Music Wasn’t Meant to Be Part of Burning Man—So What’s This Genre Called Playa Tech?
How the rise of the internet and a bunch of DJs playing music on top of mutant art cars brought beats to The Burn in a whole new way.
Burning Man and music have always had an uneasy marriage. The yearly event started out as a quaint bonfire on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986—with nary a beat to be found—before moving to a vast desert lake in Nevada known as Black Rock City in 1990. Now, over the course of one week at the end of summer, 70,000 people build a temporary community there centered around art, sharing, and radical self-reliance. DJs, massive sound camps, and DJ-focused mutant vehicles—decorated art cars with people spinning inside or on top—are some of the festival's most quintessential attractions. They've also been a subject of controversy.
In his 2015 THUMP feature, Daniel Rodriguez discusses the introduction of the playa's first official sound camp, a designated area at the festival where music could be played loudly. Started in 1993, the so-called "Techno Ghetto" featured everything from acid house to the records of Jean-Michel Jarre, and was personally endorsed by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey. In the years to come, drug deaths, injuries, general disorganization, and opposition from within the Burning Man community would lead to the camp's eventual demise. The event's organizers reportedly shunned the camp, and in 1997, sound systems over 100 watts were banned. No sound camp or group of musicians has been officially endorsed since.
But over the years, music has crept back in. Though the organizers don't publicly advertise the event's musical offerings, sound systems and wild dance parties abound—even superstar DJs like Skrillex and Diplo have begun to pop in to play surprise sets. Last year, after rumors began to circulate that Burning Man would again be placing restrictions on the musical goings-on, organizers merely required mutant vehicles to restrict their movements to a "deep-playa music zone," at a remove from those attending the festival to see art or hang out with their small children. At this year's gathering, which runs from August 28 to September 5, music is more a part of the Burn than ever, and the fan-made list of those spinning is 20 pages long.
But one strain of dance music—winkingly called Playa Tech—has emerged as the predominant sound of the Burn, and it's slowly penning a new chapter of the festival's sonic history. According the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary, Playa Tech is a "form of the musical sub-genre tech house, but [of] a much more spiritual, tribally, eastern, world music, trance inducing, yoga-friendly variety." On streaming sites like Mixcloud, you'll find hundreds of sets tagged by that name, characterized by their airy psychedelic synths, elongated basslines, woozy horns, and the occasional sample of a spiritual chant. Tons of DJs toy with these sounds, but some—like Lee Burridge, the pioneering Brit responsible for helping launch Hong Kong's clubbing scene in the 90s, Damian Lazarus, Bedouin, and relative newcomer Atish—have greatly expanded their career potential on playing tracks that recall the desert's vast environs.
Over the past few years, social media and the rise of music streaming have sparked playa tech's rapid rise among beat-loving Burners. The sound, in turn, has expanded the Burn's reach worldwide, via a burgeoning cottage industry of DJs and parties bringing the sounds of the Playa to the masses.
Gunita Nagpaul is one of the minds behind Listed—a San Francisco-based events company that often throws parties with a Burner-centric vibe. In her 16 years attending The Burn, she's been around to see the changes. "When I first went [to Burning Man], a lot of the music was breaks, dubstep, psytrance—maybe even a little electro," she says on a recent phone call with THUMP. "I went to Lee [Burridge]'s first Burn with him. I remember us standing at the Opulent Temple camp and [thinking] 'Oh my gosh, this music totally sucks.' "So we would just go into other people's camps and ask if we could take over the decks or create our own party with 50 people that could appreciate that kind of music. That's kind of when I think the music landscape changed, and how the whole thing kind of spiraled."
We're joined on the phone by another San Francisco native, the DJ and producer Atish. He's a former Facebook employee who left his job to spin full-time, and he's known Nagpual since they met years ago at a Lee Burridge party she organized in San Francisco. He helped her throw some parties around their hometown before joining her booking agency, and becoming a regular DJ at Listed events.
"A lot of my DJing style, sound, and aesthetic was kind of born out of Burning Man," he tells me. "And a lot of my popularity came through me playing on the playa and people hearing me play at [popular music art car and theme camp] Robot Heart. At various points in my career, I've tried to shy away from it; other times, I embrace it."
Like many people who have been coming to Burning Man for years, Atish shares Nagpual's hesitation to use the "playa tech" label. But he does recognize that some sort of scene has evolved around the style. "It's a very ambiguous word to me," he says. "That wasn't really even the cool sound until maybe one or two years ago. In 2011, I would just play music for myself and my camp and people would walk by asking, 'What kind of music is this?' Now, every single camp is kind of playing it."
Lee Burridge's lengthy, melodic sunrise sets—often delivered from atop the Robot Heart bus—are the stuff of legend among electronic music-loving Burners. Though he didn't start attending the festival until the 2000s, the event first came on his radar in 1991, via a book of black and white photos he bought in Hong Kong, where he been living and working as a DJ. After a preliminary trip to Nevada as a spectator, he'd eventually start spinning on the playa, spreading a uniquely melodic and melancholic sound to the event's many sound camps and mutant art cars.
"I wanted to play a certain feeling with sounds I felt would compliment the visual aesthetic and beautiful nature and, most importantly, the spaciousness," he explains of the sets he started playing around 2005. "I spent a year thinking about it and collecting the tracks. I was playing bouncy house and techno with atmospheric, trippy melodies." But he remembers one moment in particular—during a set he played one year at the Green Gorilla camp—that prompted him to refine his approach to truly match his awe-inspiring surroundings. Remember, this is a place where they blow up a giant wooden man just for kicks.
"It was right before they blew up 'Crude Awakening,' a huge viewing platform art piece that had been doused in gasoline and set on fire to create an enormous apocalyptic fire ball," Burridge reminiscences. "An air raid siren sounded, just to add to the theatrics of what was about to happen, and I wanted a soundtrack to match. I remember when they sounded the siren, I stripped the track back to almost nothing, just looping a really trippy part of it. It seemed to be going on forever."
Playa tech is often associated with the type of tip-toeing basslines that never seem to end, so it's possible this was one of the sound's earliest iterations. Still, Burridge just claims he's doing what he's always done, and in his eyes the connection to the Burn is perhaps an instance of right place, right time. He says that he's never heard that he's associated with playa tech—and that our conversation is the first instance he's heard of the term. "The music I play is really just my taste, and not specific to Burning Man or anywhere else. It's all part of a slowly evolving sound I've been playing since day one. I like sounds with spacious reverbs on the synths, [synths] that feel more open and float above the grooves. For me, it resonates really well playing this music in a place with an endless landscape stretching out. It just so happens that Burning Man is the perfect place for it."
Robot Heart—an NYC-based party whose iconic art car and giant illuminated heart are widely recognized on and off the playa—is another entity that has contributed to the rise of playa tech. They frequently throw massive warehouse parties in New York that you need a secret code to get tickets to. Between Burns, the group posts live sets directly to Soundcloud, featuring recordings from many of the artists who regularly spin their events like Damian Lazarus, Thugfucker, and Burridge. While most of the acts who play live at Robot Hearts' events fall in line with the trippy, minimal sound people associate with playa tech, their widespread popularity has even led them to booking mainstream acts like Major Lazer and Above and Beyond, who played an ambient set paired with live yoga at Burning Man last year.
And for those who can't physically make the Burn each year, live recordings from DJs like Burridge and Atish can help recreate some of the joys of the Playa. Soundcloud and social media, likewise, have helped spread the sound beyond the confines of Black Rock City—and the expected crowd of veteran hippies you'd expect to find at an event like Burning Man. "Once Facebook was around, people were posting pictures of Burning Man and those who weren't going started thinking, 'This is like nothing I've ever seen before,'" says Atish. "It kind of started to make it into the mainstream. There's only 70,000 people in the world who can go, which is still obviously a very small percentage—but when I tour around the world, there's still this huge curiosity with what goes on there."
Other festivals are starting to capitalize on that curiosity. Twice a year—in November and April—Desert Hearts draws thousands of people to a Native American reservation in the desert in southern California to experience a curated version of the wide variety of sounds music fans can find on the actual playa. The San Diego DJ crew started throwing parties around California in 2012 inspired by their experiences at Burning Man—and eventually later that year, a bi-annual festival.
"Our goal was to create a house and techno haven that was influenced by a single block at Burning Man," Mikey Lion explains about the musical vision of Desert Hearts, the festival he's a founding member of. "Instead of having all these different stages and camps, [Desert Hearts] would just have one stage that played non-stop house and techno for 72 hours. The programming for the festival was definitely inspired by Burning Man. When we were at [Burning Man] and Robot Heart, we would see Lee Burridge doing a sunrise set, playing the most whimsical, trippy, music. That's what we've always envisioned Desert Hearts as."
Like others I spoke to for this piece, Lion is quick to distance himself from the name playa tech as a legitimate encapsulation of the scene. "'Playa tech,' to me, is taking too much credit for the music that has been going on everywhere in the world," He says. "I think it just got really popular at Burning Man, and Burning Man got so popular at the same time that was getting popular.... [Burning Man] was hitting that tipping point of selling out—it's full mainstream now— everyone knows what it is." Still, despite the discomfort of those who've become most associated with the sound, using the name playa tech could be seen as aspirational, a way for DJs and fans alike to feel like they're a part of something that they may never get to experience—or at most, get to experience once a year.
Now that Burning Man's frequented by everyone from P. Diddy to billionaire techies like Clear Channel CEO Bob Pitman, the event will likely continue to evolve year after year—as will the people that attend, and what it is they're searching for, both musically and spiritually. Whether so-called playa tech is a legitimate genre of dance music that deserves its own title, or just another fantasized thing dreamt up in a temporary desert city by those who live and breathe the community year round, is another question. Until something else comes in and starts filling the USBs of the DJs who play the event—Sand bass? Fairy step? Unicorn house?—it's likely you'll be hearing playa tech again this year, on the playa and off.
David Garber is trapped in a never-ending bassline IRL (and on Twitter, too!).