Damian Lazarus is the leader of Crosstown Rebels — not just a label, but a globe-trotting party and network of likeminded artists. Celebrating 10 fiercely independent years of always innovative house and techno in 2013, the Lazarus man opens up about his path to dancefloor domination, rising from the figurative dead, his belief in the Crosstown “family”, the Rebel Rave concept and what the future holds...
There seems to be something about Damian Lazarus that inspires loyalty. At Manchester's Warehouse Project on a freezing night in December, he's hauled in his crew from the four corners of the world to be by his side. There's Fur Coat from Caracas. Francesca Lombardo from Lake Garda in Italy, but now resident in London. Maceo Plex has travelled in from Barcelona, and Subb-an from Berlin. There's Danny Daze from Miami, and statistician and artist Deniz Kurtel from New York, via Turkey. There's also two of his very old friends, a couple of chaps called Sasha, something of a citizen of the world, and, from Paris, Laurent Garnier.
It proves to be a long night, of friends playing music, and whenthey're not playing music, dancing together. Ever the Frenchman, Garnier stands on the side of the stage in the cavernous main roomwith a glass of red wine, probably the only glass of red wine in the house, while Lombardo bounces up and down, hands in the air. And bringing them all together under one roof is Lazarus, the founder of Crosstown Rebels, spindly and dressed in black, standing at the console in front of an undulating blanc mange of 3000 grinning northern ravers looking like an acid house Mick Fleetwood.
This is not unusual. Where he goes, others often follow. Just a few weeks later, he succeeds in gathering together 4000 people in the shadow of a Mayan pyramid in Playa Del Carmen in Mexico.The likes of Trentemøller, 3D from Massive Attack, James Lavelle, Jamie Jones and many of the aforementioned Crosstown crew join him for the Day Zerofestival, intended to celebrate the end of the Mayan calendar, and possibly the end of the world.
The site was difficult to access, there was no power, and the venture ended up costing him a fortune despite its attendance. But he wouldn't have changed a thing. “Everything that could possibly have been thrown at us as a way to try and tell us not to do the event, happened,” he says. “We literally built everything from scratch and pulled in a lot of favours.
When I arrived a week before the event, there were 50 or 60 people working, carrying shit, making stuff, painting, putting stuff up, cutting shitdown. I just thought, 'Who are these people?' Turns out they were kids who had flown in from all over the world to help as volunteers. Not groups of people, individuals from Tokyo, from Tel Aviv, all over. They were like, 'Right, we're here, what do you need us to do?' That was amazing. Empowering. It was really special. There were moments over the 24 hours that were magical. Hard to put into words.”
Shamans and local Huicholes people got involved too, giving the party their blessing and support. During the last 15 minutes, in the countdown to the end of the calendar, 10 Mayan warriors appeared infull dress and scaled the pyramid behind the decks. “As the final sounds were dissipating, the lead warrior on the pyramid pulled out a conch shell, and blew it. It was almost like bringing it back to 25,000 years ago. It was full of incredible, incredible moments.
We had astrologers at the top of the pyramid showing people the universe. It was kind of the next-level of partying,” he laughs. The event didn't break even, he says. It might have done had he sought outside sponsorship, but that was a no-go. “The key factor was that I didn't want the event to be plastered with brands. The spirit of the event was so special, that didn't sit right for me,” he says, though he stresses he doesn't really want to go into the financial details. But actually, it says much about how Lazarus goes about things. He could have sold himself out many times over through his career, but he's never done so.
SOUL BOY YOUTH
Born and raised in east London, Lazarus was close to his grandfather, who was a fan of Hollywood musicals and vaudeville. He, his brother and his cousins would perform for the family in the living room. Lazarus says it instilled in him a sense of the joy in music that he has kept with him. It was through his cousin, who was into hip-hop and electro, that he was introduced to the art of buying records. Soon he was consumed, spending every spare penny he could scrape together on vinyl. That he was so young didn't seem to be an obstacle to him. He recalls trying to get into the infamous Wag club in Soho aged 12, but was, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned away. He convinced his parents DJing had a future, and though sceptical, they helped him out with his first pair of 1210s and a Numark mixer which he had set up in the garage.
As soon as he got a car, he played parties and youth clubs as a mobileDJ, and got his first 'residency' at a club in Gant's Hill, though he wasn't technically old enough to be on the premises. He was a soul boy at heart, buying up everything he could by bands like Loose Ends, Soul II Soul and Mantronix, and producers like Nick Martinelli.
“When other people would look at the band on the cover, I was reading every sleevenote, working out who was responsible for the music,” he says. “I was just so into it, that I had to be a part of it.”He was soon launched into the world of underground acid house parties, going to Bagleys and The Cross, leading him away from soul boy funkand hip-hop and into house, techno and hardcore.
Because his friends weren't into this music, he'd find himself in clubs on his own, giving his tapes to anyone who would take them. He blagged his way onto every mailing list he could, from FFRR to Perfecto. Things were starting to pick up when his girlfriend became pregnant. He knew that he could write, and that he needed to fix up and get a proper job, so he decided he'd become a journalist. He got a job as a crime reporter on The Sun. “That taught me a lot about life, not all of it good,” hesaid. “But it was an incredible experience.”
After two years he'd had enough and his obsession with music led him to merge the two worlds. He started writing reviews and features for music magazines like Touch and Straight No Chaser, and met Jefferson Hack, who commissioned some work from him for the fledgling Dazed & Confused.
He soon became assistant editor. Their parties in the reception of their east London office, where Lazarus would invariably end up DJing, began attracting the likes of Kate Moss, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Björk. “I was never a fantastically gifted DJ back then, so I'd be playing everything from Mo Wax to Talking Loud. House was going through a niffy period, so I began to get heavily into drum & bass and jungle. I'd be at Metalheadz every Sunday and Speed every Thursday and raves in-between. That was the music that was the freshest, most appealing, most futuristic-sounding in electronic music.” He'd be going and 'losing his mind' at illegal raves in the countryside too.
The job gave him insight into the way the music business worked and after three years, he left to join FFRR briefly as an A&R man, before joining the newly-launched City Rockers in 2001, taking on the role of head of A&R. And it was there that Lazarus began to make his name in the music business, releasing Felix Da Housecat's 'Kittenz and Thee Glitz' and Tiga and Jori Hulkkonen's defining electro-clash single 'Sunglasses At Night'. The sound was driven by Lazarus seeking to create a British answer to European labels like Kompakt, Perlon and Gigolos.
His skills as a DJ began to solidify around this time too, launching the influential but short-lived party 21st Century Body Rockers at Cynthia's Robot Bar in London Bridge with pioneering guests like Soulwax and Erol Alkan. He was also back and forth to New York, seeing the first live PA from the Scissor Sisters and hanging out with James Murphy's DFA crew and The Rapture, then to Berlin forging ties with the likes of DJ Hell, Ellen Allien, Kiki and Silver surfer.
STATE OF INDEPENDENCE
When City Rockers was set to be absorbed by Ministry Of Sound, he jumped ship. “I felt I knew enough to try and do something on my own,” he said. “I took the same initials and came up with Crosstown Rebels. It was liberating and terrifying. I've been through a number of ups and downs in my life, both personally and with my career, times when I've hit rock bottom. But I'd always been out there on my own, from the age of 12 and 13 trying to get into clubs, or going out to jungle raves on my own.
If I was trying to experience a new sound or a newscene, I always had to have the front and confidence to try and do it on my own. And that extended to having my own label. I'd signed records that had gone into the Top 20, and signed records that had been underground hits, so I thought I'd done enough, seen enough to warrant doing it on my own.”
Lazarus, aptly, has indeed risen from the dead a number of times. The early days of Crosstown were beset with problems. “We've had times where I could have easily closed it down,” he says. “Like two years in, when the vinyl market completely fell apart.There's certainly been enough occasions when other people might have just closed it down and gone on to do something else. But I've believed in what this thing is all about from day one. There's a great global love and respect for what we do, and that keeps me excited to continue it.”
Kiki and Silversurfer were among those who were the label's pioneering acts when it launched in 2003, with its edgy European dancefloor sound. The likes of Pier Bucci, Jennifer Cardini and Andre Kraml provided an ongoing soundtrack. Lazarus cites the stunning James Holden mix of Kraml's 'Safari' being the moment when everything fell in to place, and held everything together.
People started to treat them as a serious contender. “But the third time we had a financial breakdown at the label was amake or break moment for me,” he says. “There's only so much bad news you can take, running a business like this. So on the last occasion that a distribution company fucked up and went into liquidation, I was left looking at losing a ridiculous amount of money, many thousands of pounds. I looked what I had around me at that time. And it was Jamie Jones, Art Department, Maceo Plex and Deniz Kurtel. These were artists that no one really knew, but people whose material was sounding so fresh that I just couldn't let it go. My belief in these people kept it running. I felt I finally had a stable of artists that had something to say. To pack it in at that point just wasn't an option.”
NEW HOUSE SOUND
So came the second phase of the label, and a turnaround in fortunes for Lazarus. These would be the acts that would catapult Crosstown into the big leagues. “It felt like something that was building. We have built an amazing family of people,” he says. “People have gone onto start their own labels, and their own crews, and we've been something of an umbrella family for this whole scene. We muck into gether. My label manager Leon is also the label manager for Visionquest, and Hot Natured. Most of our staff also work for people like No 19. We've created a kind of family network of artists, artists I think are some of the most exciting on the planet. Personally, I'm just happy to be associated with them, and happy to have helped out people along the way.”
While Crosstown has helped to forge a new house sound, with the likes of new school types Seth Troxler and Soul Clap, and approached dubstep with Shackleton and alternative sounds with Riz MC, it's also championed seasoned veterans like Laurent Garnier (“It's a magical thing, working with your heroes,” he says) and Luke Solomon. There's been a slew of massive tracks from Glimpse, and key albums from Jamie Jones, Maceo Plex, Butane, Deniz Kurtel and Amirali (along with forthcoming albums from Subb-an, Ali Love and Francesca Lombardo). To try and mention them all is to run the risk of missing something out. Tiga even pitched up again to pen their hundredth release last year.
There's the offshoot imprints too. The Rebelone imprint disguised its producer's names with materials like Nylon and Polyester, and though he won't reveal who they were, he says these productions were by some of the biggest producers in the world working incognito. Meanwhile, thanks to the likes of Aidan Lavelle and Russ Yallop, RebelLion is now starting to make a name for itself too. If anything, all this means his own production has suffered. Though he's used Crosstown to release a handful of his own tracks, Berlin's Get Physical released the bulk of it, including his 2009 album 'Smoke The Monster Out'. But he intends to address that in time. Or, perhaps, when he has time.
These days he's likely busy being tugged from one end of the world to the other spreading the gospel of Crosstown, as evidenced by the Rebel Rave series of psychedelic travelogues directed by David Terranova —recently signed to the label as an artist.
As we speak, he's back in LA — he moved there five years ago — on the first brief rest period in the Rebel Rave tour, which is celebrating a decade of Crosstown at the label's favourite venues around the world.The next leg takes in the US, before blazing through Europe and culminating in Mexico City. “People are starting to realise we have a different way of doing things,” he says. Thanks to the success of the Rebel Raves and the Get Lost parties he throws, he's been offered his own stage to curate at the massive Beyond Wonderland and Electric Daisy Carnival events across the US, aligning Crosstown with the bewildering explosion of dance music in the US.
This could take things to the next stage for them, though it seems slightly at odds with the fiercely independent approach to the label's development thus far. He insists that he'll be beholden only to himself. “We're pretty dislocated from all that, but we're now being given the opportunity to see if we can make some kind of impact in that world,without having to change our modus operandi,” he says. “I've no idea if it's going to work, but we're going to give it a go. It's my hope and dream there will be no compromising. I've never compromised before, I don't see why I should now. If it goes well, there could be a whole new world opening up for our music."
"We've thought that maybe we should have a sheep shearing area at the front of the stage, so anyone turning up in fluffy boots will have their feet shorn. That could be a good start.” It seems he's ever the optimist, and perhaps that's what infects those around him, and what has helped him grow an independent label in the most challenging landscape the music industry has ever seen. “There's a strong belief in what we do right now,” he says. “But the great thing is that there's no real aspirations for us. It's uncharted territory. But when I look back at my life, I've always been a bit of an underdog.” Luckily, every dog has its day.