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Backyard Parties in East L.A.: Memories of a 1980s DJ

1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz

In partnership with the Vincent Price Art Museum: The mission of the Vincent Price Art Museum is to serve as a unique educational resource through the exhibition, interpretation, collection, and preservation of works in all media.

"Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943 – 2016" is a multimedia exhibition that traverses eight decades of style, art, and music, and presents vignettes that consider youth culture as a social class, distinct issues associated with young people, principles of social organization, and the emergence of subcultural groups. Citing the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots as a seminal moment in the history of Los Angeles, the exhibition emphasizes a recirculation of shared experiences across time, reflecting recurrent and ongoing struggles and triumphs.

Through a series of articles, Artbound is digging deeper into the figures and themes explored in "Tastemakers & Earthshakers." The show was on view from October 15, 2016 to February 25, 2017 at the Vincent Price Art Museum.

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1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz

What grew out of the 1970s, '80s and '90s backyard party scenes in the Eastside of Los Angeles was opportunity. The scene thrived because it provided a space for youth to unite, share, learn and some of us got to play really cool records and make some cash in the process. 

I became a mobile DJ at age 15 when my friend Tony Amaya convinced me that we would make lots of money and become very popular. At this time, it seemed everyone was a DJ. It was 1985 and I was attending Lincoln High School, while Tony was up the street at Cathedral High. I had bought a drum set my freshman year, and I was always practicing at home. I would wear a pair of the big Nova headphones I purchased at Radio Shack and played along to albums I had by Gary Numan, The Go-Go’s, and Adam and the Ants. Tony came over one day, saw my headphones and convinced me to join him in starting a DJ group. We already had a start with our big headphones.

1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz

As Tony and I began our journey as DJs in the Eastside of L.A., we quickly learned the landscape and trajectory of the high school/backyard party DJ life. First and foremost we had to throw our own coming out party as the “Wild Boys.” There were two types of DJs at this time: DJs that were hired for private parties and took requests, and DJs who played at DJ/promoter-based parties or clubs and would spin the latest song or style that would eventually become popular or “hot” at the time. We wanted to be the latter — play at the cool parties, with the cool people and music. We convinced Tony’s parents to let us host our first party at their house.

We hired DJ Phil Perez from Divine Madness to bring his sound system. Phil was one of the big DJs at Cathedral and had a very nice sound system and DJ skills that many other DJs tried to copy. We also booked some of the older and “bigger” name DJs from our respective high schools. This let others know we meant business, that they should book us for their next party. We then went to Atlantic Printing in East L.A. to print our flyers. We printed about 3,000 pamphlets. But our first party was a bust. Although no one came, it got us into the backyard party circuit, and we began getting asked to play at other parties. We quickly teamed up with other DJs that were starting out to promote parties and book others as well. 

1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz

At Lincoln High School alone there were about 70 to 100 DJs. Each DJ crew had their own promotion crew or worked with promoter crews to host parties in backyards. Multiply what we had at Lincoln by all the high schools in the greater Los Angeles area, and we had an underground youth movement that was self-sustaining and involved hundreds of youth. We already had a long journey ahead of us. Tony left Wild Boys soon after we began, but soon enough I was working with other DJs and promoters from Cathedral, Wilson, Roosevelt and Franklin high schools hosting backyard parties.

Backyards in L.A. are often spacious and lend themselves to be utilized for family gatherings or parties. Some homes had such big backyards that they were rented to others for a fee. Many Latino families have lots of reasons to host events. Large families often celebrate many birthday parties, baptisms, confirmations and quinceañeras. Coupled with the warm weather of Southern California, and a solid car culture, backyard parties occurred 10 to 11 months out of the year.

1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz

Getting people to host parties in their backyards was not hard to do. We would often be invited by someone that lived in a house with a big backyard who wanted to host a party. Typically, we would settle on a flat rate to pay the house for electricity and clean up, usually between $75 to $150. We would charge partygoers between $2-$7 throughout the night. One of my most successful backyard parties made $1,500. I couldn’t believe it myself. We had a bar and a super tight door that night and the backyard was huge. We probably squeezed about 500-800 people that evening. 

Backyard party planning gave me various skills and experience with conceptualizing, conferencing, contracting or hiring staff, obtaining security, organizing a bar or food, designing, marketing, paying for services and building networks. I was a business owner by default.

Every business has its risks and hosting backyard parties had its own slew of issues to navigate. In one particular occasion, I had money stolen from me at gunpoint. During another, I hosted a party in East L.A. at a house that a friend of a friend had offered. When we got there, I spoke with the daughter and mom of the residence and all was agreed on. At the end of the night, we went inside the house to pay the mom when we were met by her older sons and guns at their waistbands. They demanded that we give them all of our money. The mom and daughter were upset and embarrassed by the situation, but they did nothing but sit there and hide tears. Fortunately we had made a cash drop earlier in the night, so they didn’t take everything we had earned. 

1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz

There was the occasional outburst of violence at parties. Most times it was boy-girl-boy drama that would be squashed rather fast by my security. I would have the fight broken up and each fighter dragged away from the house in opposite directions until both parties calmed down. On perhaps two occasions we had shots fired while the party was in full swing. This was a party killer as everyone would run out and leave ASAP. Fortunately, no one at our parties was ever seriously injured — maybe some bumps and bruises from jumping a fence or running into others while trying to escape the scene. The police would show up when everyone was gone and only my crew and I were present, wrapping up our system.

Encounters with the police for me were also very tame. As it turned out, the majority of the parties I hosted seldom got busted by the police because they would see how organized we were. All of our security dressed the same, and it looked like they were everywhere keeping an eye on things. Often, some attendees unintentionally passed as security because they were dressed like those who were — it seemed like I had a large security presence.

1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz

When police did show up to break up the party, I would generally be able to turn them away for an additional hour or two, before I would shut everything down myself. In these cases, the party had to be going very well, everyone was in the backyard having a great time, and I would just tell the police that if they ended the party abruptly that might be messy because so many people leaving at the same time could lead to other issues. I would tell them that I would change the music and slowly wind the event down, lowering the sound and turning on lights. When the police would return an hour or so later, there were fewer people in attendance and sometimes police officers let me continue, or we would then shut it down in peace. 

In my ongoing research of L.A. Chicano DJ culture, I have found that what I was doing in the Eastside of L.A. was also happening all across the L.A. basin. The backyard party scene/experience was there for everyone that wanted to listen to music, dance, have a drink, meet people and have a good time. Being a DJ or a promoter of DJ-based events was a viable option for those willing to immerse themselves in this work. So many others became part of the network: sound system groups rented out their equipment to DJs, record shops opened throughout the city feeding the insatiable needs of DJs. And within the proliferation of promoters, DJs and dance crews, individuals dreamed of becoming mini-celebrities at their high school or neighborhood. They all wanted to be listed up high on a flyer as proof that they were contributing and respected members of this huge DJ environment.

1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz
1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz
1980s East L.A. Backyard parties | Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz for Artbound
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Meraz

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