05/20/2013 05:21 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Scott Hardkiss: Some Short Memories

I guess it was some time in 1991 when I first went to San Francisco, combining a holiday with a little work-related recreation in my job as assistant editor of a little British music magazine called Mixmag.

A British exile called Jon Williams put me up on his couch in Haight-Ashbury. I'd never even met Williams -- he was a friend of somebody who worked in an independent record store, but that was how things worked back then.

We called the sound made by DJs and producers dance music, but in America it was known as electronica. Now it's called EDM, which sounds more like a food additive, or a corporation, or a drug. Maybe it's all three.

Then it was a new sound, making itself up as it went along. Little pockets of independent sound, chattering with each other from different corners of the world.

What was happening on the West Coast was making a little buzz of noise in London. And British DJs like Michael Cook and Jon Williams had made their own noise over there in California. Jon Williams took me out clubbing, and I met Scott Hardkiss.

I remember a long night with Scott, Jon and his friends, which took in some sort of rave, where I got to play around blending fractals on the visual mixing machine in the chill out room. Then an afterhours somewhere in a bright room where the bar opened at 8 a.m. for vodka and orange and a man in a ponytail threw shapes by himself on the dance-floor. And after a few hours snatched sleep on Jon Williams's couch, a free, open-air party on a beach, with a Mexican DJ.

I liked Scott Hardkiss instantly. He seemed a much more open and interesting and curious guy than a lot of the hustler British DJs and promoters of the time. His reference points were wide open, his conversation was smart, ironic and funny.

He was dry and clever and he delivered a wry running commentary on what was happening, but with affection and enthusiasm, not sarcasm or rancour. He seemed to love his scene and what he was doing. He was very individual but very into the collective.

A few of us drove down to Santa Barbara one day. It was a sunny, hazy, lazy day, just the road, the car, the music, the conversation that never seemed to stop or start.

There was a silence when Scott put the Paul van Dyk mix of Humate on, because he quietly requested that we all listen. I remember how good the song sounded, how perfectly its disco melancholy fit the California late afternoon sun. I remember how much Scott seemed to feel it.
On one of these afternoons, Scott opened up the trunk of his battered white car. His grubby white trousers had holes in them. He saw me looking at the mess in his trunk and smiled. "You're running with a class crew, Dom," he drawled, with that laconic, twinkling smile.

Enamoured with this burgeoning little scene, which seemed to have taken British acid house, mixed it with New York grooves and California sunshine, and made something both distinctively West Coast and yet universal, I wrote a short piece about Scott, describing him as a quintessentially Californian DJ, even though he was from New York.

When Scott came to the UK shortly afterwards for his first DJ tour, he stayed a few days in my London flat, drank tea with my girlfriend of the time -- he called it "hanging out," which we thought was charming -- and nearly had some sort of body-shock allergic reaction when we gave him taramasalata. "I liked everything but the fish thing," he said later.

A bunch of us drove him down to a Universe rave in a field in the West Country. It had a fantastic line-up: Frankie Knuckles, Laurent Garnier and Scott were all on the bill. The DJ booth was a wooden shed, high above the crowd, reached by a treacherous and rickety ladder. It took the organizers quite a while to get Frankie Knuckles up there. Scott took it in his stride, with a smile, a joke, ready for the adventure.

It was a cloudy dawn. It was his first UK gig, and it was a rave, but Scott wasn't going to play it safe. So he followed a full-on techno set with Primal Scream. And took it up from there.
Later on he was kidnapped by Dave Beer from the Leeds club Back to Basics and rocketed around Britain. He made quite an impression -- not just with his DJing, which was eclectic, psychedelic and groovy, but with his personality.

He was a West Coast bohemian, who seemed to see DJing as art, and dance music as freedom, and psychedelia as a form of creative license, not just an excuse to get wasted. And this connected with people.

He had a very individual vision that he could communicate easily to anyone. Be that with music, be that in an interview, be that over a coffee. And he was a very good, and a very creative, and a very original DJ.

I could be wrong about the dates, but I think I first heard his "Raincry" track when I went back to San Francisco in 1993, this time as the editor of the magazine. I also met Gavin and Robbie, his 'brothers' in the Hardkiss trio, and their girlfriends, and a whole interesting tribe of them.
This time I wrote a bigger piece about some of the city's most interesting electronic music artists, with the Hardkiss trio at its centre. It was called 'West Coast Weirdos.' Scott laughed at the title, like he seemed to laugh at most things.

The Hardkiss trio made an album for London Records called Delusions of Grandeur. The title fit perfectly: confident and laconic. We loved it at Mixmag. It's still on my iPod today, and it still sounds as fresh and funky, as weird and wired, as ethereal and emotional as it did then.

Time does funny things to music. Time endows music with value, which is a strange thing to say about pop music. Or even electronic dance music. But if a song sounds as good, or even better, 20 years down the line, it's because it was more than just the sum of its parts, the combination of sound and rhythm with which it was made, or written, or produced. It's because it was bigger and better than its time or its scene or its context.

A song like "Raincry" -- and it is a song, even though the vocal is just a disembodied, musical wail -- is like that. It's one of the many quiet, unfussy classics of electronic dance music, one of those songs that were made because somebody wanted to make it. Not to make money or noise or a fuss. Just to create.

You can talk about the production or the melody, and you'd be right. But really, it's about the feeling. "Raincry" is soul music. Electronic acid soul from California.

Two decades later, I live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I didn't have much idea what Scott had been up to, nor he I, but something made me reach out to him when I was planning a long overdue trip to New York in September 2012. I guess something about Scott made him write back.

But even so, I'm just a journalist Scott met a couple of times 20 years ago, and I don't even write about music any more. Maybe Scott's curiosity got the better of him. Perhaps it was that sort of bond that is there amongst anyone who lived through dance music with the intensity that we all did. It binds people together, even long after it, and we, have moved on.

Either way, he generously invited me to visit him and his family one Saturday afternoon in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

There I found a wiser, older Scott Hardkiss -- perhaps more of a Scott Friedel, but really, the same guy: Just as curious, just as dry, just as smart, just as quietly funny. His wife Stephanie asked how we met, and we laughed at the taramasalata story. Scott and I headed out for lunch.
Scott was doing interesting stuff in his home studio, working with an indie due called Dean and Britta. They had recorded songs to go with a touring exhibition of test films Andy Warhol had shot at the Factory: Edie Brickell, Nico, those kind of people. There was a beautiful version of the Cars' 'Drive'.

Now Scott seemed more New York than California. But he didn't talk much about his music, just as he hadn't done 19 years earlier. He had too much else on his mind. Maybe life was too interesting. He would play you stuff, let you absorb it, and then move on. He was proud and pleased with what he'd done. But it was his daughter Ilana's singing and dancing that really widened his smile that afternoon.

He talked about how he and Stephanie had moved out of Manhattan in the long fallout after 9/11. He showed me around the neighbourhood and explained how its mixed-up demographic that included people living in projects alongside artists and commuters and families made it interesting, and walked me through the park and past Spike Lee's offices and around a second hand market, where he brought presents for his family.

We went for lunch and Scott asked about a book I'd written in 2007, which is about the British DJ scene and where I felt it had got lost in money and greed around the millennium. The book had caused some controversy amongst some of the DJs in it. Others had liked it. Scott was aware of that. He was curious to know why.

I said I had felt disillusioned about how the electronic dance music or rave scene or whatever you want to call it had begun in the late 80s and early 90s with a spirit of freedom, anarchy, ambition and creative possibility. And then, it seemed to me, had ended up just being all about the money. The book had reflected that.

Scott said he had spent a long time tied up in a legal battle over a record deal, and that towards the end of the 1990s, with his DJ career getting ever more lucrative, he had felt increasingly under more pressure to play more commercial music at the huge, heavily-sponsored trance raves he was increasingly playing.

He hadn't felt comfortable with that, and so had drifted away, into film soundtracks, into other sounds, into something more interesting.

What was interesting is what seemed to motivate him. I had the impression he liked the creative much more than the commercial. He wanted to talk about Brazilian music and life in Rio. After lunch, we hung out on his stoop while his little girl ran around. We had been talking for hours. A conversation that had ended 19 years ago seemed to have started up again without either of us noticing.

Just as importantly, I had been welcomed into the family house of a guy I hadn't seen for two decades, who I didn't even ever know that well, like an old friend. And welcomed just as well by Stephanie, even by Ilana. It was a very special afternoon and when we parted, I think it was with genuine affection. We kept in touch, swapping music by email, Scott hungry for new sounds from Brazil, curious about everything and anything. Be it old, be it new.

Then I woke up this week and had emails saying he was gone. I didn't know why. Maybe there was no reason. When I asked his Hardkiss brother Gavin what happened, I got the only answer there was: "He died." It was the kind of answer Scott might himself have given.

I don't have any words for how that feels, and I cannot imagine how that must feel for his family and those who were really close to him.

I just know that he was an artist, not just in what he did in his life, but in how he lived it. He touched me and I knew him very briefly, just twice, two unforgettable times, two decades apart.