Capping off a summer that saw the biggest electronic music events in U.S. history, Electric Zoo marked its third and biggest year yet this weekend, Sept 2-4.
Comparatively smaller than the country's other three-day dance fests - Ultra Music Festival in Miami (150,000 estimated attendees), and Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas (215,000) - the Zoo, which drew 85,000 fans to New York's Governor's Island, still looms large for one simple reason: It's in New York.
New York has a storied history as a house music hub: Larry Levan birthed the modern nightclub at the Paradise Garage in the '80s, and his successors, like Danny Tenaglia, bore the torch into the decades that followed. But the city is known to be insular in its dance music taste, creating local DJ stars whose popularity doesn't travel beyond the bridges and tunnels. Touring artists with great clout in L.A. or Las Vegas have historically had a hard time finding their footing in the Big Apple.
But that was before the electronic revolution of the last few years, and the influx of young, fresh fans to the genre. The kids were a little rougher than the neon-hued woodland creatures at Ultra, with a stronger yen for the hard stuff (beats, that is) than the Electric Daisy massive. But across three tents and one towering main stage, the crowd gave it up for all manner of DJ - from pop-wise, to left field, to classic.
The fest's three days were full of great music, but here were 16 of the best and most interesting things we encountered all weekend.
1. Moby's been releasing dominantly somber meditations on solitude over the last few years. But he took to the main stage on Friday with a fury reminiscent of his '80s rave beginnings, and played a set in kind. The beats and the BPMs were blistering, and Moby - who has said that he considers DJ-ing a necessary evil - mounted the DJ booth and egged on the crowd like he really, really liked it.
2. The ecstatically happy and super-stimulated sound of rave requires the stamina of the young - all the more reason why it's making a comeback amongst the new dance crowd. Dubstep anthem "Sweet Shop" by Doctor P - dropped at Zoo by Rusko and 12th Planet - starts off with a spastic piano riff that instantly recalls The Shamen or Brothers in Rhythm (heroes of the original European rave scene). Moby's aforementioned set smashed up the recognizable hooks of his post-"Play" career - like "Porcelain" - with hyper-powered, treble-happy beats. The harder it hit, the more the kids liked it.
3. Skrillex will tell you that he specializes in style-agnostic bass - not necessarily techno, electro, glitch, or dubstep, the genre with which he's usually associated. He made good on that classification on Saturday in the jam-packed Hilltop Arena, grinding the laser-loaded synth madness to a temporary halt to drop another kind of classic: Ludacris' "Move B*tch (Get Out The Way)." It was a moment even the security guards could love.
4. "Where is Avicii?!" So bellowed a sweaty, shaggy-haired raver, apparently at God, as he walked across the festival grounds on Saturday. It wasn't the first time the baby-faced 21-year-old DJ's absence was noted - a mark of his explosive popularity after barely a year on the scene. Avicii was across the country and actually quite busy that day, playing a double-gig: Early evening in San Diego, and after-hours in Las Vegas.
5. Like Avicii, Swedish House Mafia skipped Electric Zoo. But the DJ/producer trio still managed to create buzz. A street team handed out mysterious fans - double-sided dye-cut flyers on sticks - bearing SHM's black-and-white paintball motif and the Euro-formatted date "23.09.11." A matching microsite offered no additional information.
6. It started with a remix of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" - a heart-stopping drop on its own. But then Carl Cox started to play techno, in the Sunday School tent on Friday. It wasn't infused with breakbeats, or vocals, or progressive swooshes - just analog, elemental, pure techno with globs of acid squelch, at Cox's trademark aggressive pace. He's thought of as one of the old guard - but Cox could teach the young ones a thing or two about how to pierce the skin of each individual track and break it down to its bones.
7. Nineteen-year-old Porter Robinson made a cannonball-smash on the dance scene this year, opening for Skrillex over the summer, and soon to open for Tiësto on his massive college tour. On Saturday, the Red Bull Riverside tent wasn't big enough to hold his crowd, which cheered for every short-attention-span drop and mix - like Daft Punk's "One More Time" into Calvin Harris' "Awooga" into the Nicky Romero mix of Green Velvet's "Flash," in 30 seconds flat.
8. The voice of the new generation of dance fans? None other than Adele. DJs of all styles and stature dropped her remixes all over the Zoo, from Benny Benassi with Thomas Gold's "Set Fire to the Rain," to Joachim Garraud with "Rolling in the Deep."
9. Rusko pogo-ed like a ska kid during his early-Friday main stage set, closing with his own "Cockney Thug" - a dubstep anthem that samples gangster dialogue from a BBC TV show, to which the crowd spoke along in perfect time. One even wore the most memorable verbiage on a T-shirt: "Now, wake the fuck up."
10. David Guetta augmented his radio hits with edgier elements during his headlining main stage set on Saturday. Dewy ballad "When Love Takes Over," for example, got smashed up with Afrojack's mix of Silvio Ecomo and Chuckie's "Moombah" - the 2009 track that launched pitched-down sub-genre Moombahton. Always a sponge for new sounds, Guetta is apparently opening up to the power of bass and breaks: A day after Skrillex's Zoo-defining set, Guetta tweeted: "Skrillex absolutely killed it. He's really amazing." We predict an R&B/dubstep anthem coming to a radio dial near you.
11. Just a few years ago, German DJ/producer Loco Dice was the smoldering poster boy of the minimal techno movement, an answer to the high-drama big-room tribal house that was dominating the global underground. But on Friday in the Sunday School tent, his chugging, four-on-the-floor set sounded positively old school. Perhaps it was the absence of shrieking pterodactyl synths or sludgy breakbeats - or the presence of some finger-wagging gospel house samples - but Dice sounded more confident with his more traditional palette than some of the older DJs who actually pioneered those sounds.
12. Not content to let Diddy and will.i.am rule the dance roost, Snoop Dogg took to the main stage on Sunday as DJ Snoopadelic. But he didn't do much to embrace electronic: He rapped for a few songs, frolicked with a dude in a bear suit, and played American standards like the Beastie Boys' "Fight For Your Right."
13. Tiësto celebrated his Billboard cover story on Friday - which hit the streets that very day - with a suitably epic headlining set that featured all his hits (like quirky vocals "Escape Me" and "Feel It in My Bones"), newly released banger "Maximal Crazy," and sky-high color-changing flamethrowers.
14. It was supposed to be a set from Plastikman: Richie Hawtin's analog alter-ego who makes techno on the fly with an imposing rig of mysterious boxes and knobs. But because of either Hurricane Irene electrical fall-out (according to the official press release), or a gear-killing forklift mishap (according to on-site gossip), the crowd got a straight-up DJ set from Hawtin instead - which is nothing to complain about.
15. Diplo advanced his role as champion of all styles new and gritty with a sweaty and shirtless Sunday set in the Hilltop Arena that focused on dubstep - the genre he helped define for the masses with 2010 compilation "Blow Your Head" on Mad Decent - and Moombahton, a new hybrid of Dutch house and reggaeton.
16. Dance music has always had its own forms of "hits": Vocals with memorable hooks, wordless bangers with irresistible drops. But they were usually localized to specific cities, or associated with a certain DJ or style. Not anymore. Crowds all over the Zoo reacted to the same omnipresent tracks - like Swedish House Mafia's "Save The World," or Bassjackers "Mush Mush" (on Tiësto's Musical Freedom label) - proving that style lines are indeed breaking down in electronic music, and critical mass has finally been reached in a genre that used to trade in long-tail successes only.