The electronic dance movement has been the biggest story in American music for the last five years. The man behind its booming popularity serves as ringmaster of a massive series of festivals as colorful as they are ear-splitting -- all while being courted by big entertainment companies and scrutinized by prosecutors and journalists. Meet Pasquale Rotella, the godfather of the Electric Daisy Carnival.
Right here, this used to be the funk room!” Pasquale Rotella says as he makes his way through the bowels of the Hollywood Palladium. He’s excited in a way that he rarely gets, a vibration that emanates when Rotella -- CEO of Insomniac Events, the man behind the giant electronic dance music bliss-out known as the Electric Daisy Carnival -- shares something close to his heart. You don’t see it often. “All the parties back in the day used to have funk and disco rooms. I remember seeing Steve Loria spin here ...” he trails off nostalgically.
“Well, almost all the parties anyway.”
The classic Art Deco Palladium ballroom opened some 60 years ago, with Frank Sinatra accompanied by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Tonight it’s not Sinatra, but rather Justin Timberlake who’s crooning for a sold-out audience. Like Sinatra, JT shimmies away in front of a mock 1940s bandstand. He’s in a suit and tie. People are screaming. It is loud.
A tall, raven-haired woman leads Rotella through the labyrinthine corridors to a private balcony hosted by another wildly successful event promoter, Live Nation mogul Michael Rapino. Velvet ropes are parted, pathways are cleared. Everywhere he is ushered with the deference reserved for a star; it’s a soft-glove regard that makes you wonder if celebrities are really special or mentally handicapped.
Rapino sees Rotella, gives him a hug and then tucks him close, immediately engaging him in conversation over the din. Although Rotella denies he’s selling his Insomniac brand to the monolithic Live Nation group, a company that grossed $5.38 billion in 2011, meetings like this certainly will dispel no rumors.
In the background Timberlake pop locks in a tux while singing INXS’s “Need You Tonight,” channeling his own private Michael Hutchence to a rain of endless feminine shrieks. It is Grammy night in Los Angeles, and the buzz is pulsing through all surfaces.
Despite the excitement, Rotella seems detached tonight. Considering the looming court case facing him, it’s not hard to imagine why. A year ago, the 38-year-old was named in an indictment by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office on charges including bribery and embezzlement in connection with events he staged at L.A.’s Sports Arena and Memorial Coliseum. “The legal situation I take very serious, but I don’t lose sleep over it because I didn’t do anything,” Rotella says as he steps outside for some air. “I have confidence in the system.”
Rotella has also been the subject of media scrutiny, his productions dogged by the destructive drug scene that sometimes follows electronic dance music culture. It was the overdose death of 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez, who snuck into the 2010 Electric Daisy Carnival at the Coliseum, that sparked a firestorm of criticism against Insomniac, including a recent investigative piece by the Los Angeles Times. The company responded by enacting high-level safety, security, and medical measures at their events, but legislation like the Raves Safety Act, signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown, and the ongoing controversy has had the effect of pushing Rotella and Insomniac east, to the welcoming arms of Las Vegas.
“Pasquale is seen as a bit of a pin-up boy for EDM, the good and the bad. I don’t remember any one person being the focus of the media attention in the U.K.,” says Neil Ackland, who grew up in the heady days of rave culture in the mid-’90s in Great Britain. He now runs the online electronic dance portal inthemix, which last month placed Rotella atop a list of the 50 most powerful people in EDM. “It was so different when they were doing illegal raves in huge fields. This is a legitimate business model, with huge investment put into safety and security. It’s more than decades ahead -- it’s a totally different paradigm.”
Ackland says the rebranding of the scene from rave to EDM has been a key sign of its transformation. Moving the scene from the negative connotations of the word “rave” is necessary if outsiders are to see the festivals for what they are -- a celebration of youth culture.
“There’s a much bigger, interesting story around the positive things happening with EDM,” he says.
Rotella’s big plans started small. A first-generation American, he was born to Italian immigrants Irene and Vincent Rotella. While his parents ran their Venice Beach restaurant La Rotella, he bussed tables and swept floors. The family lived in a single room of a hostel across the street for a while before moving to Pacific Palisades, where Rotella went to high school and ingrained himself in various Southern California subcultures, including tagging, skateboarding, and surfing. Not that he sees his story as a rags-to-riches tale. “I didn’t know it. It didn’t really matter, because my family’s a good time,” he says. “If it wasn’t for them I probably wouldn’t be such an entrepreneur. I saw my parents hustling so I always worked as a kid to make things happen that I wanted to see happen.”
He bids Rapino adieu before ducking out into a blacked-out Escalade and heading up to Hollywood Boulevard.
Another velvet rope, another impenetrable door. This time it’s for Sound, which at this precise moment in time is the hottest nightclub in Los Angeles. In six months’ time it will surely be the antithesis of cool, the coveted destination for Midwest castaways who saw Rihanna partying there on TMZ and think it’s the spot. But for now it’s legitimately hot, which means the line snakes around the block, its entrance blockaded by a sea of overdressed girls and underdressed dudes. It is a revolting bog of Gucci-scented desperation, all clamoring for the doorman’s attention.
“Rotella, what are you doing waiting outside?!” asks an enormous mountain of a man as he spots Rotella in the crowd. He’s the owner of Sound, and he instantly pushes his way through to unclip the rope. Rotella’s led past a bar and across a teeming dance floor to another elusive table. More hugs, more handshakes, more antelope-legged women swaying arrhythmically on tabletops, too cool to dance, too beautiful to care.
This is the post-Grammy party for superstar DJ and producer Kaskade, number 8 on Forbes’ “World’s Highest Paid DJs” list after grossing $10 million last year, and also a longtime collaborator and friend of Rotella’s. “I remember not being able to get into clubs like this because my pants were too big, or because I didn’t have enough money to get a table,” Rotella recalls, watching the endless supply of bottles carried to his table. A steady stream of well-wishers come and go to pay their respects while an impossibly gorgeous hostess serves up custom drinks. If he were dressed like Don Rotella it wouldn’t seem out of place. But as casual as he is -- in a gray hoodie under a leather motorcycle jacket, loose fitting jeans, and Vans -- it seems incongruous.
After a few hours most of the table has cleared out, but the club is still packed. Rotella is in a dark corner by himself, perched atop a vinyl couch overlooking the DJ booth. “I’ve been to thousands of parties. I started going when I was 15, and I never let up on going out,” he says. “I’m still here -- I could be the last one. I’m still having fun. It’s what’s gotten me through the ups and downs: the love for it. I feel more at home at parties than … at home.”
A couple weeks later Rotella is dining at MOzen, the pan-Asian restaurant high up in the posh Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Las Vegas. He is currently on Rote Mode, tossing out well-rehearsed answers with the guarded detachment of someone who’s being cross-examined. “I don’t know, why don’t you just tell us what’s good and we’ll give it a shot,” Rotella tells the waitress after she runs through a series of exotic dishes. He looks tired; if you want a surefire way to know when Rotella is tired, it’s when he let’s someone else make the decisions. That is until you utter one of several codewords -- puzzle pieces to long vanished times -- that connect to something deep in the Rotella memory bank. Terms that unlock the same enthusiasm he first beamed walking through the bowels of the Palladium.
In this case the term was Aphrodite’s Temple, an early ’90s L.A. rave, when the scene first started shifting from underground parties to larger, more elaborate events. If you want to get at the heart of who Rotella really is, all you need to see is a photo of him during that time. This “golden era of raves” is to Rotella what Rosebud was to Citizen Kane.
“That’s what the scene was about -- music that doesn’t have any lyrics, that people can groove to, and look over and see someone that’s happy. You connect,” he says excitedly, recalling the seminal event. “The culture gave people the green light to act like themselves, or nerdy or happy, or freak people out because they’re smiling all the time. I loved how people were having fun and not fronting. I came from an environment that was kind of harsh, everyone acting tough all the time, and I was always drawn to the rave scene because I liked happy shit. I wasn’t an angry kid, but I was around angry people that would destroy things and jump people and take their stuff. And when I went to a party I was stoked. If you’re conscious enough to take in the positive things in the gatherings, it’s amazing.
“After that I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I didn’t want to go hang out at parks and drink 40s anymore.”
Anti-rave taskforcers might be surprised to hear that Rotella’s deep dark plan is to transport that nebulous, palpable magic of those early raves to the present day. And seeing as he threw his first party, Insomniac, 20 years ago nearly to the day, he is the one conduit from that first wave of EDM who just might be able to do so. Since that first night in a dirty warehouse in South-Central L.A. in 1993, he has never stopped doing parties. Not when it was popular, not when it fell so far out of fashion that he lost nearly every cent. Not when he was indicted for embezzlement and targeted by the media, nor when he was given a proclamation from the mayor of Las Vegas.
“It’s what I know,” he says. “It’s all I know. I was into the spirit of what those big happy parties were. I know it’s a little cheesy, but ‘Peace Love Unity Respect [an old-school rave mantra].’ It was all about individuality back then. I don’t want my shows being concerts; I never wanted to be a concert promoter. It’s difficult, because people can get a little sheepish, but I want to get them to interact.”
And it is this feeling, or this memory of a feeling, that transforms Rotella from businessman to the man once known as Squally Love -- a scrawny, wide-smiling teenager dressed in fuzzy blue overalls, homemade top hats, and giant happy-face necklaces. This the very same guy who 10 years later lived in a dilapidated one-bedroom apartment overlooking the 405 freeway while producing parties that saw 40,000 people walk through the door. Yet he was still broke, still driving his beloved 1964 Ford Comet (once impounded thanks to unpaid parking tickets). Sure, he was penniless, but he had wealth in the form of an endless river of friends and couch surfers who called his pad home.
It is difficult to marry the image of that broke-but-hustling dreamer with the mature entrepreneur. Behind him, through the giant floor-to-ceiling windows of the opulent Mandarin Oriental, the city of Las Vegas twinkles, a dazzling invitation to all of life’s carnal luxuries. Steaks, bottomless margaritas, million-dollar poker payoffs. In the distance you can even see a gleaming billboard of his fiancé, Holly Madison, advertising her “Peepshow” burlesque review. Dreams acquired with a nickel and the tug of a slot-machine lever. How exactly has the man who runs the Electric Daisy Carnival -- a party that attracted 320,000 attendees last year, that sells a single prime VIP table for $150,000, whose budget tops $30 million -- built his fortune on such naïve aspirations as human interaction, carefree dancing, PLUR, and fuzzy overalls?
“It wasn’t like I was building a business, it was like I was on the show Survivor,” he says while taking stabs of lemongrass prawn. “My happiness was on the line, my love was on the line. I had to make it happen. It didn’t matter what the consequences were. In those days there were too many variables to budget, there was no way to know if you were going to break even till all the money was collected. I had to gamble -- it was like the Wild, Wild West. But I’m not lying by saying that I’m a true believer in being happy and putting out good energy. If you think positive and you love people, you’ll get that in return.”
If that truly is his motto, then it would appear the karmic scale has rewarded Rotella with an atomic blast of positivity. He’s the producer of the largest and most popular EDM festivals in the country. The mother of his newborn child (a daughter named Rainbow) is a tabloid staple and platinum-tressed Playmate lusted after the world over. He owns houses in L.A. and Las Vegas. “My ultimate goal in life would be to be the next Pasquale Rotella,” someone posted recently on a dance-music site. By every metric of societal success, Rotella has arrived.
“None of those things are what has ever motivated me,” Rotella rebuffs. “Doing what you love, and being around good people, and getting love and loving yourself. Those are the things that bring happiness. I was happy when I was broke!”
A couple of hours later a surreal scene unfolds. Rotella had left the Mandarin but promised to return after another engagement. It turns out his mother, Irene, is in town, and he needs to drop her off at her hotel. A Calvin Harris song plays in his black Range Rover, with Irene in the front seat, tiny and amicable. She’s either really happy, has had a couple glasses of Valpolicella, or quite likely both. So she begins to dance. She holds her arms out before her and moves them stiffly, as if she’s steering a giant invisible ship to Harris’s 4/4 time signature.
“I always knew Rotella was going to be something special,” she says, in an Italian-grandma accent so thick it is almost indecipherable. “I sit and pray for him, and I always knew he’d become somebody. And still right now it’s not finished!”
Rotella relays an incident from last year’s EDC in New York, when his mom was on the main stage dancing -- for hours. Eventually there was a change of DJ, and the new act didn’t want this elderly woman up there taking their shine. So they called on Rotella’s assistant to persuade her off. She wouldn’t budge. Then they called in security -- once again, no dice. The 40,000-strong assembled at the main stage saw her plight and began chanting Let her stay! Let her stay! Let her stay! “She loved it, she was living the dream!” Rotella says proudly. “She enjoys the attention. She’s at all my shows. She’s always trying to get on stage. Very stubborn. She basically wouldn’t listen to anyone and stop dancing.”
The Electric Daisy Carnival will have five stops in 2013: New York on May 17-18, Chicago on May 24-26, Las Vegas on June 21-23, and dates to be announced in Orlando, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Check out the May 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands April 16) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.