This is the music of rave culture, dance culture, an absolutely essential sound. It's more than music. It's a way of life.
And it's facing some serious charges.
In June of this year, the owners of the State Palace Theater in New Orleans entered a plea to one count of "Operating a Crackhouse," having been charged under the 1986 federal "crackhouse statute." The statute holds club owners and promoters responsible for drug distribution and use within their venues. The plea agreement prohibits the "introduction, sale, distribution or providing of the following items ... " going on to list such common rave culture paraphernalia as pacifiers, glowsticks, vapor rub as well as "chill rooms"--areas within a club where dancers go to cool off.
Prior to the plea agreement, the club owners faced up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Less dramatic, but of similar impetus is a "dance hall" ordinance that went into effect in Charlotte in July. The ordinance requires club owners to apply for a permit to stay open after 2:30 a.m. Clubs that admit teenagers must close at 11:00 p.m. during the week and midnight on weekends.
All over the country, prosecutors and local governments are taking a hard look at rave venues and, to varying degrees, taking a dim view. They see drugs and corrupted youth. They see the need to respond proactively.
Rave scene promoters see it differently.
"I think it's sad," says Uzoma Nwosu, a longtime Triangle promoter, of the application of crackhouse laws. "It takes things to a new level, it fully criminalizes the scene."
Wednesday P.M. "Radiance" night at Gotham in Chapel Hill: "HARDCOREDRUM&BASSTRANCEHOUSETECHNO" the flier reads. It's early yet, the DJ mining the mood. Songs, like terminology, are not clearly delineated, one grooving into the next, gentle tides of funk morphing into a sudden tsunami of frenetic freeze.
No drugs are in evidence. Everything's mellow. Except the music.
If the Grateful Dead had tuned to electronica they might have arrived at something approximating techno. But probably not. Because, though the rave scene today attracts all ages--the crowd tonight includes a bearded man of 50 and some, whirligigging it solo, eyes closed, on course, on schedule, nowhere to go--it was convened by and for young people, a fully organic phenomenon, a fundamental expression of "we're here"--young people defining their own culture by refusing to allow it to be defined at all.
Technically, the scene at Gotham isn't a rave. Technically, there are no more raves, or scarce few.
"If you really want to define it, the term 'rave' came out of the late-'80s acid-house movement in London," says Chad Wilson, owner of Wax Worx in Raleigh, a record store that caters to techno habitu&233;s. Wilson is a longtime DJ, promoter and producer. "They were gatherings outside of nightclubs, where people got together in warehouses or illegal spaces and had these large, one-off events that were--early-on--somewhat illegal.
"What they were doing with these parties was different," says Wilson of the start-up days. "It was a little bit less dress-up, it was go out and be you, and it was more unified.
"And the music at the time was changing really rapidly, and it was something fresh. Everything was fresh."
Through the '90s, the rave scene grew more mainstream. Illegal warehouse raves were staged less frequently. Clubs became the principal venue. These days, the term 'rave' is really associated with the type of music that's played in places where someone rents a space or a club and brings in DJs.
The Triangle has a solid, if not vibrant, rave scene.
"It comes and goes," says Wilson. "This is an area with a lot of colleges so there's a lot more events going on during the school year. During the summer it fluctuates. But between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill there seems to regularly be something going on.
Several clubs in the Triangle--Gotham in Chapel Hill, Club Oxygen, Five Star and Southend Brewery in Raleigh among them--have one or more nights a week dedicated to techno or DJ parties. Other clubs, like the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, turn over their space to promoters now and again.The association
PLUR: Peace, Love, Unity and Respect. These are the four pillars of the rave scene, and good vibes are very much the measure.
It's about dancing--with a partner, a cluster, alone, out on the floor or on your barstool. It's about an earthy beat that rattles in your chest and bores you through the floor, a preternatural psychic shudder. It's about sensorial overload. Getting lost, and getting found.
It's about the music and it's about the lights and it's very much about the DJ.
Brian Behlendorf of Hyperreal (www.hyperreal.org)--an online resource for information and activities surrounding the rave scene--puts it well: "At a rave, the DJ is a shaman, a priest, a channeller of energy--they control the psychic voyages of the dancers through [their] choice in hard-to-find music and their skill in manipulating that music--sometimes working with just a set of beats and samples--into a tapestry of mindbending music."
Which brings us to the drugs. It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that there are characteristics particular to the rave scene that lend themselves to drug use--to certain drugs, "club drugs," as they're often called in the media.
For many young people, rave society is a uniquely safe environment: a safe place to self-express, to commune, perhaps to indulge. All kids this side of the Bubble Boy are exposed to illegal drugs. Some choose to partake of them off the street, among friends, engulfed in "mindbending" music.
Ecstasy, or MDMA, a synthetic, psychoactive that acts both as a stimulant and a hallucinogen, is the drug of choice, almost always taken in pill form, though occasionally it's snorted or injected. The so-called "love drug" is an eradicator of angst, inducing a general sense of well-being, safety, of all's-right-with-the-world. It's been called "penicillin for the soul."
According to a recent, $54 million study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Ecstasy can "cause injury to the brain, affecting neurons that use the chemical serotonin to communicate with other neurons. The serotonin system plays a direct role in regulating mood, aggression, sexual activity, sleep, and sensitivity to pain."
The NIDA study concludes that the risks of Ecstasy use are similar to those of cocaine and amphetamines, including depression, severe anxiety, paranoia, blurred vision, chills or sweating, increased heart rate and blood pressure and perhaps liver damage.
More immediately, there's the danger with Ecstasy of becoming overheated and dehydrated, a particular danger when raving till the vicinity of dawn.
A 1998 NIDA survey found that over three million Americans had tried MDMA at least once, with the heaviest use (5 percent, or 1.4 million people) found in the 18-25 age group. Apparently, Ecstasy use is growing faster among teenagers than any other drug.
"We're pretty much reflecting what's going on nationwide," says Lt. Kent Sholar of the Raleigh Police Department's drug and vice unit. "Seizures [of MDMA] have increased and arrests have increased."
But, as the PLUR credo would suggest, violence associated with Ecstasy hasn't been an issue.
"What I'm getting," says Sholar, "is that it's not a violent type drug. It's more of a let's-get-happy-and-hug type thing." The crackdown
But with Ecstasy use growing among teenagers, law enforcement, nationwide, is worried.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center, "In a two-year period, 52 raves were held at the New Orleans State Palace Theater, during which time approximately 400 teenagers overdosed and were transported to local emergency rooms."
Meanwhile, initiatives aimed at cracking down on club drugs have prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to criticize what it perceives as a full-out war on rave culture.
"Holding club owners and promoters of raves criminally liable for what some people may do at these events is no different from arresting the stadium owners of a Rolling Stones concert or a rap show because some concertgoers may be smoking or selling marijuana," says Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project.
Prosecutors around the country, says the ACLU, have been watching the State Palace Theater case and another in Panama City, Fla., intrigued by the possibilities.
Meanwhile, some North Carolina rave proponents were relatively pleased with the final version of Charlotte's "dance hall" ordinance.
Dann Dunn is a proponent of the dance scene. He was also president of the Charlotte chapter of the Young Democrats when the ordinance became law. He says: "I personally was happy with the outcome. The original version was very rigid. Luckily the City Council looked at all the angles and adopted a milder version. Some of the local media and politicos tried to look like heroes, but everything is pretty much as it was."
Though Uzoma Nwosu has never had any conflict involving local law enforcement, he's watching what's going on in New Orleans and elsewhere with concern. "People are going to do drugs, whether it's going to the restroom to do a line of coke at a rock show or whatever--they'll find the time and place to do it.
"But as long as you're doing your best to prevent that from happening, they shouldn't be messing with you."
Closing rave venues will by no means deep six Ecstasy. It'll survive just fine on the streets. A deeper discussion of the drug problem is imperative.
This is the first of two articles on rave culture. Next week: The importance of rave culture to young people, and efforts to deal with the drug issue.