• Fri. Aug 19th, 2022

Meet the DJs Who Started Burning Man’s First Sound Camp

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Nov 17, 2021

In 1992, the first rave-style sound camp landed in Black Rock City. And if you think it was well received, read on, Intrepid Burner. As instructed by the founders, sound camp Craig Ellenwood (aka DJ Niles or DJ Kraig) and Terbo Ted brought to the desert were placed one mile from Center Camp with the speakers pointing toward the desert. Here’s the story of how it got there, straight from Craig and Ted, the DJs who led the charge to bring electronic music to Burning Man.

(Photo courtesy of Craig Ellenwood)

Craig: In 1992 I was living south of Market in one of the first artist lofts in San Francisco. I did my laundry at a place called Brainwash, which was a laundromat. On the other side they had a bar and a restaurant. I needed to write down someone’s phone number, so I grabbed a flyer from the flyer wall. It was for the Cacophony Society – a single xeroxed page, red paper. I went through their diary; it was a bunch of lunatics who were rowdy. I thought that was cool.

There was a little text at the bottom about a camping event over Labor Day weekend in the desert – something called Burning Man. I asked around and no one knew anything about the Cacophony Society, let alone Burning Man.

After a few weeks, I kind of gave up trying to find out more about it.

I got a call from a friend a few weeks later who had told someone whose roommate was at the Cacophony Society. And I have this guy’s phone number.

Craig called the guy up and explained that he produced some of the Bay Area’s first underground raves in a ramshackle 30-bedroom Victorian mansion known as Mr. Floppy’s Flophouse. “We merge technology, art and music,” Craig explained. “Would it be okay if I brought a PA system and set up camp?”

Craig: I thought it would be a yes or no answer like this. And I was willing to work with him until I found my calling… At the time, I was also playing with the legendary industrial band Psychic TV, which had recently moved from London to San Francisco.

I said, “Would it be easier if I could get Psychic TV playing there?”

It was a good, hard “Yes”. He said: “That would be a good starting point. Nothing can be planned or done until I speak with Larry.

“They’re not a bunch of peace-loving hippies out there.”

Craig: I remember that night very well. It was a typical cold, foggy summer night in San Francisco. I drove to Alamo Square, parked my car, walked to her porch, rang her bell. I was a little nervous – a lot nervous, really.

Larry opened the door and my first impression of him was that he was also nervous. It made me do some kind of a joke as an icebreaker. I was about to launch into my pitch, and he was like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, stop.” He said, “I make tea. Follow me into the kitchen.

As we were walking he was struck by an idea and he just started talking. And after that, there was no stopping the conversation. He stopped just under the kitchen door, put his arm on the edge of the door. And we just talked.

He asked me: “What is your idea? What are you looking to do? ” I told him. I said that our methods may differ, but we are both trying to achieve change. I told him that combining our efforts could very well be a symbiotic thing.

Larry said, “Yeah, but how I see it, it’s time for a change. People are too used to what happened. And that could be a really good prank to do.

Then he looked at me very cautiously. He said, “They’re not all a bunch of peace-loving hippies out there. Prepare for some resistance. There are real hard-headed punks out there who aren’t going to like what we’re doing. So always have that in mind. I have a plan.

He said all that. And then I realized he had boiled all the water in the kettle.

Black Rock City Sound Camp flyer, 1992

No one wanted to go camping in the desert…

Black Rock City ticket, 1992

Craig: Larry came to my house before the event. He gave me 50 tickets to sell, saying, “Don’t worry if you can’t sell them all.

Well I couldn’t give these things away. Nobody wanted it. I sold a total of 20 tickets, all to roommates of my friends… Nobody wanted to go camping in the desert six hours from San Francisco on a perfectly successful three-day weekend.

So my buddy Ted and I loaded up a truck with our sound equipment and decorations.

Ted: In 1992 we got there on the Thursday before the Burn and there were maybe 50 people there. The main camp was perhaps 10 miles from the road to Gerlach. It was really hard to find. There was a red beacon on a 50 foot pole. The sun had set and we had trouble finding it.

We spent our first night camping in our tents, right next to where Larry and Michael and the man and all were. Then the next day we went out and camped a mile east of Man, that’s where they wanted us to have our camp so the sound wouldn’t bother people.

Before you envision a massive, booming sound camp complete with flame effects, high-end speakers, and a DJ rig, take a minute to review your expectations. We checked in with Ted to find out more about the camp infrastructure and equipment.

Ted: You know, there weren’t any big camps back then, there weren’t any porta-potties, I think there was maybe an Airstream trailer and that was it – very different from what it is now. And I just remember it was this huge void, this expansive nothingness. It was just very calm and quiet.

We had two tents, a truck, four really shitty speakers, some kind of table and workbench. We had black lights, the generator, turntables, a mixer, some weird cardboard black light decorations – that was about it. We would just bring disposable material. And actually, that PA that we had the first time, I think it was like four Peavey speakers, which are crappy low-level band speakers…we wouldn’t use them for a party in town. They were so bad.

Video of Craig and Ted’s camp in 1992, captured by Cindy Stock. (Skip the bongos at 10:57 p.m. to witness the resurrection of Man! Skip at 37:30 for the Goa Gil sunrise.)

Craig: It sounded good there. The acoustics bouncing off the mountains were amazing – the wind swirling the music.

Shortly after, we had angry attendees walking out. They were not happy and started yelling at us saying they were trying to sleep. We kept them awake. People came out and tried to mute the speakers. People tried to pour sand into the generator. We didn’t have many people who came to support us.

People would come and dance a little until their friends came to see them. And then they were rushing back to camp as if they were doing something wrong.

“Good for you. It’s too quiet here.

Craig: About 15 minutes later, four mics arrived very quickly. A bunch of cowboys came out. I thought, “Oh great.” And they were locals – cowboys straight out of a western, a man and a woman. They came and said they heard the music clearly from across the valley to where they lived.

The woman said, “I thought someone was having a barn dance and there is, except there’s no barn. Good for you. It’s too quiet here. The man grabbed a cooler from the truck and handed us each a nice cold beer. And they went right to the middle of the dance floor and started dancing. No one else was dancing. Just those cowboys.

They stayed all night, got quite drunk. And every time someone from the main camp came to cause a problem, he made a perimeter with his trucks. They were our bodyguards, our security organizers and our new friends.

One of them was the eighth best bull rider in the world. He called me a month later. He was in town in San Francisco at the Cow Palace for a rodeo. He said I had to take him to a rave.

Goa Gil playing BRC’s first sound camp, 1992 (Photo by Craig Ellenwood)

“It’s morning. It’s time to put on your visors.

Craig: On my first set that night in 1992, I shared a 16 hour DJ set with DJ Lucas, my friend and a top DJ from Amsterdam. You know, nowadays, DJs play between 45 minutes and an hour. Then there were no other DJs so we could play as long as we wanted. And eight to 10 hour sets were pretty much the norm.

In the eight hours that I played, everything was improvised except for one piece that I knew I had to play as soon as the first rays of light appeared on the horizon. It was a track that started with a sample of astronauts talking in the Apollo spacecraft. As they circled the earth, the sun appeared.

The captain said, “It’s morning. It’s time to put on your visors. I took out my sunglasses, put them on, and acted like nothing special just happened. The reaction was visceral with each person scrambling through their bags for their own sunglasses. Lucas told me afterwards that of the many, many times he’d heard this song, none was more perfectly in sync than this. I live for this stuff.

Ted: Sunrise after the Burn, I ran maybe another mile east towards sunrise and watched that sunrise in solitude, where the only closest people are one mile away, they look like ants. I’m out there on the moon watching a sunrise, barely hearing the echoes of music. It was quite magical and spiritual.

It was just hard to explain…for someone from the city to have that much of a connection to the void or the earth or whatever was life changing. You know, never being able to see the sunrise from a horizon, growing up in an area full of buildings, an urban environment, it was just very, very different. They speak of transformative experiences there. It’s definitely the one that really struck me.

Cover image of sunrise at the first BRC sound camp, 1992 (Photo by Craig Ellenwood)