Strange as it may seem, a decent enough starting point in the journey to piece together Insomniac’s illustrious history is the aforementioned Upside-Down Room stage at this year’s Nocturnal Wonderland. Even though the headcount in front of the structure sometimes dwindled to the single digits during each night, many of the individuals capable of speaking to Rotella’s character could be found at the stage – including decorated selector Graham Funke.
Funke is an open-format DJ who’s spent the better part of his life touring around the world playing pop records at major nightclubs and writing about music for numerous publications – but he happens to have known Rotella since before the latter even went by “Squally Love” and made a name for himself in the early ‘90s by flyering for his own parties. Having played the first several Nocturnal Wonderland events, Funke was enlisted by Rotella to more or less reinsert the classic DJ culture back into the events after the style fell out of vogue for a decade and a half.
“I actually know him from grammar school,” Funke chuckles while lounging backstage after his Saturday set. “He was, uh, not the principal’s favorite kid.”
Indeed, Rotella himself has admitted to running with something of a rough crowd during his formative years. “I would be part of that rough crowd,” Funke only half jokes. “We were kids going to these things – with Pasquale and a few other notables – but they were fun, and they would do very creative stuff like having them at a water park.”
Early SoCal raves only had two rooms – a techno room, which featured all manner of electronic music, and a funk room, which played the hip-hop of the time as well as old disco and rock records. “I would hang out in [the funk room] and you’d find Pasquale in the other room,” explains Funke, “listening to 808 State or Crystal Waters or whatever was popular at the time.”
Jason Bentley, the music director of L.A. radio station KCRW who acts as an “elder statesmen, trusted friend and advisor” to Rotella to this day also knew him in his youth. While he couldn’t be found at the Upside-Down Room himself this year because of a business trip to Israel, he echoes Funke’s recollections.
In his own typically quotable fashion, Bentley says of the early years:
“We were just really irresponsible and, you know, in many cases high. We traveled all over the place to go to these events, just sort of criss-crossed all over California. When one got shut down we would go to the next one – and then we would go to the record store during the week and talk about what happened. It was before there was really a functioning internet, and just to think that we were facilitating these things with voice mail (laughs).”
Bentley himself got acquainted with early house and techno while spending time in Europe after high school, then used his college radio station as a platform to expose it to wider audiences back in L.A..
“Parallel to the college radio show, I was involved in the local scene – all kinds of really creative parties, raves, events,” he explains. “The name of the game would be to really dream up something creative.”