The Mother of Invention

How a child of the Sixties became an unlikely focal point of the local rave scene

After moving for the third time in six years, Cynesthesia still feels as you'd expect a rave music and clothing boutique to feel: young. Inside the high-ceilinged store at the edge of Lyn-Lake in Minneapolis, 17-year-old Aubrey Welch answers the phone, speaking to her customer in a fast, excitable voice over the bassy din of Shy FX's "Bambaataa," last year's biggest jungle hit. She wears the same raver wardrobe staple as the teenage boys leaning idly on the glass counter nearby--those cartoonishly large trousers called phat pants--and hers rest below the navel, while her tee hangs just above it. When a beloved house-music spinner named Boogie strides in, he gets a Cheers-style welcome: "Boogie!" everyone yells. But the woman he makes a beeline for is well more than twice Welch's age, and she talks to the DJ about his new mix tape in an indulgent, motherly tone.

Techno may still be the purview of the young, but Cynesthesia's owner, manager, and namesake, Cynthia Kelly, is clearly at home selling its wares. With her long, layered chestnut hair, glasses, and flowing black dress, the 40ish entrepreneur doesn't exactly look the part of the one local woman teen ravers most identify with their culture. But Kelly has a youthful chattiness about her, and she's almost giddy as she shows off the new digs to patrons who've just managed to track down the address, located north of Lake Street between Pillsbury and Pleasant avenues. (Like the raves Cynesthesia helps promote, the new store is difficult to find.)

"Let me show you what's back here," she says, leading one young customer out a side door into the bright hallway of the newly remodeled building. She points to a skylight flooding the smooth stone floor with orange evening sunlight, then gestures to a neighboring coffee stand crowded with smartly dressed Somali émigrés. "Isn't this great?" she says, beaming. "It's so much better than the last place. It's perfect."

Counter culture: Cynesthesia's proprietor Cynthia Kelly in her Lyn-Lake store
Craig Bares
Counter culture: Cynesthesia's proprietor Cynthia Kelly in her Lyn-Lake store

In the six years since she started Cynesthesia and turned it into a clothier and information center for the then-nascent Twin Cities rave community, Kelly has settled into the unusual role of godparent to the scene. She assumed the mantle by taking the music and its participants seriously, and by lending ravers some adult legitimacy at a time when most raves still took place in unlicensed, illegal warehouse spaces. By the time the shop opened its doors on Lake Street near Lyndale Avenue in November of 1993, a few years had passed since all-night, all-ages dance parties spread from the coasts to the industrial spaces of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But it's difficult to imagine how local raving would have evolved further here without her influence. From its inception, Cynesthesia has sold tickets and distributed maps for scores of parties both in and out of town, many of them organized by its employees. And the shop was among the first local outlets to hawk house music and techno on vinyl alongside sunburst-orange tees, glittering see-through rings, and oversized everything.

Moving from one spot to another around the Lyn-Lake neighborhood, Cynesthesia is a hangout for the community's younger set, and its name has become inextricable from Kelly's. This is, after all, a woman who refers to Cynesthesia as "me," saying, for example, "I see me as the unique spot where it all comes together," or, "I get calls from all over the country, and I'm the hotline if people want to know what's happening." She also routinely refers to the shop's clientele, with its median age of 18, as "my kids," assuming a role that she takes quite seriously.

"She really watches over the scene," says Welch from behind the counter when Kelly is out of earshot. Welch is a rave organizer with the local production company Soul Theology and has worked at Cynesthesia for the past year. "If Cynthia hears about ravers she particularly cares about screwing up their lives--like, if she finds out they're dealing or using drugs--she basically sits them down and tells them what's what."

 

Still, not even Cynesthesia's employees know every story that might illuminate the experience their boss brings to bear. They may not even know that Kelly is her maiden name--her legal surname will remain Abdul until her current and fourth divorce is finalized. It's not that the store owner is cryptic about her past, but you get the distinct impression that this mother-turned-community mother has lived hard and fast enough that her impulse to relocate and overhaul her own identity was ingrained long before the opening (and subsequent reopenings) of the shop.

Kelly was born into a large Minneapolis family and raised in Bloomington, "before it became prestigious," she says. The youngest of ten children, she lived on welfare for much of her childhood. When she was 15, her father died, followed a year later by her mother, and she learned early on to fend for herself: She says she nearly quit high school, and she ended up paying her own room and board to finish. Kelly married at 19--an age that would probably seem strange to her teen employees. "It was a hectic marriage, like most of them," she laughs. Together, she and her new husband opened a sheet-metal shop, her first taste of running her own business. But when the operation became successful, she says, he didn't need her anymore and the marriage dissolved.

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