Los Angeles' Underground Secret Project Festival Makes Triumphant Debut

Secret Project festival in Los Angeles.
Ivan Meneses for Insomniac Events

Secret Project festival in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles hosted its first multi-stage underground dance festival this past weekend, but its VIP swagger, purist house/techno lineup and downtown location weren't the only things making Secret Project unique. Instead of steamrolling smaller promoters, Factory 93 invited them into the club.

In front of a pulsing background of concentric glowing triangles and vertical LED pinstripes, Simon Green -- better known to the world as Bonobo -- expertly worked the IDJ turntables before him. Fifty feet overhead on the historic North Spring Street Viaduct, a crowd of voyeurs looked down at the dancing throng below as if staring into an aquarium of weirdos. Bonobo cued up Stardust's classic "The Music Sounds Better With You" and proceeded into a string of thick-bottomed, disco-laced tracks: his remix of Kiasmos' "Blurred" and then Fernando Olaya's "Stereophonik."

The British expat has called LA home for years, so he understands the assembled crowd better than perhaps any of the other top headliners. Halfway through Doc Daneka’s “Never Wanna Lose You,” a double-decker train plowed by on the tracks defining the backend of the field. It’s like an unexpected alien interloper with its whoosh of wind and lights, but when the Amtrak blasts air horns in rhythm with Bonobo’s beats, it all seems almost scripted -- part of the show.

This is Secret Project, a musical gathering built upon the foundations of the unexpected.The event focuses strictly on underground dance music -- meaning house and techno of the purist silk. You won’t see any big room superstars here or Vegas bottle service soundtrackers, just artists you’d only normally find working the faders in dark, smoke-filled warehouses across the globe.

The organizers -- Insomniac sub-brand Factory 93 -- are hoping to make Secret Project a landmark event in more ways than just its lineup. Consider its VIP trappings. As the roster reflects a more sophisticated approach to dance music, so does the treatment of its well-heeled guests. David Chang’s first Los Angeles outpost, Majord?mo -- located on the same city block -- opened its doors to feed Secret Project VIPs with slow roasted pork shoulder and bing with Hozon -- Chang’s own hummus-like creation of pureed fermented chickpeas.

And the VIP viewing area for the main stage is the back terrace of Apothéke, a marble-bar cocktail emporium that just opened in January. Its crisply dressed bartenders aren't mixing rum and cokes here, only a menu of precisely crafted potions with flaming absinthe and homemade habanero bitters. Like the Greenseer, a tequila and mescal concoction blended with fresh honeydew melon and spirulina, sprinkled with sprouts of micro grass.   

Ivan Meneses for Insomniac Events
Secret Project festival in Los Angeles.

But what makes Secret Project such a leap isn't the artisanal cocktails or chicken deep-fried by David Chang. It’s the coming together of the tribes, the congress of the city’s best underground dance promoters uniting to put something together that’s truly next level. This isn’t just a leap forward for Los Angeles, it’s a pivotal moment in dance culture.

“It’s pretty unique definitely what we have in LA,” says Loren Granich, co-founder of LA’s A Club Called Rhonda. Now a decade running, Rhonda has achieved almost legendary status in the city and country; its ultra inclusive ethos uniting the disparate straight and gay clubbing spheres in a way not seen in LA since the illegal house parties of the early 90s. “We have the opportunity to work in a lot of different cities around the country and world, and there’s a different approach in each. In part this city’s scene is thriving right now because of the way we work together: we’re competitors, but also we want each other to do good.”

In the world of nightlife promotion where backdoor treachery is normally the price of admission, the vanguard ring running Los Angeles’ underground dance culture has long worked in harmony. And the biggest crews -- Rhonda, Making Shapes, Lights Down Low and Dig Deeper — are not only spinning at Secret Project, but also helping with promotional duties.

Ivan Meneses for Insomniac Events
Secret Project festival in Los Angeles.

“When people from other cities come here expecting really bad blood between promoters, we’re like ‘You know, we don’t work that way here,’” notes Granich. “And they’re kind of shocked.”

“It was natural for all of us to work together,” adds Richie Panic from Lights Down Low. “Everyone that’s on here is our friend.”

Both Granich and Panic reference a working spreadsheet these teams share to declare bookings in order to avoid stepping on one another’s nights. They all have open invites to parties, and often book each other to help grow the scene. It is this sense of comity that runs through Secret Project, and it is a key cog to the festival’s unlikely success (over 10,000 attendees across two nights).

Insomniac, after all, is a veritable juggernaut bursting with funds and leverage from its Live Nation partnership. But many think ignoring the people who built this tightly knit house/techno scene from the ground up would have been a mistake, as teams like Making Shapes and Lights Down Low have been growing many of these artists’ profiles in the city for years. It highlights Factory 93’s broader understanding of how underground fans in the city operate; they want to support the smaller guys whose parties they go to on the regular.

The intimacy between promoter and club goer is clear. On Apothéke’s wood terrace you see how the crowd approaches the various assembled promoters as friends, not business contacts or clients. There appears to be true kinship in this scene, and Factory 93’s efforts to bring these smaller promoters into the fold might simply be smart business.

Because even in Los Angeles where the underground thrives, the techno and house genres to this point have only been viable on the more intimate club/warehouse level. When organizers try to scale parties up to festival size they can quickly lose the very people they’re attempting to woo.

“We’ve been inspired to do this type of festival, with these genres of music, for a while now,” says Meelo Solis, one-half of the duo behind Factory 93 and Secret Project. “The team and I love this music.” With roots reaching back to the beginning of LA’s nascent rave scene -- his Channel 36 team produced the seminal Audiotistic raves, among others -- Solis’ street cred is as solid as it comes in Los Angeles’ insular dance community. He notes that Factory 93 has been curating stages at larger Insomniac events since its inception, and the sound and scene are only growing. “We have such a big dance community in LA, and a good portion of the community graduates into this type of music,” he says, “so hosting a festival like this makes sense.”

“I find it really, really inspiring that someone who could just continue to do mega-raves is turning towards a scene that I actually think is really a positive culture, and giving it legs,” says Jonny, a local promoter who’s not associated with Secret Project. Like many from this underground world, he was skeptical of attempts to further commercialize a scene that has until now been mostly sequestered to illegal warehouses. He highlights the educational aspect of the event, and its potential effects on his own parties. “I didn't realize how dedicated they are to building a scene here,” he admits. “It’s not a money move for them. They could have just booked Zedd again in LA Historic Park, sold 10,000 tickets and banked on it.”

By inviting the, until-now, underground promoters into the fold, Factory 93 have done more than simply helped ticket sales and boost word of mouth. They have also created a distinctly Los Angeles event. Otherwise Secret Project -- loaded with international talent like Bicep, DJ Tennis, Peggy Gou and Pachanga Boys -- really could have occurred anywhere. “Which we need,” says Jonny, who confesses now to being sold on Secret Project. “We need a flagship underground event in what should be a global dance music city.”