It’s not everyday you meet the person that discovered Deadmau5. Actually, I’ll rephrase that.
It’s not everyday that you meet a person like Josh Hernandez.
For this Chicagoan – discovering what would become the most iconic figure in dance music was just the beginning. With the rapid, unwavering rise of EDM in American culture, few stories may be more relevant than this one. The story behind a guy that everybody knows simply as: ‘Z’.
His magnificent tale began when Z moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico in 1996 – where he would attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. His schooling set the stage for technology to play a vital role in this young entrepreneur’s career.
Upon the release of a brand new D.A.W. (Digital Audio Workstation) known as Fruity Loops, Z’s passion and motivation became rooted in the ability to create music solely using a computer. Compared to the other DAWs available at the time (if you can even call them that), Fruity Loops was far and away a superior program to create electronic sounds, samples, and music. This is what inspired him to become the first person to create a completely online electronic music band. Just because it was possible.
“I’ve always been passionate about computers and all that stuff…and ya’ll take it for granted these days but, back in my day it was like ‘omg a computer can make art and music, isn’t that awesome’…so when Fruity Loops came out…it blew our mind.”
Banding together with several other members of the Fruity Loops forums, the group collaborated on tracks by sending music files via email. His initial username on the Fruity Loops forum was El Zoom – a Soda Stereo track that was released in the late 90’s and is influenced heavily by electronica. His nickname was born when his online crew began addressing him as Z. And in turn, the title of their new band was SectionZ.
After collaborating on 5 to 12 tracks, their work needed a home. So in 1999, the group created a peer-to-peer musicians community which would become known as the “Original Electronic Music Underground”. It was a place where musicians could swap music projects with each other, collaborate on tracks, and review iterations. The name of the website? You guessed it.
SectionZ.com became Z’s full-time job, although he made nothing off of it. For him, it was never about the money. He created the entire website alone, learning to code simply because of his desire to build it. As the site progressed, the volume of new artist submissions became too much too handle. So eventually, they made it available for anyone to sign up, create their own artist page, and upload their music. Z designed the site so that artists could review one another’s work. But, due to the fact that Z coded algorithms which ensured that only credible reviews would actually get filled out, the review could not be submitted until every question was answered thoroughly.
They made uploading a privilege. Members could download and upload files based on the quantity and quality of their reviews. The point system he crafted made one thing clear: if you didn’t upload files, you couldn’t really participate.
The result? An instant community of “bedroom composers” that stemmed from the relatively unorganized Fruity Loops forums. Over the first few years, 15,000 users had joined the site. What’s more impressive than this number alone is who the users were. As Z put it, “These aren’t fans, they are other musicians.”
What was so innovative and unique about the site was that users did not upload wav or mp3 files, they uploaded working files from the Fruity Loops DAW. This way, people could collaborate over the internet without ever even seeing one another – a revolutionary concept in the music industry. When outsiders starting posting on the website, asking how to emulate particular sounds or styles, Z took it upon himself to create sample packs for FL Studio. Of course, these sample packs were only available to download for members of SectionZ. This allowed users to actively play two roles in the community: the professors and the pupils. Not only was an artist free to give and receive feedback, they were encouraged to teach and to learn from one another.
“I really wanted people to learn how to make music on their computer..we didn’t care about the genres. We didn’t care if it was classical music or rock music. We wanted you to learn how to use your talents through the software and learn from you peers.”
Well, Z did exactly that. And eventually, the website became divided into two sections: (1) those who wanted to learn and (2) those who wanted to make a career out of their electronic music.
This second side of SectionZ was called the Talent Engine. If stuff was submitted to the talent section, Z would go in and fulfill an A&R type role for the artist submitting the piece. He would get licensing and send it out to labels in order to get the music noticed. It wasn’t until late 2004 or early 2005 that Z realized the potential in all of these unsigned, undiscovered artists.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just wanted the music to get out there.”
But clearly, Z knew exactly what he was doing. In order to create the demos and devices used to propel these artists music, he created a small label. A small label, to feed the larger labels. Amongst the thousands and thousands of artists Z had influenced with his creation, he remembers to this day the moment he found out about a user named Halcyon441. After following his page religiously afterward, Z reached out to Halcyon441.
Or should we say, Joel Zimmerman.
“There was buzz in the community about a song called ‘SectionZ’. It was this trance-like, house thing that I had never heard before. It blurred the lines between those two genres. When I heard it, I was like…wow. Whoever this is, he’s way beyond anything I have ever heard before…you could hear it.”
As a matter of fact, the typically (now) bitter Joel Zimmerman was one of the community’s biggest cheerleaders. Joel blew up in the community and was notorious in the chat rooms. He was one of the original trolls. The pre-iconic superstar was just excited to be a part of the community and have people listen to his music. Oh, the good old days.
Z reached out and arranged a meeting with Joel, hoping to help launch the career of this obviously talented musician. After one final dig into his savings account, Z was able to launch Deadmau5′ first demo from Naperville, Illinois. Unfortunately, this would only speed up the pace of Joel’s career – a pace that Z wasn’t ready for.
“Joel was just going way faster than I could lead. When he first showed the mouse head to me, I was like, this is horrible! This is not gonna work, we’re gonna get sued by Disney.”
In the heat of all this magic, Z was going through a really rough time in his life. “I needed to pay my mortgage, I needed to work. So I’ve always kind of had this on the side, while juggling a job and all the regular stuff.”
Then, one thing led to another. Either Joel or Steve Duda reached out to one another, and the bright start to Deadmau5’s musical career would become fluorescent. He remembers receiving a call from Joel telling him to send the demos out to Steve’s address, because “Duda is gonna help.” But as this one-of-a-kind tale would unfold, Z received nothing but an ultimatum. Essentially, Joel called Z on his way into work – asking if he was in, or if he was out.
“And that was all she wrote, literally. I really wanted to do it. But I really wanted to have my marriage and my relationship with my family so I was in no shape to make a permanent commitment or promise. And that was it. I’ve had a few phone calls and talked with him a few times since then, but that was it. He exploded and that’s history right there.”
While its birth is defined by the discovery of Deadmau5, SectionZ’s success is intricately tied to the entrance of another revolutionary artist, and the determination of Z’s partner.
The story of Z’s next artist traces its roots back to the birthplace of Deadmau5’s career – using the Fruity Loops DAW and participating in a close-knit, peer-to-peer electronic music community known as SectionZ.
Aleksander Vinter, aka Savant, was an artist on SectionZ who went by ‘Morphine.’
“When he showed up, it was pretty phenomenal. He didn’t talk to anyone, he didn’t review. But, he was posting 5 or 6 tacks every other day. It was a crazy amount of music…but Aleks had a tough time initiating his career…I couldn’t get in touch with him.”
But, there was a reason for this. Savant suffers from a social disorder known as Asperger Syndrome. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that it manifests itself in many different ways. However, it can be generally characterized by “significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.” Thank you, Wikipedia.
Aleksander Vinter’s case is highly unique. His “restricted and repetitive” patterns of interest happen to include making electronic music. To this date, he has produced over 10,000 electronic songs of varying styles and genres. Hence, his self appointed title does not lie: “Savant.”
With his condition in mind, it is easy to realize why Z had such a difficult time getting in touch and trying to start a career for this electronic music mastermind out of Norway. Like the situation that occurred with Deadmau5, all of this was unfolding at a time in Z’s life when he had larger priorities on his plate. With the help of Shannon McGill – one of the most active and helpful members of the community – Z was able to set the website aside and hand the reins over to someone he could trust. And someone that would take the website, and its artists, to the next level.
Shannon’s role in SectionZ became vital. Shannon was the first person able to get in touch with Savant, and convinced him that working with SectionZ would pay dividends for the talented musician in the end. At a time when Z was not ready, Shannon championed the site to a level in which SectionZ was morphing into a music label. A label that would house the future of EDM’s most talented and undiscovered producer in the business. Of course, we are speaking of Savant.
“We’ve got some amazing people on the label, but it’s hard to compare that level of dexterity and ability. Because it’s just not human, it’s not….there are times when I’m in his presence and I’m listening to him create music where I’m like ‘holy fuck’ – I’m watching a Mozart or a Beethoven – somebody with that extreme ability. These fuckers come around like maybe once every couple of generations. It does not happen.”
With undeniable aid from his friend Shannon, Z was now prepared to return to his project of passion and transform SectionZ into a force to be reckoned with. With Z once again at the helm of SectionZ, the newly established music label has been making hefty progress in just the past year alone. Not including the five albums released by their flagship artist Savant, SectionZ is beginning to sign an all-star lineup of promising talent. Artists like Kaster, KATFYR, Soulero, and City 17 make the label a cozy home for producers who don’t necessarily fit the rosters of average labels.
Z’s history and experience in the electronic music scene is uncanny. From his roots in the Fruity Loops forum, to the creation of his own music website, and the discovery of unreal talents like Deadmau5 and Savant – Josh Hernandez will continue making waves in the world of EDM.
Because like all great minds, Z’s ideas go against the grain. His accomplishments have redefined the norms of the electronic dance music industry. And by transitive properties, Z has had a hand in shaping the revitalized electronic dance music scene in North America. (After all, it was Deadmau5 who discovered Skrillex).
“Guys like Joel, guys like Aleks (Savant), they will become pop stars on their own. I just wanted to help everyone realize their talents by getting their music out. Cause all they care about is the music.”
A collaborative piece by: Jake Groch & Keegan Goudie