Despite his biggest festival to date happening right around the corner, Gary Richards, one of the godfathers of America’s dance music scene, sounds pretty relaxed over the phone – or maybe just tired; “I need a backrub…” he yawns, as we discuss his busy week so far and the artists he’s excited to see this weekend at HARD Summer.
You can hear some hints of Southern California surf in his inflection as he talks; remnants of his early days, growing up on the West Coast, discovering techno music and throwing DIY parties in downtown LA.
Since then, he’s played a major role in bringing some of the best dance music to the American masses; whether it be through his record labels, Nitrus and 1500, his rock influenced DJ sets and original work as Destructo, his launch of the massive HARD event series or his passion to seek out and develop new talent.
Let’s start with your background. Growing up, were you always in Los Angeles?
I grew up in Washington DC and my dad was in Radio and TV, so when I was little, he’d have Alice Cooper or Ted Nugent staying at our house. I saw Led Zeppelin when I was like seven. I also saw Black Sabbath and Van Halen was the opening act. It was their first tour. I remember watching David Lee Roth from the side of the stage changing his spandex and shit (laughs), and going, “Aw man, that’s badass!” Me and my brother saw all these groups when we were tiny little kids.
From there how did you start a career curating DJ nights?
My dad moved from DC to New Orleans to LA. In New Orleans he had the number one funk and R&B station — playing Rick James, Gap Band — all that shit when it was new.
I moved to LA when I was in high school. So around that time was when I started getting into more electronic shit. At first it was more hip-hop, like 2-Live Crew and Eric B & Rakim. I’d drive around in my car at 16 bangin’ that shit on the 6 by 9’s in the trunk (laughs).
Then Kraftwerk’s Electric Cafe came out, which is one of my all-time favorite records. Around 1990, I went to a warehouse in downtown LA and heard proper techno, like all night ‘til four in the morning. That was it — just fuckin’ hooked.
Do you remember who was playing that night?
The DJs were kinda more in the background then. It wasn’t like, “Look at me, I’m a fuckin’ DJ”, or whatever, it was more like, dirty warehouse, hopefully you don’t step on a homeless person while you’re partyin’ (laughs).
Some of the early DJs back then were Barry Weaver, Doc Martin, Mister Kool-Aid… I started DJing right around that time.
When did you start getting deeper into the dance culture?
I started going to these events that would end at four in the morning Saturday night. Everyone would come back to our apartment and I started thinking, y’know, “Why are these people coming to our apartment, fuck it, let’s go get a club and put ‘em in there.”
I figured out in LA you can start serving alcohol again at six in the morning, so we started the first night I ever DJ’d and produced, called “The Sermon”.
We used to go out on Saturday night and dress up like priests called the “Sermon Boys” and we would go up to people and be like, “Come to the service… come to the service…” and we’d give ‘em a little fuckin’ map with a cross on it.
At first there was no one there, but then there was twenty, then forty, then eighty, then two-hundred with a fuckin’ line around the block at six in the morning.
That’s how it started. “Midnight Mass” was our first big Saturday night and then we had the idea, “Instead of doing a dirty warehouse, let’s try a waterslide park.”
It was called “The Holy Water Adventure”. It’s crazy, if you want, you can read about it. Max McNeil, the writer who came up with the word “punk”, somehow found me and said, “Hey, can I follow you around for the week and write a story about what you’re doing?” And I’m like, “Ok.”
Next thing I know, there’s a ten page story in Details magazine called “A Woodstock of Their Own”, with a chick with a big hit of ecstasy on her tongue — one full page.
It was fuckin’ massive and — that was it. I just started doing these events once a month for two years. At that time, we did “Magical Micky’s Electric Daisy Carnival”, “Magical Micky’s Haunted Mansion”, “Holy Water Adventure”, “the Mind Arcade”, the first EDC, all that shit.
When I first started doing my parties, they were called “undergrounds”, but by the time ‘93 came around they were “raves”, and they went from cool adults, people like Robert Downey Jr. and Madonna, to like sixteen year olds eating pacifiers and just being ridiculous. So I thought, “This things lame, it’s played out, let’s just do this “Rave America” thing and blow it out to the tenth degree and then I’m out, I’m goin’ in the record biz.”
Do you have anything to do with the EDC’s that are going on right now?
Not anymore. The guy who runs them, Pasqual, came to me in ‘97 and asked if he could use the name. I was like, “Sure, I’m not doin’ anything with it,” (laughs) and he turned it into what it is now. Oddly enough, both of our companies are partnered up with Live Nation now and we’re all kinda back together again.
So what were some of your favorite memories from the parties you threw back in the day?
There’s so many. The last one we did back in the day for New Year’s Eve in ’93 — NYE is my birthday — I got Knott’s Berry Farm to let me do the event there. We called it “Rave America”.
That event was definitely the biggest rave I’d ever held at the time. We sold it out, like sixteen-seventeen thousand people. I told the people at Knott’s Berry Farm, “I’ve never sold advance tickets to my events, so the fact we sold this out, my guess is you’re gonna have fifteen thousand people walking up to try to get in.” And they were like, “Don’t tell us how to run our park, we know what we’re doing.” Sure enough, the place was just fuckin’ attacked from all angles (laughs).
I didn’t want to go to this thing, it was a total fuckin’ zoo. I had nothing to do with the production or running it, I just came with all the creative shit, but right at midnight on the mainstage, I had this drum crew called Djembe — like twenty of these African drummers — and they were like, “1992 is the year of the monkey! ‘93 is the year of the chicken, c’mon y’all,” they were like, “bom-bom-bom-ch-bom-bom-bom-ch,” building, building the rhythm and then right at midnight, they were like, “Happy new year!” And I made a mix of all the hottest tunes from that year — ten second stabs of like, “I’m the one and only dominator [techno noises].” Then they had a firework show right at midnight and the fuckin’ place went apeshit.
Knott’s didn’t know what to do, so to get order back in the park, they cut the power to the entire event for like an hour, just to chill everybody out, (laughs). It was fuckin’ insane.
That was definitely a highlight of my life. It was in the LA Times the next day, like “Sixteen Thousand, Eight Hundred and Forty Raving Lunatics Can’t Be Wrong”. I actually had Rob Light at CAA come to me and say, “I don’t know who you are or what you do, but if you’re able to sell sixteen thousand tickets with no band I’ve ever heard of, I want in on this.” But it never translated into anything for a long time down the road.
So what were some of the ups and downs of getting into the the music business?
I got really lucky. When I was doing those events, Rick Rubin started coming and I kinda made friends with him and he was like, “Hey, if you ever know of anybody who would want to help me sign groups from your scene to my label, Def American, let me know.” And I was like, “I’ll do it.”
So he hired me. For two or three years I worked at Def American. My nickname was “technoboy”. When I got to the office on the first day, they were like, “Oh, you’re that techno guy that eats ecstasy. Stay out of our way, we deal with real music here, like the Black Crowes and Slayer. Fuckin’ leave us alone.” And I was like, “What the fuck. Where’s Rick?” They’re like, “Rick doesn’t even have an office here, you’re down there in that closet,” (laughs).
I was like, “Gee, thanks, nice to meet you guys,” y’know. But I’m a guy that perseveres. We signed XL Recordings, we had Prodigy, Messiah, Lords of Acid, all this cool shit. One of the records we signed was a song called “Don’t Go” by Awesome 3. My brother at the time was working radio and he helped me get that song on all these stations, so all of the sudden, “technoboy” had a song that was kinda happenin’ in crossover radio.
So all the guys working at the label were like, “Hey, get that techno dude down here. How did he get that on the radio?” They asked me if I could do the same thing for Danzig. I was like, “Well, I dunno, I could try.”
My brother introduced me to all these guys who did rock promotion and I ended up getting Danzig’s “Mother” going on Z100 in NY City, which is like KIIS-FM, and kind of broke Danzig.
I started becoming the “techno dude” and the “radio dude” and it just spiraled from there. I ended up getting my own label with A&M at Interscope. The problem was, all the music I always liked, that was in my heart and I’d try to sign, was shit that didn’t sell (laughs). So I was always the guy that kinda had cool tastes or whatever but no sales. That doesn’t last very long in those places, they wanna make money.
In ‘99, I got sent a demo from Slipknot. They sent me a dead crow and a picture of like, twenty guys in the band, and a demo of the song “Spit it Out”. I checked it out and thought it was pretty cool.
My brother was doing A&R at Epic, so he was at my office, and he asked, “What the fuck is that?” I was like, “I dunno, just a fuckin’ crazy metal band from Iowa.” He was like, “I wanna go check it out.” So he flew to Iowa and called me from their basement, like, “They’re gonna be the biggest band in the world, I’m gonna sign ‘em!”
I was like, “Alright, whatever dude,” y’know, “Cool, great,” (laughs). And he tried to sign them to Epic and they were like, “They suck, you can’t sign ‘em.” So he’s like, “You sign ‘em to your label and I’ll manage.” So I tried to sign them to my label 1500, and at the time, Interscope and A&M were merging and the CEO of A&M was getting fired, so we had no A&R dollars and we were both fucked.
So they signed to Roadrunner but they loved my brother, so they asked him to manage. I had my techno label but it was going under because of the merger, so what happened was Slipknot started blowing up, and it’s kind of a sad story because my brother got a brain tumor around 2000.
I just decided, fuck all this techno shit, fuck everything, the record business, I quit. And I went to help my brother with his health, but at the same time, he had a label and a management company, so I just quit everything to help him.
Unfortunately in 2004, my brother passed away. I was like, “My older brother… fuck… what do I do,” like, “I don’t know what to do with my life,” all this shit, and then somehow I just got this idea to go back to what I originally did in the beginning — DJ and produce an event — because putting out records just wasn’t working for me, especially techno records. So I came up with HARD and the fuckin’ thing just blew to the moon after all those years. It’s definitely been a looong fuckin’ road man, (laughs).
I always tell a lot of these DJs that are just starting, guys like Dillon Francis and Zedd or whoever, that they’re so lucky, y’know. They just kinda got started blowin’ up and just killin’ it. I spent like twenty-three fuckin’ years trying to get this thing goin’ (laughs).
So, that’s kinda it in a nutshell.
Is this year the biggest HARD event you’ve done so far?
Definitely. The most people we’ve ever had on a weekend is 40,000 and we’re gonna have 70. And we could’ve done way more. We’re sold out and we could have probably done 100,000 people over this weekend if we had the room.
When Live Nation bought HARD, I remember a lot of kids complaining about how, “HARD’s gonna go to shit now,” but it seems like you’ve definitely held a grasp on the content since then.
It’s been way better, y’know? The bottom line is, for me, I shouldn’t be dealing with the LAPD and LASP and all that shit. I should be booking artists, doing the art, being creative, coming up with the ideas, like the fuckin’ dog video; just doin’ cool shit.
Before Live Nation, 85% of my time was spent on logistics of the festival and for me, that’s a very difficult part of my job because it’s not my skill. My skill is to be a DJ and recognize artists and help develop them in marketing, instead of like, “Ok, if you have 35,000 people, how many port-o-potties do you need,” or, “How many lanes do you need to get people into the event to make sure they’re not gonna be backed up?”
Live Nation’s been really cool. They just said, “Hey, whatever you’re doin’, just keep doin’ it. It’s workin’.” I’m the CEO of HARD and all the positions that are made, I get to make ‘em. As long as I don’t fuck anything up, we’re good. Everyone’s been really happy. It relieves a lot of fuckin’ stress man, I gotta tell ya, (laughs).
I can’t take going to a meeting with police and they’re like, “You’re the ‘rave’ dude, you’re the fuckin’ devil.” I’m just like, “Whaat the fuuuck? (laughs), I’m just tryin’ to do a concert guys,” y’know. You’re always on edge. Now it’s like, the guy who’s producing HARD Summer this weekend just did Jay Z and Timberlake last weekend. Those are the dudes I wanna be rollin’ with.
Have you noticed any sort of rise or fall in police involvement recently? Do you think there will ever be a relapse of raves getting shut down and driven back underground like in the nineties?
Well, there’s always gonna be that, but I think with what we do, it’s almost no different from any other concert; but the police, you can’t fault them. They always look at the worst case scenario and work backwards from there.
Anytime you’re bringing that many people to one place it just puts a strain on ‘em. Most people always look at things from their point of view only, but I try to look at situations from other people’s point of views, like the LAPD. I mean, dudes’ got difficult jobs. In the location we’re doing HARD Summer, there’s a lot of shit that goes on and it poses a problem. We just want to make it safe. We work with them and not against them. What we do is definitely not gonna go underground, but we’ve definitely had to work with them and give them the assurance that we’re gonna do everything we say we’re gonna do. I think that’s what they’re looking for.
When I did my first event, I had no idea what the fuck was going on, (laughs). I was supposed to have sixty security guards, I think I had six. No one showed up; with all the stages… it was just a mess.
I think that’s what happens a lot of times with people who have big ideas, but they can’t execute them. I was fortunate enough to be able to execute just enough to keep it the way it should be and to keep building it until I learned how to really do it.
Have you felt a change or growth in the music in certain areas after HARD came through?
I think so, I mean I’m trying my hardest to push it in there. To me, dance music’s really based around house, disco and those kind of sounds. With HARD, it started getting a little more electro, more aggro, which is cool too because I like that sound but I started seeing this shift. It started turning into dubstep and the kids started moshing and getting really heavy and aggressive and I just try to make a conscious effort to kind of flip it back the other way to more like, fun, club and party, instead of, you know, moshing.
You can’t always control it but I can kinda pepper in the Duskys and the Soul Claps and shit like that and just try to influence it on what I think is dope, y’know?
Is there one more story you can think of, whether it’s from back in your DJ days or something from HARD that’s really memorable to you?
I would probably say of all the events, one of the ones that was most special was probably that year we had Deadmau5 and Crystal Castles. It was basically the first HARD Haunted Mansion and what happened was, DJ AM said, “You gotta come to my dressing room to check out my costume for Halloween.” I went over and it looked like Thomas Bangalter’s suit from Daft Punk and I was like, “Wow, this is amazing, how did you get this?” He didn’t really tell me, “Well that’s so cool dude, you look like the dude in Daft Punk,” y’know, I didn’t think anything of it.
And then he went on and started playing all Daft Punk. I had him in the small area of the event, so all of the sudden you start seeing all these tweets and posts that Daft Punk’s at HARD, and people are coming in the room and the fire department’s like, “What the fuck’s going on?” “I dunno, it’s DJ AM. I didn’t think everyone was gonna see him, I thought they were gonna go outside to see Boys Noize or Justice (laughs); and he just fuckin’ went on and on and on with the Daft Punk, and then finally, like 45 minutes into it, he took the helmet off and hit the little speak and spell, like, “DJ…A…M…” And they were just like, “Aww Man!”
When he was done, the room was so packed and Deadmau5 went on and I think that was the first time he played “Ghosts & Stuff”. That was definitely a big highlight. We’ve had so many cool surprise guests and people showing up at HARD, everyone fom Usher to Pharrell, fuckin’ Santigold, y’know, they all just turn up and wanna hang, it’s pretty cool.
Who were some of the first headliners for HARD?
The first show was Justice, Peaches, 2-Live Crew, Steve Aoki, Busy P, A-Trak, Whitey, Uberzone, Jason Bentley, Gina Turner, Louissahhh, Cubes, a lot of the underground LA dudes that are still kickin’ were on there.
I went around in LA for almost a year, seeing what was going on and basically everything that was happening on a big scale was trance, with Ferry Corsten, Tiesto, Arman Van Burren…
Then when I started getting hip to Justice and shit like that, I was like, “Wow, this is amazing! Why isn’t anyone booking this?” And I just got on a whole scent. My second show was N.E.R.D, MSTRKRT, Spank Rock, Kid Sister, A-Trak, Aoki, Bloody Beetroots and the third one was when it really fucking went crazy — Justice, Soulwax, Simian Mobile Disco, Boys Noize, Crystal Castles, Deadmau5, Crookers, DJ AM — that was when Crookers had “Day and Night”, Deadmau5 was small, Crystal Castles were small.
But all those groups, that style, like no one was booking it. No one was booking them… And I was like, “Fuck, I got this thing,” like, “I’m the first one to start bringing all these people here.” And then it just started to fuckin’ snowball, and it’s crazy because that was in 2008; you go forward five years later and it almost feels like it’s just kind of kicking in right now. My show now sold out 35,000 people per day.
The next show, a lot of these people who played for me in the beginning, that have gone on to be mega all over the world, are coming back because it’s like, we were there first with them, y’know?
That’s even how I met Sonny. I met him at some party and he was like, “My dream in life is to play Hard Haunted Mansion.” And I was like, “Cool, dude, let’s do it.” I didn’t even know who he was (laughs), “Cool, let’s go bro.” He started following me on twitter and I was DJ’ing at the Airliner downtown and he hit me up like, “Can I come?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll put you on the list.” I told him, “I’m doin’ a show at the Roxy, maybe me and you could do it.” He was like, “I dunno man, 400 people at the Roxy… that’s kind of a lot of people…” And I’m like, “Let’s do it at HARD Summer where you don’t have to worry about anyone coming to see you. It’ll just be big.” But by the time we got to the show, he was fuckin’ mega. We had him on the small stage and the fire department almost shut it down because there was too many people in front of it.
And what year was that?
I think that was 2010, or 2011 — jesus, it’s amazing how much he’s done in such a short period of time.
I’m like that. If somebody wants to be down with me, I’m down with them, y’know what I mean? If someone shows initiative.
See Gary Richards’ Destructo set at Hard Summer this Saturday from 4:30-5:45 and check the gallery below featuring some of Richards’ vintage rave flyers.