Q&A: Crosstown Rebels Boss Damian Lazarus On Sexual Danger, Dr. Dre Starting Burning Man & When Keeping It Real Goes Right


“Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you,” says a possessed nanny before jumping out a window with a noose around her neck in 1976’s The Omen. After Resident Advisor released the 2011 edition of its Top 100 DJs poll earlier this week, one might be tempted to think of the nanny as the DJs out there not on Damian Lazarus’ Crosstown Rebels label, with the online electronic-music magazine as the noose and Damian as the smiling demonic boy just taking it all in at his own birthday party.

After the announcement, message boards lit up with whining over the Rebels’ domination (they had 11 spots on the list, and four of the top 10). But the Rebels did dominate 2011 as DJs, producers and artists (Nico Jaar also scored top live act). But our story begins way back in the early ’90s, where our demon seed started as a lowly music journalist [sic] working his way through an A&R job at London Records and creating two of dance music’s most influential labels (the other being the electro cornerstone City Rockers). After a year where Crosstown “saw all of its dreams come true,” we look toward the future. (This conversation took place a few days before the label’s big win at the polls.)

Crosstown seems more than just a label; it feels like a community. How do you foster that vibe?

I think that dance music kind of lost its way a little while ago. Just take a look at the DJ Top 100 Poll. There’s not that many personalities there, its just big name DJs. They just stand behind the decks and are very mono-syllabic and I realized that in our crew we’ve got some really entertaining characters; Seth Troxler, Jamie Jones, Art Department. So I wanted to find a cool way to show that, which is not such an easy thing. That’s why we have the Rebel Rave videos and the Lazpod that add new dimensions and interesting angles to what we’re doing.

Who are your DJ inspirations past and present?

Sasha, LTJ Bukem, DJ Harvey, Pete Tong is a massive inspiration, Ricardo Villalobos around 2005. Presently… I’d just rattle off everybody on Crosstown.

Any places that inspire you?

Panorama Bar in Berlin because you get to fraternize with the freaks. There’s a real sexual danger in the air. You could just turn any corner and get yourself fisted by accident.

(laughter eventually subsides) Tell me about your association with Burning Man.

When I was at Dazed & Confused in the mid-’90s, I got invited by the organizers to cover the festival but at the last minute something came up and I couldn’t go and I regret that so much. I sent someone else and they sent back these mind-blowing photos. So I kept my eye on it for awhile and now that I’ve been, I’ll never look back. I will be there every year. It’s like home. It’s phenomenal to think that this empty stretch of desert turns into a fifty to seventy thousand person community where a city is built from nothing and after seven days we leave, and you wouldn’t know that one person had been there. It’s not just one big rave. You can go there with any hobby or interest and you’re going to find other like-minded people wanting to talk about the same thing. People go to study astrology, people go to have weird sex.

You don’t say!

(laughs) There’s a book there that that tells you where you can go for whatever you’re into. If you’re into slapping rubber-clad men around the face with wet fish then you can do that.

I’m definitely curious about it, but if I have to hear from another person about how amaaaaaazing ‘playa life’ is, I’m gonna set myself on fire.

Well, if you haven’t been, talking to people about it is the most boring thing on earth! I can hear myself getting really boring sometimes when I’m trying to convince people to go but I literally think about it in some capacity everyday.

Really?? So it’s basically you and Dr. Dre keeping it going.

Dr. Dre?!

You haven’t heard that story? [A brief retelling ensues.]

Wow. I will be relaying that one on the playa next summer.

Now whenever you hear a Dre song, that will be your Burning Man thought for the day.

Yes, it will!

What do you look for when signing someone? What makes a Crosstown artist?

Some kind of connection with my feelings about music. It’s OK to be an amazing producer but if you’re a bit of a shoegazing, nothing to say for say for yourself, stay at home type of person, then you’re less likely to really interest me. I generally look for someone with a strong personality, a unique sound, an awareness of who they are and where they’re going and if they don’t quite yet know, they’re on the way to finding it out and open to having someone help them.

Which is probably why it feels like a community.

Oh yeah, they have to fit into the crew because the crew is everything. I’ve been in a position in the past where I’ve found an artist I really believed in, but you play it to your girlfriend or your best mate and they’re a bit like “Hmmmmmmm,” there’s nothing more demoralizing.

I was listening to the last Lazpod (No. 22) and I was struck by how interesting the opening was with your booming voice talking over this operatic score. It reminded me of the beginning of Disney’s Haunted House ride.

Wow. It’s really funny that you say that because I might be creating the music for something just like that. It’s a really amazing opportunity.

Space Disco Mountain??

[laughs] Not quite.

How do you think the underground has changed in the last five to ten years, and does it even still exist?

It’s very much still a thing. There’s no reason that the thousands of kids going to Deadmau5 or Swedish House Mafia won’t grow up a bit and need something a bit more challenging in their weekly club visits. There’s a lot of people who’ll just go for that their entire lives; the easy road. But in my world, in the underground, it’s more about an appreciation of great new fresh music so I think it’s in a very healthy state. It’s always mutating but I’m just very lucky to be in a scene that’s just as vibrant as when I started – house music.

You play a lot of soundtracks on Lazpod. What are your favorites?

Currently the Tree of Life by Alexandre Desplat. Oh my god. That soundtrack is phenomenal. I love Oliver Twist and the original Willy Wonka soundtrack.

I read that you once played a pitched-down song from Oliver Twist in a club set. That takes balls.

It’s a dangerous area because you can really fuck up, but when it works its phenomenal. I played this outdoor party a few years ago in Leeds and it started really raining halfway through my set and the crowd was just going ballistic and just as the heavens opened I dropped in Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight” and it could have gone so disastrously wrong, but it became one of those moments that people still come up to me to talk about. But it’s gotta be right. I wanna do it when I’ve discovered something special, not because I’m the guy who does weird shit.

Rebel Rave 2, mixed by Droog, is out now on Crosstown Rebels.