Quick spin

DJ Sulli, reporting from the eye of the storm, tells a condensed history of Reno’s burgeoning electronic-music scene

Sean Sullivan, aka DJ Sulli, has been spinning house music in Reno for 13 years.

Sean Sullivan, aka DJ Sulli, has been spinning house music in Reno for 13 years.

Photo By David Robert

To hear DJ music online, DJ Sulli recommends checking out the following sites: www.stompy.com www.beatport.com www.gemm.com www.amentimusic.com

It was December 1992, and it was blizzarding. I picked up a couple of friends, Kristin and Mardi Jai, and we drove an hour through hypnotic waves of snow to a warehouse on the dusty outskirts of Sparks.

I paid my $5 and entered a long, narrow space packed with grooving, gyrating bodies. People were dancing around—and on top of—a huge, thumping sound system. Current local hero DJ Christophe was spinning music and swaying to the groove. The music sounded like a darker, beefed-up version of disco. It had the steady beats but more evolved sounds and vocals.

Unlike your average nightclub, this was no meat market. There were no shiny shirts, no jocks, no cheerleader types, no keg. This scene had a very new, very hip sense about it.

Soon the warehouse was packed, and someone rolled up the loading door. A giant, bellowing breath of steam escaped from the building and rose into the night, and the whole scene just seemed surreal. The vibe was energetic yet mellow; you could watch the snow fall quietly outside while the party inside was raging off the hook.

It got late, and I was ready to leave when Olivier Desmet got his turn behind the decks. I soon got a second wind. These days, Olivier is one of America’s most wanted house-music DJs, making a good living and traveling the world. But that night, he was a just a local Reno DJ and the last of the night to spin. His music was a mix of deep, infectious grooves that were new to me. It was at this moment, inspired, my eyes and ears opened, that I really heard this music for what it was—a new and stimulating soundtrack to our times.

I started spinning records in 1992. As a young DJ, I followed in the footsteps of the movers and shakers of the first-generation spinners who came before me. Richie Rich was considered the smoothest, most hypnotically effective DJ in the scene; Mike Amechi brought a funk influence to his sets; and Mardi Jai was the motivating force behind the whole scene with her positive attitude and passion for the music.

Go beyond the DJs and promoters and you’ll find people who love the music and helped build the scene in other ways, like Chad Bonet, arguably Reno’s most talented (and priciest) hair stylist, or Madelina Silva, now head of two production companies.

Finding inspiration (both musical and self-promotional) through Reno’s earliest house-music DJs, I was able to build a following. At the time, I was also doing photography full-time for Snowboarder magazine. The job required a lot of traveling, and I carried a small set of records with me at all times.

DJ Olivier Desmet, one of the author’s early house-music inspirations, has been a key player in Reno’s electronic music scene since its beginning in the early 1990s.

On one occasion, I was able to get onstage at one of Oslo, Norway’s most elegant nightclubs, Barroc. What was supposed to be two records soon became a two-hour set. Not only did I make some lifelong friends that night, I also got a positive enough response from the crowd and the other DJs that I began to realize I might be able to make a real career out DJing.

In 2002, I started Amfibius Recordings, which has released seven titles. Through the label, I have been able to work with top acts like Alexander East, from Minneapolis, and Swedish wunderkind Tony Senghore, and I’ve had the opportunity to get my own music beyond the walls of the mighty Sierra and into the ears of a global audience.

Electronica is a meta-genre that includes many categories. House music, a descendant of disco, soul and funk, is characterized by repetitive 4/4 beats and deep, hypnotic bass lines. Trance is like house but faster, harder, dreamier and more psychedelic. Jungle is pretty much house that incorporates hip-hop and reggae influences.

These are just a few examples of many, and electronic-music styles continually evolve, incorporating new influences, shedding old ones and morphing into different forms. The 1980s’ Detroit-bred techno, for example, was originally based on mechanical rhythms and minor melodies, and it has branched off into trance and other amalgams like hardcore, acid house and tech-house. If this sounds complicated or elusive, a handy guide for sorting it all out is the Techno Guide Electronic Music Dictionary at www.intuitivemusic.com/technoguide.

Ask 100 listeners what they like, and you’ll get 100 different answers, but for me, DJ Sulli, house music is the sound that has been most moving. Funky, organic and sublime are all words that could be used to describe it. House has the familiar 4/4 thump, plus a world of sounds and textures highlighted by soulful vocals. House is meant to groove you subtly, not force you onto the dance floor with loudness or buildups, like the more aggressive trance or techno. One local DJ, Kim Sin, calls the feeling house music has that has gained it a loyal following “a yearning.”

Even though Reno now has thousands of electronica fans from a couple different generations, spinning full-time as a DJ here is a tough prospect. To shine, you must not only be able to play records and mix sounds, you also have to stand out as a pro-active member of the scene. Building a good reputation over the long term is really the most important thing.

Even then, getting gigs can just depend on who you know. And, occasionally, on what you play—sometimes DJs find they have to conform their musical tastes to fit the more commercial sounds of the local clubs. In a bigger scene, like San Francisco, this would be considered selling out, but in Reno it’s considered getting by.

Because of its size and demographics, Reno is an anomaly of sorts, and for this we are fortunate. There are very few U.S. cities this size that have an electronic-music scene at all. It helps that we’re so close to San Francisco. Considered by some to be the center of the universe for all that is cool and hip, S.F. plays a huge role in the direction our little scene takes. That city’s DJs are our most frequent guests, and they bring an influx of new energy with each visit they make.

This is not to say Reno can’t build something real in its own name. The talent is here. The clubs are here. It’s possible for a unique electronic-music scene to develop. These days, Reno has a great group of DJs and promoters.

The area’s big clubs have been favorable to DJs, too. Level has hosted some of the biggest international DJs and also lets local DJs work their magic.

It’ll be a steep climb for Reno DJs to get their own sounds on the global electronica map. But the musicians in this scene are venturing out, via live shows and the Internet (invaluable in a scene where producing your own music is often the way to go) to spread their vibes, and the support of Reno’s audiences has been tremendous—so why not?