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Skyway Theatre: The booming Minneapolis EDM hub hidden in plain view

EDM supergroup Destroid at the Skyway Theatre in 2013

EDM supergroup Destroid at the Skyway Theatre in 2013 Leslie Plesser

To look at the corner of Seventh Street and Hennepin Avenue on the night of December 2, you might have expected a media circus.

The line outside the Skyway Theater to see Marshmello — a pseudonymous EDM phenom whose gimmick is to wear a helmet that makes him look like his namesake campfire treat — is wrapped around the block. Many of the show-goers wear relatively little to combat the cold; warmth, they know, will be forthcoming once they’re inside, tightly packed into the former downtown Minneapolis movie house and gyrating to the light show and huge sound system.

Inside, though, there’s almost no press presence at all. This isn’t exactly a surprise. For one thing, EDM, the nickname for big-tent, pop-friendly dance music, holds little appeal even for committed DJ-culture lifers, particularly those over the age of 30. For another, the default setting for American music writers basically boils down to: When is this stuff going to go away? Never mind that almost every rock festival in the country is forced to include EDM acts in order to make their bottom line, never mind that all the wishing in the world hasn’t reduced the music’s popularity one iota.

If anything, this 2,500-strong Marshmello crowd — about 1,000 more people than First Avenue can hold — echoes another show five years earlier at the same venue. That’s when Skrillex played the Skyway’s smaller room, the Loft, for the second time on the night of a blizzard.

“The Loft was bulging at the seams,” says Chrissy Kabanuk, who along with her husband, David, is the Skyway’s co-owner and main booker. “All of Minneapolis was shut down, MTC buses were lying on their sides, and there were 1,400 people in line. I was thinking, ‘If there wasn’t a blizzard, we wouldn’t be able to handle it.’”

As she points out, this was well before Skrillex had even been nominated for — much less won — a Grammy Award or produced Justin Bieber.

“It was just the kids,” she says.

Expect similarly sizeable crowds Friday and Saturday for the Skyway’s ambitious New Year’s Eve celebration. Each night will feature four stages of DJs, three of them all locals, as well as a handful of out-of-town headliners, such as SoCal native Seven Lions (signed, like Marshmello, to Skrillex’s OWSLA label) and Montreal trio Black Tiger Sex Machine, both of whom play what Kabanuk loosely dubs “high-energy dubstep,” as well as Boombox Cartel, a duo that formed in Minneapolis before departing to L.A.

Chances are you haven’t heard of any of them. It doesn’t matter: The kids have.

And the kids have been the Kabanuks’ M.O. for well over a decade now. The Skyway opened in 1972 as a two-screen movie theater, expanding over time to six screens. It became notorious after a 1990 screening of Boyz ’N the Hood when gunshots were fired in the theater, followed by a drive-by shooting on Hennepin Avenue that wounded four. The Skyway went bankrupt in 1999; the Kabanuks purchased it three years later, with an eye and ear toward a different kind of entertainment.

By that point, Kabanuk explains, they’d been operating clubs for a decade. David ran the Showbox, a storied downtown Seattle venue, and together they managed another Seattle club, Tropix, which featured DJs playing house music, before taking over its Minneapolis franchise.

“You couldn’t go online and get this music — you had to actually fly to the city most known for the genre and pick up the vinyl,” she recalls. “In order to be the cool club, you wanted to be the one who exposed people to music they hadn’t heard before.”

The mid-2000s were American electronic music’s awkward, adolescent years — the rave scene was in remission, but house, techno, and low-end-driven drum & bass were still finding their footing in the club world. At the time, even a 40-minute house or techno set at the mainstream-leaning Minneapolis Tropix would “freak people out — they weren’t ready for that at 11 o’clock at night,” Kabanuk says.

Part of the Skyway space’s appeal was that it wasn’t especially club-like.

“We were looking at the best rave space ever,” Kabanuk says. “For us it was a no-brainer. We were looking at the acoustic [tiling] Sony put in; this wasn’t stuff mom-and-pops could put in.”

Nevertheless, the first order of business was to open the boarded-up ground floor space as Bar Fly, a lounge catering to the high-end “bottle service” experience, in which club-goers pay ridiculous amounts of money to reserve a bottle of liquor and a table in order to feel like VIPs. Next came the Loft, a fifth-floor area that became a DJ party space. It was there that BT (Brian Transeau), who’d become a major U.S. rave star thanks to a series of widescreen trance anthems, made an appearance in 2005. He was the Loft’s first live electronic performer, as opposed to DJ, and he drew.

“Twelve hundred people showed up,” Kabanuk reports. “We were like, ‘Hmmm, it’s evolved.’ We watched the Loft, which was supposed to be the rave space, turn out to be more popular than the lounge space. We were watching the youth coming in.”

Another catalyst came in 2008, when the Loft hosted an after-party featuring an unknown performer from Denver. “We were like, ‘OK, but we can’t pay him,” Kabanuk recalls. The artist’s name was Pretty Lights; today he headlines festivals around the globe.

“I saw probably 400-500 people in line before [doors],” she says. “A lot of older house friends were like, ‘Why would you play that? It’s gonna die, get rid of it.’”

Needless to say, it didn’t. By 2012, multi-day EDM fests like Las Vegas’s Electric Daisy Carnival and Miami’s Ultra Music Festival were drawing even with, or outdrawing, the likes of Coachella and Lollapalooza. That year, Cooper Gillick, now a talent buyer for the Skyway as well as a DJ under the name Tok3n (he’ll be one of the many locals spinning the Skyway’s New Year’s), was one of many who migrated from another scene — in Gillick’s case, having promoted hip-hop shows at the Crystal Events Center for a largely suburban crowd. There, egos burnt him out.

“I [didn’t] like the vibe behind the scenes,” Gillick says — before he discovered EDM. “I started listening, and electronic music evolved, and now it’s everywhere.”

Like much of the Skyway scene, Gillick flies the flag for the heavy bass wobble of dubstep — a form that, like ska or rockabilly, has inspired deep loyalty despite (or because of) its relative musical inflexibility. The kids who discovered dubstep at the turn of the 2010s, says Kabanuk, “are continually our Skyway people, but they’re 26, 27 now. The kids that came up underneath them accept all kinds of music — they’re now [coming] every weekend.”

And increasingly, so are curious outsiders — including behind the scenes.

“Corporate America never cared about an act that was electronic,” Kabanuk notes. “That’s what happened in 2012: The corporate train showed up. When it’s a $50 ticket and there’s one every weekend, it’s not so underground anymore.”