The Nine Lives of Rave
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 cultures 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 worlds 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 its 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 aircrafts 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. (Whats the difference between God and a DJ? goes an old dance-music-business joke. The answer: God doesnt think hes a DJ.) There was no room to dance, and no one but me seemed to mind. But Oakenfolds performance was as his record labels 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, Oakenfolds 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 anyones control -- discos cool wore off in a year in the hands of major record label marketeers, and so far electronica has pretty much evaded the Big Fives 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 Vissions trancey-housey Damn That DJ Made My Day on Tommy Boy Silver Label, on which he recycles Ferry Corsten and DJ Tiestos sampling of Martin Luther Kings I Have a Dream speech; and DJ Irenes 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 isnt dead after all -- even if theres always somebody lurking around the corner, ready to kill it.
Its June 1995, and a friend of mine, a rock critic, invites me to see The Orb at the American Legion Hall. Im 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 Ripertons 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.
So we go to the American Legion Hall, and The Orbs show that night turns out to be one of those life-begins-again experiences, like Patti Smith at the State Theater in Minneapolis in 1978, or Madonna at Danceteria, or Anderson live in Brooklyn. Onstage there are little men at machines against a spectrum of candy colors, and a yummy-fun beat that makes everyone dance without thinking about what they look like dancing. The place is full of supercute and friendly boys chewing gum to relax their jaws, and the music goes on forever. Like the plot of a French movie, the dramatic arcs in The Orbs music take many minutes to unfold. This is so cool! I keep repeating, until eventually my friend gets fed up with my enthusiasm and decides to decompress me with a sneer. Its just too bad you decided to get into this now, she says.
Well, because its over.
Yes. Over. a
And to the extent that The Orb was rave -- which is debatable, as all labels are -- it was, really. The London scene had already bubbled overground and then imploded in 1993, stifled by an odd conspiracy between popular culture and law enforcement. I had high hopes for this culture, but they were always ridiculous: Like the mythic 60s counterculture Thomas Frank debunks in The Conquest of Cool, 90s rave was never really the global love revolution it was branded to be, PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity and Respect) notwithstanding. (I used to want to sign my e-mails Fuck PLUR, says Lynn Hasty, founder of Green Galactic, a promotions house for the artists and musicians of digitized culture. All those promoters putting PLUR on their fliers were also the ones spending all this time and money bringing over acts from Europe and then not getting the right permits.) As early as 1995, a British fusion of rock and rave was poised to break into the mainstream Top 40 charts, starring the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers. People in the scene were already starting to reject the term rave; people outside of it knew enough to say they hated its music (techno, to them) and mock its drug. Madonna was singing along with Orbital; Pepsi had sponsored its Ministry of Sound tour, named for Londons most famous electronic-dance-music mecca. Paul Oakenfold had left his job as an A&R man and toured as the opening act for U2, one of the many bands he remixed in his early days as a producer. A&R scouts jammed the Winter Music Conference in 1996 looking for talent.
In those years, I went to a lot of parties -- in a cave on the beach just north of the city; on a plot of desert bordering a bombing range; in a building somewhere just east of downtown L.A. that used to be a jail where punk and electronica collided in a band called Crash Worship, who had a habit of covering their audiences in maple syrup. I discovered local collectives Moontribe and the Integral Gathering, and tailgated caravans of cars in the middle of the night to enchanted parties in nearby (or not-so-nearby) canyons and mountains. These were not raves, I was always told, but they all had common ground with raves: There was always a DJ, there was usually someone with MDMA, and the people who came to hear the DJ were as much a part of the performance as the DJ himself. They were not passive observers adoring a rock star, but interactive participants in a spontaneous scene. The music changed the crowd; the crowd changed the music. Part of this was no doubt a side effect of the MDMA, which awakens in its users a downright panicky need for self-expression. But the other part was the music itself: Rhythm-centric and machine-made, electronic dance de-emphasizes the almost always pseudonymous individual who makes it. It was a long time before the news got out that Fatboy Slim, for instance, is not a band, but a witty Brit named Norman Cook. (Any fan I can distract from Hootie and the Blowfish, he famously said, is another soul saved.)
Its a strange paradox of underground scenes that theyre almost never diverse, and the electronic dance music scene of the early 90s was no different. There was a gay scene and a black scene, and at desert parties or warehouse parties it was hard to find a DJ who wasnt white and male; the majority of breaking commercial electronic dance acts have been British. When I was playing the club scene in the early 90s, gay people walked one way, and straight people went another, remembers DJ Irene, who got her start in the early 80s playing house parties, and later held a regular Friday night spot at Arena. It was all segregated, and nobody mingled. The closer she gets to mainstream success, however, the more integrated her following has become. The crowd that came to see her play Spundae at Circus on an October Saturday night was impossible to classify: Valley girls, black gay men, Latinos from Montebello, her hometown. Ravers smelling of patchouli, with dreads in process. Everyone danced.
Irene wants to be a star every bit as much as Oakenfold or Moby or Norman Cook. Im trying to take deejaying to the next level, she tells me. I spend money on my clothes -- on the cover of my CD Im wearing Dolce and Gabbana. She is surrounded in the image by seductive women and gym-sculptured men. My girlfriends a makeup artist, and we did a lot of work on the look and the style. But Irene doesnt have the DJ habit of talking about music like a musicologist -- therell be no saving unsophisticated souls or educating Cubans for Irene. Instead, she talks like a pop star. She offers up the details of her hard-lived life like fodder for a celebrity bio (from 92 to 94, she says, she was homeless, living out of her GMC Jimmy in the Hollywood Hills). She dreams of meeting Madonna. She doesnt challenge her audience; she works them, and wears her deep desire to manipulate their emotions on her T-shirt: Whos Your Daddy? it says in yellow letters on the baby-T she gives me. I just want to spread the love, she says with a chuckle. She means it.
She rocked the house for eight years solid at Arena, she says, and looked forward to every Friday night. But now she tours relentlessly; when I came to interview her, packed suitcases filled up her living room. Her second record, Audio Underground, released in early 2001, sold 50,000 copies, and this past July she became one of the few American women to have played Club Pasha in Ibiza. Global House Diva 2: Live in Ibiza, came out this month on UC Music.
I put Global House Diva 2 in rotation with Badmarsh & Shris splendid reggae and Asian-influenced Signs, Utah Saints Two, to which Im addicted, and a DJ Dan CD somebody had burned to educate me. All the other records are more complex, worldly, sophisticated. Only Irenes is full of tracks that sound like hits. And in fact, shes had one: In September, a track she made with Chris Cox as the duo Pusaka, Youre the Worst Thing for Me, topped Billboards dance chart. I wrote that out of heartbreak, Irene confides. After this girl and I broke up, I asked myself: What are you gonna do? Cry about it, or make some money on it?
Money. DJs, even famous ones, seem to have more trouble with it than disco singers ever did: Equipment and touring absorbs money, records are hard to sell, videos that cost six figures never get aired, and major labels reserve their golden handcuffs for personalities they can turn into products. But there are people in the record industry who have strategies to change all that. We think of Oakenfold as a brand, said Steve Lau of the DJ-laden label Kinetic Records (which formerly had a deal with Warner Bros. and is now in a joint venture with BMG). Not an artist. And there are more people in the record industry on the lookout for the next big brand.
Some of us feel dance music is about to break, offers Marci Weber, of the publicity firm MCT to the panel assembled at Billboards Dance Music Summit, which was held in the Waldorf-Astoria in the sweltering Manhattan July of 2001. Michael Cohen of Warner Music Group disagreed, saying that dance music is a faceless compilation business and so far not sufficiently lucrative for the major labels to bother with. A woman named Ellyn Harris of Buzz Publicity, however, approaches the mic to sell her plan: Get DJ-driven dance music to the Grammys.
Harris is well known in the dance-music business as the founder of the Committee for the Advancement of Dance Music; for two years, she tirelessly lobbied the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to create a Grammy category to honor the best in her favorite genre, which it finally did in 1998. Dance music is defined for this purpose as music that comes out of clubs and has a beat, says Harris. And while the winners so far have been stars -- Donna Summer, Cher and Madonna -- Harris holds out hope that the Oakenfolds of the world will find their way into the music awards. People ask me how come all these familiar names were nominated and ultimately won? With new categories its all about who votes on them. Youve got the voting membership up to 17,000, and as they glance over the categories, their decisions are based on familiarity.
Whether its to win a Grammy or sell a million records, this is the single and significant hurdle a DJ has to clear to become a star on the order of Moby or Fatboy Slim: making the music sound familiar. Radio, which consists mainly of two corporations, Clear Channel and Infinity, is generally hostile to electronic dance music that doesnt feature a pop icon. But according to David Steel of V2 Music, the label that released Mobys 1999 platinum sensation Play, radio play is not the only way to manufacture a hit. Play took off commercially because Moby realized the limitations of radio, Steele told his audience at Billboard magazines Dance Music Summit in the summer of 2001. He was open-minded about having his music played in other places. As a result, every single track of Play has been licensed for commercial purposes over 800 times.
Dance-music artists sell cars these days at roughly the same rate aging TV stars do late-night infomercials; the automotive industry hasnt had such able allies since Doyle Dane Bernbach managed to convince the world that the Volkswagen bug was for love, not war. The Orbs Little Fluffy Clouds sells Fahrvergnugen, the Propellerheads accompany the Jaguar, Moby lends himself out to Nissan. The song that underscores the Ford Focus ads, in fact, is Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins No UFOs, the 1985 track that some say launched the current electronic-music revolution.
Sometimes the artists and DJs in that underground culture, theyve been making music their whole lives, and they might be getting married, having children, says Lynn Hasty, who in addition to founding Green Galactic has also run a DJs record pool since 1993. They might be wanting to make a living at their art -- and whats so wrong with that? When that Ford Focus commercial came out with a Juan Atkins song, I thought, Right on, poor Juan Atkins is finally making some money! The Detroit automotive industry is finally recognizing and even embracing this other phenomenon thats happened in the city in the last 15 years.
Detroit, she says, is a lot like Los Angeles: Youve got a way prosperity next to way poverty, and amazing art and culture was coming out of the way-poverty area. The Detroit techno guys felt dissed, like they werent getting the notoriety they deserved.
Besides, says Robert Fink, a UCLA assistant musicology professor, techno and electronica are the perfect underscoring for cars. The big car-commercial metaphor is that the music also has the feeling of finely tuned machinery, explains Fink, who has spent the last five years studying and teaching others about the myriad manifestations of electronic dance music. Just the sound of a techno track sounds like machinery -- weve been educated to know that cars have been made by machines; I cant imagine using electronic music to sell milk.
I called Fink because Id seen him give a presentation at a local conference of socially conscious ravers called The Gathering of the Tribes. He spread a large sheet of yellow paper across the wall and began to draw on it a genealogy of electronic dance music -- Afrika Bambaataa on one end, Brian Eno on the other, house in the center and, as people contributed to the tree, many splintering categories of trance, ambient and trip-hop. I try not to go so deep into it that it gets absurd, he says, but you need that in electronic dance; you need those labels to precisely describe a piece of music without any vocabulary. Its instrumental, it doesnt have lyrics, and to a Dave Matthews fan it all sounds the same, so its important to find a way of sifting through all this stuff. You end up searching for genre names that have a musical experience.
Increasingly, electronic dance musics ever-splitting genres are becoming marketing categories. At the Billboard conference, the buzz centered on two-step, a heavily R&B-influenced style based on two-beat bars, pioneered by Englands DJ act Artful Dodger. Two-step, also known as U.K. garage, is officially the latest dance craze in England; overseas, Artful Dodger has sold more than 700,000 copies of its single Re-Rewind since November 1999. But the most pervasive electronic music gone mainstream is trance. My DJ friend John Hernandez, who hosts nights of headbanging techno, calls trance mall techno and can mimic it with his voice. I associate it with Melrose shoe stores and bad movies, and find it impossible to dance to. But theres a whole other record-buying crowd, says Fink, that consumes it like air. For some of the older people in the scene, Fink says, trance has become associated with a sort of evolution that they want to stop. If youre into house, its a soulless, manipulative type of music; if youre a breakbeat person, into drum n bass, its rhythmically boring. If youre an avant-gardist, its too pretty. But theres always a group of people saying it was so much better 10 years ago -- theres always this pervasive sense that whoevers getting into the scene right now is ruining it.
Fink compares whats happening now in the dance-music scene to what happened a few years ago in the realm of serious electronic music. There used to be tension-Nazis, he says, who pounced on music that had any suggestion of a build. If you were a partisan of minimalism, part of a small clique of downtown composers who felt themselves under attack from the establishment, you rejected composers who dropped in tension and release. La Monte Young did a piece called X: Any Integer, in which a x is any integer and you make a sound the same way. Young banged on a frying pan for a few hours, and, Fink says, You know after the first 50 times nothing is going to happen.
No ones doing that anymore in classical music. Could the same sort of cycling be happening in dance music? Its possible.
If you happen to be one of the 500-odd students who crowd into Finks UCLA class on the subject, electronic dance music is alive and well, and even trance isnt so bad. I can tell you that people in my class really connect to trance, says Fink. I think it really is effective, because it does some of the same things that classical music does, in particular the stuff that groove dance music is not supposed to do. It controls your sense of tension and release. Fink has played for his students tracks that weave Lakmes famous -- famous because British Airways exploited it -- soprano duet over trance tracks. His students loved it. Minimalist devotees of John Cage would call it cheap. Dance-music veterans despise it.
In the criticism of electronic dance, theres a suspicion of the build, and dance music is supposed to have this free-floating ecstasy quality to it -- the French word for it is jouissance -- non-articulated, three-or-four-hour plateaus of pulsation. Builds in that genre are considered tacky. But the two most popular forms of dance music, progressive trance and big beat, have builds.
Progressive trance is called progressive because it goes somewhere. I would argue that Fatboy Slim, who is the master of the over-the-top build, got to be famous because his music is almost a parody of that. But people want that. We like that tension and release, that story, because its a mirror of how we sense ourselves to be. Music that does that in a heroic, powerful way models our way of being.
And a drug that makes you feel heroic, powerful and empathically connected to your fellow dancers makes that progressive trance build all the more rewarding, says Fink. Why is this music good when youre on Ecstasy? Why is it especially related to the MDMA experience? MDMA is an empathogen. How do you know youre feeling empathy? Because you look over at somebody and theyre feeling the same thing. When do you know? When the music cues you. In the movie Groove, DJ John Digweed is playing, and theres a moment where time slows down, and you know the Ecstasy is working, and everybodys into it at the same moment. Trance helps people who havent been in the scene for 10 years to grab on to those big, exciting builds. And when a group of staid, middle-aged people are sitting at the symphony, its happening for them, too. When the soprano goes up for a high note, were all with her.
No music has ever become popular without the build, Fink says. I dont like the either-or, that theres a cheesy, tacky way of doing things, and then theres this jouissance way. In fact its a continuum. No dance music can become really popular if it literally goes nowhere. Even Richie Hawtin -- who makes the most extreme kind of minimalist techno -- does have shape and structure to his sets. Every DJ Ive talked to is very conscious of spinning a set that has structure.
Make your peace with the builds, Fink advises me. If youre going to insist music be pure, youll have to listen to that guy banging on the frying pan forever.
You gotta have an anthem, DJ Irene says to me. Whats your anthem? Cmon. You gotta have one. Whats that song that just makes you go crazy on the dance floor?
Um, I dont know. Madonnas Holiday?
Irene cracks up. Its a big, throaty, full-body laugh, and she claps her hands together using the power of her entire arm. Thats it! she roars. Thats an anthem! Now, Madonna doesnt want to do that song anymore. But when her fans want it, and when she does it, theyre fanatical.
Irene Gutierrez and I are sitting in her sunny apartment in the Hollywood Hills, with its shiny hardwood floors and upstairs studio, watching her new video on a large-screen TV. In the seven-minute video, produced by a young director named Bo Basic, DJ Irene dances, dresses up, plays for the crowd. She plays everything from house to trance to straight-ahead, amped-up disco. I cant be limited to one genre of music, she says. Id get bored. I have much respect for other DJs continuing in one style for their whole careers, but its just not me. When I was at Circus, my job was to keep people dancing. For a while I was being pigeonholed to hard-house, but it wasnt right, and people knew it. I wont be pinned down. I mean, how do you think I made it through the 80s? I changed with the times. Just like Madonna.
There is no longer any drawback to being a woman DJ, says Irene. As girls, we are the best dancers, so why shouldnt we be the DJs? she asks in utter seriousness. And theres no shame in having a hit. The best part about deejaying is that when you play the right song, you feel like youre changing peoples lives. For me thats System F. Dance Valley is my biggest anthem. Some people think its corny. But if people are waving their hands over their heads and screaming, I must be doing something right.
On KaZaA, a file-sharing network that puts Napster to shame, I download some strange version of John Digweeds The Unexplained and dance to it, alone in my apartment. Its trance with all the same conventions as Oakenfold, but fleet-footed, unpredictable trance. Even in this packaged version, Im never quite confident I know where Digweeds headed -- themes sneak in as if through some sort of electronic back door; his beats fall in and out of sync like the systole and diastole of a packed dance floor, like interweaving strands of a double helix. Rabbit in the Moon, an airy mix of ethereal voices and articulate drumbeats, has a build, all right, but it escalates steadily over the entire tune, not in the violent bursts of electronic pulse for which Oakenfold is so ridiculously famous. It scares me a little; it makes me think of spinning planets, dying stars, death.
It also makes me inexplicably sad, as if so much music that once, for whatever reason, struck me as obdurately noncommercial is lost somehow; as if by nudging its way into the mainstream, electronic dance music has given up its magic to automobile ad campaigns and computer operating systems. But Robert Fink insists that music is not so delicate. Are you saying you dont want any music to be associated with any product? he asks me. If you cant know things about a piece of music and choose the context in which you want to listen to it, then youre very vulnerable. Every piece Ive studied is encrusted. Look at it this way: In an ad, people get to hear this music. People will go to AdCritic.com and say, what was that music in that BMW ad? It is in fact the case that people strip the ad away and use the music. They get the goody in the middle.
Were to presume that the ravers thought they had managed to escape all this, says Fink. Everybody understands that when you get the hair extensions and pick up the Fender, you know what youre getting into. But people who picked up the turntables thought they might have been avoiding the pitfalls. Were going to be into the music and the collective. The rules are going to be different for us. I think rave culture fooled itself that the economics of the music business didnt apply to them, that rave could be ubiquitous yet anti-establishment, lucrative and not commercial. The self-righteous part was, We can change the whole world without compromising with the powers that be. Were going to change the entire world without selling out, without blowing our cool. Thats what died -- that fantasy that rave has remapped popular music without getting a record contract.
Im perfectly aware of the absurdity of walking into Tower Records and seeing this huge section called global undergound, Fink says. Well, I guess it isnt, is it? But the present historical moment is not the one and only crisis point where the forces of good and evil line up for the final battle.
Its Saturday night, and I trudge out of the house to see Irene spin at Spundae. For the last two Saturday nights I havent been able to get into Spundae; the club was full when I arrived, and the line of hopefuls spilled despairingly out of the gate. Tonight I arrive early, wangle media credentials and watch other DJs play, some to nearly empty rooms. Jason Bentley is playing across the hall to a sparse group of men; Kazell precedes Irene on the main stage with the same progressive house he played back when Dave Deans Giant defined Saturday nights at Circus. Its all right to dance to, but nothing to watch. But by the time Irene takes the stage, the club is packed, there are girls screaming her name, and the night has become a show. Her short dyed-blond hair is done up in spikes; shes big-eyed and baby-faced, and flashes her smile like its part of her mix. Her glamorous girlfriend is standing behind the Plexiglas of the DJ booth, and Irene is happy. I think of her telling me about how she has faith in God. She has faith in fun. She dances hard. She Frisbee-throws free CDs into the crowds outstretched hands. She even throws out a T-shirt or two.
Close to the stage, the crowd is moving in sync like a single creature, and it stays that way to the back of the room; there is no place here for standing around. At around midnight, two guys in mesh T-shirts arrive with a bevy of girls in spiky sandals and high heels, one in a white bustier and feathered cover-up, her lips deftly lined with a precision you can spot 10 feet away in a dark nightclub. She dances by moving only her knees and elbows, but she dances until Irene is finished. On the floor in front of her are five young Asian men, jumping and spinning, crossing their feet in the air and landing in a twist, dancing in intricate patterns like the raver boys they are.
Is this a rave? Does it matter? You might think rave is over, says Lynn Hasty, but for some people its just beginning. Always remember that whatever you think is true about music right now, somewhere theres a 15-year-old kid with all the real answers, laughing at all of us. You dont know a thing.
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