Burning Up & Out 

DJ Lorin, a star on the Burning Man scene, wants to ditch the playa and embrace the hip-hop crowd. Meet a music marketer's nightmare.

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The easiest answer for Ashton would be to reign over the breakbeat movement, which is reaching the sort of hegemony in the West Coast party scene that trance held five years ago. When he shares a bill with colleagues Freq Nasty and Tipper, attendees number in the thousands and pay as much as 25 bucks a pop for the privilege. But, as Ashton's manager Mark Davenport points out, "The electronic music scene in America is ultimately a very finite thing." Judging from the pant legs of today's cool kids, beat-fiend billows have been replaced by the skin-scouring tug of Ramones denim. The pendulum has swung from turntables back to guitars.

He might also become the DJ for guys who don't listen to DJs. Since his performance at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, the jam-band scene has started to welcome him, which is a bit puzzling since he doesn't jam and the tracks he plays aren't composed by anything resembling a band. But here, too, he balks: "I kind of wish I didn't have to care and people could accept it as music."

People might accept it, but the industry will not. Contemporary products need a bold tag on the package. Of the markets on his list, hip-hop is the closest one to the mainstream he intends to access. It's also by far the least plausible — a skinny, white, self-described pansy could have trouble getting into a hip-hop club, let alone playing it. Nonetheless, at least a third of Underground Communication has rapping on it, and its first video, "Bomb the Blocks," features urban dancers of many colors strutting and breakdancing in the foreground.

Gunnar Hissam, vice president of marketing at OM, has wrestled with how to push Bassnectar since signing him a year ago. "You could put him on a trance bill and he'd be fine. You could put him on a jam-band bill and he'd do better. You could put him on a breaks bill and he'd do even better. But put him on a straight-ahead hip-hop bill? He could pull it off because he's good, but it wouldn't be my first choice. Unless it was a really progressive lineup, those guys wouldn't know what to do with him."

Ashton, though, has other reasons for following the road more taken. Hip-hop has long allured him as a once-pure form of protest music. And since he has a proven pedigree in beat science — a 2006 mix he did for the BBC was one of the rare electronica variations on hip-hop that hip-hop heads might actually respect — the approach could hit two birds at once. Through a re-empowered hip-hop, he could tackle politics while steering out of the lifestyle-specific cul-de-sacs of his other scenes.

Before Ashton comments on his intentions, he carefully provides a disclaimer. "It could be taken wildly out of context for some middle-class, white-boy, hippie DJ to be saying anything critical about hip-hop," he says. "It can be turned into a race issue and a class issue really quickly. I am extremely aware of that, but I feel very serious about it, and I do want to contribute to hip-hop."

His beef is that reactionary corporations have transformed this music of protest into what Ashton calls "this ridiculous circus of buttcheeks and shiny objects by misplacing the source of aggression. When you think about this music based on this African beat, and it's not this silly white beat, it's a heavy, disturbing, sexual beat, and then over that you have not singing, not making melody, but rhythmic, aggressive yelling. That genre could have done anything, but instead it's become so goofy."

While the bulk of Underground Communication is not overtly political — he says he doesn't think of his CDs as activism — one of its main topics is "reinvigorating hip-hop as one of the ultimate forms of resistance music." His mission to get hip-hoppers to actually hear this message does seem a bit quixotic. The rappers and vocalists he enlisted — Souleye, Persia, Seasunz, and Nibu, among others — are utterly unknown to the rap mainstream, and the organic grooves he lays down for them are many milieus away from what gets play on urban radio.

Ashton does plan to leverage any success garnered with this foray to attract rappers with more street cred for his next album. He particularly has his eye on Boots Riley from the Coup. But until then, most people who pick up the album will know him from Burning Man, the festival circuit, or the jam-band scene — he's been playing with String Cheese Incident and Sound Tribe Sector 9 recently. Each of those niches is as middle-class, white, and hippie as he is.

Granted, hip-hop these days largely is, too, but what Ashton yearns for is a return to its era of pregentrification defiance. He's not talking about joining the swelling ranks of "progressive" white producers and rappers carpetbagging to save the lost hip-hop inner city. He envisions a hip-hop driven once again by black anger turned outward. How Ashton will facilitate this is uncertain, and he concedes that he'll have to proceed carefully because "I don't want to flack gangster rap and then have gangster rappers come flack me."

No one, though, can accuse him of lacking ambition. For Ashton, subcultures have always been movements to bleed for — from his death-metal one-upmanship to his rave-culture Puritanism, he has chosen obscurity over concession. Now that he has the attention of record labels, reporters, and his zealous fanbase, and the possibility of being the first Bay Area dance music DJ to cross over, he's unwilling to put his agenda aside, no matter how much it might confuse, delay, or even jeopardize his career.

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