Certain British DJs may take credit for introducing trance and progressive-house to American audiences, but Los Angeles DJ Christopher Lawrence has played this style of music to packed dance floors across the United States since the mid-'90s. Lawrence was spinning records to audiences numbering in the tens of thousands at massive raves long before the first wave of British progressive-house DJs slapped their first 12-inches on the decks at Twilo. His mix CDs — from his 1996 debut, Rise, to his most recent Moonshine album, United States of Trance — are some of the best-selling progressive-house collections ever released in America.
Lawrence's success isn't strictly an American phenomenon. Back in 1996, Lawrence became the first U.S. artist signed to Scotland's influential Hook Recordings, which has released several of his 12-inch singles, including “Navigator,” “Renegade,” “Rush Hour,” and “Cruise Control.” Lawrence regularly plays gigs in faraway places like Japan, Peru, Ibiza, New Zealand, and Australia. Last April, he headlined the largest electronic-music event ever held in South America, playing for a crowd of 35,000 at the Skol Beats Festival in São Paulo, Brazil.
One of the most popular artists on the Moonshine label, Lawrence is among the handful of DJs in Chris Fortier's Balance Record Pool, the leading source of cutting-edge progressive-house vinyl in the United States. “Balance gets records a couple of months before they show up in stores,” says Lawrence. “But even if you belong to a record pool, you may miss some good records, such as that one-off on some small label you've never heard of before. I prefer to hear every possible record that has come out. That's why I still go shopping for records every week. Sometimes I'll spend hours in the stores only to come out with one or two records, but I always need to find new music. I have to have fresh blood in my crate whenever I go out to DJ.”
We joined Lawrence for an afternoon of record shopping on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. We initially agreed to meet at his favorite store, Vinyl Fetish on Vermont Avenue, but he changed his plans after finding out that the store's shipment of new releases was delayed a day due to a holiday weekend. Instead, he offered to take us to two other shops — Beat Non Stop and Street Sounds — that he regularly visits in search of releases that the buyer at Vinyl Fetish may not have ordered.
Lawrence immediately scans the walls and bins for his favorite labels. “Some labels are always good,” he explains. “Cyber Records has put out great stuff for years. I've been playing their records since 1994. Hook Recordings and its sister labels, UG and Bellboy, are consistently good. Some of my other favorites are Teknology, Bill Hamel's Sunkissed label, New York's Stimuli, Funked Up, and Crush Recordings, which is run by Doran Chambers.” He also picks up a few records on labels he doesn't recognize, hoping he'll discover a hidden gem.
As Lawrence places the needle on each record, he adjusts the fader until the bpm is within a certain range. “I usually pitch things up, unless it's a hard-house record and then I'll pitch that down,” he says. “I kind of have an internal clock. I usually play my sets around 136 bpm, so I like to listen to records at that speed. Most records don't sound right to me if I leave the fader at zero.”
Lawrence listens for things that he doesn't like as much as he listens for things that he does like. “As soon as I hear something that I don't like, the record is done. If it has too many cheesy vocals, it's automatically eliminated. Robot voices are good for cartoons but not for dance music, so I'll pass on anything with that element. If I don't hear anything disagreeable, then the record will go in my ‘definitely maybe’ pile. After I've listened to everything, I'll go back through those and weed out the best records.”
What is Lawrence's secret for finding the best records? “Look in the drum 'n' bass section,” he laughs. “A lot of times people will stash trance records in the drum 'n' bass section because house and trance DJs almost never buy drum 'n' bass. I always seem to find hip-hop records in the trance bins under BT or something, so if you're a hip-hop DJ, always check the trance section, too.”
Lawrence found three singles at Beat Non Stop and four 12-inches at Street Sounds that survived his elimination process. Here are his comments:
Beat Non Stop
Cascade is actually Transa. The A-side is right up my alley so I don't have to go any further than that. And it's on the UG label, the sister label to Hook Recordings, so I can't say no to that. It has a tough groove and a driving bass line. There's nothing too over-the-top here. This song would work well at the beginning of any set.
Chris C and Choci/Madame Zu
“Assassin”/“Sorted by Numbers”
These are hard-house songs. I like the Chris C and Choci track on the A-side, but the B-side has a cheesy sped-up vocal that doesn't work for me. The A-side has great energy, and there's no vocal to ruin it! I'll have to pitch it down to -6 when I play it out. I don't have anything on this label. I'm glad we came here because I would never have found this track otherwise. I'll play this at Giant this weekend.
I listen for the overall feel of the track, and then I go back to make sure there are no surprises. There's nothing worse than an awesome record that has some awful vocal like “Everybody throw your hands in the air like you just don't care.” Come on, people — this is the year 2001! A lot of hard-house records are good if you pitch them down a bit, but they usually have really cheesy vocal samples. Don't those people have friends who tell them that's not a good idea? I wish they'd do dub versions for those of us who don't want the vocals.
Transa is one of my favorite artists, but the A-side didn't do it for me. It has this female vocal going “high energy.” That just doesn't work. But “Kinetic” is the best track I've heard so far today. It has a tough kick drum; an interesting, simple, but not offbeat bass line; good percussion; and a slight melody line that's not too over-the-top. It's one of those records that you can use at any time in any way during your set.
This has a vocal sample, but it's not over-the-top. I've got a lot of big massives coming up this summer, and I know that this tune is going to work, especially at the end of the set. When you're playing to bigger audiences of 20,000 kids, you need songs with a lot of energy so the person at the back is feeling the same thing as the person in the front. The mellow stuff is great for a small, dark, intimate club, but I'm playing too many of those these days. Take no prisoners.
“Erendira” (original mix/Michael Anthony remix)
This is by Jerry Bonham and it's on Bedrock, so what can you say? It's like Reese's peanut butter cups — two great tastes that go together. This has a good, galloping feel that would work great on the dance floor. The bass line is really cool and the production is top-notch, which is something you always get from Bedrock. There's this synth stab that has a slow attack and fades away like it's spinning around your head. The bass line on the Michael Anthony remix is really good.
“Backstabber” (Arian mix)/“Serious Damage” (original mix)
I always like a strong kick drum. The bass line has a good groove and the record has lots of interesting sounds. It's not the tired-out trance melody sounds. They're very distinctively unique and they morph in an interesting way. I like well-produced records. At the end of the day they sound a lot better on the dance floor. There are amazing records with bad production, which ruins them. The kick drum may get buried in the bass line. When you play something on a loud system it brings everything out. Production is now one of my main criteria for choosing records.
“Contact” (Motion Wave remix/Tech side original)
This is by Casey Taylor, who is one of the best DJs in Australia. We've played together a few times and he's incredible. He's also an excellent producer. This song is a good chugger. I like the percussion, which has a nice shuffle. Again, it has a strong kick drum and a pumping bass line that drives it. Good energy.
Check out www.christopherlawrence.com for more info on Christopher Lawrence.