Jesse Saunders looks like a happy guy. When he’s not approaching friends and fans on the dance floor, he’s in the booth, presiding over the Sept. 23 DJ competition at Insert Coins, where all the contestants are essentially paying homage to him. Rather than playing his tracks, though, they’re cranking dance music favorites that cover the expansive ground of the house genre he helped pioneer in the 1980s. The sounds of his glory days consume the room.
And when we say house music, we don’t mean the heavily arpeggiated, synth-spiking, Euro-pop style of dance music favored by Strip fist-pumpers like David Guetta, Aviici or Kaskade. No, this is real-deal house, in all its forms: traditional, deep, progressive, tribal, funky — everything but commercial house.
Well, almost. The first DJ, Harry A, establishes the authenticity of the contest/party immediately with a lively, R&B-leaning, disco-flavored house set — a sound you’d be hard-pressed to hear in any casino club. Even the night’s MC, Onnoleigh Sweetman, announces, “I’d just like the tourists to take note: Harry is not spinning Top 40.” Except that just two minutes later, the DJ slips in “Million Dollar Bill,” Whitney Houston’s last-ever hit. Sometimes Las Vegas cannot help itself.
To be fair, “Million Dollar Bill” (or at least the remix Harry A plays) hearkens back to the days of the Chicago house scene from which Saunders emerged and helped establish; even the purists at Insert Coins noticeably groove to it. And, after all eight competitors play their 13-minute sets, the judges crown Harry A the victor. He wins an opening performance slot at the all-day Pure House Music Festival, taking place Sept. 29 at Clark County Government Center Amphitheater.
The debuting festival is Saunders’ baby, one he hopes to stage yearly in the city he now calls home. It’s the anti-Electric Daisy Carnival, one that eschews performer popularity and celebrates the musical foundation of four-on-the-floor dance music. Its roots lie in the other yearly festival Saunders organizes with The Chosen Few DJ collective: the House Music Reunion Picnic, the summer jam for up to 30,000 people in Chicago for the past 22 years. That festival serves as a celebration for the music and culture native to its host city.
The Pure House Music Festival serves a slightly different purpose. For one, live musicians and vocalists, such as revered singers CeCe Peniston and Lisa Shaw, are billed among the DJs (Saunders, Reyes, Wayne Williams, Evan Landes from Groove Junkies, among others), a nod to their equally important contributions to the genre. And the festival also seeks to shine a brighter light on real house music, often exiled to the side lounges and off-peak days of the Strip nightclubs that will actually feature it.
“And that’s why I wanted to do this festival,” says Saunders, who still spins internationally. “House used to be big here. In the late 1990s, you didn’t have so much going on, or so many [dance] genres. Whatever the new genre is now, like dubstep, it overshadows everything else. Everything is so commercialized that house is relegated in smaller venues. [Vegas] is the only place where it’s like that.”
Saunders places blame for the plight of house music in Las Vegas nightlife on other factors, too: the bigger-is-better nature of the Strip, the prioritization of bottle service, the preference of patrons to put the partying aspect of clubbing (especially the drugs) over any musical focus and general kowtowing to fickle tourists. He has largely refused to play the local nightclubs open to his underground sounds — though he says he’ll be playing the Hard Rock Hotel pool area in October — and he says the smaller locations won’t offer him his worth. (He faced the same dilemma when he lived in Los Angeles, too.) But his biggest beef is cultural.
“One of the reasons I lay low is because Vegas doesn’t understand house music,” Saunders says. “House nights here aren’t house nights. They’re Top 40. That’s the biggest problem with the people who book these rooms. And because they don’t understand what it is, they plug in whatever they think will fill [the club].”
Perhaps one of the most symbolic aspects of the Pure House Music Festival is its location: It’s downtown, pretty much the only area in the valley where you’ll hear genuine house music. Saunders even investigated opening his own house club there five years ago, but was dissuaded when overzealous investors sought to “Strip it up” and turned a modest proposal into a multimillion dollar project.
Nonetheless, he sees downtown as the key to house music’s future in Las Vegas. “That’s because you have people of the city here, and the culture is on [East] Fremont. I don’t consider the Strip part of Las Vegas. It’s not real life. Every city has a culture, a club scene, art … if you take the Strip out of Las Vegas, you have a wonderful city!
“At the end of the day, everyone wants to make the money,” he adds. “But in Vegas, the complaint is that there’s no culture. Well, there actually is.”
Pure House Music Festival (with Jesse Saunders, Evan Landes, Wayne Williams, CeCe Penistion and others) Sept. 29, 10 a.m-10 p.m.; Clark County Government Center Amphitheater, 500 S. Grand Central Parkway, www.purehousemusicfestival.com, $30-$60.