The Secret Untold Story of ATLAS

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Nine and a half years ago I had no idea I would be sitting here writing my goodbye to a dance party I cofounded, hosted, and DJed that had the longest run in the history of a club named Holocene. (EDIT: Eventually Gaycation beat this record.)  I shared a few words on the Holocene blog in honor of the final edition of the party (March 9th, 2013), but I felt that this moment deserved a more thorough treatment in The Incredible Blog.  ATLAS was DJs Anjali, E3 and myself, with our fourth member behind the scenes, Tracy Harrison of Polygon Press.  None of them have been consulted on any of what follows, so keep in mind that I am really only speaking for myself and sharing my own recollections of how things went down.

The Secret Untold Story of ATLAS

Back in the Fall of 2003. Anjali and I had been DJing our ANDAZ Bhangra and Bollywood night for a year, and DJ E3 had been recently DJing a 2-Step night called Bassism and an African funk and house night called Deeper Roots.  All three of these nights happened at an early incarnation of the Fez Ballroom.  We featured E3 as a guest DJ at ANDAZ once; he was one of only two guests we had in the first five years of that party. We realized that the three of us were up for joining together for a broader international electronic dance music night. The thing was we wanted to keep it cutting-edge and electronic, and not play into “world music” stereotypes that were in the air around that time. We wanted to play the dirty stuff, the edgy stuff, the experimental yet danceable stuff.  We wanted to focus on music being created and consumed by local communities across the globe, and not just stuff made by Western producers with a sample or two over a house beat, which seemed to comprise the sets of DJs who claimed they played international music around the time we started the party. (I remember a DJ gave me his “Latin” demo.  It was all instrumental electronic music with an occasional conga or piano sample.  He wondered why a local Cuban restaurant had not hired him to DJ after hearing his demo.)  I had been playing things like reggaeton and merenhouse for years, and was eager to combine those sounds with my interest in Arabic music along with all the Indian stuff Anjali and I were rinsing.  Since my earliest days of DJing in Portland clubs, I always wanted to host a night where people from many different backgrounds could all come out to dance, and hear some of their music in the soundtrack.

We decided to approach Berbati’s and Holocene as potential club homes to host our new night.  We ended up going with Holocene, even though our friend Chantelle Hylton was booking Berbati’s at the time, because Holocene was the fresh new club in town, and Berbati’s was well past it’s hot, fresh and new phase.  When we met with Holocene I had never even been in the club before. From what I had been told about Holocene I imagined they only wanted to feature house and techno, and I thought they wouldn’t be into what we wanted to do. I was wrong, and at the end of our first meeting we had all agreed to us starting a new weekly Sunday night party, which I imagined would soon fizzle out. In fact, I grudgingly assented to this plan as I had to work my day job until 11pm on Sundays and would only be able to attend the last hours of each party.  I thought we had agreed to a fool’s errand. We were getting up to leave from the meeting when Anjali asked, “What about Saturday nights? Well, as it turned out, Saturday nights were available to local acts, since so many touring bands choose to play Portland on weekdays. A few minutes later we then agreed to a twice-monthly Saturday night international electronic dance party.  Such a turnaround, and in only a few minutes, and only because Anjali asked a question.  I can only imagine what would have happened to ATLAS if it did come into life as a weekly Sunday party.  I highly doubt I would be eulogizing it after it had lasted for more than nine years.

We knew what we wanted to play, but we had trouble deciding how to market it. (Notice I’ve been using awkward phrases like “international electronic dance music.”  We hated the term “world music” which we wanted to distance ourselves from because of the latte yuppie stereotypes, but we (maybe more Anjali and I) also hated the word “global” and every other DJ’s solution to what to call a blend of music like reggaeton, bhangra, Arabic and French Hip-Hop, Funk Carioca, Kuduro, Balkan Beats, etc. seemed equally awful to us. Looking at our first flyers I see that the tagline E3 came up with was “non-stop international flavor.” Then E3 coined “international heat,” and then many years later we grudgingly went with “global bass,” since that term was gaining acceptance in the scene.  In our last years we ended up borrowing from our ally on the East coast, Joro-Boro, and we assimilated his “post-national bass” tagline. (Which he graciously bequeathed to us when we asked after it.)  When we sat around struggling for a name that would encompass the night it was Tracy who came up with “ATLAS.”

The first ATLAS was November 1st, 2003.  It was the day after a Friday Halloween, and the club was dead.  Probably less than a hundred people.  We really didn’t know what to expect two weeks later, but there were 400 people there, so after a false start, the party was off and roaring.  We got an early pick of the week in the Portland Mercury (Which dates to before their earliest archives on their website, and I don’t plan on going through my press boxes to try to find it any time soon. I think it talked about how ATLAS was where the sexy people were or something.), and we were somewhat of a buzzed about party pretty early on.

Anjali and I left for a couple months in India in the beginning of 2004 and we missed the 6th, 7th and 8th ATLAS parties. We have no idea what happened on those nights. I mean, we know who DJed, and who the guests were, but we were not there, and there is no recorded evidence. Back when the party was young and twice a month, we were open to skipping out and featuring guest DJs if something major was happening, but we became quite committed to performing at every ATLAS after the first year.

In that first year the night often went until 3am, and the schedule was that we would each play an uninterrupted two hour set, rotating the order every month.  After the first year it became clear that twice a month was simply more than Portland could support.  Anjali and I were already DJing ANDAZ every month, so with two ATLAS parties a month, that meant we were trying to convince people to come out three times a month on Saturday nights.  While every party was in the triple digits, it became clear that ATLAS would need to be only once a month in order for it to be as packed as a raging dance party should be.  We decided at that time that the two-hour DJ slots weren’t working, and we needed to rotate the DJs more often.  We all had very different sounds and approaches to DJing, and we decided to rotate hour-long sets, to give everyone a new taste more frequently, which is the format the party stuck to for the last eight years.

Compared to ANDAZ, ATLAS received very little attention in the press.  While ANDAZ was written up again and again, the ATLAS format apparently didn’t grab the local media in the same way.   While ATLAS would sometimes get a little recommended notice from a local paper, there were only two in depth articles ever written about the party. (Actually three, but the Oregonian article written by Luciana Lopez reviewing our first night with Joro-Boro is not archived online.)  One in the Willamette Week written  in November of 2006 in honor of our three-year anniversary, and one written for the Bend Bulletin, when the ATLAS crew visited Bend, Oregon in February of 2007.  In the next six years the party would only get cursory attention around the time of our anniversaries, such as when the Portland Mercury wrote, “”Pretty much as long as there has been Holocene, there has been Atlas, the finest booty-shaking, passport-stamping global dance party our fine city has to offer.”

Anjali and I have gotten plenty of credit for bringing bhangra and Bollywood to the dance floors of Portland, but all the firsts established by ATLAS have never really been acknowledged or noted.  DJ E3 advertised Dubstep on our first flyer back in November of 2003 and Anjali and I had to ask each other, “What is that?  Sounds cool.”  The breakthrough songs that introduced reggaeton to a broader audience were N.O.R.E’s “Oye Mi Canto” which didn’t come out until October of 2004 and Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” which didn’t come out until November of that year. I had been DJing  reggaeton since I discovered it in Central America in 1999, but ATLAS was the first club night featuring this sound in Portland.  Same was true for Funk Carioca, Balkan Beats, Kuduro, Dembow, Tribal Guarachero, Cumbia Digital, and on and on, a constant flowering of new genres all around the world.  E3 was up on the latest developments in North Africa and the Middle-East and was introducing sounds like Arabic Rap, Rai’n’B and Reggada among many other genres, to happily dancing Portlanders and visitors.  It was frustrating to see parties come around many years later claiming to introduce sounds we had been playing for years.  Truly there is no memory in clubland.

We were very fortunate to be able to present guest performers such as Joro-BoroMaga BoState of BengalToy Selectah,  DJ Marcelinho da Lua, Chief BoimaManeesh the Twister & Ferhan Qureshi (Dhamaal Sound System), Nomadic Noize AKA DJ EliazarTurbo TablaSoul Salaam, Mista Chatman, DJ TomasDr. Israel, ERS-One/DJ Magneto, John Friend, J BoogieSujinhoDJ RekhaPoirier & Zuzuka Poderosa at ATLAS.  We actually had guests very rarely, largely focusing on the three resident DJs for almost every party.   This was very much in contrast to so many parties running at the same time as ATLAS that seemingly couldn’t have enough DJs on the lineup, with so many names on the flyers I imagined every DJ got to play for twenty minutes max.   In the first year we featured local artists such as Alter Echo, S-Dub, Zanne, Rafa, Othertempo and Mr. MuMu, but eventually we limited guests to travelling artists from outside Portland except for appearances by currently Portland-based CHAACH!!! and Massacooramaan in the last years of the party.  Its not that we were trying to cock block other Portland DJs who were into international sounds, but I always hoped that those DJs would go and start their own nights and develop their own scenes. (We wanted other places to be able to go dance!)  The three resident ATLAS DJs only got about twenty hours each a year to share their sounds, and we were honestly quite attached to that time. We all knew just how much global bass music was coming out from every corner of the world, and that we were only presenting our  selection.  Our selection defined ATLAS, but we knew there was potential for many other global bass nights in Portland to showcase their own flavor.  The funny thing was that when global bass started to become a thing, different nights started up, and I think there were as many as five happening in one week in Portland a few years ago.  Every one of those parties started long after ATLAS, and yet all of them are now dead.

ATLAS was a an experimental party. We were always pushing it. Trying to get away with a little more musical extremity than we had any right to. A lot of times the bigger the crowd meant the more incentive we felt to really go out on a limb and see just how far out of their comfort zones we could push people.  Not that we didn’t play our share of crowd pleasers, but the primary impulse of the party was to move forward and challenge, not to give people what they already knew.  ATLAS was always a mix of people who were down with the sound (or at least some of the sound), and randoms coming through the Holocene door who had no idea what was in store for them.  There are probably still shell-shocked people stumbling the streets to this day wondering what the hell happened to them.

One identity problem ATLAS had over the years was that because of how associated Anjali and I are with the sound of bhangra, ATLAS was sometimes referred to as a bhangra party, even though that was only a portion of what we played.  Oftentimes people would assume we were playing bhangra no matter what genre or genres we were actually playing. I remember getting off stage once in the early days, and a friend said that he was hoping to hear some reggaeton for the first time. I had to shake my head as I had just played a number of reggaeton tracks.  Once a woman asked me if we could project the genres on a screen as we played them so people could know what they were listening to.  (Adding genre labels to a lot of our tracks would be quite difficult, as they often include many from many different cultures.)  I developed such a complex about the party’s reputation that I would often forcibly restrict myself from playing more than a few Desi tracks a set, because I resisted people’s urge to pigeonhole the party into something far narrower than what it was.

We definitely noticed shifts in what worked for the ATLAS crowd over time.  Bhangra was a huge sound early on.  I can remember when reggaeton was hot, then Funk Carioca, then Balkan Beats.  I remember when Digital Cumbia started making waves, and the cumbia requests started coming in.  In the first years of the party there would be lots of dancing to 2-step and drum’n’bass tracks, sometimes whole sets, and now it seems like that sound largely confuses the majority of our current crowd.

I was devoted to ATLAS for more than nine years of my life.  We never compromised. We did what we wanted. What we wanted was to play our take on the hottest-shit international dance music coming out around the world for Portland dancers. Thank you so much to Holocene for letting us honor that vision for more than nine years.  Thank you to Tracy Harrison of Polygon Press for so many years of amazing design work, and all her other contributions to the night.   Thanks to Anjali and E3 for being such consistently inspirational DJ partners.  (Make sure to follow E3 and Tracy’s 7″ dub label ZamZam Sounds and watch out for original productions coming from him in the future.)  Thank you to all the dancers who came from near and far and made ATLAS what it was.  Without you crowding the dance floor for nine plus years we would have nothing to celebrate or mourn.   Anjali and I have something new coming in May, but there will ever only be one ATLAS.

ATLAS is dead!  Long live ATLAS!

IK

Oh, and the ending of the party motivated me to create my first ATLAS-style mix in many years.  Enjoy:

Global Bass for Your Face! by The Incredible Kid on Mixcloud

Atlas_AUG09_flyer_650

 

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