A History of Rave

Fusion magazine

A dreadlocked skatekid in bell-bottom flares and hooded top shares podium space with a pigtailed girl dressed in pyjamas fit for a four-year-old. They have Cheshire Cat smiles and wave their arms in the air like they’re catching invisible bagels shooting out of the speakers. All around them similarly-attired kids – most aged 14-21 – are moving as one, tracing shapes in the air with glowsticks, teddy bears and assorted plastic toys. And through a dense fog of dry ice and retina-frying lasers pumps a surging soundtrack of deep beats and euphoric strings. The barrage of bass is so heavy it makes your spine wobble. Welcome to the rave frontline.

Such scenes occur week in week out across the globe. In some countries raves are a resolutely underground phenomenon, in others it’s so mainstream your mother can hum the tunes. Raves happen in clubs, warehouses, beaches, fields, forests, deserts, abandoned office blocks – anywhere, basically, where you can bring together a bunch of people, a booming sound system and a DJ with a box of fat tunes. Rave culture’s resonance has rippled far outside of music, into fashion, art, government policy and many areas of public and private life. It’s made millionaires out of some and forced others to completely lose the plot. In short, it’s been less a breath of fresh air, more like a tornado.

Tracing the history of rave is no easy task. There’s no one accepted “official” history. There’s a mass of competing narratives; spaghetti-like strands of truth, misinformation, disinformation, myth, embellishment and wild anecdotal evidence. And there are hundreds of untold stories too. But we can still piece together a story and come pretty close to understanding how and why the scene evolved, a beguiling story of the once-in-a-lifetime synergy of music, drugs and technology.

Although the concept of raves as we know them exploded out of the UK in the late ’80s, the soundtrack that underpins them has a much longer history – and it’s one that’s almost exclusively American. But then that’s been the pattern for many forms of popular music – Americans come up with a sonic blueprint, it gets exported across the Atlantic, the Brits chew on it for a while and then spit it back in a highly-charged and radical new form. Trace the lineage of rock’n’roll, heavy metal and punk to see the cycle in action.

The musical seeds of rave were sown in the early ’70s when the tribal, rhythm-heavy vibes of disco emerged out of New York gay clubs like Salvation, The Loft and the Paradise Garage. DJs such as Francois Kervorkian and Larry Levan used their sets to take dancers “on a journey” into a vortex of communal transcendence. The clubs themselves were almost exclusively gay, black and Latino, packed with muscular young men stripped to the waist gyrating like they’d just been shafted with lightning rods. Fuelled on fruit punch and psychedelics, they sweated it out like it was the last day on Earth – each and every Saturday night.

Levan was a breathtaking DJ, weaving psychedelic tapestries of bass-heavy superfunk, proto-house and outrageously uplifting soul. He was also a prima donna of the highest order, his appetite for drugs, booze and young men as legendary as his raging temper tantrums. One night he demanded a bedroom be built behind the Garage DJ booth. Another night, pissed off because he didn’t get his way, Levan got down on all fours and bit a chunk out of owner Michael Brody’s leg. As Mel Cheren, an early backer of the Garage, noted, “Levan moved to the beat of his own drummer.”

After the monster success of 1978’s “Saturday Night Fever”, the inevitable disco backlash followed – but the scene didn’t disappear, it just went back underground. Over in Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles was updating the disco legacy at a new club, the Warehouse. He would beef up disco cuts with specially-created tape edits and primitive drum machines, giving rise to a style of music that would soon become “House”. Like the New York clubs, the Warehouse was mainly black and gay. Knuckles says it had a spiritual, soulful vibe: “For most of the people that went there it was church for them. The parties were very intense [and] the feeling was very pure.”

House was rawer and starker than disco. It relied more on relentless percussion and staccato basslines than soaring strings and gospel harmonies (the first bona fide house tracks would emerge on vinyl in 1983). And by blending two copies of the same records the DJs could stretch a track out for what seemed like an eternity, teasing the crowd to the point of meltdown. Stoked on a cornucopia of narcotics, dancers would enter an animalistic state, screaming at the top of their lungs and raging in their own private darkness.

Meanwhile over in Detroit, three young black kids – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – were pushing dance music into more alien climes. Fusing disco, house, electro, Kraftwerk, George Clinton and European synth-pop to devastating effect, they laid down the blueprint for what would soon be called “Techno”. It was resolutely machine-driven, colder than disco, stripped of the warm harmonies and uplifting choruses, infused by the desolation of Detroit’s crumbling infrastructure. Atkins described himself as “a warrior for the technological revolution” while May reckoned the sound was “23rd century ballroom music”.

Sometimes new sounds came about more through accident than design. In 1985, Nathaniel Jones, aka DJ Pierre, was fiddling around with a Roland 303 bass machine and somehow teased out a wild squelching sound, like a Fender Strat and drenched in hydrochloric acid. The resultant 12-inch, 1987’s “Acid Tracks”, gave birth to the acid house sub-genre. The term suited the music perfectly – weird, crazy, intense, trance-like. The 303 sound has been a staple of house and techno producers ever since.

While all these musical developments were forging ahead
, the final piece of the rave jigsaw – the drug – was being slotted into place. After being introduced on the therapeutic circuit, by the early 80s it was being caned in the clubs. By 1983 its use was widespread in Dallas on account of it being sold over the bar at the Starck club. Rich, precocious Dallas teenagers flocked there to max out their parents’ credit cards on this new wonderdrug. One of the club’s investors, Kenny Jaggers, says there was no guilt or stigma attached to buying Ecstasy (or XTC as it was known then) because the drug was legal at the time. “It was seen as high class. Some of the same people who were worrying about their kids sampling pot were downing this stuff.”

Despite its banning in 1985, the drug’s reputation spread world wide, hitting the tiny Mediterranean paradise of Ibiza. The island was famous for its jet-set hangouts and open-air clubs. Wham filmed the video to “Club Tropicana” at Pikes Hotel while celebs like Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Grace Jones and Hollywood movie stars regularly graced the clubs and beaches. But by the mid-80s, the clubs also contained pockets of awe-struck young Brits, soaking up the glamour and sunshine.

In the summer of 1987, a group of 20-somethings from south-east London took a holiday there. The group included DJs Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold (the Guinness Book of Records later dubbed Oakey “the world’s biggest DJ”). It was on this island that they tried Ecstasy for the first time. The experience was nothing short of revelatory. In the open air, fuelled on Ecstasy’s euphoric qualities, they soaked up a soundtrack of Chicago house, Prince, George Michael and groovy funk. Reality (dreary old England) was a distant memory as Ecstasy broke down barriers and people let it all hang out. In Sheryl Garratt’s club culture history ‘Adventures In Wonderland’ Rampling remembers “sitting on top of the speakers all night, having a ball. It was an amazing experience. I hadn’t seen a club as *international* as that before. There were boys with skirts on, wild transvestites from Barcelona, club kids from London…it was such an egalitarian mix of people. Hearing that sort of music played in the open air in a glamorous club is something I’m never, ever going to forget in my life.”

Enthused and inspired by their Ibizan experiences, Rampling and Oakenfold decided to export the vibe back to London clubland. Rampling’s Schoom and Oakenfold’s Spectrum were dayglo paradises full of Converse baseball boots, colourful, baggy holiday clothes and assorted hippy/ethnic accessories – the antithesis of London’s then-monochrome clubwear. In the clubs, people really *danced* rather than standing around trying to look cool with their designer beers. Sweat poured off the ceilings and the disco fog was strawberry-flavoured. Clubbers hugged each other, passed around plates of candy, carried cuddly toys and gave each other flowers. Rampling adopted the yellow smiley face logo for Schoom’s flyers. Acid house was born.

Although Schoom and Spectrum only catered to a few hundred souls, the rave gospel was spreading faster than a dose of the clap in a Mexican bordello. By the middle of 1988, London was in the grips of its Second Summer Of Love. Clubs converted almost overnight to acid house. People shed their black clubwear and opened out like brightly coloured butterflies. Squats, warehouses, penthouses, fitness gyms, industrial wasteland – the rave scene was swallowing up everywhere. A year later and the rest of the UK had caught on to. Boosted by an uncharacteristically scorching British summer, huge parties for five, ten, even twenty thousand people were springing up in the countryside, dodging the efforts of a bewildered police force in the process. To fox the cops, promoters set up map points and voicemail lines that revealed the location of the party only a few minutes before it started. 

Productions values soared – huge fairground rides, big bouncy castles, massive turbo-boosted sound systems, live PAs, American DJs – and so did interest from the media. At first, Britain’s notoriously reactionary tabloid press were into the scene. ‘The Sun’ promoted its own smiley T-shirts, printing an “acid house fashion guide” and proclaimed it “groovy and cool”. But when the drug use started to come to light, they quickly changed tack. The following week the paper was banging on about the “evils of Ecstasy”, prompting rent-a-quote government officials to denounce the new “evil craze”. The primetime BBC television music show “Top Of The Pops” went so far as to ban songs with the word “acid” in the title.

There was a lot of money to be made in raves too. Get twenty thousand people at your party, charge them £20 a head, cream off some of the profits from the voicemail lines and you’re laughing all the way to the bank. Profits of between ten and a hundred thousand pounds per rave weren’t out of the question. But despite that, there were still a lot of people adhering to the original acid house spirit, putting on free parties for the faithful. Renegade house sound systems would set up illegal, but free, parties deep in the countryside. They’d maybe go around with a bucket asking for donations for petrol to keep the electricity generators going but there was no cover charge. One such outfit, Nottingham’s DiY sound system, had a party raided by police in 1990. The cops expected a Mr Big to be behind it all with a suitcase full of used banknotes. “They couldn’t understand why we would want to…do something for nothing,” explained DJ Digs in Matthew Collin’s Ecstasy history ‘Altered State’. “We only had three quid between four of us. They told us we were too scruffy to be acid house promoters.”

Late 1989 was the beginning of the end for the illegal rave scene in the UK as authorities forced raves into legitimate club venues. As the police cracked down even harder, busting more and more parties, ravers migrated to the clubs rather than risk attending an illegal bash and getting arrested into the bargain.

Back in the US, the rave scene was developing in a more piecemeal fashion. Although it never hit the heights of mass public concern and outrage as in the UK in 1988-89, strong – yet independent – scenes were emerging in New York, LA and San Francisco. 

In Brooklyn, New York, DJ Frankie Bones – who had caught the rave bug when he guested at some of the UK’s biggest raves in the summer of 1989 – put on mini-gatherings with friends in warehouses and on beaches. They even played footage from the British raves on big screens, like training films. The soundtrack was intense (Belgian techno, British breakbeat hardcore), the vibe militantly underground. Like in the UK the events got bigger as other promoters cottoned on to rave’s money-making aspect, the scene infiltrating the Manhattan clubs. Nights like NASA (Nocturnal Audio and Sensory Awakening) at Shelter kicked off in the summer of 1992, fuelled by the breakbeat-piano “happy hardcore” that was dominating British airwaves at the time. NASA saw the fusion of hip-hop and rave styles – super baggy trousers, Tommy Hilfiger and other preppy labels, lollipops, smiley T-shirts. Promoter Scotto says it was at NASA where the “whole style of East Coast rave dancing was invented. That dance where there’s a little snakey thing going, and little bunny hop steps. One night this guy was fucked up and mesmerized by his own gloves, he started these moves and that’s how it started.”

Meanwhile, what set apart the San Francisco scene from those in New York and LA was the underlying cyberdelic philosophy. Drawing on the city’s hippy past, the burgeoning internet culture, the gay community’s disco heritage, the profusion of LSD labs on the West Coast and various elements of New Age spirituality, raves were infused with a ritualistic fervour. This fusion of influences manifested itself in the parties, music, fashion and flyers. T-shirts proclaimed “open your mind” and “empathize” while alien images cropped up everywhere. Photoshop imaging software allowed designers to articulate their ideas outside conventional design parameters. Local producers – like the Hardkiss Brothers – started making house music, shot through with a heavy dose of psychedelic funk. The profusion of psychedelics led to some interesting parties. In an interview with music journalist Simon Reynolds, rave pioneer Wade Hampton claimed there was an incident of mass hallucination at one party where several hundred people “saw the same spaceship come down and land. There was this acid floating around called Purple Shield. That party is legendary in San Francisco. After that party, most people walked away as one.”

Of course, Los Angeles was having none of that hippy crap. The rave scene there was a far more fashion-conscious entity, although still based on the model that sprang out of London (flyers, word-of-mouth, voicemail lines, map points). And like the British scene, it was all about “bigger is best” – lavish production values, massive sound systems, gig-style lighting rigs. One rave even took place in a Disney facility, complete with castles, moats, dry ice and an aeroplane. Another had performance art modelled on Ancient Rome complete with hydraulic stages. 

As the raves mushroomed in size, party organisers had to think of ingenious ways to get around harassment from police and rival promoters. One promoter found out that a rival rave organisation had taken over the warehouse he had earmarked for his party. So he dressed up in a suit and wandered down to the space with a clipboard. He announced he was from the real estate company, that the kids had set off a silent alarm and that he’d call the cops if they didn’t get out in one hour. The rivals quickly split but then he had to deal with the police. So he decided to disguise the rave as an after-concert party for that night’s Madonna gig. He told his usual security company of the scam and then hired another security firm and fed them the Madonna line so they’d sound like they were telling the truth if challenged by the cops. It worked.

But all good things come to an end, and after a series of police crackdowns and media panics it all went corporate fairly swiftly. By 1992, many raves were “legit”, selling tickets through Ticketmaster. The introduction of drugs like Ketamine, crystal meth, PCP and cocaine also fractured the original loved-up E vibe.

Although rave in the UK and the US
 suffered from waves of negative publicity post-1992, the way the scenes developed in each country was markedly different. This helps explain why raves are still a relatively underground concept in the US whereas dance culture is the mainstream in the UK.

As the spirit of rave was quickly adopted by UK clubland – as early as 1987 – it swiftly became absorbed into the legal entertainment sector. People were making money and the economy was boosted by this new youth cult – which meant more bucks for the taxman. It was hardly in the government’s interests to completely eradicate dance culture. The police concentrated their efforts on cracking down on illegal raves hard, culminating in the introduction of 1994’s Criminal Justice Act, which famously, and laughably, banned “repetitive beats”. One outlaw rave sound system responded by cutting tunes in which the beats continuously altered, although so subtly the untrained ear wouldn’t notice. Thus they didn’t play music that could legally be classified as “repetitive” – and thus avoided arrest.

Perhaps most importantly, Britons were quicker and more eager to embrace the music that came out of the scene (many Americans, sadly, are still put off by house music’s gay, black disco roots). London is now regarded as the focal point for the global dance music scene, producing an energising mix of big commercial dance tunes and bleeding-edge underground sounds.

This mass acceptance of rave culture contrasts greatly with the American situation. Although the rave message has spread out to many other parts of the States, many argue the blueprint has been slavishly copied and more or less remained the same for the past eight years. Still, most major cities have now have flourishing rave scenes; notable hotspots include the Mid West (drawing on the techno and house legacy of Detroit and Chicago), Texas and the Bible Belt, the Pacific North West (Seattle and Portland), Florida, and the North East (Boston, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey).

What really sets apart the electronic music scene in the US is the clear-cut division between the rave scene and clubland. The former is championed by a younger crowd who favour the harder, faster styles of dance music (techno, happy hardcore, drum & bass) and a more militant underground stance. These ravers regard club-goers as fashion-conscious old duffers who prance to slower, more “mature” old skool house. Conversely, club-minded folk deride the rave scene for what they perceive as formulaic thrills, infantile fashions and lowest common denominator soundtrack. Clubbers argue that the real innovations in dance music – acid house, jungle, trip hop, speed garage – have come out of intimate club settings, not raves. In the UK and Europe there’s not quite such a division – people will quite happily attend clubs as they will big enormo-raves, festivals or illegal warehouse parties. 

There are signs that dance culture may finally break out big in the States this year, despite the best efforts of “60 Minutes”, “Dateline” and “Time” magazine and their barrage of anti-rave hysteria. May’s inaugural Detroit Electronic Music Festival attracted over 1.5 million people to a three-day techno sweatdown, the largest dance festival in the US ever. Raves still happen week in week out in most major American cities – and more and more spring up each month. And giant UK clubbing brands like the Ministry Of Sound and Pete Tong’s Essential Selection are now aggressively targeting the American market with CD compilations, club tours, radio shows and websites. Maybe not too long from now, we’ll all be hearing the clarion call of “America, land of the free and the rave”.

Recommended reading

“Altered State: The Story Of Ecstasy Culture And Acid House” by Matthew Collin with contributions by John Godfrey (Serpent’s Tail)

“Energy Flash” by Simon Reynolds (Picador)

“Adventures In Wonderland: A Decade Of Club Culture” by Sheryl Garratt (Headline)

“Once In A Lifetime” Jane Bussman

“Keep On Dancin’ – My Life And The Paradise Garage” by Mel Cheren with Gabriel Rotello & Brent Nicholson Earle (24 Hours For Life)

Top Five Rave Movies

High-energy, pseudo-Tarantino plot with pills’n’thrills backdrop.

The darkside of the drug dream revealed in all its smacked-out glory.

“Better Living Through Circuitry”
Rave doc that hooks up with many of the US scene’s main players.

The first proper attempt at dramatising the rave scene.

“Human Traffic”
Cheeky and chirpy account of Britain’s 48-hour party people.

Top Ten Electronic Music Albums

Goldie “Timeless” (London)
Leftfield “Leftism” (Hard Hands)
Underworld “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” (Wax Trax)
Plastikman “Sheet One” (NovaMute)
Roni Size & Reprazent “New Forms) “Talkin’ Loud)
The Orb “The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld” (Big Life)
Prodigy “Music For The Jilted Generation” (Mute)
The Chemical Brothers “ExitPlanetDust” (Junior Boys Own)
Aphex Twin “Selected Ambient Works ’85-’92” (R&S)
Derrick May “Innovator” (Transmat)

© Kieran Wyatt

A history of rave © Kieran Wyatt