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Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

Radiograffiti, a Label for Challenging Electronic Music

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Though some subcultures are easy to grow old with, by all accounts the ’90s rave scene wasn’t one of them. The party lifestyle eventually took a toll on even its biggest enthusiasts, and the scene waned as crowds and promoters alike aged out of it.

“I think people grew up and realized it wasn’t worth the hassle of going to these raves and possibly getting busted and having to pay the city hundreds of dollars in fines,” says Tyler St. Clair, a Milwaukee electronic musician who discovered the city’s rave scene as a teenager in the ’90s.

“I understand why some people were drawn to that lifestyle, because it offered a status and some sense of belonging, but the parties and drugs never really appealed to me,” St. Clair says. “I was always more fascinated by the music, which I think stood on its own merits. It sounded like something was wrong, like these machines were not working right. And then there was the attitude of the people making these sounds from these machines. It was almost more punk than punk. It was more rock ’n’ roll than a guy onstage playing this boring guitar. It was this guy who had this machine that was making these sounds that would make anybody insane, at volumes you wouldn’t believe. Why would I need drugs to enjoy that?”

As the rave scene dried up, replaced by an aboveground club scene that favored more listener-friendly dance forms, it became harder for St. Clair to find the aggressive electronic music he’d always preferred. He grew bitter, frequently complaining about Milwaukee, its electronic scene and its dearth of entertainment options, but his outlook changed a few years ago when unemployment afforded him the chance to launch his own label, Radiograffiti.

“I realized for all its faults, this is a city where there’s a lot of opportunity,” St. Clair says. “If you’re not having fun, you need to make your own. If you think the city is missing something, then you need to get off your ass and do it yourself.”

In addition to St. Clair’s own recordings under the aliases Stagediver and Dispyz, Radiograffiti has also released a record from CCDM, a breakcore act with northern Wisconsin roots, and a lavishly packaged 7-inch EP from the U.K. Amigacore artist Hexadeci. A common sound runs through Radiograffiti’s releases—they’re all aggressive and noisy—but what St. Clair says most unites them is a shared belief in pushing against the grain.

“I like musicians that challenge themselves, and that challenge the listener,” St. Clair says. “That’s something I always listen for: the challenge. To be honest, if I listened to a record I was going to put out and I thought to myself, ‘This is great, this is going to do really well and it will sell quite a bit and a lot of people will like this,’ I don’t think I’d be completely happy with that. That’s not to say the stuff I’m releasing is avant-garde and for elitists only, but there needs to be a challenge there.”

The label’s releases are sold locally at Rush-Mor Records and online at www.radiograffiti.org. St. Clair says he mostly ships overseas to places like Norway, France and particularly Australia, but his ultimate hope is to regrow an audience for this kind of music in Milwaukee.

“It’s been a while since this style of music has had its time here,” St. Clair says. “I don’t want to say the music has been ignored, but I think people had moved on from it here, so it was up to somebody else who was into this style to take the reins and do it themselves. It’s leading by example. I didn’t hear any of the music I loved anymore, so I’m trying to bring it back.”