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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"As cheesy as I think the term 'rave' is now, and as much as I want to steer away from that entire concept, I'll never forget my roots, and that's where they are," he states firmly. "The San Francisco and Santa Cruz scenes touched me so deeply, in a way that will never go away. I can see in 2007 being written off really quickly saying my roots are in the rave scene, but I wish every human could have experiences like the ones I had, because they opened me up. They transformed me completely."

Until last summer, Ashton played his most infamous Burning Man sets at El Circo, a sound camp, a party-within-the-party allowed to turn the decibels up. Sound camps compete over which can create the most bacchanalia each night of the week-long festival, but getting a crowd to truly go off there is harder than it sounds. Sure, there's a captive audience of more than fifty thousand Burners, many of them drugged up, hungry for dance music, and in various states of undress. But consider the competition: At any given moment, Dr. Megavolt could be using his eight-foot Tesla coil to shoot lighting bolts at a robot, or a six-story mausoleum built out of wooden dinosaur bones might be burning. That's in addition to the dozens of other DJs spinning the same night on concert-grade sound systems flanked by open bars and trampolines.

Ashton, who has been playing at Burning Man since 1998, endeared himself to the El Circo crew when he first "smashed the dome," as co-organizer and music producer Random Rab puts it. The dome in question is a massive wood and canvas structure that feels like a hot-air balloon being inflated, especially when women in gypsy garb wave fingernail-like torches around on its center stage. The dominant aesthetic at El Circo favors snakes, dreadlocks, fedoras, leather cuffs, exotic bird feathers, and elaborate eye makeup on girls and boys. Ashton often dresses down in a T-shirt and cargo pants, with a tangle of black bracelets on one wrist and just a touch of eyeliner. He nevertheless quickly became quite the androgynous sex symbol on the playa. "Time stops when the guy plays out there," says Chris Smith, a longtime Burner and president of OM Records.

But beyond his look and the physicality of his performance, how exactly did he carve a steady following out of such a clusterfuck of distractions? Chris Wiedmann, a DJ aficionado who has seen Ashton play more times than he can count, thinks it's as simple as "letting dancers rest." Instead of churning out an endless series of peaks like many DJs, Ashton often brings the beat to a stop for extended beatless or downtempo stretches. On a desert afternoon that might register in the triple digits, that goes a long way toward keeping people on their feet. "He can really control a crowd," concurs Tyrone Miller, a fan and fellow DJ. "One of the hardest things to do as a DJ is to switch up the tempo, and Lorin is a master of that. It often means switching genres, and it's very hard not to lose people that way."

Ashton also offered a new sound at a crucial moment. The desert festival had long been ruled by trance, the main rhythmic pattern of which is a frictionless glide that feels thoroughly white and unsexy. As the '90s clubs went trance, he began experimenting with something quite different. Breakbeat is where he turned, a kitchen-sink genre that takes the syncopated drums first lifted from funk to drive hip-hop, then accelerates and mutates them a bit.

Breaks had come through the Bay Area party scene in various waves before, but Burning Man had been in a peculiar trance time warp for years. Ashton tailored a sound he called psy-hop to fit the mood of sub-parties like El Circo — lush synthetic melodies suggested consciousness expansion, but samples from nostalgic rap songs invited newbies in and offered a merciful ebb-and-flow pacing to keep them dancing. He first based it on tracks by British breakbeat artists Freq Nasty and Tipper, but soon was producing his own music.

"One thing that sets Lorin apart is that he's always trying to read trends and follow what he thinks people are feeling," says Random Rab, who plays with Ashton on occasion. "Sometimes before a show, we'll have dinner and he'll ask me what I think people are into right now, what the vibe is. He's constantly trying to supply music that people desire at a given time, whereas someone like me, I'm coming from a more personal, what-I'm-feeling-like-playing-that-day mentality."

As breakbeat became the de facto Burning Man sound, attendees who wanted to keep the flame lit between Labor Day weekends would follow Ashton to his frequent club gigs in and around the Bay Area. At 1015 Folsom, one could often smell when he was about to go on — hardcore Burners often shower infrequently even when back in civilization. Ashton's MySpace page can feel like an online playa reunion.

DJ Lorin rode this wave, built on unpaid Burning Man gigs, into a billing at the top of the local club scene. Sam Khedr, owner of Nightvibe, recalls the showcase event for the site's Top 10 DJ awards in 2005. Bassnectar had been voted number three, while Miguel Migs and Mark Farina, stalwarts of silky, upscale house music, took the top two slots. "The party was in Ruby Skye, which is this very glossy club — basically the house of house — where people go who dress up and are well-manicured and pedicured. And then you had the breaks people, who are more about the hippie love. You couldn't imagine more different crowds," Khedr says.

Because of Ashton's schedule, he had to play after the top-ranked Migs. "Miguel was finishing his set," Khedr recalls, "and I told Lorin to get ready. He seemed nervous — he had only played at grindy warehouses, and this was a big stage in a fancy place, and his people were dissing it. But he came out with force and Lorin's fans went nuts. Miguel looked at me with the look of, 'Who the hell is this guy?' I thought I was witnessing a changing of the guard at that moment."

Ashton harnessed the momentum from Burning Man expertly, albeit reluctantly. "There's a notion in some places that I'm the Burning Man DJ, or the DJ for the girls with the strings in their hair and the guys with the cuffs and the leather hats, and that's not what I stand for," he says. He's contemplating sitting it out this Labor Day, a move that would surely appall many of his devotees. But once you're the biggest DJ at Burning Man, where can you go from there? Prince is the biggest star in Vegas, but is that something he puts on his résumé?

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