freaked out about. They're visible in the community when there aren't that many businesses left.
And they were making money!
Making good money. The story goes that they closed in August 2010 because they were so freaked out about that. So they started throwing these secret parties promoted only by social media, no flyers or anything. It wasn't until the cartel violence eased up that they opened again, because the violence moved on to other parts of Mexico. So the gang violence they experienced is now happening in Michoacan, Guerrero and Jalisco. Right now, I get the sense that Juarez is a lot safer.
With the nine-year anniversary with Sasha coming up, it sounds like it all ended up working out for Hardpop.
Yeah, it seems that way.