Escape From Utopia
Photo by BaldemarThe cops are going to close down this deafening party any minute. The DJ is practically baiting the authorities with the power of his sound system's bone-shaking bass thump.
This doesn't bother the legions of kids who are bobbing their heads against a wall-sized speaker, where a strange new sound called techno is filling their ears. It's 1991 or so, and a Laguna Beach kid named Jason Blakemore is at the front of the crowd. For him, this clandestine celebration is where the revolution begins.
Back then, the mainstream press and the police treated Blakemore's favorite parties (and the rave scenes they would spawn) like a contagious cocktail of poisonous drugs and hippie-gone-bad counterculture. But Blakemore didn't care. Instead, he delved deeper into this mistrusted movement by learning how to DJ during his downtime from his studies at Loyola Marymount University. He soon became one of LA and OC's most celebrated DJs, spinning records for illegal bashes and aboveboard nightclubs, trying to cash in on the new trend. His mix tapes became required listening for any SoCal raver.
"He had a huge following," says Jamie Thinnes, ex-clerk at Huntington Beach's Higher Source record shop and now chief of OC house label Seasons Recordings. "Any time he brought his tapes to Higher Source, we used to sell out of them real quick."
By 1996, Blakemore's dance singles "Rebirth-Embryo" and "Rebirth-Pure" had become local dance anthems. He buried himself deep in the vanguard of what was then considered the next big thing.
Now the 32-year-old is a happily married man who's sitting in a downtown Huntington Beach apartment that's filled with unironic, inspirational art—lots of daybreaks and quaint country cottages in sunny glens. He claims he got them from his mom. Mm-hmm.
Blakemore is showing off a bump on his head from being elbowed during a basketball game at the gym. I'm waiting for him to tell me he and his wife, Amy, settled in Huntington because of the good schools or the great dental plans. Where's that bracing revolutionary spirit, Jason? Am I too late for it?
Unfortunately, yes. Crowd fickleness and police harassment eventually crushed underground raves during the '90s. If, in the interim, raves grew up, died or went legit, and if Blakemore became an adult, he at least remained true to the ideals of the original scene. He still DJs. He still produces critically lauded music. And he pulls off both without looking like a fossil.
Years ago, he dropped his DJ name "Trance" and the techno he first played. Now he spins more melodic and adventurous house music in clubs around Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego and OC. He also started his own label, Life Music, which he runs out of his apartment. Life Music has released 11 singles during its three-year history, and Blakemore claims it breaks even. Better proof of Blakemore's continued relevancy is that people are still listening. Recent songs such as Low Key's "Delusional" climbed dance charts in Europe in 2001 and were included on a few overseas dance compilations.
If this success still sounds meager for a cat who outlasted most of his fellow DJs, Blakemore admits he doesn't aggressively push himself or the label. Unlike many other successful DJ/producers, he doesn't have a manager setting up star-making gigs for him, but that's all right. He claims he never wanted to be a star. The whole notion of fame was always a little unseemly for anybody in the rave movement.
"Any DJ who grew a big ego would alienate the crowd," Blakemore remembers. "They'd say we're not going to follow you anymore. Now with the rise of mega-clubs, the DJ scene these days feels more glammy and bling-bling. I don't think that's what rave was all about. But for a while, it was Utopia."
Blakemore's current music isn't the kind that would've gotten much play during the rave heydays, either. Instead, it's more like Brian Eno or Augustus Pablo, good for both the mind as well as the feet. "Ocean View," released this year, received high marks from such DJ magazines as BPM and Mixmag. The nature sounds of crashing waves and seagull cries are gently mixed with a mysterious keyboard line and a meditative dub rhythm. "Sleepwalking," also released this year, is filled with Eno-like dissonance, and his live sets mix such house staples as diva vocals with enigmatic tribal drumming.
While these sounds probably won't make him the leader of a massive new youth movement, the mere fact that Blakemore is one of the few rave vets still spinning and releasing records makes him an inspiration, Thinnes says. Blakemore doesn't plan on leaving the field any time soon, either—strange, since he never really planned on staying with it in the first place.
"DJing didn't turn into grad school," laughs Blakemore. "Ten years went by, and I'm still here. It's what I enjoy."
Jason Blakemore celebrates the third anniversary of Life Music with DJ Scott Coats, Thomas White and Jordan Scott at the Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa (949) 642-0600. Sat., 9 p.m. $10. 21+.
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