Damian Lazarus interview: ‘The aesthetic is clear: to push the boundaries of music and art—while having fun’

Coachella artist Damian Lazarus celebrates his label’s new compilation.
Photograph: Chris Rubino Damian Lazarus

If Crosstown Rebels is one of the defining underground dance music labels of this millennium—and, for the record, it is—then its head honcho, Damian Lazarus, is one of that scene’s prime movers. Last month, the imprint released 10 Years of Crosstown Rebels, featuring house and techno from the sonically diverse likes of Soul Clap, Pier Bucci, Tiga, Amirali and Mathew Jonson; on Friday, March 14, he’ll be joined on the decks by a collection of his labelmates when the all-new Verboten club hosts the Rebel Rave affair.

When you first kicked off Crosstown Rebels, did you harbor any expectations that the label would still be around a decade-plus later?
I never really thought about it. When you begin a label like this, supporting underground music, it begins more as a hobby—one that you dream of turning into a workable business. It would be interesting to learn the average life span of labels in the electronic market, but I would suspect it’s around five years. Within our first few years, we had three distribution companies go bust owing us a lot of money, and each time I felt such a strong belief in the label’s future that I persisted and kept the dream alive. I’m happy to have reached this milestone.

Part of your record-biz background includes the creation of the City Rockers label. Do you think that experience helped prepare you for running Crosstown Rebels? Or do you feel that Crosstown Rebels’ longevity is more strongly attributable to the strength of the artists that you’ve chosen for its roster?
Even before City Rockers, I started a label which was funded by FFRR; it was called Mind Horizon. This was where I first cut my teeth, in label terms. I think the experiences of that and City Rockers gave me a good basis to start out on my own, but you can never prepare for what’s in store. There are always so many interesting twists and turns with every release, and always so many different people and situations to handle. Trends come and go, as do people, and it is important to keep your reputation intact at all times. The strength of the brand plus the talent of the artists generally equals longevity and success.

There’s a wide range of artists on Crosstown Rebels, but do you feel that they—and you—share some sort of common aesthetic? And is that something you’ve consciously developed?
I like to think—and am told by others from time to time—that the label has a certain undefinable quality. There’s some kind of X factor, that when you hear a track, somebody might say, “It sounds like a Crosstown record.” I think we move through different periods of exciting times in the underground, and sometimes these styles might become more populist—but I am not one to cash in on these scenes. I prefer to help develop them in the beginning.

One thing I’ve always liked about Crosstown Rebels is that it’s maintained an “underground” vibe—however you’d like to define that—while putting out music that most anybody vaguely into dance music can relate to. How do you manage to straddle that line?
I think it must be down to my personal tastes, as I am the one and only person who decides what to release. I guess I have always balanced my love of, and interest in, both underground and more mainstream music, and you can hear that in my Lazpod radio shows. From the beginning, I realized there were many cool underground labels that specialized in a particular sound, but very few that you could depend on in a broader sense.

Do you look at Crosstown Rebels as being more than a record label nowadays? It almost seems to be a collective or movement of sorts, as much as it is a label.
Yes, I think it’s grown beyond just being a label; it’s more a creative collective of DJs, artists, producers, event organizers and promoters, filmmakers and fashion designers. The aesthetic is clear: to push the boundaries of music and art—while having fun.

It must have been difficult to distill ten years and scores of releases down to one anniversary compilation. How did you go about deciding what would end up on the comp?
Our label manager, Leon Oakey, and I discussed it all at length over a few drinks. I think we came up with a very solid and enjoyable three-CD selection which gives a great overview of the last decade.

Do you expect that you’ll be putting together a 20 Years of Crosstown Rebels someday?
The longest I ever really planned ahead with the label is around 12 months—so I have absolutely no idea!

Damian Lazarus plays Coachella on Fridays April 11 and 18.

Follow Bruce Tantum on Twitter: @BruceTantum

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