"E" is for Econ

"Music sounds better with you": The sonic boom and communal secrecy of heartland rave culture attracts a new generation of "'ardkore" beatniks
Mark Wojahn

Finding a rave is more like a search-and-destroy mission than a party hop. Your first stop is the local dance-record store, where you might spy a Xeroxed "pre-flyer" for a party three months hence. A month later, you'll pick up a glossier flyer covered in graphics, with a list of DJs and a hotline number. The day of the rave, you call the number, and a recorded voice tells you where to go for directions and tickets. When you get them, you're inevitably directed toward some remote chunk of suburbia or farmland. One gets the feeling that rave organizers would prefer the instructions be rigged to self-destruct five seconds after being read.

Such secretive rites are holdovers from rave culture's illicit origins. In Europe during the late '80s, all-night shindigs were widely held in unlicensed warehouses, and elaborate precautions were taken just to keep them from getting busted. But cops caught on, and as the trend worked its way into the mainstream, rave culture became Europe's club culture.

In 1998, most raves held in Minnesota are perfectly legal, and the tradition of flyering and phone calls is preserved mostly for fun. "It's commercial enough now that you might as well advertise it on the radio," says Matt Krawczyk, a 20-year-old DJ who is co-organizing this weekend's three-day outdoor rave, Origin. Krawczyk had his share of hassles with rural officialdom--Origin's been moved once from its initial location--but in the end, he says the biggest local rave of the year will also be both insured for liability and cleared by property owners.

It's a far cry from the mid-'90s, when illegal "storm raves" dominated the local party scene. "Discovering this scene was like finding a conspiracy," says Jerusha Rone, Krawczyk's 19-year-old Origin partner, who was 14 when she attended her first rave. "In a way, it was simpler then because you didn't have to worry about buying insurance or providing security." But clued-in cops and wised-up warehouse owners have since chased local raves into rented gymnasiums, ice rinks, and (more than ever) clubs. That doesn't mean the Cities are going the way of Europe any time soon--the bulk of the audience is still under 21. But as audience turnover slows, that too could change.

DJ-entrepreneur Woody McBride--godfather of the local rave scene--says clubland is the culture's next frontier. It's an ironic twist. Techno was initially an import from European to American clubs, and McBride was instrumental in taking techno out of the disco and into the warehouse, where it found a larger, younger audience.

McBride got his start at First Avenue under the tutelage of dance-party pioneer and eventual REV 105 music director Kevin Cole. But in the early '90s, McBride (a.k.a. DJ ESP) began to throw raves and, to this day, ravers cite his Minneapolis Organization of Raving Enthusiasts (MORE) as the standard-bearer for the parties of today.

"I was such a bass maniac," he says now. "I was getting in trouble every time we threw a party, because you could hear the system 10 miles away." But since MORE came unraveled three years ago, McBride has left the business of rave-throwing to a younger generation of promoters. He now DJs around the world, runs his various labels (including the well-known Communique imprint), and still throws a party once or twice a year. As a result of his relative absence, though, the rave underground has become something of a free-for-all, with young comers like Krawczyk and Rone vying with established cliques like Encore, Perpetual Groove, and the recently inactive Jungle Vibe Collective. The audience is obviously still there, and many promoters, it seems, are hoping to turn a profit.

In a way, McBride's June 20 Outta Space party, which welcomed Philadelphia DJ sensation Josh Wink, dramatized the nostalgia many ravers feel for the old-school outlaw days. The club-bound concert (promoted by local bookers Compass Entertainment) started during daylight hours at Ground Zero and was completely legitimate. But the "after-party" that followed was in fact a full-blown rave, held in a sweaty second-floor warehouse on East Lake Street with only a turtle-slow freight elevator to transport partygoers. Every one of the ravers I spoke to felt this "unofficial" party was much more fun. Naturally, the police broke it up at 3 a.m.

For the following weekend's June 27 Solstice party, I decide to try my own hand at rave-hunting, starting with a trip to South Minneapolis techno boutique Cynesthesia (2901 Lyndale Ave. S.). Sitting behind the counter is Origin organizer Rone, a tongue-pierced brunette with just the slightest lisp (currently, if you stop by, you can grab flyers not only for her rave but a spate of other happenings). Outside and down the street is DJ Drone's vinylcentric Bassment Records and the clothes pony Lava Lounge. This triad of dance-culture stores makes the Lyn-Lake intersection the raver's Uptown.  

On the night of Solstice, though, I need more than flyers and fashion tips. Carless, woefully underpaid rock writer that I am, I call my friend Lewie for a ride. At 11 p.m. I pile into his jam-packed "ravemobile"--a blue '88 Chevy Celebrity with a bumper sticker on the rear saying, "Will be president for food"--and we head south on Hwy. 61.

Lewie is the quintessential raver. At 20, he has never bought a rock 'n' roll CD, and claims to have listened to 'ardkore (techno's most punishing permutation) at least once a day for three years. He dyes his hair white-blonde, with the occasional temporary streaks of color, and as my dad might say, he dresses weird. Lewie's favorite subgenre is "gabber," Holland's relentless brand of 'ardkore and a style he considers to be a perfect reflection of his "crazy personality." But Lewie's actually a balanced, mellow idealist. "It's more than just a party," he says earnestly of raving. "You go to get away from society."

By midnight, our printed instructions bring us to the Cottage Grove Ice Arena, where Solstice is already under way. This legal setting is hardly the strangest space Lewie's seen for a party. "Old raves were in awful environments," he says. "I went to a warehouse party where the floor was covered in sawdust. And halfway through the rave, all that sawdust was in the air. You couldn't see 10 feet in front of you, and you were breathing it in. It made for a good laser show, though."

Solstice was organized by two 18-year-old fans and first-time promoters, Andrea and Amy Setsvold (a.k.a. Hide and Seek Productions), two sisters who were raised on their parents' polka records until raving changed their lives. Andrea sees promoting as something fun to do while she's young rather than a career choice (she's studying to be a dentist). After my fellows nod hello to the Solstice hostesses, I get a frisking from hired security, and then we proceed down a flight of stairs into what feels like a sauna and looks like a giant black rain cloud cut by piercing laser beams.

There's always been something powerful and primal about the combination of darkness and overwhelming volume: Maybe it's all just a return to the womb via an ocean of beats and sounds. But rank humidity and heat add an entirely new dimension--and an ironic one, considering the whole thing is going down on a melted ice rink.

Lewie dons his "Chinese rice-picker hat," which he wears to every nonclub rave event, and I presently observe its only practical function: His silhouette is instantly recognizable across the room. Walking out into the smoky rink, he breaks out his green and red glow sticks and begins drawing pictures in the air as he dances against the cloud.

Soon enough, my eyes adjust to the dark, and I watch the psychedelic light show on one end of the arena before gravitating toward the beats from the DJ sound system (fenced off by hockey nets) on the other. In between are the dancers, some clustered toward the DJ, others just going it alone in remote edges of the cloud.

Perhaps because many of the best rave dancers never frequent clubs, most people don't ever see true rave dancing's deft synthesis of Muhammad Ali's light-footedness and hip hop's controlled spasmatics. No other aspect of rave culture affects me as deeply. And the gorgeous, pummeling music works these kids like hand puppets, though some prefer to see their sweat offering as a spirited resistance, not a submission. "It's like a total metaphor for me against the world," says one dancer. "It's about seeing how long I can last against this beat."

Observing the ravers at Solstice, it becomes clear to me that the kids are tapping the "E" of endorphins well before the ecstasy dealers make their rounds. And even then, users let their drug of choice kick in only as an adjunct of their natural high.

But E is certainly in the house: Having swept European rock and dance clubs after becoming increasingly available in the late '80s, the drug remains a mainstay at American raves--though E-related fads like smart drinks have disappeared. When Lewie takes a breather from astral-jigging, I ask him about the pacifiers suckled by many of the young women, and he tells me they were originally inspired by the dry mouth brought on by "rolling" (that is, tripping on E's roller-coaster highs and lows). "I can't stand that trend," says our sole female companion, who sees the style as infantile. None of the kids I talk to at Solstice is anti-drug per se, but almost all of them condemn speed, which, along with cat tranquilizer, is a primary ingredient of most E.  

The heat alone is lysergic enough for me, and after downing a second smoothie, I stumble toward the vending-room door to buy a Coke. As I enter, a heat ripple rolls over the young faces in the room, and I blink my eyes in amazement. Suddenly, I realize everyone's staring back at me, and then I realize that I'm a 28-year-old in a sea of teenagers. My attire is totally inappropriate for the event, and when I slink back out into the pulsating rink, a kid mistakes me for a security guard. I suddenly feel very old, until I recognize a familiar face from my past through the clouds. "Nick!"

Nick Andreano and I went to the same high school in Madison, Wisconsin, where we saw the Beastie Boys together in 1986. I'd since heard that he'd gone on to become a DJ in France, but I didn't know the half of it. Nick Nice, as the ravers know him, played a Woody McBride role in Madison's budding rave movement, throwing the city's first warehouse party in 1991 and its first outdoor rave in 1992 before moving to France to DJ at the Queen, Paris's legendary gay dance club. When Andreano returned, he started up Nice Musique in Madison, and continues to DJ around the country.

When I tell him he's the only person at Solstice over 20 besides me, he laughs and laments the loss of the older audience that used to populate raves. He also notes how raver events are increasingly becoming commercial ventures, though Solstice is a reasonably priced ($10 advance) benefit for the Minnesota AIDS Project. "I think it's like anything," Andreano says. "Like the punk scene, which went from being a DIY thing to being a moneymaking thing."

Andreano has watched raves in Middle America become suburbanized to the point where even a booster like Lewie admits they've gone from racially and culturally mixed be-ins to vanilla mixers. "I think it's gone from being diverse to being a white middle-class thing," Andreano says. "But the biggest change is that it went from being anti-fashion to becoming a trend. I had someone tell me once that I must be a good DJ if I can come to a rave dressed like this. I was like, 'Whatever.' I didn't get into it for that." Sure enough, Andreano is dressed in the same post-punk Ragstock gear he wore in high school.

As it turns out, Andreano is headlining Solstice, and like many others in the hopping throng, I move toward the front to watch him work the crowd with his trademark blend of "deep" jazzy house and progressive (or "intelligent") techno. But as he spins, the audience doesn't quite knock his vibe back at him until he drops a cut by Stardust (half of the ascending Parisian house duo Daft Punk) with the distinctly audible line, "Music sounds better with you," repeated over and over.

As Andreano cuts the record's you-you-yous, he seems to be telling ravers, "Look, boys and girls. DJs are only half the equation. Let's see some rump-shakin'"--at least that's what I hear. And the audience gets the hint: Rows of kids leave their perches on the hockey rink's wall to abuse their sneakers and pump the endorphins.

Hours later, as we drive home from Solstice, my fellow ravers are still animated, explicating the experience like movie critics after a screening. Ravers worry a lot about vibes--both good and bad--and the consensus is that tonight's was a good one. Motoring into the wee hours, we analyze the rave's crowd dynamics like Gestalt therapists on lunch break.

But the ideology of these kids can't be called politics exactly--it's more a post-hippie Free to Be You and Me feeling than socialist-humanism as Erich Fromm would have it--and even the once-popular PLUR acronym (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect) has fallen from usage. But it's obvious to me that these early-morning passengers care about their scene. They don't want it to be soured by speed or spoiled by suburban poseurs wrapping themselves in the fashions while refusing to dance. And why should they?

The scene's heaviest period of experimentation may have passed, coinciding with an era when everything--including the scene itself--was brand new. "It was an ungoverned realm for so long," says McBride the following week. "It was interesting for us during the MORE days, because we were doing such good shows, and yet we had such a high turnover rate and we couldn't figure out why. I kind of realized one day that when you're working in a realm of accelerated self-discovery, people get what they can and move on. Hopefully they'll be propelled in the right direction."  

The Origin rave will be held outdoors this Friday and Saturday night, somewhere within an hour-and-a-half radius of the Twin Cities. Tickets are $25 advance, $30 the day of the rave; call Form Productions at 330-3676.

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