Story by Matthew Dekneef
Photos by Elyse Butler
On the far side of East O‘ahu, along the darkened Makapu‘u coastline, there’s a sound going bump bump bump in the night. It’s UK house-trance pioneer deejay Paul Oakenfold on an outdoor stage that rises above the grassy meadows of Sea Life Park, spinning for a swarm of electronic music fans dancing under the crystal glare of lasers and strobe lights. Tonight I’m one of them.
The crowd is a two-thousand-person microcosm of Honolulu’s EDM (electronic dance music) scene, caught in the electric net of one of the planet’s most prolific techno artists. To someone like Oakenfold, a veteran whose career spans three decades and who routinely spins for crowds in the tens of thousands, our four-digit number is pretty modest. But what Hawai‘i lacks in size it makes up for in intimacy. At the concert’s peak, Oakenfold drops a brand new remix, “Far Too Long,” and the crowd pulls uncontrollably closer. When these rhythmic shifts happen, it never matters how massive or minuscule the crowd might be—you feel like you’re in the center of everything.
Over the past two years, Hawai‘i has welcomed some of today’s most in-demand deejays—high-profile names like Skrillex, Afrojack, Diplo, Jack Beats, Porter Robinson, Steve Aoki and Oakenfold. What do these international musicians, who forgo the ultra-high pay of gigging in LA, New York or Miami to perform in an otherwise minor market, find so rewarding? Besides the obvious—a convenient stopover on a tour through Australia or Asia—there’s the even more obvious: because it’s Hawai‘i.
But before we get into that, we need to define our terms. Electronic dance music fans know there are three things you don’t talk about at a party: politics, religion and the definition of house/dance music. That conversation unavoidably remixes into a debate, and the answers change depending on one’s age, musical history, iTunes library and what’s happening in the cultural mainstream. Whatever. It doesn’t stop me from asking every local deejay I come across anyway.
As host of KTUH radio’s “Underground Sounds Show,” Chicago native DJ G-Spot naturally points to the house music of the early ’80s, a form of EDM born in the Windy City and redolent of disco. Addiction nightclub’s three resident deejays each describe house differently—where ESKAE sees it as “a new avenue for pop music,” DJ Compose calls it “the new hip-hop.” DJ Anit calls it a one-size-fits-all “high-energy and fun” feeling, something “everyone can vibe to.” Fans in the field all say something different. I get a Wikipedia-like lecture from a teenage girl who cites house’s repetitive 4/4 beat and synthesized bass lines, a lesson I would follow if she weren’t wearing gigantic neon butterfly wings. Then there’s a smiley bleached-blond raver boy, who when I ask simply offers me a stick of gum.
It’s not until around 1:30 a.m., when I run into an ex-coworker I haven’t seen in months, that I find a working definition. As Oakenfold brings his set to a blissful finale and glow sticks whirl around us, my ex-coworker turns to me and disclaims, “I’m not sorry.” He takes off his shirt and keeps dancing. It’s a startling sight considering it’s a side of him I’ve never seen before, but it’s probably the most honest definition I’ve heard of house music—sometimes the quiet guy who sits in the office cubicle next to you just wants to dance shirtless without having to apologize for it.