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The Nine Lives of Rave 

Wednesday, Oct 31 2001
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DJ Irene and crew

If you were standing in the Ford Focus tent at the Area: One Festival in the hour before twilight on August 5, you might have gotten the impression that this thing called rave, after a decade of rumors, was finally dead. Dead, meaning it had departed so far from its original intent it no longer had any social relevance; dead, meaning the music that defined it had become moribund and cliched; dead, meaning Ford, Blockbuster and Best Buy were finally willing to overlook electronic-dance culture’s underground drug-party origins and aggressively move to market their products to the glowstick-clutching minions. Outside the tent, pretty girls in glitter and pigtails lined up to have their pictures taken with one of the three Ford Foci parked on the lawn; inside, young men in baggy pants squeezed forward to live vicariously through the first DJ ever honored as the world‘s busiest in the Guinness Book of World Records, peripatetic trance deity Paul Oakenfold. Yet for all this happy commodification, I still saw a young man pause at the entrance, scan warily for authorities and load a white pill on his tongue. He saw me watch him. We exchanged conspiratorial smiles. It was a packaged and marketed moment: This, we seemed to agree, is just how it’s done.

On this balmy summer night at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion in San Bernardino County, Oakenfold began his set on time. He worked with assured precision, his DJ body English as neatly choreographed as a flight attendant reviewing our aircraft‘s safety features. His mixed and sampled tunes, “Bullet in the Gun,” “This Is Trance,” with their rare vocal tracks, tinny rapid-pulse bass and trademark analog-synth spreads, had his listeners waving as dependably as marionettes. As I stood on my toes and craned my neck to engage in the profoundly uninteresting act of watching this clean-cut DJ at work, I believed I was witnessing the end of something. Here was the anthem; there the song he managed to place in Planet of the Apes; now the one that guy hacked to in Swordfish. A kid got onstage and gave Oakenfold a T-shirt, “Paul Is God.” (“What’s the difference between God and a DJ?” goes an old dance-music-business joke. The answer: “God doesn‘t think he’s a DJ.”) There was no room to dance, and no one but me seemed to mind. But Oakenfold‘s performance was as his record label’s name, Perfecto, suggests: on target, on topic, reliably familiar. He is the Starbucks of trance.

And late last summer it seemed that Oakenfold was about to realize his dream of colonizing the U.S. as thoroughly as those little green storefront coffee shops. Since 1987, when he and three other musicians pioneered a scene and sound in Ibiza, his express ambition has been to globalize his peculiarly emotional brand of dance music. In February of 1999, he smuggled turntables into Cuba to “educate” communists in the sound of British dance music; now he was out to school America. And late last summer this all seemed important, and objectionable, and possible, as if “Oakey” would jam all circuits with his remixes of Afrika Bambaataa, as if those 250,000-some copies he sold of his 1998 record Tranceport were enough to flood the market for club music.

But by the time fall came around, Oakenfold‘s rising star seemed to be flaming out, and not just because the world has a new kind of war to think about. Dance music has a way of wriggling out of ruts and anyone’s control -- disco‘s cool wore off in a year in the hands of major record label marketeers, and so far electronica has pretty much evaded the Big Five’s grasp. Two major festivals slated to feature Oakenfold in Vegas and New York, Creamfields and Mekka, were cancelled, which had the ironic effect of giving new life to the music, refocusing attention on the smaller, localized scenes that have continued to flourish.

And if it was a bad season for big festivals, it was a good one for records, among them, Richard “Humpty” Vission‘s trancey-housey Damn That DJ Made My Day on Tommy Boy Silver Label, on which he recycles Ferry Corsten and DJ Tiesto’s sampling of Martin Luther King‘s “I Have a Dream” speech; and DJ Irene’s Global House Diva 2, the exuberantly marketable product of an American Latina who played a summer stint in Ibiza that became a live record in the fall.

So perhaps rave isn‘t dead after all -- even if there’s always somebody lurking around the corner, ready to kill it.

It‘s June 1995, and a friend of mine, a rock critic, invites me to see The Orb at the American Legion Hall. I’m skeptical, so she brings over the CD, which has the big black face of a white stuffed sheep scaling a Lego-built industrial complex on its cover. Live 93 came out in the fall of 1994, and throughout the summer that followed, it sounded to me as full of radical notions about how music should be played and listened to as Laurie Anderson did in 1984: “Little Fluffy Clouds” features a now-famous sampling of Rickie Lee Jones babbling dreamily to a rock journalist about the sky that went on forever in her childhood in Arizona. But Live 93 has other gems: The pool-table sound effect of “O.O.B.E.,” and a half-hour version of “Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld,” in which roosters crow to Minnie Riperton‘s squeals. I remember the two of us listening to its loopy themes and giggling at its piped-in voices, its silliness, its unexpected collisions of sensibilities, its gleeful refusal of structure.

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