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How The Internet Transformed The American Rave Scene

Phil Dent

Rave was America's last great outlaw musical subculture: created by kids, for kids, designed to be impenetrable to adults. American rave formed its own mutant funhouse approach to existing looks, sounds and ideologies. In the early-to-mid-1990s, it was driven not by stars but a sudden collective sense that, as the Milwaukee rave zine Massive put it in every issue above the masthead, "The underground is massive."

What better place for such a subculture to flourish than on the Internet?

Rave's rise mirrors the Web's in many ways. Both mixed rhetorical utopianism with insider snobbery. Both were future-forward "free spaces" with special appeal to geeks and wonks. (It can't be a coincidence that dance music's instruments of choice are referred to by their model numbers: 303, 606, 808, 909.) Both took root through the '80s and emerged in fits and starts through the mid-'90s, at which point both became part of the social fabric. Indeed, one of electronic dance music's key genres, IDM, was named after an email list devoted to "intelligent dance music."

"Part of the explosion of the whole electronic music scene has been totally tied to the Internet, and the way we can communicate over vast distances," says Richie Hawtin, who as Plastikman was an early rave icon.

"The Midwest — and maybe national — scene wouldn't have become so interconnected without the rise of the Web circa 1994-95," agrees Matt Massive (born Matt Bonde, though we'll identify him here by his pen name), the publisher of Massive.

The British started raving before Americans did, but they got the idea in Ibiza. In the summer of 1987, a quartet of English DJs (Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, Johnny Walker and Nicky Holloway) vacationed on the Mediterranean island, absorbing both the expansive playing style of one DJ Alfredo — who spun everything from Cyndi Lauper to tracks made in underground electronic scenes in Chicago and Detroit to thousands, seven nights a week — and the readily available drug ecstasy (MDMA). They went back to England and — contra to the ultra-cool style long associated with London clubbing — began emulating the parties they'd witnessed on the island, pushing house and techno as the new sound of the future and ecstasy-fueled bonhomie as the new attitude, creating a communal sensibility that, by 1989, led to raves in fields with more than 10,000 revelers at a time.

In 1989, a popular Brooklyn DJ named Frankie Bones went to England and played a party called Energy, going on at 6 a.m. in front of 25,000 people. Inspired, Bones decided to start throwing parties of his own, bringing raves to the warehouses of Brooklyn. Soon after, scenes in L.A. and San Francisco began to sprout. Once the coasts adapted the new party style, things went inland, as loose regional congregations began to make themselves into a unified scene. Like drops in a pond, eventually their ripples began to touch.

At first, the connections were done the old-fashioned way. "By 1994, there was already kind of an established network of party-throwers and partygoers [in Detroit]," says Rob Theakston, a Detroit rave veteran. "At that point, the scene was maybe 200 kids max. Everything was very phone-based. [You'd] call the phone lines the day of to get directions, and even then, a lot of the direction lines would just give the vicinity because you would already know: 'Oh, Harper and Van Dyke — that's the old theater. We know where the party's going to be.' They wouldn't give you the exact address for the authorities to find out."

Many times, ravers had good reason for such secrecy. "I worked so much overtime trying to talk about how the rave scene wasn't all about drugs," says Ariel Meadow Stallings, who published and edited the rave zine Lotus in Seattle during the late '90s. "It was very noble of me, and I still do believe it wasn't all about drugs. But it is a drug culture. Even if you're not on drugs, the culture of the party is determined by the fact that there are people there who are."

As a style whose digital nature was encoded into its very name, techno is the music of early adopters. Rather than the smoothly homogenous World Wide Web of today, cyberspace was fragmented, and whether you were on Compuserve or AOL, the codes differed. "When [I] first signed up for the Internet in the early '90s, [I was] assigned a username, by first and last name," says Richie Hawtin. "Mine was RH199." Whomever next signed on that shared his initials, then, would be RH200. Presuming that numbering system kept its pace, Hawtin says that today, "a number assigned anyone would be in the millions and billions. Having a two- or three-digit number dates you as early."

Many early technology adopters became acquainted with bulletin board services (BBS) and proto-instant-messenger services such as V-Rave (the "V" is for "virtual"). "I got involved with BBS back in 1992," says Stallings. "It wasn't even the Internet. You were calling someone's hard drive, essentially, and typing messages back and forth."

"There was no World Wide Web," says Cleveland-born techno DJ and producer Jeff Samuel, whose experience typifies a lot of the local-leaning early BBS culture. "I was hanging around on music boards with [early dialup service provider] Prodigy. There was this thing called Cleveland Freenet, by Case Western Reserve University, a private college. Cleveland, of all places, was one of the first places [where] you could do real-time chat. You couldn't have Joe Schmoe getting on the Internet at that point. It just didn't happen."

"I was working in a computer lab all through college," says Damian Higgins, a.k.a. Dieselboy, one of America's top drum & bass DJs, who went to school in Pittsburgh from 1990 to 1995. "[In] my spare time, I'd go to the lab. I was addicted to the Internet — like these Korean kids at the 24/7 Internet cafes playing World of Warcraft, that was me talking about music and raves on V-Rave."

During the mid-'90s, says incoming George Washington University media professor Nikki Usher, "The big shift was [to] smaller [forums]. You had AOL kind of in the background, where you have social networking happening on a big public forum. USENET groups allowed people to build groups around things that were of common interest. In this time, you start to see the smart communities of people who are really interested in tech, and really interested in identity politics. Those are kind of the first groups to come to social media."

A number of rave-centric mailing lists were a key ingredient in connecting dispersed partiers. In spring of 1992, M.I.T. student John Adams founded NE-Raves, covering the Northeast and/or New England, while at UC Berkeley, Brian Behlendorf began SFRaves through Hyperreal. Within a week of its launch, Behlendorf told Mike Brown in 2000, he "went to a party [he] found out about through the list." Soon came a succession of lists dedicated to specific cities (313, the Detroit list) and regions: MW-Raves for the Midwest, NW-Raves for the Pacific Northwest.

Early rave thrived on anonymity, from the multiple aliases of a producer like Hawtin — who went, variously, as F.U.S.E., Plastikman, Circuit Breaker, Concept 1 and Xenon — to the white-label 12-inch, a format whose lack of artist or track information gave it a cultish mythos. Information was scarce. "Other than at raves, there was no environment to talk about [the music]," says Samuel, who was active on MW-Raves and PB-CLE-Raves (Pittsburgh-Cleveland). "When someone put out a new mixtape, it was all over the lists."

"Part of the experience of contextualizing or processing what had happened at that party was sitting down on Monday and typing out my review," says Stallings. "It was sort of the digital water cooler for the ravers. I stalked people in classes whose name I'd seen on Hyperreal because I knew they were involved in the rave scene. There was definitely a lot of back and forth between the virtual world and the reality of rave."

"NE-Raves had these get-togethers," says Higgins. "There was no Facebook or anything nearly like that back then. We'd have getting-together picnics. We were always trying to interact with one another in the real world."

Of course, there couldn't be computer-facilitated discussion without some trolls hanging around. Brandon Ivers, who was a drum & bass DJ in the Minneapolis rave scene, recalls of one such list irritant, "It added this kind of anarchistic element," he says. But they didn't kick him out. "There was still enough of an ideal of, 'Why don't we make this all work?' and 'Let's not censor ourselves.' The Internet in general at that point [was] influenced by that WELL-style, '60s-hippie, let-information-be-free type of thing."

"These were not particularly moderated discussions," says Usher. "If you recall all the very early worries about AOL, you can have people posing like Internet predators in these chat rooms. These were not really regulated forums."

Or at least not completely regulated: "I remember talking to the guy who moderated MW-Rave, Chad Sponholz, about it," says Ivers. "He did take out messages that were blatant drug references. Everyone was convinced that the FBI or whatever was monitoring the mailing lists by '97. But even before that, [it] was all pretty codified."

The web had grown rapidly in the mid-'90s — it wasn't just the province of university students anymore — and raves started showing up on the mainstream's radar. The U.S. major labels began pushing "electronica" as music that could be consumed in album form by rock fans. It worked, sort of — Prodigy went to #1 with The Fat of the Land — and acts like The Chemical Brothers, Roni Size/Reprazent and Fatboy Slim did well.

Even Barbara Walters took notice. "They call it a rave, and it's the latest kid craze," she said on 20/20 in 1997. "Millions of youngsters, as young as age 10, flock to secret locations to party and dance through the night — that's all night long — often 'till eight or nine in the morning."

"I think a lot of [paranoia] went with increased media coverage," says Dan Labovitch, a Chicago teenager during rave's heyday and the founder of the website Rave Archive. "It wasn't so much of a feeling within the scene as external pressures. Your parents would [see] some scare news piece [and] be like, 'Oh, so that's the stuff you've been going to on weekends.'"

But the rave scene also used the Internet to circle the wagons and protect its members from those external pressures. Jeff Samuel recalls the stir caused by one early website. "These email lists were constantly talking about whatever new pill was there that week," he says. "And quickly there would become these copycat pills. Everybody was trying to figure out, 'Which one is the real peace-sign ecstasy pill that's really MDMA?' The first ecstasy-test website was a huge deal. You could suddenly see photos of the pills: 'This is the real one, and this is the bunk one that came two weeks later.' It was pretty beneath the public eye at that point — the Internet alone was beneath the public eye at that point."

The tone of MW-Raves, says Labovitch, "was very collegial. People were giving each other rides to parties and helping people out. You could be a 16-year-old kid and say, 'Hey, can somebody pick me up from my parents' house?' And somebody would drive out, pick you up from your parents' house, take you to a party, and return you. There were no thoughts like, 'Something bad's going to happen to me.'"

The mailing lists' emphasis on region — "It was NW-Raves, not Seattle-Raves," says Stallings — fueled rave's road-trip culture.

"There weren't always amazing shows in your city all the time," says Higgins. "If you were hardcore into hearing cool DJs and acts and music, you had to travel to hear that stuff."

"Any trip was an excuse to go to a rave," says Stallings. "Whatever city I was in, a rave was the best way of putting a dipstick into a community. 'Oh, the German ravers love whistles. They're breathing through whistles. Everyone has a whistle in their mouth. They won't stop whistling. Thank god there's no whistles on the West Coast.'"

It wasn't just fans who went road-tripping. "A lot of people really built their names and connections by being early adopters — Dieselboy most prominently," says Massive. "He got a lot of early bookings around the country from the connections he was building on the rave lists."

"I'd see the post on alt.rave about a party five, six, seven hours away," explains Higgins. "It'd say, 'Plus more DJs to be announced.'" That's when he'd make his move: "I'd call the info line and be like, 'Hi, I'm Dieselboy from Pittsburgh. I will play for gas money if you book me at your party.' I was so small-time at the time that no one was going to fly me. So I drove around all over the place. I remember I drove 11 hours to play in Rhode Island."

Established promoters found the lists useful in other ways. "We were using the Internet in 1994-95 to communicate to our fans in the Midwest about our events," says Hawtin. "We stopped doing flyers and were able to announce events in the mid and late '90s one day before — even hours before — and get hundreds [or] thousands of people."

Not all of those pop-up parties — in a sense, the first flash mobs — were smashing successes. Jeff Samuel recalls a Cleveland party announced the same day online: "They basically piled us into a U-Haul truck, closed the door — we had no idea where we were going. We ended up in some really not-safe warehouse in a really not-safe area. There was broken glass everywhere. There was no heat. It was the middle of winter. They had lined the stairs with candles so that we could see where we were going. I was miserable — it was just freezing. I think I was the only person not on drugs there. They had one kerosene heater. I actually burned a hole through my shoe, getting all the way to my foot, trying to warm my feet up."

Another victim of questionable raver ethics was the Kinko's shop near University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Matt Massive put his zine together.

"We were already figuring out how to rip off Kinko's," Massive recalls. "At that time they had those little counter packs, these blue rectangular things, and you could smack it on your knee and it would go back to zero."

By the end of 1993, Massive hatched a plan to advance his zine's nascent Internet capability by swiping a pair of then-brand-new Power PC hard drives from the copy chain.

"The computer Massive had was one of those portable SE30 Macs with a tiny monitor and a box," he says. The Power PC, on the other hand, cost around $8,000. "A lot of stuff back then, we did it because we could," says Massive. "I'm embarrassed to say it was probably [my idea]. When you've got a group of friends, schemes and heists get hatched rather quickly."

Among the co-schemers: a group of hard-drinking skinheads collectively nicknamed the Pukers. "They weren't SHARPS [Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice] and they weren't really racists anymore," Massive says. "They just really liked being thugs. They really brought a raucous element. We were afraid of them. They'd show up in combat boots. They'd get kicked out [of parties] every night for slam dancing."

To prepare for the robbery, the Pukers "watched Goodfellas for almost 24 hours straight," says Massive. "They didn't get any sleep. They just kept watching Goodfellas over and over and over again to get themselves psyched up for this heist."

With Massive acting as decoy by making copies — "I was the face, the one the Kinko's people were on a first-name basis [with]" — the Pukers went upstairs, where the computers were kept, with bolt cutters: "Rather than trying to unscrew the monitor, they just popped the wires, put the [hard drives] under their trench coats, walked out the door to a waiting car, put the computers in the trunk, and drove off." The monitors were left in place. Massive stayed put until the police were called: "I wasn't going to sit around and feed the police a story."

"They were hot," Massive says of the computers, "but we could use them as leverage for other things." Massive put his profits from selling the stolen merch into a T-shirt business that he says still thrives. "Massive T-Shirts to this day still makes me money," he says with an ironic laugh.

With their profits, the Pukers purchased Waterworks, the company that supplied area parties with smart drinks, vitamin- and amino acid-enhanced fruit drinks popular at early raves. Smart drinks may have been nonalcoholic, but not in the hands of a crew of drunk punks. "They had a DJ special," says Massive. "All the guys who were DJs knew about this — you'd get a smart drink that was 90% vodka."

The Kinko's shop shut down within a year of the theft. "You'd think a copy shop a block off of a university would stay open," says Massive. "Not that we took joy from it, but we felt that we probably had something to do with that. We'd so pilfered the joint that I think they just couldn't keep that location open."

In 1995, two audio file-compression systems debuted. Though the MP3 would eventually change the music business (and the world) as we know it, the first format to gain favor — particularly among ravers — was RealAudio.

"RealAudio was the only plug-in that could broadcast live audio," says Richie Hawtin, who began using it to play audio from his parties live online in 1996. Even bigger, and more consistent, was Beta Lounge, a San Francisco website that streamed live DJ mixes.

It was manna for dance music lovers now hooked into the World Wide Web. "I thought I was in heaven when I found Beta Lounge," says Jeff Samuel. "I'd sit around listening to mixes. They had great taste. And they presented it pretty professionally."

DJ and journalist Philip Sherburne, who cut his DJ teeth at Beta Lounge, remembers the site's HQ in late-'90s tech-bubble San Francisco. "The space was basically a big warehouse," he says. "There was obviously a lot of processing power going on, and there was often someone in the back fiddling with some obscure black box. Someone from the crew would always get on the mike to announce the DJ, which reinforced the idea of broadcasting out to the world. They were really pioneers of the whole podcast revolution."

By the end of the' 90s, when Fatboy Slim's "Rockafeller Skank" featured in every third movie trailer and U2's arena-tour opening act was DJ Paul Oakenfold, electronic dance music wasn't nearly as scarce as it had once been. And the web helped get it up to speed. "It was communicating and reaching out to people who were into what we were doing," says Richie Hawtin. "The scene on a worldwide level is huge. [But] compared to other scenes, it's still such a small little microcosm in the world of music and entertainment. So we always, then and now, need to reach out and connect with like-minded individuals and bring them into electronic music."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaelangelo Matos