Rollin' on the River

Inside St. Louis' growing rave culture, where the music is loud, the vibe is ecstatic and the kids are alright

This is underground youth culture 2000: The guitar has been squished by the beat, and the rockin' has been squished by the rollin' (and "rollin'" is no longer just slang for sex; "rollin'" is taking Ecstasy). The Rave, the evil of evils that has been demonized and disregarded for the past decade, has gradually gathered such momentum that it's now possibly the biggest collective youth gathering in St. Louis at the end of the century, and the most exciting and absolutely alive movement since the arrival of rock & roll.

"We're vibe junkies. It's the people that make an evening special for us. We can listen to music at home, but we want sweaty people dancin' their asses off all around us. We want hugs. We want not to just say "hi,' but to have conversations with people -- new people. We want back rub circles. We want to catch the eye of another person on the dance floor and share a knowing smile. We want some candy. We want to hear whistles. We want vibe flyers. We want to hold hands. We want to scream "wooOO!' at the DJ. Now that we throw parties, we realize our favorite parts are things we have the least control over. The vibe is up to YOU!" -- mission statement from the "Good Stuff" flier

The quote sounds a bit touchy-feely, a bit lovey-dovey, a bit, well, childish. The candy, the hugs, the whistles, the hand-holding -- it sounds like kindergarten, but in reality, "More Good Stuff" was anything but a kinder affair; it was the culmination of a year of St. Louis parties that got progressively bigger and bigger, regularly drawing upward of 1,000 people into rented spaces. The general consensus is that MGS drew at least 2,500 people, but it seemed like more. Most of St. Louis never heard about these parties, and that was intentional; the scene prefers to remain somewhat cloistered, its members speaking among themselves on Internet mailing lists, through fliers and house parties, and at the gatherings themselves.

It's a scene that has roller-coastered around St. Louis for about eight years, reflecting a general trend that has spread around the globe gradually, one that has at its center the exhilarating release of no-holds-barred dance.

Not tapping your toe to a drumbeat, not gently swaying to Fleetwood Mac, not slamming to the Circle Jerks or moshing to Pearl Jam -- actually dancing, dancing to celebrate the union of sound and psyche, dancing for transcendent release all night long. Just dancing.

Rave culture is dance culture, and these monstrous parties are all geared to creating an environment for dancing. "They've assimilated ideas that I think that rock & roll was too quick to let go of," says DJ Adam Louis, who discovered the rave culture when he was 15 (he's now 21), "which were dance and the actual gathering. Rock & roll was too quickly resigned to radio listening and private listening and Walkmans. Rave culture's not about that. When I listen to a record at Deep Grooves or I listen to a tape in my car, it's all just in anticipation of being at a party. When I listened to bands in my youth, it was very rarely in anticipation of a concert, because the concerts were 21-and-up, or the concerts were 50 bucks, or the concerts were this or that, and you don't get your money's worth."

It's this basic mentality that drives the culture, from the avalanche of dance music being released on 12-inch vinyl; to the plethora of DJs arriving on the scene to spin at the parties; to the organization of underground rave promoters whose responsibility it is to both secure safe, exciting spaces and then create a striking environment -- pumping light and sound systems -- in which to revel; to the parties themselves.

"I value dance a great deal," continues Louis, "because I think that's a true expression. Especially in the sense of the audience -- you're giving back to the DJ, No. 1. You're feeding energy back and forth, but you're doing it in an individualized, almost cosmic way. I can actually look out at an audience and see my record make a friend move in a way they've never moved before. I can see other people move in ways I've never seen people move before. I can learn from them, and when I go and dance, I can move in a similar way."

Like the other raves held all over the world today, "More Good Stuff" had as its intention the creation of a single-night renegade dance party, and toward that end an entire alternative structure has grown: independent promoters (the Superstars of Love, Kindred Groove, Boogie Knights, Bionic Crew, That Girl, Disco Pimps, Faded Crew); an avalanche of DJs (far too many to list; it's safe to say there are as many aspiring DJs in St. Louis 2000 as there are bands); a web of businesses that provide cheap full-color printing, lasers and strobes, massive sound systems, DJ 12-inch records (the University City Loop's Deep Grooves is by far the best), toys (glow sticks and dozens of variations of), drugs and loads of candy, which tastes like sweetened enchantment when you're on Ecstasy.

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