As the first parties at the lascivious house and techno beach festival BPM got underway on Friday, an hour south on the Yucatan peninsula -- deep in a thick Mayan jungle -- visionary house DJ/producer Damian Lazarus brought his infamous Day Zero party concept back to Tulum.
With Felix Da Housecat, Acid Pauli, Bedouin, Venezuelan duo Fur Coat, a handful more ethnocentric alt-underground DJs, and hundreds of indigenous performers marshaled by the Cirque Du Soleil founder and entrepreneur Guy Laliberté, Lazarus realized a vision that has been years in the making and raised the bar significantly on the boutique festival and pop-up party experience.
The Crosstown Rebels boss was kicking off 2016 in much the same fashion as he did the previous year, which was unquestionably a defining one for a DJ/producer who has long been considered a maverick trailblazer in the underground scene. A long-overdue Mixmag cover in December and his second BBC Radio One Essential Mix in May did much to reintroduce his vastly altered, spiritually-informed and individualistic sound to another generation of clubbers.
2015 had seen the Crosstown Rebels boss bring together a culmination of the influences and ideas that had been gradually building and informing his creative output for the last few years. The Ancient Moons, his worldly live house band, shipped their debut album Message From The Other Side to rapturous praise, giving a collective beacon to follow for the borderless global house sounds that have accelerated in ubiquity as more and more DJs and vagrant souls stumble changed from Black Rock City each year.
But Lazarus recognizes the fine line walked with cultural appropriation, and knows that randomly splicing a bit of Urdu chanting over a 4/4 groove can be not only lazy, but culturally insensitive without any understanding of why those sounds exist.
But when you're standing on land steeped in Mayan cultural significance and watching a dizzying array of native fire spinners, indigenous dancers and performers, and then remember it was all dreamed up by a lad from Whitechapel, you realize that this isn’t mindless ethnic meddling. He knows exactly where he is and what his music’s purpose is.
“With research, experience and experiments I think it is possible to fuse some musical traditions and cultures with electronic music in a way that is cutting edge, beautiful and not cheesy,” said Lazarus, whose label Crosstown Rebels has too started to open its sound to a flood of worldly influence as its helmsman continues his sonic backpacking trip around the crates of the world. “There is a fine line between cool and cheap, but I think that with much deep digging and an open mind it is possible to create something different, interesting and special.”
The bookings for Day Zero were certainly a who’s who of those that align with the “Crosstown sound” (and Chicago party house legend Felix Da Housecat…). Brooklyn-based duo Bedouin, who have been making serious waves on the alt-festival and West Coast warehouse party scene of late, brought it deeper than we’ve come to expect from them in the last year. Typically the sunset or sunrise charmers, they were on at around 3am and recognized the crowd’s emotive yearn for ethereal darkness following Felix’s chunky, vibe plumped classic house romp.
Acid Pauli, the prolific and diverse musical force from Berlin, was working the breakfast set as much of the crowd struggled to keep up the high energy that coursed through the jungle all every evening. Also aligning neatly with that ethnovibe aesthetic, Pauli was prioritizing for tribal groove over the Gobi toplines and sitar samples, and his deep two-hour set was a treat for anyone who wasn’t passed out in a hammock or slumped on one of the many mattresses in caves and cenotes – natural Mexican watering holes - that adorned the stage.
Following Felix’s throwback-heavy and distinctly non-world house set, Mexican duo Fur Coat were up next to haul us deep back into the tribal heat. The pair has also become a staple on the West Coast in the past few months, being booked at illegal raves, ballroom takeovers and boutique festivals. They opted for an opaque techno set that fit the mood acutely.
The natural environment and production of the whole Day Zero space was certainly a shock to everyone that had made the semi-arduous journey there. While no one was questioning Tulum’s potential to induce feelings of awe, I doubt many would have expected to get to the end of the pitch-black dirt road and find the most impressive single-stage party in recent memory.
Built into a natural amphitheater in a partial clearing in the jungle and surrounded by cenotes and caves, the feeling of deep forest, off-grid immersion was only comparable to the infamous Desert Heart festivals outside of San Diego. But where the Sand Diego DJ collective have the steampunk haberdashery merchants and baby-Burn installations, Day Zero had a Pink-Floyd-gone-all-techno RGB light and laser production, and a disorienting maze of artfully lit walkways, a plethora of space out zones, and hundreds of Cirque Du Soleil native performers.
“I have been spending a lot of time in Tulum over the last 12 years or so,” said Lazarus of the Goa-esque hippy retreat on the Yucatan peninsula. “The Mayan culture and lifestyle is very appealing to me, the simplicity of daily life and mysticism and traditions handed down by the Elders is a perfect balance for fast living in LA and my weekly travels around the world DJing."
“The area is heavily tinged with magic and the jungles, paradise beaches, temples, cenotes and wildlife lend itself to great moments of creativity and deep thought. I wanted to connect this natural beauty with the sound of my label, Crosstown Rebels and the many amazing artists I work with and call friends. Joining the dots between the cosmic sky here and our next level music makes for a perfect partnership.”
Tulum has been a haven for the more esoteric members of the dance music community for a number of years, presenting itself as a culturally rich and dub-languid alternative to the oft-abrasive hum and Balearic revelry culture that exists in Playa Del Carmen. And Lazarus feels that the rich history of the land owes a lot of the culture of present day Tulum, juxtaposing BPM’s location neatly.
“We have created our own thing with thousands of people coming to the area just for the Day Zero event and for a handful of other cool events that take place in Tulum,” he notes. ”I think the event in Playa attracts a different kind of audience that are attracted by the many different things on offer over there. Mexico is a very beautiful country consisting of very beautiful people with open hearts, but like most other countries, they also offer some areas that are destined to be swarming with tourists looking for cheap thrills on their holidays. There is room for everyone to be happy.”
Since first appearing on the underground scene in London in the mid-90s as a journalist and DJ, Lazarus has been a continually pushing for a sound conceptual overtone to his aesthetic and output that is largely left field of the traditional house/techno/London/’beefa scenes. And while the plaudits for his influence continue to pour in, the Crosstown boss remains largely humble about the path he’s chosen.
“I consider myself to be a forward-thinking rebel with a clear role of discovering new music, new talent and new ideas in an ever cluttered and confusing area of music,” he notes. “Not content with delivering my finds under normal conditions, I enjoy creating unique environments and conditions in which people can enjoy them. As an artist and performer I endeavor to bring my true self to the party, to play the music from the heart and soul, of course all presented in a fun, fresh and positive way.”
The “unique environments” he referenced could seldom be as starkly progressive and immersive as they were Day Zero. The day-tranquil, deep jungle location was being disrupted by a thundering Funktion One system, and the makeshift pyramid stage was home to a plethora of outlandish performers.
Lazarus is said to have become a regular feature at the iconic Burning Man festival in Nevada over the last few years, and his relocation to Los Angeles, the center point of what is arguably the world’s most cutting-edge festival scene, has clearly been an integral influence on the producer’s heady sound.
Donning his now-staple shamanist garb and angular beard and shadowed by the aggressive lasers, the party’s talisman was the standout act in an evening of fabulously cutting-edge music and otherworldly visual performances. His cavernously-deep house and techno set was cut with rough breaks and flecked with acid, and was raised to a warping transcendental state by the powerfully psychedelic light show that fried our eyes and jaws open, and set a new standard on what an immersive sound and light show be.
But for a DJ as legitimately individualistic as Damian Lazarus, you really got the sense that it was here, at his own visionary party in front of a several thousand strong audience of spacey pilgrims that have been following him on this journey like some desert-wandering sunrise heretic, that he comes into his own.
Every single element of the experience was acutely curated by a man that has built a career on knowing precisely what he wants and for having a keen knack at articulating it. The end result was a party that exceeded all of the already lofty expectations his reputation had placed upon it, and this author wouldn’t be surprised if Day Zero will become the cruelly unrealistic benchmark for all parties of this nature to come.