Burning Down the House
The Music of Black Rock City

A temporary desert city with 50,000 citizens and ubiquitous sound systems. Greg Scruggs reflects on the sun, sand and sensory overload of Burning Man 2010.

By Greg Scruggs

Photography by James Addison
Attempting a music review of Burning Man, the weeklong art and culture confab in the northern Nevada desert that wrapped up on American Labour Day, is analogous to covering an entire weekend of the London club scene. That’s because Burning Man has one big feature in common with London nightlife: they both take place in cities. Unlike a traditional festival, Burning Man does not have pretenses to being a country retreat. Instead, the event attracts 50,000 people who build a city, Black Rock City (BRC) to be precise, named after the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man occurs. Moreover, there is no carefully curated set of stages and tents with announced headliners. Music, like food, water, and shelter, must be brought in and packed out by the participants themselves.

The result is that music is one of many gifts that Burners bring to BRC, for the entire event operates on a gift economy. No money exchanges hands once you enter the gates, with the exception of sales for ice and coffee. While the event’s principle of “radical self-reliance” means that one should subsequently be prepared to survive in the desert for a week, the gift economy and the notion of “radical inclusion” also encourage a raft of free stuff. Theme camps — groups of people who camp together with a common purpose — build restaurants, bars, massage parlours, post offices, radio stations, fruit stands, sex shops, BDSM dungeons, lounges, and just about anything else you might find in a real, but admittedly kinky, city. Meals, drinks, and some more illicit offerings can generally be had for free.

Sound camps make their contribution by constructing elaborate outdoor clubs with massive sound systems. They are positioned on the edge of the carefully planned city, with their speakers facing outward into the open playa (the desert surface) so as to as give the citizens of Black Rock City at least the chance of some sleep. But that’s not to say there won’t be music blaring from dozens of smaller bars, clubs, and hang-outs within the confines of BRC; from art cars acting like mobile discos that roam the streets; and from any old camp that decides to keep the tunes on until the wee hours (the rules stipulate up to 90 decibels is ok at any time). In my experience, the quietest time was about 7-9am. After the sunrise, the major sound camps finally called it quits — although Camp of the Rising Sun, facing due east, started up at 4am. Then by 9am, the first breakfast camps were opening up to serve pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, crepes, burritos, you name it — and they weren’t going to work in silence.

Metropolis: Gyronadir and Praying Mantis MutV's
The sheer ubiquity of music is the most striking feature of Burning Man for the unexpecting ear. There’s always a snippet of a snare, a dull thump of bass, some scattered hi-hats coming from somewhere. Simply standing still is like listening to someone surf the radio dial. You catch snatches of songs as folks roll by, on art car or on bike, into and out of earshot. The experience can be jarring for Americans, who are used to a segregation of music — it usually doesn’t assault you in the public sphere. By contrast, as seasoned Burner Larissa Mann aka DJ Ripley explained to me in San Francisco before I headed out to Nevada, a Jamaican would feel quite at home in the audio climate of Burning Man, with music everywhere. For that matter, I would add a Kenyan or an Angolan, especially in light of the art cars, which double as public transportation on their aimless pleasure cruises and almost always have beats on tap, sometimes even a live DJ. They reminded me of the matatus of Nairobi — fresh hip hop permanently on the stereo, and I heard rumours of live DJs to boot — or the condongueiro vans of Luanda — where kuduro first took hold.

Given how music permeates the atmosphere of Burning Man and also how the playa functions as the ultimate tabula rasa in its emptiness, one would expect more musical diversity. While one can find just about anything — from acoustic singer/songwriters to Bollywood beats (c/o yours truly, who DJed at the Sacred Cow Grille, an Indian restaurant) — the dominant sound falls into the less exciting end of the house/progressive house/trance matrix, with a dash of boring breaks thrown in. Rave culture is a lot stronger on the West Coast of the US than this East Coaster expected. You can throw a stone and inevitably hit a DJ at Burning Man, and the odds are pretty good his or her repertoire involves lots of epic build-ups, cascading crescendos, or the Amen break ad nauseum.

Without sounding too snarky, there is a disappointing homogeneity to the overall flavour of the Burning Man soundscape, which came as some surprise as well given how much vital musical is produced in the kinds of informal settlements that Black Rock City also brings to mind (favelas, barrios, villas miserias, banlieues, bidonvilles). Admittedly, that’s a facile and unfair comparison — the struggling urban peripheries of the world are built under duress and out of necessity, a far cry from the expensive privilege of attending Burning Man. And while Black Rock City has a native culture all its own, it still relies on the importation of musical idioms from the default world.
Metropolis: The Life and Death of a City

All that said, there were certainly highlights and surprises. Dubstep has gotten big at Burning Man, probably thanks to Bass Nectar, who has a cult Burner following. The way it has veered into heavy metal wankery generally turns me off, but one night my posse and I biked out to the Temple, a structure about 100 meters past the Man himself, that burns on the last night as opposed to the pyrotechnics of the Man burn on the penultimate night. Several larger art cars had circled the wagons, connected their sound systems, and were deep into a heavy dubstep set. I ended up on the deck of a pirate ship, throwing myself into every low-end burst while I watched a woman in a leather bikini straddle, and occasionally fire, a flamethrower mounted on the starboard side. She was not an exception, either, as there were more females vibing out to dubstep than I had ever seen in one place. The context and the crowd made dubstep — at least the newer variant — work for me in a way it hasn’t in any club setting.

Unfortunately, deviations from the musical norm too often missed the mark. The Bootie BRC mash-up party was a welcome change of pace, if only the DJ could mix (and didn’t accidentally — yet deliciously ironically — kill the sound while Madonna was crooning “Please don’t stop the music”). On the lighter side, I took some shaky but joyful spins at the Black Rock City Roller Disco, where the lost art form was on talented display. I wish the DJs had gone for more of the rare disco groove than some of the too-familiar crowd pleasers, but they made for soothing daytime grooves. I suspect I would have caught a deeper disco, funk, and boogie set if I had made it to the Disco Knights (too many camps, too little time), where house pioneer and disco connoisseur Foolish Felix held it down on Wednesday night. A little more in that direction, I did catch some of the inimitable François K, the French house legend, whose Deep Space parties in New York I have long admired. He played at Disorient, a Brooklyn-based art collaborative who constructed an “Art Car Wash,” or so it proclaimed in enormous blinking letters, lending the camp a definite ’70s vibe (“at the car wash, yeah!” anybody?). He was ably assisted with an opening set by $mall ¢hange, another New York fave.

François K was the big name DJ I made a point of seeing, but flipping through The Rockstar Librarian Music Guide, yet another handy gift, there were plenty of recognizable names. Fort Knox Five, DJ Dan, and Rabbit in the Moon were all there, lending mainstream gravitas to some of the big sound camps. Remarkably, in keeping with the ethic of Burning Man they all play for free and indeed fork over $200+ for a ticket. The unique vibe of Burning Man — such an infectious partying spirit, a seemingly non-stop crowd that will dance until broad daylight, all in the breathtaking context of the desert with a mountain backdrop — draws aboveground DJs that typically cull thousands of dollars from the festival circuit.

On the more underground tip, Wolf + Lamb opened the Nexus camp on Friday night with their more subtle, thoughtful house and techno. But it’s an indication of Burning Man’s preference for maximum beats that they were confined to the early hours. Generally, outside of rudimentary dubstep, I felt there was a lack of more sophisticated bass — whether churned up breakcore, grime or hip hop vocals, ragga-jungle beats, or just some wubbity bass lines to go with my whomp. LA Riots did hold it down for the old school, and Star Eyes of the Trouble & Bass Crew stirred it up at mega-camp Root Society, but again with an early slot, and inexplicably followed by Fort Knox Five. Maybe it’s the drugs, or maybe the demands of the hardcore rave crowd that descends on Black Rock City over the weekend (often derided as tourists or weekenders, as opposed to those who stick it out the whole week), but the later the night — at least until sunrise — the more inevitable the reversion to a generic 4/4 with a nary a shift in tempo.

Metropolis: Infinitarium

On the wish-I-had-seen list, then were Radiohiro & MC Zulu. The Panamanian-born, Chicago-based Zulu has laced vocals on some of the best tracks of the last few years by the likes of DJ C and Ghislain Poirier. His sound is a far cry of the usual Burning Man fare and he was plastered all over the music guide, seemingly playing every night. But making plans, especially on a fixed timetable, is generally a fool’s errand at Burning Man, and alas I never caught him. The other artist who would surely have been a refreshing change of pace was Filastine. He supposedly followed up MC Zulu on Friday night at the Hookahdome, and played a 4am set at Dustfish for GlobalRuckus presents International Mayhem Night following the event’s great climax: the burning of the Man.

But to go to Burning Man with the goal of seeing specific DJs is definitely to miss the point. The sound camps themselves amaze no matter what they are playing with the sheer audacity of constructing massive sound systems in the middle of one of the harshest environments known to man (brutal daytime heat, chilly nights, dust storms — some liken it to building on the moon). They pump upwards of $60,000 in some cases into professional, club-level sound, lights, and decorations. One might pay a pretty penny to party at such a venue in any permanent city, but in the surreality of Black Rock City, it’s ostensibly free (ticket price notwithstanding). The Burning Man organisation, which does subsidise the amazing public art that strategically litters the playa, does not fund these exorbitantly expensive sound camps. Music, they say, was never part of the original mission; art was. And while they welcome the ravers with open arms, they have to fund themselves, which they are lucky to achieve through yearlong fundraising parties. In actuality, a lot of folks are going out of pocket to do this.

The end product is not just free monetarily, but luxuriously free socially and structurally. No security guards, no fences, no table service, no VIP access. Come and go to your heart’s content — as you leave one party you’ll probably pick up the wavelength of another next door — dance however you like, dress or undress as you please. While there, climb up on the dome, the scaffolding, the tower, the cage, the go-go dancer platform, or whatever else has been put up specifically to enhance your experience. While I frequented the Opulent Temple, Disorient, Bassyx, and Root Society in somewhat equal measure, it was Nexus that kept bringing me back. Their deconstructed pirate ship, a loose amalgamation of cargo nets, swinging chains, mattresses suspended by ropes, fire poles, and wooden decks took interactivity to a whole new level. While having that much fun it almost didn’t matter what the DJ was playing.

That, perhaps, is the rub about Burning Man, especially when it comes to music. Like in the best all-encompassing audio experiences — Jamaican dancehalls or bailes funk in Rio de Janeiro — the intensity of sound and senses should be enough to carry you through. No one gets bored at an all-night favela soundclash even if they aren’t so partial to tamborzão beats. Likewise, you don’t have to be an astute raver to enjoy the sensory overload of Burning Man, because it’s just so damn fun no matter what.

Metropolis: Ein Hammer installation

Every year Burning Man has a theme, and this year it was Metropolis. The idea foregrounded the urban aspect of Burning Man, how much Black Rock City really is a city. Yet for all its urbanity, the urban music of the world that I lamented above was not really present. Rave music writ large is also urban — the soundtrack to hollowed out warehouses in post-industrial cityscapes — but has a pastoral streak in it as well. Infamous Midwestern raves were scattered across the farmland of middle America, not holed up in inner-city neighborhoods.

The latter-day frontier experience that comes from the great void of the Black Rock Desert ultimately has more in common with the latter than the former. The citizens of Black Rock City build a city to counteract the overwhelming emptiness of a 1,000 square mile dry lakebed and create some semblance of order for their week of exuberant existence. How they fill it musically, however, relates more to the permanent features of the landscape — starry nights and infinite expanse of playa — than to reverberations off steel and concrete, for in this temporary city there is precious little of either. The mega-festival Glastonbury hosts a London Underground building, but that ersatz urban milieu seems silly — just hop a train back into the city and you can get the real thing. It’s more Glastonbury’s roots in the UK Free Party movement to which Burning Man is attuned.

Burning Man, then, makes no claims on the actual sweat and struggle and grit of urban life. There is plenty of all three, between the hard labor of building and the omnipresent dust, but it is voluntary, not a confluence of the push/pull factors (migration, post-colonialism, advanced capitalism) that have configured 21st century cities. As such, the steady yet abstract rhythms of arpeggiated progressive house, the nihilistic purge of dubstep, and the otherworldly urges of trance all make more sense in the Burning Man environment than the hyper-local spit of a grime MC or the Caribbean context of a dancehall riddim.

Many of Burning Man’s participants strive for a spiritual experience, whether through drugs, meditation, nudity, or simple social interaction in a place where inhibitions wilt away in the desert heat. The Opulent Temple specifically states that it hopes to create a sacred space for dance. Largely removed from the social realities that define permanent cities, the temporary encampment of Black Rock City looks to the utopian, transcendental yearnings of dance music. It is a place that has more in common with Goa, Ibiza, or Bali than London, New York, or Berlin. For the jaded urban clubber it may not be your cup of tea, but for the searchers and seekers who call Burning Man home, it strikes just the right note.
 Greg Scruggs also wrote a series for Next American City about Burning Man, asking what a temporary city in the desert can teach us about permanent cities everywhere else.
Julianne posted 9 February 2011 (04:36:47)
May I also compare the city to New Orleans, which year round is flooded with all different kinds of music, has a vibrant hang-out and drink culture, plus hosts 2 weeks of Mardi Gras parades, costumes, and general spectacle? Also, it is the only place besides BRC that I feel really at home! I spent a lot of 2010 managing the music on the Sensatron 5000. I stay away from the typical sounds, and love blasting anything from Animal Collective, David Bowie, Architecture in Helsinki, you name it! Throughout the nights I had burners running up to the car saying "This is my favorite song!" "I never expected to hear it out here!" "I can't believe you're playing this!" which really just made my night! Our first song after the temple burn was "Road to Nowhere," which I thought you might appreciate, what with the Talking Heads in your title! See you on the playa! The Sensatron: http://postnuclearfamily.magiclamp.tv/?page_id=55
Anon posted 29 October 2010 (04:54:26)
Spot on. As amazing as Burning Man is, it's thrown by a relatively small, homogenous group of West Coasters with terrible taste in music. Europe, Detroit: come, bring beats!
xaotica posted 10 November 2010 (03:01:47)
page wouldn't load and it ate my longer reply. summary: burning man is like any city. go to someplace that's advertised on a flyer or in the rockstar librarian guide or "right downtown", you get mainstream music. go someplace you find out about via word of mouth that has no flyers that is way the hell in the middle of nowhere (ie trash fence, unlit street, etc) and you will find the atypical, underground, etc. and it will probably not be there if you try to go back the next night.
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