The Rave King Rides Again
Wiretaps, fake money, vampire stripper sluts: How Disco Donnie went from the US’s most-wanted rave promoter to legit EDM businessman.
EDM may be blowing up now, but for most of America's biggest promoters this is hardly their first dancefloor rodeo. The bosses behind EDC, HARD, and Embrace have been throwing DJ-driven parties and festivals since the early to mid-90s, working their way up from 200-person events to 20,000-person events. And though American EDM festivals are big business these days, it's easy to forget that in the year 2000 the "rave scene" was almost left for dead after being dismantled by a series of devastating anti-dance music laws—the Crack House law, the RAVE Act—plus an economic downturn and the devastating blow of 9/11.
A few promoters kept on, but none were hit harder by these events than the South's notorious rave king, Disco Donnie. Donnie (aka James D. Estopinal Jr.) started throwing parties in 1994 in his native New Orleans at the age of 22. He kicked off with underground DJ nights in bars before quickly moving to illegal warehouse raves. But by Mardi Gras of 1995, he was ready to go (semi) legal—packing 1500 people into the State Palace Theatre for a party called Zoolu, featuring Mystic Bill, Terry Mullan, and Kevin Saunderson (as Reese).
Before raves had earned the respect of elder promoters and the attention of Wall Street, Disco Donnie was a rave king. By 1998, Donnie hosted his first all-night outdoor festival at Uno Lakefront Arena with 8,000 people in attendance and was dominating the Southern US rave market with his massive events and wild DJ line-ups. Even after selling his company to SFX in 2012 (at the time a controversial move) he hasn't slowed down. This Summer he presents El Paso's Sun City Music Festival, a festival headlined by Tiësto, Above & Beyond, Martin Garrix, and more.
Donnie—instantly recognizable in his crazy outfits (Adidas track suits, pimp suits) and gold dookie chains—was not just a promoter, he was a provocateur, known for his larger-than-life personality and his out-there party themes like "PsychedelicPimpDaddyland," "Vampire Stripper Sluts from Outer Space," and "The DJ is God." It's a role he has always relished.
"When I first started doing parties, we had a voicemail so people could call to find out where the show was," says Donnie, who constantly smiles when he speaks, giving the impression that he's always in a good mood. "They would leave messages asking questions and I would call them back. I was trying to build personal relationships. Then you had email lists people would subscribe to and chatrooms. Those things would drive me crazy because these people were slamming everything I did. I was young and took that stuff pretty hard. It was gossip, misinformation, and misunderstanding. I started responding and learned to take criticism and use it as motivation." Donnie says that, even today, he often calls people personally if they have a complaint. "I'd rather talk about it," he says. "If somebody messed up, you have to take care of people. You build good will."
Not everyone was feeling good will towards Donnie, especially not law enforcement. By 1997, "electronica" was the new buzz-word in the States—rave "massives" were happening all over the country and getting bigger every day. And law enforcement was none too happy with these young and flashy promoters making thousands off wild all-nighters full of teenagers. In September 1998, a month after 17-year-old Jillian Kirkland OD'ed at one of Donnie's events, guys with moustaches and mirrored shades banged on Donnie's door in the early morning. They accused him of running drug parties, being in cahoots with drug dealers, and singlehandedly ruining thousands of peoples' lives. In the next breath, they offered to match Donnie's annual income if he would become a narc. Donnie refused. He and the owner of the State Palace were subsequently charged under the federal "crack house statute," making him the first public whipping boy in a witch-hunt that targeted US rave promoters and venue owners throughout the late 90s and early 2000s.
Passed in 1986 by Congress as a way to combat the spread of crack cocaine, the "crack house statute" made it a felony to "knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance." This law allowed the Justice Department to prosecute property owners of venues where "rave parties" were thrown, and the promoters who threw them.
Donnie points out that 12 years ago, the perception of EDM and DJ culture were not what they are today. The meetings between the US attorney, the DEA, and Donnie's lawyer were ongoing. The threats were endless. Donnie was not allowed to talk to his family or friends. He finally turned himself in at the Federal Courthouse on Poydras Street in New Orleans. He was put on a drug-testing program, assigned a parole officer, and became a part of the system, but only went to jail for one day. Eventually he went before the judge, but did not accept the plea bargain—he pled not guilty and never signed any paperwork. Confined to his house, he waited for the federal government to take him to trial… but they never did.
"Public reaction was crazy," says Donnie. "Once everybody around the country knew, people got behind me. I had a support system. The ACLU got involved, the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund (EM:DEF) was set up, people started doing shows for me. I wasn't guilty. I didn't want to plead guilty. I knew how much it was going to affect the scene and all of my friends who were promoters. I was just the first stop."
The State Palace Theatre was eventually fined $100,000 in 2001 and allowed to stay open as long as they banned drug paraphernalia like glowsticks and pacifiers. Like a big fuck-you to the police, Donnie started throwing shows at the State Palace Theatre again. Then again, he had never really stopped throwing parties; despite court cases and phone taps, Donnie constantly kept his raves going.
Future Vice President Joe Biden—then a senator from Delware—was also hard at work on raves at the time, tweaking the crack house law to apply directly to party promoters. In 2001, proposed the cleverly named Reducing Americans' Vulnerability To Ecstasy (RAVE) Act in the Senate; under the bill, any individual was prohibited from "knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance, and for other purposes." (A similar law, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, ultimately passed in Congress in April 2003, and continued to be used to prosecute rave promoters throughout the country.)
While Donnie's had cleared his biggest legal hurdles, the rave scene was in a swiftly moving downward spiral—but he and other promoters were oblivious. "Events are planned five or six months in advance so you can't really see [the downward trend] coming until it's too late," says Donnie. "When I look back, I see all the telltale signs. Back then I was going forward thinking everything was the same, but it wasn't. The cool people were the basis for the scene—when it got too big, the cool people pulled out, and it collapsed on itself."
Donnie, now married and a father, would not be deterred. He moved to Columbus, Ohio and threw events there, as well as in New Orleans. He also began putting up the money for other promoters' events in the South and Midwest. "I was faking it," he recalls. "I figured, 'We'll do cheap shows and when the scene comes back, we'll be in a condition to do well.' I didn't know it was going to take 10 years to come back."
Local promoters were wary of giving up any control in their territory, but Donnie assured them their brands would remain intact. "I started out doing connectors," says Donnie. "I would do Austin, Houston, Dallas [on a] Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Then I would do Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland. I was building out weekends and mini-tours for artists. That was where I really started putting the pieces together. The artists and agents responded to it because I would button up a whole weekend, routed with short flights or car rides—a one-stop shop. I kept taking that map and scaling it out and around—Orlando and Tampa, Portland and Seattle—like a chess game."
While hustling to find money for his promoter friends, Donnie himself didn't have money to put gas in his car, relying on loan sharks, credit cards, and his mother's savings to keep things going. "People see it now as candy canes and rainbows, but there were some mean times," he says. "The biggest promoters were living in little apartments, not able to pay their rent. We were all one show away from being done. I knew I was building something that was going to be worth something. People are never going to stop dancing. I knew eventually dance music would come back."
Nonetheless, Donnie's "fake money" (as he likes to call it) is going all around the country. For multi-date events, such as Paul Oakenfold's bus tour, Donnie is handed all the dates, reaching out to and partnering with promoters. Donnie has up to five shows happening in a single weekend in various cities across the United States. By 2008, he's bankrolling parties in 100 markets and he becomes partners with Pasquale Rotella in the LA-based Insomniac Events (the promoters behind EDC and Beyond Wonderland); together, they begin expanding into Florida, New York, Puerto Rico, Illinois, and Texas. All their profits are being reinvested into the parties. By all accounts, the pair have an on-again, off-again relationship; by April 2012, they undergo a nasty split. Three months later, Disco Donnie announces that his is the first EDM-focused company to be bought by SFX Entertainment, a conglomerate operated by Robert F.X. Sillerman (who created the first incarnation of Live Nation), for a reported $9 million.
Donnie continues to do the same thing he was doing before, except this time he's not putting any of his own money on the table—fake or real. In 2014 alone, he has thrown the Day After Festival, a three-day, 45,000-person event in Panama City, the 50,000-person Ultimate Music Experience in South Padre Island, Texas during spring break, and the 20th anniversary of his Zoolu party in New Orleans.
"I'm used to shooting from the hip," says Donnie of working with SFX. "Now I have to make smart decisions. It's better to have someone you can bounce ideas off of and get feedback from that understands the business. That really helps me as a promoter.
"I was a raver for life when I walked in," he continues, still smiling. "Now with access to dance music via Youtube, iTunes, Beatport, blogs, all the different sources information that you couldn't get before, it's part of people's lives. It really is a rave new world."