Throughout its history in America, dance music was made by — and for — people of color. Nile Rodgers, Donna Summer, Joe Bataan and Salsoul Records, Frankie Knuckles: It was black and Latin artists who made and played pioneering tracks for big-city youth in search of a safe space to cut loose.
That legacy has gotten a bit lost in the recent EDM boom. Most of the scene's major new stars are of European descent, and teenage crowds aren't exactly looking for history lessons when they hit rave festivals.
Tuskegee, a new project from underground production heroes Seth Troxler and the Martinez Brothers (Steve and Chris), aims to do both — to put out great records and set the record straight about where this music came from.
"This has been the case since the 'Disco Sucks' campaign, the rise of gangsta rap in the '90s to the now commonplace ignorant imagery in commercial rap," said Troxler, who is African American. "I think educated people of color talk about this all over the world, and wonder why in film or music the only images portrayed of us are more often than not negative."
The project (an amorphous thing somewhere between a record label, DJ crew and banner for all sorts of creative projects) makes its L.A. debut at this weekend's Hard Summer festival. The Detroit-raised Troxler earned a reputation for sly, experimental techno that's as fun as it is brainy, and the Bronx-born, Puerto Rican-descended Martinez Brothers grew up steeped in the Latin disco of Paradise Garage. The trio met playing the DC10 club in Ibiza and became fast friends.
Though they had very different upbringings and made careers in the global archipelago of contemporary club music, they shared a particular experience growing up: Being a teenager of color in the club scene of a big American city in the '90s. For them, that was a formative worldview that felt especially relevant in this current moment of placeless, Internet-driven dance music.
"With Tuskegee we just want to tell our side of the story, so to speak, and give our perspective on what the core of our culture is," the Martinez Brothers said in a jointly answered e-mail interview. "After the exploitation, after the big bubble bursts, there's always a return to the core, and we can see that happening."
They chose the name Tuskegee for its dual connotations — the dignity and bravery of the Tuskegee airmen, the black fighter-pilot regiment in World War II but also the medical travesty of the Tuskegee experiment, where poor rural blacks with syphilis were purposely given useless treatments so doctors could study the disease's progression.
It's an atypically serious, politically volatile reference for a dance-music project, but Troxler and the Martinezes identified with both implications of the name. There's a racially charged legacy of pain there, but also a means to transcend it.
"There's [a] frustration in the misrepresentation of dance music," the Martinez Brothers said. "The history warrants more attention not only to give young black and Latin kids more insight of their own history in this music, but also to kind of restore what the real essence of this culture is all about."
Neither act is especially didactic about Tuskegee, however. It's dance music, after all — if it's not fun, it's not effective.
But each act grew up with a particular urban experience, where having a safe space filled with exultant, inventive dance music was a radical act. They were raised at a time when indie record labels like Chicago's Dance Mania could release tracks like Traxmen & Eric Martin's "Hit It From the Back" that were both tawdry incitements to get down and celebrations of people and places that white America had ignored or viewed with disdain.
"In many ways, dance music is about escape and hedonism," Troxler said. "Through history, clubs have been a place of sexual and racial inclusion, somewhere to let it all go and to explore yourself. For me, exploring sexuality is something that frees people, the main point is how you push people to that idea and to create an environment of respect and freakiness."
While the audiences for events like Hard Summer have been as diverse as the rest of Southern California, rarely do festival acts overtly delve into race.
But Tuskegee is a rare, buzzed-about dance music project that is explicitly devoted to emphasizing the black and Latin roots of electronic music and to finding young artists of color exploring similar ideas today.
Troxler and the Martinezes have each made home bases in cities like Ibiza and Berlin, where they're steeped in the cosmopolitan egalitarianism of global dance music. But when they each play Hard Summer, they'll be emphasizing a particularly American vantage point — one where artists of color found a new sense of possibility in dance music. In that sense, Tuskegee is a history lesson that's also a prediction for the genre's future.
"For young people, many of whom can never leave their town, thinking outside the mind-set of imprisonment is impossible. If this is all there is and ever will be, then how can you move forward?" Troxler said. "I think Tuskegee is here to inspire kids, to let them know dance music can be fresh and represent their aesthetic in life — while still being as legit and real to the streets as the last rap LP they bought."
Where: Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, 750 Santa Anita Ave., South El Monte
When: Sat.-Sun., 12 p.m.