Story by Matthew Dekneef
Photos by Elyse Butler
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.
“Everyone would love to go to Hawai‘i at some point in their life, whether they’re a manicurist or a deejay,” says promoter G. Denhart, a.k.a DJ G-Spot, adding that Oakenfold, whom he brought to the island once before in 2004, “only wanted to play in Hawai‘i again if it was outdoors.” “Hawai‘i is a beautiful place,” says Remy Kawakami, founder of Wonderland Entertainment. “You open your doors to them and they come.” Good thing for Hawai‘i’s small but rich EDM scene, because local promoters can’t deliver a guaranteed ten-thousand-person crowd on a Tuesday night like promoters in LA or Vegas can. What they can offer are laid-back excursions to Halona Blowhole, Sandy Beach and Makapu‘u before their Hawai‘i gigs.
The Hawai‘i EDM scene, like Hawai‘i itself, is buoyed on a tropical fantasy—for both local and visiting acts alike. But that tide is quickly changing. You don’t have to listen closely to hear that dance music today is in a really interesting place—one that’s entered the nation’s Billboard Top 40 conversation, trickling down to corners as supposedly isolated as Hawai‘i. As ESKAE puts it, “Dance is back in your face.” Just this spring, Skrillex won three Grammys with his divisive brand of dubstep, and Rihanna’s “We Found Love” made her YouTube’s most viewed female artist. Locally, the music video for Nicki Minaj’s electro-beach track “Starships” was shot on O‘ahu, and dance radio station My95.9 FM found a new digital home in downtown Honolulu, a city with notoriously limited radio programming.
“I’ve seen [EDM] expand like an accordion,” says DJ G-Spot, a figure in the scene since the early 2000s for his instrumental role in the Millennium New Year’s party, a live one-hour BBC Television broadcast from Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park featuring world-renowned DJ Carl Cox. “This is definitely the biggest stretch of it, if you will. It’s commercial now. It’s a new generation’s rock ’n’ roll. House music grew up a decade ago, but it took a while for people to see it had evolved.” 88In reality, Hawai‘i’s EDM scene has always existed, but thanks to the sway of popular culture, it’s more popular than ever. Today it’s the polar opposite from its dubious gestation and birth at underground (and illegal) raves; it’s now heavily advertised on the radio and social media. Events have security guards, sponsored advertising and liability contracts. Now it’s all in the open.
“If people venture out of Waikiki, they can find a lot of awesome stuff they can connect with, if not be surprised by,” says Chris Kam, a.k.a DJ Delve, a veteran who’s “spun at pretty much every club and bar” on O‘ahu since 1994. “People have a perception that when they come to an island, it won’t necessarily have what they’re into. That’s where Hawai‘i is cool, because we do.” The way ESKAE describes the visitors’ surprise, you’d think the outside world imagined Honolulu as the puritanical, dance-free town in Footloose. “When I have a conversation with someone from out of town, they’ll say, ‘We didn’t expect you all to be up on that!’ I get it. It’s Hawai‘i. They were sold on something else—a tropical destination, not on nightlife and deejays. It is what it is. But that’s the greatest compliment. We beat their expectations.”
Like its cuisine and its culture, Honolulu’s EDM scene is energized by Hawai‘i’s multicultural fusion. “The greatest thing about Hawai‘i is that it’s not connected to any coast or any specific area,” DJ Delve says, pointing out that the scene’s most significant influence is that there isn’t one. “We have the luxury of being able to pull from everywhere in the world, basically. Sound-wise it’s more creative.” That open-mindedness and freedom attracts international, under-the-radar artists to Chinatown—allowing clubs to feature EDM talent with less “casual” fan bases—like the hard-style trance of UK’s DJ Kutski, who played SoHo Mixed Media Bar, or the atmospheric trip-hop of Japan’s DJ Krush at Nextdoor—and still reach their maximum capacity. Local deejay Willis Haltom, who founded Asylum Afterhours, an underground members-only party, says the “crowds here are more receptive to new music.”
“The thing Hawai‘i has over most cities anywhere in the US is that you get people who really want to party. You have a really unpretentious dance floor. You go to LA or New York, the bottle service clubs, it’s more about being seen and having a table, but you won’t rage,” says ESKAE, speaking first like a fan and second like a deejay. “This city is every deejay’s dream. This is the most live crowd you can play for. It’s such a family vibe.”
Ibiza, no-biza—after weekends spent in amped clubs, dark bars and concerts that throb past 2 in the morning, I’ve got a ringing in my ears I can’t shake. I tried to one afternoon, relaxing out at Makapu‘u, only to hear rhythms in everything: The way a wave crashes, like a dropped bass. How crackling fronds of palm trees against a steady breeze repeat, repeat, repeat into a trance beat. A solar glint refracting off someone’s shades like a strobe. Even the beach felt electric.