BEAT BY BEAT
The rhythm of a musical renaissance
by Matt Blaustein
A genre born out of the doldrums of the dying days of disco, electronic dance music (also known as EDM) emerged in the Badger State in the 1990s. In October 1992, more than 1,000 music fans were arrested at a rave in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, thrusting the upstart music scene into a negative limelight. With the Wisconsin media pushing the narrative of a genre hampered by drug use and unsafe venues, by the middle of the decade electronic music was forced to find its way underground.
These days, electronic music has become one of the largest and most influential genres across the state, bringing vivacious live music — head-numbing bass, blissful treble melodies, colorful lasers and bright lights. However, more important than the music itself is the community it brings along with it — a shared spirit championing inclusivity, innovation and positivity. Simply put, the culture of electronic music in Wisconsin is on the pulse of something greater than it could have ever imagined — a musical and spiritual renaissance.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
For Josh Hietpas, a DJ and talent booker at The LED Room in Appleton, the world of electronic music is a family affair. As the son of two wedding DJs, Josh remembers when he was first exposed to electronic music a quarter of a century ago.
“Back in like 1997, [my dad] used to cruise us around,” he says. “He would get off work at like 12 o’clock, and we would cruise around Appleton.”
It was during those late night cruises down the streets of Appleton that Hietpas would hear his first doses of electronic music, erratic beats being spun live by artists on pirated radio stations blaring through his father’s Astra van stereo — a perfect premonition of the pair’s future.
Now, 25 years later, Josh hits the decks regularly at the LED Room under the stage name DJ YARSH, joined by the very man who first got him interested in the genre — his father.
“He’s been going to shows with me now since 2011,” Hieptas says. “He went to my first EDM show with me, not as a guardian or like a supervisor or anything. He’s like, ‘I want to go.’ And so it was like right around when we first started DJing weddings [together].”
Now the Hietpas father-and-son duo are regulars of the booming club scene in Appleton.
DRY NIGHTS AND
A prior fan of the bass-heavy genre because of his discovery of artists such as deadmau5, Porter Robinson and Skrillex on iTunes, Ross Rautmann saw an advertisement for the Playstation video game DJ Hero and immediately bought it. As he began to play through the stages and became more engrossed in the game, his intrigue in the genre followed suit.
From that day forward, he was hooked, determined to make a path for himself within the genre. The Appleton native originally started making mashups in FL Studio, a music production software tool. “I wanted to start making my own music, so I began to teach myself through YouTube tutorials. “I’ve been going steady ever since!”
After attending his first EDM concert in Milwaukee, Rautmann became even more determined to perform live. That determination would end up paying off sooner rather than later, with his “dry nights” (shows without alcohol that are accessible to individuals of all ages) becoming a recurring show in the Appleton scene.
“Me and a few close friends made up a DJ trio and began throwing teen dry nights at a local nightclub in downtown Appleton while we were in high school,” Rautmann says. “We’d pool some money and rent it out and throw the whole show ourselves. We had quite a bit of success with those and began to branch out and get booked for a few shows in Oshkosh and Milwaukee.”
Upon his graduation from high school and arrival at UW–Eau Claire, the wealth of musical talent that the city possessed made itself apparent.
“Eau Claire is very much about the indie music scene,” Rautmann says. “Some of the coolest Eau Claire shows I experienced were local indie-ish bands and artists playing in different houses, basements and bars.”
It was during his time in Eau Claire’s music scene that Rautmann finally found the inspiration for his solo project — unluckykid, also known as ULK. Now a mainstay of the Wisconsin EDM club scene, Rautmann looks forward to spinning beats while holding the pulse of his musical immersion close to his heart.
A VENUE FOR THE UP-AND-COMERS
When Riley Gasiorowski first attended a show at Segredo (now Liquid) almost a decade ago in Madison, the standard show format was far different than it is now.
“The space was operating a little bit more as a dance club,” he says. “It’d be one [little-known] DJ all night, and folks would come out to party and dance. We weren’t doing nearly as many big shows.”
At the time, Gasiorowski was a sophomore at UW–Madison working as a show technician for the venue when he noticed subtle changes in the live concert scene as time went on.
“As we tried to pivot more towards what they call in the industry a hard ticket room, we wanted to focus less on being a dance club and more on being a proper music venue, even though we do focus and specialize in EDM,” he says.
Since the mentality shift, Liquid has become a huge hit in southern Wisconsin. It is one of the premier independent venues in all of Wisconsin and has hosted top national acts including Avicii, Madeon and Two Friends. Gasiorowski has seen his position within Liquid rise in stereo, becoming the director of technology and assistant general manager during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Liquid’s true strong suit, however, is not the large acts that have performed on its stage or its status as a leader of the EDM scene. Instead, its success is due to its impact on young DJs and the opportunity they have to display their talent to a full audience. Through its DJ Summit series, Liquid has given independent up-and-coming DJs a platform to showcase their skills and grow a following.
The DJ Summit series is a cause close to Gasiorowski’s heart, and for good reason.
“I do really see the DJ Summit Series as not only an opportunity for us to grow the talent pool and grow the local scene, but it’s a community building event,” he says. “I think it’s been a super valuable thing for a ton of folks who have come through that program, and many of them have gone on to do bigger and better things. It’s a great starting point for a lot of young DJs in the scene.”
BREAK THE WALLS DOWN
After going to Electric Forest in 2018, Claire DeRosa knew she was destined to run the decks on her own one day. “[At Electric Forest] I fell in love with house music and was fascinated by the idea of being the song selector at parties,” she says.
By the end of 2019, DeRosa would become the president of the Society of Professional Disc Jockeys, the resident DJ club at the University of Wisconsin. She would also become a regular at local Madison venues, performing under the stage name Clur. Now a four-year veteran of the EDM club scene, DeRosa has seen the good and the bad that the genre has to offer.
As a female artist in a genre primarily dominated by men, DeRosa has faced numerous sexist stereotypes since her debut, with a good amount of said biases present during processes of venues throughout both Wisconsin and Illinois booking shows.
“Often I see women getting booked for tokenist gigs like ‘Pussy Riot’ or a ‘Fight for Our Rights: Roe v. Wade’ gig when those same venues won’t book them as openers for big headliners,” she says.
However, DeRosa does foresee a way to break down these sexist walls — and it all starts with the next generation of talent. “If you have resources available to help women learn how to use these softwares and tools, there will hopefully be more women taking up DJing,” DeRosa says.
DeRosa doesn’t believe that the EDM scene lacks all inclusivity — it just has a long way to go. For women in the EDM scene such as DeRosa, the future seems bright.
FROM THE WRITER:
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Wisconsin is a state whose music scene has forever been championed by the enthralling acts of live performers. In the genre of electronic dance music, known as EDM, this is no different. A flush culture of musical euphoria awaits those who seek it.
In Wisconsin, four cities primarily set the stage (literally and figuratively) for live performances putting the vivacious genre on display: Appleton, Madison, Milwaukee and Oshkosh.
Within those four cities, a series of clubs and venues are regulars in hosting shows for the EDM scene that both dazzle longtime fans and newcomers alike.
Here are seven venues in Wisconsin where you can catch an EDM concert.
Featured photo by Moises Perez.