After making a name for himself on the happy hardcore scene, AC Slater—the DJ, not the character from Saved By the Bell—decided he had had enough of playing and producing frenetic tracks spiced with chipmunk vocals and piano riffs. He quit the genre and reinvented himself in bassline house.
Conventional wisdom says that it’s difficult for a DJ or producer to make a lateral career move in dance music. Make your name in one genre and it’s difficult to find acceptance in another. Aaron Clevenger, who is better known as AC Slater, is the exception to the norm. While the past two years have consisted of a flood of high profile remixes for Moby, Robin S., the Freestylers, Stanton Warriors, and Schwayze, as well as other of floor-rockin’ productions and DJ gigs all over the world, few know that before this phoenix rose from a loft space with a low ceiling in Bushwick, he was a major player on the happy hardcore scene.
“I had a moment where I was playing a big rave in Brooklyn at Club Exit; the club was packed, and everyone was 16, and I’m 27 at the time,” says Clevenger over a cup of green tea at an eatery in Williamsburg. “I didn’t want to be there, and I was getting sick of the music. I felt weird, out of place, and creepy. I needed something new.”
In what now seems like a former life, Clevenger started DJing at parties when he was 18 or 19. He grew up in a small college town in West Virginia, about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh’s then-happening party scene. The city was known for throwing huge rave parties and was also the home to popular weeklies like Steel City Jungle. Clevenger was so enamored with the energy and sound of dance music that he decided to pursue a career as a happy hardcore DJ; he later launched Pitched Up Records, one of the few domestic labels championing the sound.
Though his career was holding steady, he had an epiphany two years ago that changed his life. “I had a moment where I was playing a big rave in Brooklyn at Club Exit; the club was packed, and everyone was 16, and I’m 27 at the time,” says Clevenger over a cup of green tea at an eatery in Williamsburg. “I didn’t want to be there, and I was getting sick of the music. I felt weird, out of place, and creepy. I needed something new.”
Over the next few days, Clevenger sorted through his emotions and came to the conclusion that he was done playing happy hardcore. He had accomplished everything he had set out to do, and it was time to move on and seek out new challenges. Clevenger shared his feelings with two of his best DJ friends, B. Rich and Udachi, and they urged him to follow his musical bliss.
“Around the time I quit playing happy hardcore, I had a plan to write a lot of tracks, give them and see what people thought,” relates Clevenger. “I had come out of six years of doing the same thing over and over. We were trying to push freeform, a darker, acidy style of happy hardcore. It caught on for a couple of years, but then it went away. I thought, ‘Screw this, you know?’”
In between working day jobs, Clevenger worked at home on bassline house tracks, which was blowing up in the UK’s underground. Though both genres utilize breakbeats and samples, bassline allowed Clevenger to explore different frequencies and styles. Around November 2007, he felt confident enough to give away his tracks to bloggers in an attempt to get his name out there. Blogs like Palms Out Sounds went apeshit over his tunes, and Clevenger was thrust into the spotlight. While English DJs and labels are often territorial when it comes to sounds which have been incubated in their country, such as dubstep, breakbeat and drum ‘n’ bass, tough, primal tracks like “Jack Got Jacked” were welcomed with open arms, much to his surprise.
“For me, all the music I love–old school rave, breaks and hardcore—comes from the UK,” he shares. “When I play there, people will tell me how they love my music because it’s so new and different, and it blows my mind because I’m ripping off their country’s sound.”
As Clevenger stares into his tea, repeating how fortunate is and that he’s finally paid off all of his credit card debt. (Suze Orman would be proud.)
Having done the professional equivalent of quitting his job on Friday and starting a new one on Monday, Clevenger says his stint in happy hardcore gave him the acumen to avoid certain pitfalls in bassline house. Without a publicist or management machine behind him (he got his first booking agent only a few months ago), he’s proud that his success is based on quality, not hype. “I think when you put in the hard work, it pays off,” he says. As Clevenger stares into his tea, repeating how fortunate is and that he’s finally paid off all of his credit card debt. (Suze Orman would be proud.) He looks up and sees a DJ celeb walk past the shop’s window (“Look, there goes A-Trak!), and he jokes that she should have a side career as a motivational speaker.
“I’m still working just as hard as I did two years ago. I don’t want to stop. I want to keep going. People always say cheesy stuff that if you put your mind to anything you can accomplish it. Now I feel like I’ve totally witnessed that.”
Now a full-time member of New York’s Trouble & Bass crew, and signed to their label, Clevenger is focused on his upcoming artist album, which he hopes to release later this year. He finished one track with vocals from dancehall artist 77Klash, who scored big with “Brooklyn Anthem” a few years back. He’s been able to quit his day job (“another dream come true!”), and he hopes to collaborate on a track with his jazz bassist father.
As he sets out on a mini tour with England’s Jackbeats, prepares for high profile gigs at Winter Music Conference and South By Southwest, Clevenger says he’s simultaneously excited and nervous about the future. Last year he launched a digital label, Party Like Us Records, which issued two of his unreleased tracks signed to a label that went bust, as well as tracks from his pals B. Rich and Udachi. “People have come up to me and say, ‘Congratulations on the label!’ It’s just MP3s, and it isn’t a big deal or anything.” he smiles. “I just upload the tracks and see if anyone buys them.”
And how does he think the album will sound? “I’ve been doing stuff that’s completely different from my remixes. There will be a few heavy tracks, but I’ve been into dubstep lately, and I’m going to do some slower, danceable tracks with lots of room for vocals. It’s going to be all over the place. Now I just need to figure out how to put it together.”
Fortunately for the man people know as AC Slater, the stars will no doubt continue to align.
Image: Bill Douthart
as featured in Issue 27