M.I.A.’s first show and the birth of the mash-up: Remembering Hollertronix, where mixtapes and mosh pits ruled

The early 2000s Philly party from Lowbudget and Diplo became famous around the country.

'The crew'

'The crew'

Roxy Cottontail / Courtesy Christopher Ross

A show at North Philly’s Warehouse on Watts this weekend turns the clock back to the early 2000s in homage to one of the most legendary parties in Philadelphia history.

“Red Bull Presents: Hollerboard Redux” is a celebratory throwback to Hollertronix, the wild, sweaty, sonically innovative recurring party started in 2002 by DJ Lowbudget (aka Michael McGuire) and Diplo (Wesley Pentz). Friday night’s show features appearances by some of the key players in the scene — including Lowbudget, Cosmo Baker, Nick Catchdubs, Dirty South Joe, and Spank Rock (in his final performance under that stage name).

What’s to commemorate? After starting out as a strictly local affair, Hollertronix became a hot topic on the infamous online “Hollerboard” message boards and gained a cult following. It hosted one of M.I.A’s first shows. In 2003, the New York Times named the Hollertronix mixtape Never Scared one of the best albums of the year, calling it “a near-perfect party mix.”

Hollertronix was a laboratory that allowed Wes and Mike to popularize lesser-known musical genres (think Baltimore club) and experiment with mashing up musical styles in a way that’s now commonplace, but was then pioneering. It was a way to channel crate-digger geekiness and creativity with pure, technically-brilliant party rock. It was shaped by Philadelphia’s rich pre-Serato DJing history and an influx of New York folks fleeing Giuliani-era enforcement of cabaret laws. The dance floor featured a mélange of kids, black and white, gay and straight, hailing everywhere from Baltimore to Connecticut.

The result was something the Philly nightlife scene had never seen before — and has really never seen since.

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Cosmo Baker / Courtesy Christopher Ross

Part 1: ‘If you had to read City Paper to find out, we didn’t want you there’

Michael McGuire aka DJ Lowbudget (DJ and musician): Me and Wes kept bumping into each other, and eventually we decided to do a party at this place called the Ukrainian Club, the Ukie. We wanted to play down south music, ‘80s stuff, and electro. The first Hollertronix party was actually my birthday.

Wesley Pentz aka. Diplo (DJ and producer): I wanted to throw a party where I could play all kinds of hip-hop. The first Hollertronix, the “Get Crunk Now” party, was a lot of 80s stuff. Now, if you heard about this…you’d just be like, who gives a fuck, that’s so redundant. But back then those scenes were so different.

McGuire: The first party was September 2002. We really didn’t do much promotion at all. It was mostly word of mouth. We had about a 150 people come, but it was good, and the word of mouth afterward was even better.

Pentz: In Philly, social clubs had a special license to stay open an extra hour. The Ukrainian Club was dingy and old, but it was right by my house. Also, the parties we were doing were kind of illegal, but we were so far up the northside of Philadelphia that the police weren’t bothering us. I became good friends with the owners. They thought I was actually Ukrainian. I’d go to their meetings sometimes.

Rose Luardo (performance artist, comedian, musician): It looked like an old man’s basement: cheap, yellow, wood paneling, long cafeteria tables. It looked like there was a big Polish wedding the day before and the day after.

Nick Barat aka Nick Catchdubs (Fool’s Gold Records co-founder and DJ): It was all musty and dank. There was a tiny bar in the back, like in a cafeteria, where the lunch lady stands and takes your money. But instead, it was a weird Ukrainian lady who would take your money and then give you a giant bottle of Obolon beer.

Jayson Musson (artist): All the artwork on the walls was Ukrainian history, or Ukrainian people or Ukrainian national messages. By default, everyone was an outsider. It’s not your space, no matter who you are. So that put everyone on a level ground.

McGuire: Part of what gave us confidence was the alcohol was cheap and it stayed open later than 2 a.m. If you started playing something people didn’t like, they weren’t going to leave and go to the next bar, because it was in this weird location. So there was more freedom to be creative. I consider the actual setting of the party just as much a part of the success as our own creative input.

Luardo: People would say, “I went to a really great dance party and had the most incredible time.” And it grew and grew. You just knew you were going to have a balls-to-the-wall time.

McGuire: Social networking was blowing up at the same time. Friendster was just developing. There were these weird local Philly message boards. Everyone would get on there and it was all this Philly drama. People would have all-out beefs. It was a great promotional device. I remember [The Philadelphia] City Paper emailing me, saying, hey, we heard you’re doing this party, we want to list it. I never returned their call. If you had to read City Paper to find out about it, we didn’t want you there.

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Courtesy Christopher Ross

Part 2: ‘The party could only have existed in Philadelphia’

Cosmo Baker (DJ and producer): Philadelphia was really the home of the DJ. Cash Money and Jazzy Jeff were two DJs who, in the ‘80s, were the pinnacle of what it meant to be a DJ. We’ve always been a working class city. It’s a very tough city. Nobody can tell us what to do. Everyone’s growing up in a city that’s not really giving you that much. So when it comes time to blow off some steam, they really know how to do it, how to let loose.

Barat: The party could only have existed in Philadelphia. It couldn’t have existed in New York. New York was shitty because of Giuliani, and more importantly, 9/11 had happened and everybody was moving out. It was just sort of dead. You had really expensive rap-video-style, bottle-service club parties, and then you had beard-stroking, my-record’s-more-obscure disco parties that weren’t really for dancing. There were two total extremes.

Joey Massarueh aka Dirty South Joe (DJ and producer): In the summer of 1999, the cabaret laws were put into effect. It was a systematic thing: one by one, at all your favorite little [Lower East Side] spots that held 150 people, there were tables on the dance floor. Giuliani had this major push to clean the streets. New York really felt like a police state. Cops on every corner and halfway down each block. It was like, ok, here we are this vast metropolis, the greatest city on Earth, and you can’t fucking dance.

Baker: I decided, alright, I’m going to move back to Philadelphia. I’m not saying that Giuliani is responsible for the success of Wes and Mike, but a butterfly flaps its wings, and a wave crashes on the other side of the world, right?

Massarueh: There was definitely something special happening in Philly. I remember it being so much more “no bullshit” than any other place I’d ever been. There’s no hustle you’re going to get over here. There’s just too many ways that people are going to shoot it down or see through it. It’s a tough place to learn how to DJ, but you go to other places and you realize you’ve been trained. There’s generation after generation of families that are DJs in Philly. Kids whose dads taught it to them. It’s serious. It has a very blue collar basis here, and part of that is a foundation in classic party-rocking.

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Courtesy Christopher Ross

Part 3: ‘You were only as good as the records you had’

McGuire: At Hollertronix, people would start coming in early and head immediately for the dance floor. No “Let me get a drink first, let me wait till they start playing music I like.” Just right to the dance floor. As a DJ, this is great, I can play whatever I want. They’re not being picky, they’re ready to party.

Naeem Juwan aka Spank Rock (rapper): I would be traditionally the first person on the dance floor. Me and my friends would walk in and start dancing. We’d be like the first five people on the floor — dancing relentlessly, all night. I loved dancing with people that didn’t know how to dance well.

Luardo: The combination of Wes and Mike was phenomenal. They had such different sensibilities. You want to talk about a mash-up—two guys with different music tastes, bringing music and people together.

McGuire: Wes was more out there, really wanting to push the envelope. I was more geared towards rocking the crowd. If it was just me, the party might not have been interesting enough. If it was just him, it might have been too weird, might have alienated people. Together, it was a great balance.

Barat: It’s easier for Wes to be the weirdo and Mike to be the voice of rap reason, but the reality of it was, they both had really extensive taste and both had as much vested interest in pop records and other stuff. Mike definitely brought a little more of the working DJ sense, because he had a lot more experience with it. And he scratched better.

Massarueh: The one thing Mike and Wes would both tell you is, there was a very direct relation going on between the record store Armand’s and the music that was played at Hollertronix.

Baker: Armand’s was the definitive record store in Philadelphia for years. It had everything. It became a ritual — you’d go down to Armand’s once or twice a week. It kind of gave DJs a sense of community — it’s how I met Dirty South Joe. You’d spend hours on end there, listening to records, digesting records, being around other DJs and seeing how they reacted to records. But there was also a sense of competition. You’d make sure that you got there at the right time, so that if there’s only three copies of a hot new record, you were going to be one of the three guys that got it.

Barat: This was DJing before Serato came out — Serato is a software that basically lets you DJ off your laptop. Which, for a working DJ, is a godsend, because you don’t have to lug records everywhere. But it did change the craft and approach. Anybody who can download music and copy it to their hard drive can just get out there and start doing it. But when Hollertronix stuff was going on, if Wes and Mike wanted to play a weird record, they’d really have to seek it out.

McGuire: This was not only before Serato, but also laptops and even CDs. Just two turntables, man. We were doing this with just turntables and a mixer and we had a little sampler for sound effects. People can’t believe we did that with just two turntables.

Massarueh: DJing pre-Serato didn’t just require a lot more skill, it required a lot more dedication from every aspect of your life. There were certain days you had to set aside each week to go get new weapons. You had to go clean and load your gun with new shit. If the labels were too slow, you’d get the kill cuts and bootlegs. You’d take a cab or drive anywhere from four to eight crates to a gig and pack them up at the end of the night. Everywhere you went, you kept them behind you in the booth. You were only as good as the records you had.

Barat: Wes and Mike would take these dollar-bin records from Armand’s and sort of build a context around them. They would play a Trick Daddy record and realize it’s the same tempo as this new Metro Area disco song.

Pentz: Lowbudget was the first to actually go down to Baltimore to pick up the records. We’d buy mixtapes — they worked so well for us.

Baker: It goes back to the vision they had, of throwing all these things together and creating a perfect blend. They weren’t the first guys to mix things half-time and they weren’t the first guys to play Baltimore club or Southern rap or Joy Division records, but they were playing all of them together. On paper, it didn’t make sense. But within the confines of the party, it made perfect sense.

Musson: Baltimore is played around the world because of Hollertronix. It’s in the music of Nick and Naeem, and more DJs in general drop Baltimore shit now. And that’s because of Hollertronix. They didn’t make the wheel, but they were definitely like, yo, there’s this wheel over here.

Juwan: Before, you had these very specific music scenes that had all these fucking rules. Rock sounded like rock, punk sounded like punk, and hip-hop sounded like hip-hop. But when you had everyone mixing together, all these different people with different musical backgrounds together and dancing at that party, it inspired everybody.

Roxy Summers aka Roxy Cottontail (party promoter and DJ): Fixed-gear guys next to tall-T guys next to regular South Philly dudes.

Musson: You’d have your indie kids. It was this kind of post-electro period. Racially, I guess it was really solidly diverse. You had white people, black people — it was just “the kids.”

Luardo: I really felt like, it doesn’t matter who you are in this city: if you are straight edge, if you are punk rock from punk rock, if you are a 90-year-old hippie, if you’re a high-school kid — if you show up to this party, you are down for whatever.

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Nicholas Barat / Courtesy Christopher Ross

Part 4. ‘You’re not going to leave here looking good’

Massarueh: By the end of the night, that’s when it would get really crunk — head busting, people jumping off the stage. Me and Jayson and Mike had an unofficial group called the Philadelphia Crunk Lords. Everybody knew there was eventually going to be a mosh pit and we were all going to playfully beat each others’ asses and try not to slip on all the beer on the floor.

Musson: They’d play shit to incite mosh pit. The mosh pit was like a boardroom meeting of faces. It was a duty. I felt like if I wasn’t there, I was letting someone down.

Luardo: It was a lot of Sodom and Gomorrah. Crazy shit happened all the time.

McGuire: You’re not going to leave this party looking good. You can get as dolled up as you want, but when you leave you’re going to be nasty and you’re not going to be dolled up anymore. You’re going to break a sweat here.

Luardo: I know that I would crowd surf, I know that I would jump on top of people, I did things like that and everybody else did too. It was that kind of abandon.

McGuire: Our Halloween parties kind of became a thing. I remember the first one, just seeing so many crazy costumes. Jesus and Bin Laden dancing together. Dudes dancing in their underwear. Just people acting nuts.

Barat: M.I.A.’s “Galang” had come out on this little record company called Showbiz in the UK. Wes had found that 12-inch, sought her out, and they started working on stuff together. She signed, got her record deal, came to Philly, and made a mixtape. One of her earliest performances was at Hollertronix on Halloween.

Pentz: That was the first time M.I.A. had ever done a show. She’d done like a little Fader show in a parking lot but this was the first show after that. She was super nervous.

Juwan: By the time that big Halloween party happened, Hollertronix had really made a name for itself. It was big enough that they could get Bun B to come out. I was going on for Plastic Little, so I was fucking stoked.

Massarueh: Halloween was Naeem’s debut and M.I.A.’s debut. She was just getting her whole performing thing together. And friggin Bunn B was there.

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Courtesy Christopher Ross

Part 5: ‘You couldn’t go back again’

Barat: They started getting all this attention when The New York Times said that the mix CD was one of the best records of the year — not just [best] mixtapes, but actual records. It became this phenomenon, and got really, really big, up to the point that it wasn’t sustainable anymore.

Summers: I remember Never Scared was in The New York Times as one of the best albums. It wasn’t even an album. I was like, huh? How could a mixtape get best album? But that just goes to show the power of the music they were playing.

Massarueh: They really changed idea of touring DJs. At the time, you had three or four dudes in the world that DJed rap on tour — Jazzy Jeff, Stretch Armstrong, Cash Money, early 2000s guys like that. Wes and Mike opened it up to more of a get-in-a-van, punk rock kind of thing. They took that party to different cities, starting with New York.

Barat: They wanted to do bigger things, move on to bigger challenges. M.I.A. happened, Wes’s thing as a DJ and producer happened. You couldn’t go back again.

Summers: Those times will never be replicated. And you know, when you’re in them, you don’t realize that. You just think they’re going to go on forever.

Barat: When the party stopped, it was almost like you didn’t realize it. It wasn’t like they played a last show and were like, alright guys, it’s done. They just didn’t do another one. I liked that it was left open-ended like that.

Luardo: Whenever I have a really fun time, I’m like, it feels like Hollertronix. It created a standard. The people I met there, we’re not really finding any more places that are what that party was. I don’t think there should be and I don’t think there can be. And I don’t think Wes and Mike knew it was going to be that amazing. When we look at all the lines, and trace it all back, it’s almost coincidental, random. Like when someone knocked a little bit of salt into the chocolate chip cookies and were like, oh my god, they’re so good. I’m nostalgic just talking about it. It was so good!

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