The Renaissance man of the electronic dance scene speaks to BOOM about bringing hard to Hong Kong, how he became a DJ and why all the kids are listening to EDM these days.
Destructo’s had a long journey. He’s been DJing and promoting electronic music in the US for over 20 years, an early adopter you might say, who struggled to find an audience until suddenly three or four years ago EDM exploded onto the scene. For many Destructo, a.k.a. Gary Richards, is one of the core figures on the US dance scene. He was hired by Rick Rubin, the legendary head of Def Jam, back in the early 90s to discover electronic music and bring it back to the States. He launched Electric Daisy Carnival (although he later gave over the name to EDC’s current founders) and he’s also the founder of HARD Events which got sold to Live Nation in 2012 and currently throws some of the biggest electronic festivals in the US including HARD Summer, which last year attracted over 70,000 attendees, Day of the Dead and Holy Ship! (a three-day festival set aboard a 2,500 person cruise liner).
His early line-ups for HARD included then-unknowns who ended up becoming household names: Skrillex, Justice, deadmau5 among many others. “In the beginning, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he explains. “I was just booking people that I liked before they were big. And then all of a sudden deadmau5, Calvin Harris, Boyz Noize and Skrillex all just exploded and I had them all in the beginning.” His reputation for championing ‘what he likes’ means that those early DJs are still hugely loyal to him, and regularly and eagerly play his parties. “You know, Calvin Harris said to me his favourite festival to play last year was Day of the Dead. deadmau5 said the same thing because he can play a set where he doesn’t have to play all his hits. He can play what he wants because people who come to HARD parties, they’re open-minded and they’re educated about music. You know, when he’s at Vegas, maybe people yell at him if he doesn’t play the tracks they know. At HARD, people aren’t preprogrammed generic fans that only know the songs from the radio.”
This August, Richards is bringing a taste of HARD to Hong Kong at the W. “The goal is to feel it out, see what the reaction is, and if it works to keep trying to come back.” The difference between HARD and other music festivals is that it’s Richards who does the programming, and this is a man with impeccable taste in electronic music. “HARD is really based around my taste in music and the artists I pick. I have a different point of view, I think. You’ll see Pharrell on the bill, you’ll see A$AP Mob mixed in with Diplo and Skrillex. You know, we’ve had Bloc Party and Bootsy Collins. For me it’s really easy because I’m the sort of promoter that will listen to absolutely anything and if I love it, I’ll get behind it and blow it up. But a lot of other promoters, they’re not really DJs and so they don’t dig as deep as me.”
His depth of knowledge was what got Rick Rubin interested in him back in 1993 to try and launch electronic acts in the US. “When he hired me, he sent me to the UK and to Europe to go raving and check it out. I went to a party called Universe in Warminster and then I went to Hellraiser in Holland. We signed Sven Väth to the label after that. You know, Rick and I we had great signings but I think we sold a total of four records! We were just way too early. It’s funny but I went round to Rick’s house in Malibu a couple of months ago and he just said ‘Dude, we were right!’”
Unsurprisingly, Richards has a few ideas about why electronic music has had such an exponential trajectory in recent years. He explains that in the 90s, radio and MTV locked up what people listened to. “Back when I had my record label, the bigwigs would always tell me, ‘you’ve got oil but you’ve got no pipeline.’ There was no way to get the music to the people.” These days, with the Internet, it’s easier to access an audience. “Everything that killed people buying physical music enabled the growth in electronic music,” he says. “The kids are all connected to each other and the music all just flies around. There are groups out there that have Soundcloud pages with millions of plays that aren’t even signed onto a label. They don’t need Warner Bros to invest millions in them and get them on TV to be popular.”
Another aspect is that the quality of the music has improved, in his opinion. “Before, I think people that were real musicians thought that this kind of electronic music was a joke. So the real musicians would play guitar and they’d be in a band and they wouldn’t DJ. But now you’re getting a hybrid. You have guys like Zedd who’s a classically trained pianist but he makes weird electronic pop music. Back in the day the talented musicians would pick up a guitar or sing or be in a band, but now they’re DJing and they’re making electronic music. So you’re getting better, more talented people making it.”
Of course, he admits that more than just the people making music have changed. The nature of DJing itself has changed. For a start, the DJ’s on stage now, not hidden in the corner. The money’s not in releasing albums but in playing shows. And a DJ’s got to be a performer, not just a guy behind a mixer. “The thing is now, you make your money by playing events. The music is kind of like a tool, it’s still the creative art of making music but your music isn’t really the leader that’s going to take you there. What’s going to take you there is building up a following by playing live. And it’s important to have a good stage presence and work the crowd. You’ve got to have good music and know what you’re doing, but it’s a combination. I mean, what Sonny [Skrillex] always tells me is he’s like the front man for the band but his band members are the laser guy, the effects guy, the video guy and the guy that does the hydraulics on the spaceship – and they jam together. At that level you’ve got to step it up. When I started DJing, we were in the corner in the back, no one even knew what we looked like. But I think it’s good that people have to be on stage and they’ve got to do their thing. You’ve got to work the crowd and ham it up!”
The passage of time has also changed Richards. When he first started DJing, he was into hard techno that he was trying to mix metal into, whereas now he’s more interested in house and taking the crowd on a journey. “When I was young, I was just loud and wanted to break stuff. That’s why I called myself Destructo and the name just stuck. But I don’t really feel like a Destructo anymore. I’m like smoothed out now. No atom bombs these days, more like just breaking some boards. I’m married now, you know.”