A few hours before Electric Daisy Carnival opened in Las Vegas on Friday, Carl Cox sat near the pool at the Flamingo Hotel, ready to explain why he has remained so interested in electronic music after decades of DJ'ing, producing, and remixing. He pauses midsentence and motions toward the DJ booth in the background. "I think someone is playing one of my records," he says before laughing. "I can hear my record! I can hear my record!"
Cox's giddiness seems a little unexpected. After all, he's a dance music legend, a pioneer in the U.K. scene whose tracks have been dropped by countless DJs since the 1990s. He mentions that it's moments like this one that keep him motivated, but there's more to it than unexpectedly hearing his own work in the mix. "My ears are still open to new music," he says. "I always get goosebumps when I hear something that I feel I want to share with people, and that's it. That's what keeps me going."
There's a paradox that exists in the dance music world. From the underground parties of the late 1980s and early '90s to today's massive, mainstream festivals, this is a world that revolves around youth. Parties fill with young people dressed in fashions that older generations don't understand, whether it's the superbaggy look of the 20th Century or near-naked style of the 21st. Media repeatedly discuss dance music in relationship to youth culture, whether it's the emphasis on the scene's youngest stars, like 19-year-old Martin Garrix, or stories about the latest party drugs.
Despite all that, dance music is a world where the artists can, and often do, sustain careers in excess of 20 years. Cox is one of them. This year, he has brought his "festival within a festival" concept, called Carl Cox and Friends, to Electric Daisy Carnival. For two nights, the DJ spent hours onstage, performing solo and back-to-back sets.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, Cox's tent, the Neon Garden, fills with dancers dressed in superhero outfits, Pokémon gear, and remixed Disney costumes. This is the new generation of ravers, one that ditched '90s icon Elmo for Pikachu as the unofficial PLUR mascot. No doubt, many of these folks weren't even born when Cox first delved into the U.K. rave world — yet they're dancing not out of nostalgia for an era they cannot recall but because he's still playing the sound of the future.
Unlike their rock 'n' roll counterparts, DJ/producers don't have to put on an oldies show after they turn 40. They don't need to drop their biggest hits for former ravers who scored a babysitter for the night so that they can relive their glow-stick dancing youth. These purveyors of dance-floor jams continue experimenting with new technology, pushing the latest dance trends, and dropping new hits for as long as they want, and successive generations of party people will find them.
Maybe it's the relative anonymity of the dance-music world that allows this phenomenon to take shape. Even if you know what the DJs look like, it can be near-impossible to recognize them from behind the decks in dark rooms. You'll know who is playing when you see a name flash on the screen. DJs can reinvent themselves with relative ease, and adapting to current music and tech trends is imperative for survival in this field.
"It's good to be influenced by the changes and new sounds," says Sasha, who rose to global fame in the 1990s as half of Sasha & Digweed. The British DJ, who played EDC on Friday night, works solo behind the decks now, although he collaborates with a variety of artists on tracks and helps support the careers of other DJ/producers through his label, Last Night on Earth.
Despite the music collection he has amassed over the years, Sasha says he's not one to venture back into the archives often. "I don't like getting nostalgic," he says. "Every now and then, I might pull out an older track, but most of the time, I've got my eye on what the latest tracks are and keeping things fresh."
While DJs stay up on the latest releases, those archives can come in handy too. Ali "Dubfire" Shirazinia, who came to prominence as part of Deep Dish, says a properly placed flashback can work to the advantage of veteran DJs. "That's what sets a lot of guys apart from the newer generation," he says. "We have that history."
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Shirazinia has spent almost 30 years playing for crowds. "I'm always being inspired by what I'm hearing, what other musicians in and outside of the genre are making," he says. "I'm always eager to see what's around the corner and what tools I can use to try to translate the ideas in my head into audio."
The drive to explore new musical horizons isn't good just for these DJs' careers but also for the up-and-comers they champion. By the very nature of their job — playing music made by other people — established DJs have the power to bring others into the global arena, and they do that often, whether it's by pushing a new track, playing tag-team and back-to-back sets, or giving a new DJ a guest spot on their podcasts. That's part of the motivation behind Carl Cox & Friends, which Cox has brought to a number of different events for several years. At EDC Vegas, in addition to featuring old friends like Sasha, Dubfire, and Victor Calderone, Cox's Neon Garden lineups include newer artists like Disclosure and Eats Everything.
"The actual art of DJ'ing comes from within," says Cox. "There hasn't got to be any real reason for what you're doing, apart from feeling that you have something to share."
The veterans of the '90s DJ boom still have a lot to share — and fortunately, 21st-century ravers want to hear it.