On March 25, 2013 the global dance music community unexpectedly lost DJ/producer/songwriter Scott Hardkiss at the age of 43. As one-third of the San Francisco-based Hardkiss DJ/label/party crew in the ’90s, Scott played an important role in bringing rave culture to the West Coast. Along with musical cohorts Gavin and Robbie (they all used the Hardkiss surname but weren’t biologically related), the trio never met a dance music genre they didn’t like. As producers in New York, Detroit, Chicago and London focused on a particular style, Hardkiss blazed their own trails. They fearlessly infused house, breaks, psychedelia, techno and a trippy mindset into their parties, DJ sets and recordings. The perfect snapshot of the era is their classic 1995 compilation, Delusions of Grandeur, featuring Scott Hardkiss Presents God Within’s epic trance-breaks-electronica masterpiece “Raincry.”
Several years after moving back to New York City, Scott Hardkiss released his acclaimed debut album, Technicolor Dreamer, in 2009. He also contributed music to various film, television and commercial projects led by Spike Lee, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater. With his untimely death came an outpouring of heartfelt condolences from fans around the world who were touched by his music. There were also poignant memorials published by the mainstream music press.
A year later Gavin and Robbie have restarted the Hardkiss label to release 1991, a wondrous, multi-genre dance album that was tracked before Scott’s untimely passing. Though their music sounds as good as ever, they’re still coming to terms with the loss of their friend.
“It seems like a mistake, an error that wasn’t supposed to happen,” says Robbie Hardkiss reflecting on Scott’s death.
“He’s still on the records that I’m playing,” explains Gavin Hardkiss. “He’s on the speakers I’m patting right here and he’s on the turntable behind me. It’s like he’s still there.”
Let’s start at the beginning of this album and rewind back to Scott’s passing last year. What was the state of Hardkiss at the time of his passing?
Robbie Hardkiss: Scott passed almost a year ago. A few months prior to that — I guess it was January — when Gavin and I put most of these songs out in an earlier version to a few friends, one being Scott, saying this was what we’ve been working on. We asked Scott which songs he wanted to remix and what he thought about the tracks. Our plan was to see who was interested [in the album tracks] and put it out ourselves, just Gavin and me. We had been working on the music for two years and were ready to shop the songs and see where they went. If we didn’t have suitable homes for them, then we’d put them out ourselves. Scott started his remix of “Revolution” and he was going to remix “Broken Hearts,” which would’ve been really sweet because that song was about us and the whole journey from the beginning to now. But obviously he didn’t get to that. When he passed, it was a horrible shock. Devastating. But Gavin and I had to move forward with our music. We were really delayed so when we settled down a little bit and had to get back to real life [after Scott’s death], we realized why are we starting a new label? We should restart Hardkiss with [Scott’s wife] Stephanie. We weren’t really planning to relaunch Hardkiss but the passing of Scott gave us many reasons to do so.
“It seems like a mistake, an error that wasn’t supposed to happen. No, no, no, no! We’re supposed to have our kids together. We’re supposed to be on a beach with our grand kids. No, I don’t accept this. My brain is far from accepting this.”
I remember where I was when I heard the news of Scott’s passing: I was at home and we had just come back from dinner. I noticed a friend tweeted RIP Scott Hardkiss and I nearly fell over. There was nothing online about him, so I immediately reached out to some mutual friends and they confirmed it. I got to know Scott from when we worked together on his Mixer presents United DJs of America Vol. 17: Scott Hardkiss mix CD… Where were you both when you heard the news?
Gavin: We were here in San Raphael, CA. I think it was on a Monday morning. We have a common friend and collaborator named Jay Bowman, who is also the guitar player for Michael Franti…. He was Scott’s in-house engineer when he lived in San Francisco. He called me early in the morning, crying his heart out. He broke the news to me and I had to break the news to Robbie. That was early in the morning and we were still trying to pick up the pieces of it, trying to fit it into your life. But you never can when someone so close passes away. It just becomes a mystery.
Robbie: I was at my daughter’s school. I had just dropped them off at one of their music classes or something. I remember sitting in the car when Gavin called. He said, “Are you somewhere where you’re alone?” The way you prepped me for the news…
Robbie: That was just a weird, horrible, surreal moment. It still doesn’t seem real. In some ways I can’t get to it. I keep seeing the cover of the [Mixer presents United DJs of America Vol. 17: Scott Hardkiss released in 2001] CD that you mentioned. There was just a little tribute to Scott by an English DJ in Spain….just seeing the picture of Scott…it’s hard to look at his face.
Because it’s so painful and surreal as you described?
Robbie: It seems like a mistake, an error that wasn’t supposed to happen. No, no, no, no! We’re supposed to have our kids together. We’re supposed to be on a beach with our grand kids. No, I don’t accept this. My brain is far from accepting this.
How did Scott’s passing impact your work? When were you able to even think about producing music again? What were the next few months like for you both?
Robbie: We took a break, but not a big one. Did [news of] Romanthony come like a month after?
I think it was a few weeks later.
Robbie: Well, I was late as usual delivering a remix of “Flowers Blooming.” It was this goofy dance mix that when I sat down to finish it I couldn’t work. That’s when it turned into “Feeling Scott Through Romanthony.” That was the first direct affect on the music and that song came out of it.
Gavin: I tried to motor through and do what I can to get on with things. I just got physically ill about a month later at Coachella. I had to turn everything off and back away from everything for a while to physically feel better. I usually have my life together, but I was losing shit and couldn’t hold things together. It’s a year later and I’m still trying to piece things together. It’s hard to fathom…we lived in different cities for ten years and I saw him maybe once or twice in ten years. In my frame of reference he’s still in Brooklyn. While he’s still in Brooklyn, he’s still on the records that I’m playing. He’s on the speakers I’m patting right here and he’s on the turntable behind me. It’s like he’s still there.
Robbie: It’s weird because it’s like he’s more here….now. He’s so much more in my life on a daily basis. We’re communicating with his wife, dealing with the label, finishing his remix of “Revolution,” putting the pictures on the album cover [of 1991] and things that remind me of him while I’m driving in the car. So it’s like he’s so much more with me and that’s strange.
“He’s still on the records that I’m playing. He’s on the speakers I’m patting right here and he’s on the turntable behind me. It’s like he’s still there.”
The public outpouring was really amazing. News outlets that didn’t pay Hardkiss any attention back in the day offered tributes to his life and work. Did that attention surprise both of you?
Gavin: Oh, yeah. I didn’t know what to expect and took it as it came. Scott deserves every word of credit that he got from everyone. It sucks that it had to come through death.
Robbie: I have a feeling that Scott would’ve loved it. [Laughs]
Gavin: That outpouring and adoration of support…wow.
Robbie: It also meant tons to his family. Seeing his mother at the funeral as these things were rolling in really meant a lot to her. I was shocked. Gavin has continued doing music since the Hardkiss days, and I’ve been away for a while. I really felt a million miles away from getting written about in Spin and Vibe. I kept thinking, See Scott, you did it!
You were both dealing with so much. At what point did 1991 come together?
Gavin: All the pieces were there at that point. It was like a puzzle that we had to put together in reflection of Scott’s passing. We had to put  together with limited resources something that represented us as a group. It had to reflect our past as well as what we had envisioned for the future. Before his passing [the album] was something we wanted to create for the future but last spring Robbie was working on “Feeling Scott Through Romanthony” and the other tracks were pretty much done. We thought we’d put some tracks out through other labels so we did some licensing to Siesta for “Revolution” and Whiskey Pickle for “RetrocativePsychedelicFuturisticFunkBump.” We figured we’d get out some singles but the idea of an album, well, we weren’t sure because everyone listens to singles in 2014. So it became an EP, then started adding songs and then went, Holy shit! It’s an album. So we got into a studio with a mix engineer to flesh out the sonics and the range of the songs. That became quite an in-depth process that lasted at least six months of going into the studio and fine-tuning the songs. Then later in the year we weren’t sure how we were going to get the songs out, and we eventually decided to relaunch the label. 1991 was kind of a working title for the first demo of “Broken Hearts.” It just seemed like a good connecting point that would have validity for our album but also for the Hardkiss group and other people because we feel that 1991 was such a pivotal year. For us, it’s when we moved to San Francisco, Scott and I met Robbie at the end of May 1991 and we started doing parties and all went into the studio for the first time together. Yeah, it was the coming together of this little family.
Robbie: The theme is about that optimistic, positive experience of the early days of raving in San Francisco and discovering house music and DJs and parties. It was a summer of love that we experienced. It was all love and optimism, and that’s reflected in these songs…. Sometimes it’s like a dream that we did all of these things back then and here we are now. I guess we still want to project all that love and optimism.
Hardkiss’ 1991 is out digitally on April 7. Images courtesy of Hardkiss.