A musical role model of mine, little known outside of the psytrance scene, is Laurent, the French DJ who introduced electronic music (1) to the beaches of Goa, India and played there regularly during the years of 1983-1993.
Part of the hippie traveller wave that flocked to Goa beginning in the 60s and 70s, Laurent took the early sounds of electronic dance music and, through a combination of clever track selection and customized digital tape edits, turned it into a futuristic form of sixties psychedelia. The extended edit wasn't a new thing (it had been done back in the days of disco), but he realized that by cutting out vocals and extending passages with nothing but synthesizers and drum machines you could create a ritualistic atmosphere, one especially suited to the Goa environment. An environment that was awash with acid and chillums, shot through with mystical trappings, and set outdoors in beautiful nature. As well as his editing skills, his collection and knowledge of music was beyond extensive, tapping a global network of friends for music that came from everywhere and every style. He drew from rock, dub, electrofunk, disco, new wave, industrial, house, experimental art-pop, and American techno from Chicago and Detroit. He would also incorporate European forms of techno -- like trance, the genre he helped create -- and in doing so, he eventually became part of a feedback loop going from Goa DJs to studio musicians and back again.
By the beginning of the nineties, artists were travelling to Goa, hearing Laurent and DJs influenced by Laurent, coming home, and making music based on what they had heard. Trance, and what would become psytrance, owe much to his expansive attitude. He was a pioneer of the 'party as journey' concept... dark, inward-focused music at night would fuck with the dancers' heads, and at sunrise, dreamlike reveries would bring them gently back to Earth. For those who dropped acid, this seems especially appropriate.
By his own estimate, Laurent played around 10,000 different tracks during his years in Goa. It's not entirely clear why, by 1994, he had quit DJing. (2) The changing nature of the music may have contributed to it: Goa had coalesced into its own musical style by then, one that had been streamlined into a fast techno/trance hybrid. Full moon parties, trance dances, or just Goa parties were the terms before then, but now artists were making "Goa Trance" with its own particular motifs and aesthetic. This was incredible music, IMHO... it brought much-needed color, nuance and experimentation to a techno that too often limited itself to dystopian gray or was content to pound its listeners into submission. Still, Goa Trance (later called psychedelic trance or just psytrance) was too uniform for some old-schoolers, who missed the days of even wilder experimentalism. LSD was still the drug of choice, but some complained that you just couldn't dance all night to 140 BPM. (3)
Perhaps, though, Laurent had simply done everything he had wanted to do as a DJ and decided that it was time to move on. He remains an enigmatic figure, posting on the occasional forum when it strikes his fancy. In a massive infodump, posted on discogs.com, he revealed 1,000 of the tracks he had used; all commercial releases, ranging from the extremely obscure to the very well known. I learned so, so much from that tracklist: it gave me many happy weeks on Youtube, swelled my record collection, and led to a tribute mix.
Looking at the list, I'm struck by how counterintuitive much of it seems. I picture juxtapositions of the most bizarre kinds... The B-52s and Front 242; Blancmange and Afrika Bambaataa; Thomas Dolby and Italo disco. Laurent's genius, I think, was to identify the shared transcendental impulse behind much contemporary music, and to put that under a sonic magnifying glass for all to hear.
I have to qualify that by saying that I've never heard a whole set by Laurent. I've seen a clip of a party (the video at the top) with him playing, and I've heard several tapes and mixes in 'his style', made by his friends and his fellow Goa DJs. I've read stories from him and from people who knew him. Through Internet soundbites and textbites, I've been able to piece together a picture of what his playing was like. But I've never actually been to Goa, and all the interesting stuff happened before my time; by the late nineties, Goa was a fading scene. I started with the post-Goa psytrance movement, that had its epicentre in Israel and the UK -- in the deserts outside Tel Aviv and the nightclubs of swinging London, not a beach in southern India -- and that itself disseminated to Southern California, where I live. From there I worked my way backward to learn the music's history and why India was so damn important, anyway.
Very important, as it turns out. The story of Indians from Goa, some of whom grew up with this music and later became producers of it, is another tale waiting to be told; from what I've heard, Goa is rife with both wonderful examples of coexistence and cross-pollination and less-wonderful examples of conflict and exploitation. But in its heyday, Goa was a case of First World spiritual seekers and party animals living in symbiosis with a newly independent Indian state. It was hot, dusty, and rough, and it created a new musical culture.
The early Goa scene took the artificially imposed distinction between 'head' electronic music and 'body' electronic dance music and took a sledgehammer to it, flattening it out into an open experiential field. It showed that EDM could be as transformative, complex, and confrontational as a psychedelic trip; that it could provide, not just an escape from reality, but whole new ways of engaging with it.
In the next post or two, I'll embed my (totally subjective!) top picks from Laurent's playlist.
(1) Fred Disko (whom I know less about) was another pioneering figure in the early eighties; after DJing in Goa and Thailand, he became part of Aussie trance act Psyko Disko.
(2) Eight-Finger Eddie also cited Laurent's health concerns, having inhaled too much dust/sand at outdoor parties. Unfortunate, if that's the case, but understandable.
(3) See this post. Also, something I find interesting about genkigroove's comment is that the attitude towards DJing is the opposite of mainstream rave culture, where the DJ is thought of as a virtuous performer and a musician in their own right, rather than a behind-the-scenes facilitator. Some of this is probably due to the fact that vinyl never hit it off in Goa (too bulky, heat would warp the records), but I think there's a basic philosophical difference in terms of how the party is approached. In Goa, one person would often play all night, something that would seem insufferably egotistical if the 'spotlight' was on the DJ. This difference may help explain why, up until the late nineties, psytrance records were usually not heavily mixed.