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07 Apr 2015

How Dance Music Led to Coachella: KCRW's Jason Bentley Was Shaped by the 1990s EDM Explosion

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Jason Bentley: “Coachella was made possible in a large part by the dance culture and rave culture in Southern California.” Jason Bentley: “Coachella was made possible in a large part by the dance culture and rave culture in Southern California.” Timothy Norris

Southern California audiophiles and devout music fans know KCRW well: The NPR affiliate is considered one of the best stations in the country for music-lovers.

Therefore, it’s somewhat appropriate that the station’s music director, Jason Bentley, will be DJing at SoCal’s biggest music festival, Coachella, on Friday, April 10 and 17.

Bentley said he attended an underground party while he was in college, and it fascinated him that people from varied backgrounds and places were all able to come together. It was a positive force that he wanted to be part of.

That led to his DJ career, which in turn led him to festivals such as Coachella.

“There is such a huge surge in festivals now. I’m having festival fatigue,” Bentley said during a recent phone interview. “I understand the dynamics of the industry have changed so much to where recorded music doesn’t sell. … I love playing live festivals and clubs, because it gives me more of the artistic expression, and you’ve got your sound palette: You’re playing more stripped-down tracks and ideas; you’re playing these records, with an emphasis on the word play; and you’re performing the record in a totally unique way. You have control over the EQs, the filters and the arrangement.

“Technology has advanced things so much, and I’m old enough that I remember playing vinyl and carrying around record boxes everywhere I went to DJ—which is now ridiculous.”

What does Bentley show up with at a club or a festival these days?

“I bring all my music on a thumb drive now,” he said. “I keep a couple of thumb drives in my pocket. It’s funny, because when you’d go to get access into a nightclub, you’d walk in with your record boxes and say, ‘Hey, I’m the DJ; let me through.’ Now you’re like, ‘No, trust me, I’m the DJ; here’s my thumb drive.’ It’s comical.”

This year’s Coachella fest features a lot of electronic dance music. Bentley put that in historical perspective.

“In terms of the very first Coachella, it was heavy on electronic music, and that’s where it really started,” he said. “I think Coachella was made possible in large part by the dance culture and rave culture in Southern California—and that wisely provided a larger concept just to attract more people. Truly, the roots of Coachella are in electronic dance music. It’s been interesting to see this music become more important and change the experience. The rise of the Sahara tent to what it is now has just been amazing to see.”

Bentley said he’s had some interesting experiences in that Sahara tent.

“I’ve had a couple of opportunities to stand on the side of the stage during some big sets by young, up-and-coming artists who attract other young people,” he said. “One in particular last year I’ll never forget is Martin Garrix. He’s just another Dutch kid from out of nowhere, has a big hit record that’s all the rage, and somehow has a bazillion fans online. I was there when he started his set, and I’ve got to tell you, the energy level at that moment was just so unbelievable. There’s not much else that comes close to that. Sahara has become this wild frat party on steroids.”

Bentley also discussed the smaller, less-talked-about Yuma tent.

“The Sahara was becoming this gigantic kabuki pinball machine,” he said. “I think they wanted to present something that was more about music that you feel—not a light show or spectacle, but a feeling. Dance music is largely about that. Yuma is just a place that’s a dark room. It’s a discothèque—it’s truly a desert discothèque. There was an interesting disco ball in there last year that was shaped like a shark. They’re doing some interesting things in there, but it’s about nuance and feeling, not about skimpy outfits and big video walls.”

What can fans expect to see from Bentley at Coachella?

“It’s house music. It’s that tempo range of 120 (beats per music), roughly 124 bpm to 126 bpm, so it’s not super-fast or about big synth chords,” Bentley said. “It’s about weirder, underground things—not heavy on vocals. I don’t know; it’s just sort of things that catch my ear. It’s kind of like how I select music for KCRW—things that seem exciting and different.”

Bentley said dance music, in some ways, is his generation’s punk rock.

“Now it’s part of us,” he said. “A younger generation now—the millennials—is coming up, and that’s all they know, and it’s part of their vocabulary. It was exciting for me to be part of the first wave of dance culture (in the 1990s), but it doesn’t make classic rock, blues or folk less important to me. It’s just my view of the field is informed by the ’90s dance-music explosion.”

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