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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But he added that being a DJ for life is a career dead end: "It will get you there, but it won't keep you there," Dutch says. That's a sentiment to which Lorin, last name Ashton, is keenly, perhaps obsessively attuned. When The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed him for an article on DJing, he went to great lengths to explain how he was not a DJ, befuddling the journalist and risking his inclusion in the piece. Indeed, Ashton is as media-conscious and pigeonhole-wary as any dance music artist today. He once sent me an e-mail of spirited objections after I referred to him to as a "raver-celeb" in an SF Weekly story — "rave" was an inaccurate description of his scene, and carried too much stigma these days, he said, both points that I conceded.

Lorin has a precise vision of where he needs to go next after eleven years as a successful (read: no day job) DJ, but when he tries to explain, it comes out more like the map of the London Underground than a simple arrow. He wants to play more with bands, but he doesn't want to be slapped with the hippie label that afflicts the String Cheese Incident, the jam-grass band he's been opening for. He wants to continue to produce dubby breakbeat dance-floor tunes, but his new CD, Underground Communication, features lots of straightforward hip-hop, complete with MCs. He yearns to shed the Burning Man stigma, but he doesn't want to alienate his fans, either, the bulk of whom are hardcore Burners. And he wants to get political while playing the club circuit, that great shrine to apathy and indulgence. Oh, he also wants to get famous along the way.

"I know I'm kind of shooting myself in the foot for having so many interests," Ashton adds after giving what he warned would be a fifteen-point answer to the question of what he set out to do on his new album. "I'm basically a marketing nightmare. I want to stay underground and still reach as many people as possible."

The entertainer's development from a hippie commune kid to a Jesus freak to a metalhead to a raver is as heterogeneous as his current career goals. Born in 1978, he was raised in San Jose's Koinonea commune. "It was a bunch of conscious kids who were very open, sensitive, and theoretical, and they had a very charismatic leader," Ashton says, sitting in a Berkeley park where he sometimes does yoga. But like many similar experiments, Koinonea took a dramatic turn when the '80s hit. "The leader took them down this extremist Jesus path. When it broke up, my parents became born-again Christians."

At twelve, Lorin was "hardcore into spreading Jesus," so by high school, he says with a laugh, "It's no surprise that the music I got into was thoroughly satanic." After ditching Nirvana for being too accessible, he dove into Metallica, Slayer, and Pantera, followed by the death metal of Exhumed and Cannibal Corpse.

At least as alluring as the making and promoting of the music — he played guitar in a band called Pale Existence — was the subterranean network by which death metal spread. Sort of a pre-Internet Napster and MySpace, this "underground tape-trading and flier exchange movement extremely affected me," he says.

His parents freaked out, but he was a gentle metalhead ("if not a straight-up pansy," as he puts it) and he got good grades. On September 5, 1995, at the start of his senior year, he walked into a rave called The Gathering and before the first song ended, he'd stripped off his Napalm Death T-shirt and begun to dance. Not knowing how, he banged his head and flailed his arms wildly. Early in the evening, he bumped into a guy and, used to the machismo of mosh pits, braced for the worst. "Before I could apologize, he gave me a hug, said he was sorry, and walked off," Ashton remembers. As the most effeminate of his friends, the one who left parties in tears after someone got beat up, he was "so ready to feel welcomed in a new scene. The music was foreign, but it was so loud and bassy, I didn't need it to be any more hardcore. I loved the freedom."

Ashton was born again, for the third or fourth time. But again he wanted more. He recorded techno versions of a few of his death-metal tracks after that first night. By his third party, he was a promoter.

Six months into his two-parties-a-week lifestyle, his friend suggested he give DJing a shot. "The thought of being a DJ had never entered my mind," he recalls. Still, he found it surprisingly easy. Since he was throwing his own parties, his first gigs spinning were in the main room at peak hour. By the time he started college at UC Santa Cruz in 1996, almost exactly a year after his first rave, he had opened a psy-trance record store in downtown Santa Cruz, and his party crew, named Koinonea after the commune, was pulling off successful parties in the woods and in San Francisco warehouses.

Although Ashton loved the music at the time — psy-trance makes him cringe now — he ultimately saw it as a means to an end, a shibboleth that people with shared values united behind. But over the four years he spent immersed in the Santa Cruz scene after graduating with a major in community studies (think utopian activism), he became increasingly ambivalent about the rave scene and its relevance.

"The scene was very celebratory, and in that way kind of clueless," he says. "It was a bunch of privileged people having a privileged party." At the same time, DJ gigs were paying his rent, and because he was eager to play as many as possible, his schedule became grueling. What had started as a cultish devotion — he once thought it sacrilege for a DJ to accept pay — had become a career. In 2003, he moved to Berkeley to be closer to airports because he was often playing out-of-state multiple days a week. These days he plays mostly in clubs and festivals, and on the jam-band scene, but as recently as February he played a candy rave in St. Louis — sixteen-year-olds, warehouse, glow sticks — and afterward was touched to find that he had received more than two hundred messages via MySpace.

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