Looking at the artwork for producer Santiago Salazar’s latest album, Aspirations for Young Xol, feels like flipping through the pages of a family photo book. It’s a Polaroid of Salazar from around 2001; he’s standing in his toy-strewn living room, back to the camera and hands busied by a keyboard and mixer as he works on music. His son, Isaias, huddles next to him in diapers and a onesie, monitoring the scene as he clutches Santiago’s shorts for support.
Isaias, as Santiago explains to 5 Magazine, is the young Xol for whom the album is named: “Xol” (pronounced like “soul”) is the now-teenager’s middle name.
“That’s something my wife came up with in the hospital when he was born,” he says. “Since I see him as my sun, my light, my soul, that’s why we call him that.”
Lead photo by Dean Paul de Leon.
In some ways, the young Xol could also be Santiago himself. Many know Salazar primarily as the Detroit-trained disciple of “Mad Mike” Banks who joined iconic techno collective Underground Resistance and its offshoots, Los Hermanos and Galaxy 2 Galaxy. But his story starts before then, more than 2,200 miles west in Bassett, California. The predominately-Latino unincorporated community in Los Angeles County is where Salazar grew up, and where his neighborhood’s backyard parties helped spark his fascination with DJing. But Bassett was also gang territory, and most of his friends, he recalls, turned to gangs and drugs, while one became a victim of gang violence.
Salazar’s story has a more positive trajectory. The first kid on his block to graduate high school, he went on to earn what he calls a “degree in Hi-Tech Funk” in Detroit before moving back to LA (albeit to a different city), where he continues to build his legacy through his music, record labels (Major People, Ican Productions with Esteban Adame, and Historia y Violencia with Silent Servant), and a monthly radio show on local digital-turned-FM station dublab – all while balancing a full-time job outside of the music industry.
Aspirations for Young Xol revisits these memories and emotions in a record that’s just as intimate as its artwork. Throughout its ten tracks, there are numerous contrasts at play: light and dark, beat-less and body-jacking, past and future, fear and hope. It’s perhaps serendipitous for an artist who admittedly conceives his concepts after the fact, but ultimately Salazar’s greatest scheme goes beyond a single album. “Everything I’m doing is focused on [Isaias’s] wellbeing,” he says. “Instead of having a father who’s into criminal stuff and locked up in jail, I see this as my way of showing him that you can do good with art and music.”
On the eve of 2018, we met up with him in Little Tokyo to talk about the album, growing up in LA, and what he hopes the future holds.
Your debut album, Chicanismo, came out only two years ago, and that was after decades of producing and releasing EPs. What was the catalyst for Aspirations to come out so soon afterwards, and what was your creative process this time around?
Honestly, it kind of happened like the first album. I sent Charlie [Perez-Tlatenchi] at Pastel Voids maybe 26 tracks and let him pick the tracks that he wanted to put out, so I really didn’t have any idea for the album. As with the first album, I trusted the label owner to pick out what he saw as a fit for the label. Some of the tracks that he picked were from as far back as 2006 all the way up to now. A lot of the tracks are just stuff I’ve been sitting on in the studio not really showing anybody.
“A lot of my close friends either are locked up, hooked on drugs, or they just got involved in a street-gang mentality… There weren’t that many people out there who were pushing for positive things. It was join a gang, sell drugs, or steal.”
Is Aspirations an extension of Chicanismo, or do you see it as focusing on different themes or aspects of your life?
There’s not really a concept behind this album; it starts off more with what the label picks and then I try to develop a concept afterwards. Some of the stuff I was feeling at the time during Aspirations was mostly just the struggle to do good in this business, to help pay for my son’s schooling. I just see it in the sense that everything I’m doing is focused on his wellbeing. Instead of having a father who’s into criminal stuff and locked up in jail, I see this as my way of showing him that you can do good with art and music.
Growing up where I grew up, in Bassett, a lot of my close friends either are locked up, hooked on drugs, or they just got involved in a street-gang mentality. It was very hard for any of us in that neighborhood to do well because there weren’t that many people out there who were pushing for positive things. It was join a gang, sell drugs, or steal, stuff like that.
I remember when I graduated high school, I was the first kid on my block to really make it, to go all the way and finish it. A lot of my friends never graduated because they didn’t have the push in their family to make it past high school. It was just like, whatever you want to do out in the streets, just be safe; leaving it up to them to do something right. So I guess coming from the family I come from, of hard workers, you just want to do right for your family and kids. So I guess there is a Chicano aspect of just trying to make it, you know?
Does your son like electronic music? Does he understand what you do, and the history of what you do?
I think he likes electronic music. He was basically raised on it. We listened to Jeff Mills a lot, Basic Channel, Aux 88… of course, he was always around Underground Resistance as a child. I’d be rehearsing with Galaxy 2 Galaxy, so he saw me playing with the band, so it was always there with him. Even when we’re at home, I’m always listening to vinyl and mixing. He grew up with it to the point where, since he was a baby, he could fall asleep to loud, banging techno because his mom and I were always playing it in the house.
There’ll be times where I’m working on a track and he’ll come through the studio in the house and be like, “This is pretty good. Did you make it with this board or with that board?” So he shows interest and he knows about music-making. There are times I’ve had him sit down with me and he’ll play some parts on the keyboard and I’ll just tell him to keep on playing while I hit the record button, and I’ll take some parts that he plays and try to make a track from it. It’s fun.
Does any of that show up in this album?
No, but that’s another idea that Charlie had before the album. My son and I have two or three tracks that we collaborated on, but at the time I didn’t have the songs finalized. But it’s still a possibility! I just recently played a party here in Los Angeles with Droid Behavior called Interface, and one of the tracks I played was a track that my son and I did. I posted it on social media and got a good response. It’s purely my son and me doing electro, which is pretty sick.
What role did music play in your early life, and in your neighborhood? How did that lead to DJing and producing?
Ever since I was a kid, maybe four or five, I was really into music, whether it was music that was playing on the radio, or music that my parents listened to, which was a lot of the Beatles and music from the Sixties. I think one of the first records I bought, when I was seven or eight, was Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock. I remember it because I was breakdancing at the time, and when I bought that record, there was nothing I had in my vinyl collection that was so futuristic. There was no vocals, no rapping, just all instrumental.
Then my older brother, in the late Eighties, was trying to form a new wave band, so he bought this Kawai keyboard. His band didn’t make it, but we still had this keyboard in the house, so I’d turn it on and play with it. That was the first keyboard I ever played that had a pitch bend on there, and I remember thinking it was like Future Shock. It was awesome. That keyboard opened my mind to the electronic part of music and sound. But it wasn’t until the Nineties that I started DJing.
But before that, there were always backyard parties going on in my neighborhood, where all the older teens would be. I was too young to go to these parties, but my friends and I would go around the back and peek over and watch all the girls dance and listen to electro, Latin freestyle, early rap, early house music… I was infatuated. I wanted to be the DJ because DJs were the cool people on our block. It was either them or the cholos, and I’d rather be making the girls dance than be these fools causing chaos.
You’re from LA, but you moved to Detroit for a few years to work in music. Having lived in both cities, how would you compare LA’s techno culture to Detroit’s?
I do know that Los Angeles throws a lot of good techno parties, and it seems as of late, they’re throwing more and more. You can find two or three techno parties in a weekend than you would have a few years ago, and that’s great. There are parties where I don’t even know who the DJs are because they’re brand new, and it’s just good to go and hear what the younger crowd is doing. I think they have their own attitude in how they approach techno and their own sound. It’s not the regular older sound that I think I’m known for, but it’s still good. It’s more of a, “We’re doing shit the way we want to do it.” I think they still show respect for the older sound, but they’re putting their own spin on it. I like to listen because they have their ear to the ground in what’s going on now. I think it’s fresh, and it’s very healthy for the scene here.
Tell me about your relationship with radio in LA.
I grew up on KDEY and mix shows. Power 106 had Power Tools and that’s where I heard a lot of great DJs. I remember one DJ in particular that I heard was David Alvarado. At the time, I was recording people’s sets on cassette. David’s mix was one of the first mixes on the radio that I heard where he was doing stuff with the EQ. It was stuff that I wasn’t used to hearing normal DJs play, like house or techno. He was doing stuff that made me wonder, “How is he doing that?”
Later on, I found out that with EQs on a mixer, you can drop the bass and drop the highs. He was doing all that on a radio station, and it just blew my mind. He was amazing. Other guest DJs would just play whatever Top 40 techno music was being played, but David played everything that was a B-side or up-and-coming producers. I remember listening to that cassette for about two years until I just wore out the tape; you couldn’t listen to it anymore. I wish I’d backed it up because I want to hear what I heard back then now so I can see if I still feel the same way.
Then in the late Nineties, I volunteered for a non-profit radio station in LA called 90.7 KPFK, and I was working for about a year for an African music radio show with DJ Nnamdi. My goal back then was to try and land a show on KPFK, a techno show, and I already had a name for it: Dark Energy Radio. I even did a couple mock shows in my studio and presented it to them, but I was just a volunteer so they didn’t really get back to me. After that, I got asked to go to Submerge, so I left and put off my hopes and dreams of having a radio show.
How did you get your own show on dublab?
I got asked to play for dublab in 2015 on a show called The Phuture Perfect with Zoraya and Aura T-09, and the head of dublab was there at the time. I just threw it out there, like, “Yo, if you ever have an opening for a show, I’d love to do one on dublab.” He said they didn’t have anything at the moment, but he would contact me if anything opened up. A year later, he hit me up with an opening.
Going back to David Alvarado, I can understand how his playing lesser-known tracks and producers might have influenced your own radio show. What does it mean to you to have your own techno-focused show?
Techno is something that dublab doesn’t have too much of. There are a few shows that cater to techno, but I feel that I can bring a sound that the other shows aren’t playing. It’s more club-style mixing, but it’s something that I don’t remember hearing at the time on dublab, a constant mixing, two-hour techno set.
I remember growing up as a kid listening to techno on the radio and being in awe. I hope there are some kids who listen to it who maybe come from a bad family and they just want to escape, and they put their headphones on and get lost in the music and melodies like I did.
Just as your album reflects on your youth, your own son is now grown. What are your aspirations for him?
I just want the best for him. I figure the things I do now, I hope he’ll reflect on them when he’s older and they’ll really mean something to him. I think it means something to him now, but he’s the type of person who never really showed wild emotion. He’s really calm. I think I try to get his attention through music, because I kind of want him to say, “Hey Dad, I’m proud of you.” Even though I know he’s proud of me, it would feel good to hear it from him.
Aspirations for Young Xol is out now via Pastel Voids (digital/cassette) and Rekids (vinyl). This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.