By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
The evening begins with a phone call. It always does. The voice on the machine at the other end, excited after months of anticipation, finally lets the secret out and gives directions to ground zero -- not just street names but detailed directions for the countless out-of-state callers, those who will be traveling five or six hours to get here. Hordes of them, all calling to uncover the mystery spot.
At that spot, a few people mill about in the late-fall breeze, nowhere near the number expected to be queuing around the compound. Just a trickle of people, standing cross-armed and cold. It's curious. The most recent info was from a friend of a friend on a cell phone: "Don't come yet. I'm standing in line here with 500 people."
The building, located somewhere in St. Louis city, looms large, an old brick warehouse with a chain-link fence and barbed wire surrounding it. A tiny rumble seeps from the third-floor windows, but that's all. Nonetheless, the rumble suggests something bigger, and the people up there in the windows appear so special. They're inside. Those outside keep glancing up, perhaps imagining what it must be like. The electricity is amped up by the admonition of a couple of off-duty cops standing in front of a huge gate.
"Folks," says one, "I'm sorry, but we're not letting anyone else in until the promoter tells me otherwise -- not even people on the guest list. They were expecting 1,000, and we had 1,500 people lined up here at 10:30. Someone will be out in a few minutes to let me know whether we can let anybody else in, but it doesn't look good. I'd suggest trying back in an hour or so."
It's 2:30 a.m.
The cops repeat the spiel to every group that arrives, and they keep arriving. A carload pulls up in a white Ford Escort. They are given the news. "We drove all the way from Columbia," argues the driver. No luck. They drive away. It keeps going like this for another half-hour. Cop cars arrive. The traffic is getting worse, especially considering that this area isn't designed to handle a lot of traffic. Curiously, rather than investigate the cause of the traffic, or the mass of kids milling about, the cops simply put on their flashers and begin directing the cars.
Throughout the ordeal, the authorities are admirably patient, but finally one, now standing next to a barrel overflowing with fire, points to an officer directing traffic. "She's the lieutenant, and she's going to start arresting people for loitering if you all don't disperse. I can't let you in until someone from Kindred Groove tells me to, and I'm not sure when that will be. Come back in an hour."
But nobody dares leave, and, finally, after a nod from a Kindred Groove kingpin, all those loitering are granted entry. They walk through a maze of cars and buildings and into another long line. Across the lot, a few stealth silhouettes (perhaps the Columbia carload?) leap from one rooftop to another, sneaking into the compound and ending up in line.
This line is crazier, crammed with teens and twentysomethings, all waving their $20 bills at the clean-cut guy in the white Kindred Grooves T. A few in line hold canned goods (3 bucks off entry price!), and all of them are aching to squeeze into the warehouse space.
And then they're in, as if they'd crawled down a rabbit hole, worked their way through the dirt and the mud, and -- abracadabra -- arrived in a kind of Wonderland, on this occasion called "More Good Stuff," the sequel to last year's "Good Stuff" party.
Entering is a sensory explosion. It was cold outside, but it's sweltering in here. Quiet outside; loud in here. Still and stilted there; wild and alive here: lasers and music, strobes and fog machines, darkness and dust, and people everywhere. These people are wearing blinking red lights under their visors, resulting in freaky flashing faces; they're winding and weaving neon glow sticks, creating circular tracers with their hands. A guy who's sewn dozens of glow sticks onto his pants walks by, and he looks like a hipster clown. Another has painted his body silver. Another prances by with a flashing red laser-tag suit on. Two angels, faces gilded with glitter, glide by wearing wings, holding hands, giggling and guzzling water
They're all in on a big secret, one that is overloading a subculture with a big party nearly every weekend in St. Louis these days, one that deliberately stands outside the Music Structure -- the radio, the big-name concert venues and promoters, the advertising and the hype, and one that nonetheless nearly drowns out rock culture in the late '90s; on this Friday night, where a few hundred people are milling about at the alternative-rock clubs, staring at the bands and drinking beer, a few thousand are working to a big beat, downing bladderfuls of buck-a-bottle water and sucking on lollipops, hugging and drugging (Ecstasy is the drug of choice, and, once consumed, it begs for water and hopes for candy), smiling at strangers and meeting new friends, creating something truly magical, a world away from the everyday.
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.
"I remember when we first started throwing parties and the police would come into them, especially these raves in the middle of nowhere where there's camping, or in Kentucky, where they had these really big DJs come. It's just a rave, but when these police would come, it was as though a spaceship landed there. They just had no idea. They'd see all these lasers and people dancing. It was very scary to them -- the looks on their faces. This is how freaked-out they were: When they shut down "Love Generator 2,' they came in and confiscated everything. They confiscated bottles of water, bananas; they were testing them, sending them to labs. They did not know what was going on. They thought it was some kind of cult thing happening." -- Ryan Paradise of the Superstars of Love
The warehouse parties around the area have a renegade aura around them. A few weeks ago at a great smaller party (thrown by the Faded Crew) inside a dungeonesque space, revelers entered by descending a steel spiral staircase into nearly total darkness. It's the perfect way to enter the party, winding down into a dank womb filled with echo and crammed with people. After the initial eye adjustment, the darkness gives way to hundreds of people creating their own light with glow sticks and flashing lights. A machine spews fog that, because of the lack of ventilation, roams around the room, creating a dream landscape that the lasers needle through.
The glow sticks are everywhere: A mass of people crams the concession room waiting to buy them; once the sticks are secured, partyers weave them through their hands, then trace green and pink circles in the darkness. Each ecstatic dancer seems deep within a world of mesmerizing color, and combined, they contribute to a chaotic, overlapping motion of circles. Some tie the sticks to a string and twirl them, creating huge swirls in the air.
Anything that glows is special here, and all of it creates a kind of neon-on-black-velvet feel. A fantastic blue flashing digital watch catches the eye of a dancer, who sees the crazy patterns the watch face is programmed to run. It blinks and spins, hypnotizing the boy, who then innocently approaches the watch's owner, a dancing girl. "Hey, can I see your watch?" The girl smiles. "Sure!" She holds it out and hits some buttons, and the light moves to the beat. Another girl, seeing the interaction from afar, runs over and hands the boy some prism glasses. "You have to stare at the watch with these on!" she demands. He puts them on, and a tiny vision of magic -- infinite strobing blue circles -- appears. Whoa.
Despite the alien atmosphere of curious intimacy among strangers, the St. Louis rave scene didn't arrive here from another galaxy. It's evolved into what it is now, and it has a concrete, though secret, history; over the course of the past decade it's steam-rolled its way into wonderful climaxes like those in 1994 and '95, which, by most accounts, rivaled the size and scope of a few of this year's parties, and suffered through bouts of post-party depression in '96 and '97. The city, along with America as a whole, is on the verge of one big rave-culture climax in the next five years, if not sooner. It's already happened in Europe, where parties drawing 50,000 revelers are not uncommon. Last year's "Love Parade" on the streets of Berlin drew an estimated crowd of a million-and-a-half people -- a far cry from the 2,500 at "More Good Stuff."
And a far cry from the 300 people who attended what is considered to have been St. Louis' first rave, "Rave on the River," which took place on the Becky Thatcher riverboat on April 18, 1992. The party sold out, and as the boat rolled up and down the Mississippi, DJ Disaster, then host of the Voice of Rave, an early techno/house radio show on KDHX (88.1 FM), kicked off the decade's festivities. The flier for that show, a basic green announcement, promised lighting by Jimbo "guiding a rave-adelic symbiosis of lights and vision" and "a smart bar facility for max mind efficiency and interstellar brain machine to warp your mind."
The early raves were mainly in warehouses; downtown was even more of a shell than it is now, and the process was basic, says Joel Sansone, a.k.a. DJ Merlin, who, along with DJ Terry Mullan, threw some of the early St. Louis parties. "I'd drive around. There's realty signs all over these buildings. You call them professionally. You write contracts, and sometimes they'll go for it. "I'll give you $1,000 for two nights.' And, you know, this building's been sitting here for years. Why not? Who cares what the guy's going to do with the money, whether he pockets it or not? We'd tell them what we're going to do. We didn't embellish. Sometimes we may say, "We're not throwing ... we're throwing a polka party.' We did get insurance. That's one thing we would do."
These parties, like some still going in the area today, were semiguerilla affairs -- no jumping through the proper bureaucratic hoops, no notifying the fire marshals and building inspectors, no bothering with the necessary "one-night-event permit" or notifying the cops. Promoters roamed the city searching for a space and, once it was found, made a quiet deal with the owner, paid him cash, threw the party and hoped nobody complained. These parties began to draw attention, and as they did, the city started to gain a reputation as one of the better rave cities in the Midwest.
And, of course, The Man started taking note. That was inevitable: 3,000 people multiplied by the average 15 bucks per person equals $45,000 and a lot of bodies to cram into a space. Parties started getting shut down before the doors opened; cops and marshals started paying more attention to the curious number of hipsters hanging around dilapidated old warehouses "for no particular reason." Despite promoters' best efforts, it's hard to hide the monstrous beat emanating from a seemingly abandoned building.
The countless parties thrown in the mid-'90s, those that combined to buzz the city onto the Midwestern rave map, culminated in what was to have been the event that "would have changed peoples' lives," says Davidian Alterior of Superstars of Love. "A lot of our events did change peoples' lives, but this one, the whole sky would have opened up."
It was called "Love Generator 2," and it was held at the beginning of '96, explains Ryan Paradise. "On our first anniversary, we really went all out. We had Dub Tribe and Juan Atkins -- a bunch of talent -- and it looked like we were going to have four or five thousand people at this. We had busloads from Minneapolis, Memphis, Chicago. The scale of things was just -- you can get away with things when it's like 1,000 people," continues Ryan, "but when it's like 2,000.... We had church groups (protesting) outside. There were priests outside in cop cars when they were shutting it down."
"Me and (Ryan) had on matching tuxedos," says Alterior, "sky-blue and pink, and basically we set everything up, and we had busloads and busloads of people coming to this event. The cops were there from the very beginning, and we held them off and tried to make it go off. At about 12:30, they finally said no. I was taken off to jail that night. I spent the night in jail. I swear, if I would have had a gun, I would have been like, "No. You're not busting this party.' That was just the pinnacle, everything we'd worked hard for."
Says one attendee, "It gave people a really bad taste for St. Louis. People today are still like, "St. Louis? I remember "Love Generator 2."'"
The bust was inevitable. If it hadn't been that party, it would have been another, and the gamble lost by the Superstars of Love was similar to gambles occasionally being made today, though so far the more recent bets are paying off. Had the police decided to examine the hubbub at "More Good Stuff" rather than simply direct traffic, an equally disastrous buzz kill could have resulted.
But luckily for the St. Louis rave scene, that didn't happen, and the momentum that got rolling last year -- especially that generated by the three superpowers of the area culture, the Superstars, Kindred Grooves and Boogie Knights -- is drawing more and more kids into its wake.
The promoters are much more careful about where they throw their parties now. Seldom are there totally guerilla warehouse parties -- the old-school kind, without any sort of security or clearance. The promoters hire off-duty police officers to keep watch, which gives them a certain legitimacy. And, more often than not, because of the threat of intervention, parties are held at legal spaces like exhibition centers ("Spooks in Space," the Superstars of Love's monstrous Halloween bash, was held in the Columbia Expo Center in Columbia, Mo.) and roller rinks.
A member of Kindred Groove explains the allure of the roller rink: "It's a big open space, and it's got a whole bunch of exits; it's got the exit signs, the fire extinguishers. They're used to accommodating a whole bunch of people." Despite the attractive elements of rinks, Kindred Groove tries to avoid roller rinks if at all possible, and the Superstars of Love are sick of them, too. "Raves are supposed to happen in different places all the time," says Alterior. "And you create this special thing that's one night and one night only, unlike any other experience. Unfortunately, a lot of times the experience has been, "Oh, here, same old roller rink.' There's some phat DJs, a sound system, and everyone looks the same and everyone's going around asking for this and that. We create experiences that are way beyond your typical thing. We are striving to not just throw another rave party. We're always going to have something different; we're always going to have something freaky, having a guy in a corner doing a slide show and doing all this crazy stuff. Every one has its own theme, every one has its own vision, its visual elements."
"If you've ever been to a party at (a particular warehouse space)," says Aaron Chilton (a.k.a. DJ Chozen One), "that's a rave atmosphere, as far as I'm concerned. It's dirty, nasty. You walk out of there with black boogers in your nose -- rave boogers. That's atmosphere to me. You walk around, and when the bass hits, you can see dust flying off the wall. I love that. I get off on that. That's great. That's underground. That's the way it used to be. When somebody tells me a party's going to be at a roller rink, I'm like, "Aww, man.' When somebody tells me it's going to be at (a warehouse), we jump for joy. We like dirty warehouses. The bass sounds so good. ("More Good Stuff') was nasty. It was underground. It felt like it was underground. It was a totally different type of vibe. If I can walk over on a carpet to a water fountain and get a drink, and then walk over and buy a lollipop, that to me is not raving. To me, raving is, "Don't step here, or you'll electrocute yourself.' I dig that."
"If somebody asked me what I play, I'd say I play hard deep funky disco tech house, and not necessarily in that order. I've married elements of -- in my house, there's a tech element: We're using drum machines, we're using techno sounds, we're using sounds that ... my records have sounds that border on industrial sounds. Sometimes the snare hit, sometimes the bass drums will be distorted, but the 909 in general and the 808 in general, anything made with them is techno. It's got a tech element. Some people would say that it has to be minimal to be techno. But I say it's got tech. The reason it's funk is because it's got funk, and disco and funk go together. They were about good ideas, and good feelings, and partying and getting together -- just enjoying that." -- DJ Adam Louis
There are a dozen shades of gray to the new electronic dance music and a unique language with which participants communicate. Despite the avalanche of the music that has come out in the last decade, it's received no radio play. Entire books have been written about all the varying subgenres of the umbrella "electronic dance music" category, and among the beat-heads and DJs, subtle variations that would have been considered a sort of regional difference in, say, rhythm & blues have been given their own names and subgenres.
There's house, techno, jungle, tech-step, gabber, hardcore, happy hardcore, garage, speed-garage, tech-house, ghetto tech, dark step, drum & bass, trance, progressive trance, progressive house, abstract, downtempo, blip-hop, trip-hop, hard house.
It's a mess and nearly impossible to wade through without immersing yourself in the music. Even then, one man's progressive house is another man's techno, and vice versa. Differences are subtle and distinctions often relatively pointless.
But this much is true: Electronic dance music is made with the aid of a computer chip of some sort and is, in the words of Adam Louis, "an expression of humanity through technology. That's exactly what I want to do. I want to learn everything I can about humanity, and about myself, and about others, and express that with technology."
The beat is king and drives all of it, whether it's the constant, repetitive bliss of progressive trance (a sort of aural strobe, with subtle tectonic shifts and subliminal motion), the more "complex" jungle (a.k.a. drum & bass, which concentrates on mixing machine-gun snare- and bass-drum shots with rumbling, rudderlike bass) or the more pop-oriented, 4/4-time-based house music, which has grown edgier and is St. Louis' preferred style, probably because of the proximity of the subgenre's birthplace, Chicago. ("House" is also the term that Louis, like many others, uses as the entire genre's umbrella. Others use "techno." The media prefers "electronica.")
Ryan Paradise of the Superstars knows that different people prefer different subgenres and that to construct a successful party, it's important to cover many of them. "In St. Louis, you want to have a variety, which is good. In Europe, they don't have too many mixed lineups. All the different styles of the music have branched off into different scenes -- the drum & bass scene, techno, house. Here, it's all mixed up, so you want to have a variety. House has been the prominent music of the St. Louis scene. Now, trance -- trance has always been there, but in the last year it's really blown up. And it's starting to seem like more people here prefer trance music than house music. And that's good, because it's a more progressed form of house music."
Most striking about the music and its place in a snowballing youth movement is the absolute truth that its lineage owes very little to Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, the Sex Pistols or rock in general. A massive group of teens and twentysomethings -- the hipsters -- are listening to music -- electronic dance music and hip-hop -- that doesn't directly draw its inspiration from rock & roll. When's the last time that happened? About a week before Elvis hit.
And part of the knee-jerk fear the rave movement inspires in parents has its foundation in this simple truth: Rave culture isn't rock culture. Even though the goal is the same -- to achieve transcendence through music -- rock concerts and raves are fundamentally different concepts. At a rave, it's occasionally tough to determine the origin of the music, and, once it has been found, it's shocking to discover that the crowd isn't screaming at an electronica Mick Jagger or marveling at the prowess of a Jimi Hendrix. At a rave, rock & roll is irrelevant.
"That's why the police and the government are weirded out by it," says Ken Dussold, a DJ and manager of Deep Grooves, the city's most important electronic music-oriented shop. "They see this mass of kids that are spending this mass of money and doing this stuff that they don't understand. They're like, "Why do you want to get together and dance? It must be because of the drug ring or a sex ring or whatever.' They just can't understand that it's really nice to get together and dance with a bunch of people."
There are no Mick Jaggers, no Madonnas, no Johnny Rottens in electronic music; the composer/performer vanishes behind the music, and it's not uncommon for one human being to release a dozen cuts a year under a dozen different pseudonyms.
The computer revolution created this music. It wouldn't exist without the silicon chip, and as a result of countless music-sampling software applications flooding the market, anyone with a halfway decent PC and a few pieces of hardware can create music. The composers of this music are, for the most part, bedroom composers; what the garage and the basement were to rock, the home computer is to electronic dance music.
As in any music genre, there are geniuses and dimwits, and once acclimated to the subtleties and variances, it gets easier to tell one from the other -- just like in any music. The geniuses create depth, create thoughtful, smart instrumental music that, despite its virtual wordlessness (most human voices heard are sampled snippets of dialog taken from movies, spoken-word albums, radio or wherever a sampler can steal an interesting word combo), nonetheless manages to express something profound.
The music is the most important aspect, true, but the specifics -- Who made it? Where can it be bought? -- are less important. The songs arrive as loud whispers that, for many, never leave the warehouse, and never stand a chance, nor have a desire, to appear on K-Tel's Best of the '90s compilations. And although the music is far from disposable in the regular sense of the term, the "I love that! I have to own it!" mentality is strikingly absent for many fans of the music, the exceptions being fellow DJs who may want the cut for their set.
"The good sounds are going to be sampled again," explains Adam Louis, "and they're going to be used again. I have this infinite security when I go down to the record store that I'm not missing anything, even if I don't listen to every record on the wall, because I know that some other DJ will pick it up and that I'll hear it if I need to hear it. And that we're all in it together, and that it's about spreading this sound or this idea. I buy less than one record a week, and even if I go to the record store and hear five records that I like, I'll listen to them and narrow it down to one, because I realize that if I buy a record once every two weeks until the day I die, I'm going to have more records than I ever want and that I'm going to be giving them away."
Superstars exist in rave culture, but they're not singers. They're DJs. It's the DJ who's king (unfortunately, there are few queens), whose job it is to wade through the thousands of 12-inch singles (yes, on vinyl; the culture is defiantly addicted to the format), find the best ones and then, over the course of his set, mix one into the next into the next, mix them seamlessly and beautifully, mix them to move the bodies and inspire the dance floor.
"You've got all these guys doing records for different labels under different names," says Deep Grooves' Ken Dussold, who also DJs. "And most of them come out on these antiquated pieces of dinosaur. So there's hundreds of thousands of them out every year. You have to do a lot of research, you have to listen to a lot of stuff that's crap, and you have to establish what you like. Then you have to go home and practice for a couple of years and decide what goes together with what. Where are you going with this? And then when you get that down, you gotta get it down where you can mesh the records together so they flow in and out. Then you can have a whole seamless set and not drop a beat for, like, hours, but if you don't have good taste or you have bad programming or you put one record where you shouldn't, it all comes (apart). They're creating live a whole feeling from music there on the fly. It takes a lot of skill and effort and practice to do it well. Like in anything, there's people who are mediocre, there's people who suck and there's people who are good at it."
Explains Jon Gotti, a jungle DJ: "It's something that you have to get instinctually. You can't think about it, you just gotta get it. It's really weird, because you can go up there and have a shitty time and the crowd's not into it, and then you're just kind of slapping on records. But then again, you can get up there and the crowd's really into it and you're into it, and you're feeding off of each other, and you don't even have to look at your records. You just go into your crate and you pick something up and you put it on, and it's like, there, and it actually blends, and you don't even have to think about it. That's when it's starts getting really cool. As far as moving a crowd, really, I think that's something you have to pick up naturally from playing to people."
"The first time I went, I had heard some people talking about them, and I knew that they were out there, but I wasn't really sure what it was all about. But I had been listening to electronic-style music for a couple of years, and I really liked it. It sounds kind of funny now, but I was just expecting it to be a concert. You go, you listen to the music, you dance and you come home. I wasn't expecting anything like a vibe. "A vibe? What's that?' I wasn't expecting the social aspect. I was just expecting music and dancing and stuff like that. And then I went, and it blew my mind how much more it was than that. The whole thing -- the friends, the whole atmosphere, the vibe, everything. After I went to my first one, I came home, I woke my mom out of bed and I talked to my mom for over an hour about how much fun I had and how I wanted to keep on going to them." -- Grace Carlisle
Inside the warehouse, the scene is a mix of ages, though these days in St. Louis (and in America in general) the scene is positively fresh-faced, quite different from the parties going on across the ocean, where the culture is geared more toward twenty- and thirtysomethings. Groups of teenyboppers dance next to older hip-hop heads, who dance next to frat dudes. There are more whites than blacks, though the scene is more integrated than a Cardinal baseball game or a Rolling Stones concert. The price of an evening dictates that you need at least $20 to get in and drink your water, and a bit more than twice that if you're planning on rolling. Regardless, the music, which grew from the same seeds that created hip-hop, draws a varied audience, and there are as many black DJs as there are white. The bigger parties draw a wider variety of people, and more old-schoolers, but, frustratingly, the fashions and demographics are more homogenous than they used to be. In the past, says Aaron Chilton, "there were drag queens everywhere. St. Louis used to be really right on. I haven't seen a drag queen in God knows how long. Really, the freaks would come out at night. I'm serious. It was a place where everyone would meet up."
"When we used to throw parties," says Alterior of the Superstars, "we would have bikers show up. We had freaks. People would dress -- this fashion guy would come in a wedding dress. It was different. Nowadays, it's all Insta-raver: add water, a Blow-Pop, a whistle, fat pants. That's a lot of it."
Most striking, though, compared to a rock concert of a similar size and demographic, is the lack of security, which seems to be stationed only at the doors. No hefty red-shirted bouncers roam around glaring at revelers, nor do they seem necessary.
This is vibe, and this is why the scene has created such a positive, revolutionary design. This is what the diehards are talking about when they talk about PLUR, the acronym that twirls around the scene like the glow sticks: peace, love, unity, respect. Sure, the carrot is elusive; it always is, but people talk about vibe a lot, that unpredictable feeling one gets from being at a perfect party. It's intertwined with atmosphere, emotion, music and mood, an ephemeral, spiritual tone to a party. When participants speak of vibe, they speak of it as a living, breathing entity, speak of it as a sort of magic. When the warmest and fuzziest of the area promoters, Kindred Groove, speak of creating vibe, they treat it with a magical reverence. "We love the vibe," says one member, "and we go out of our way to make people happy. For past parties we've spent X amount of dollars on toys just to give away just so there are smiles on peoples' faces. At (last year's) "Got Vibe,' we bought 4 gallons of milk and cookies and gave them away at the end of the party."
Adds another Kindred: "We rented fuzzy animal costumes and walked around giving hugs to people. When you walk into one of our parties, there's 20 people there and they're all in T-shirts, and we're there at the door and we're smiling: Come on in; have a great time. Thank you. We're not about being cooler than thou; we're not about having any kind of attitude. We're just like, "Come party with us.'"
Though the whole notion may seem naive, the intention behind the search for vibe is sincere; seldom, if ever, do Riverport attendees catch each other's eyes and trade absolutely sincere, honest smiles, loaded with emotion. This sort of interaction happens all the time at a rave. It's not uncommon to communicate with a total stranger as though you've known that person your entire life, nor is it uncommon to see a lot of platonic hugging and affection.
It's free love without the sex -- yet another beguiling, curious aspect of the gestalt. This isn't one big sex den. The occasional groping couple appears on the radar, but for the most part the culture revolves around the idea of intimacy without sex.
And there's no denying that the intimacy among strangers, the quest for vibe, the flashing-light and glow-stick fascination, the lack of violence, the hugging and the bliss are at least partly the result of the integral role Ecstasy (MDMA) plays in the movement.
"Ecstasy seems to promote the release of serotonin. Now, it may have other effects, but that's the best-known of the chemical effects. In terms of what it does, it produces enhancement of pleasure, self-confidence and increased energy levels, like stimulants do. There's also some effects of sort of peacefulness, acceptance and empathy. That's why it's popular, because it's an unusual combination of energizing and oneness with the world." -- Dr. Wilson Compton, associate professor of psychiatry, Washington University Medical School
There are -- surprise, surprise -- drugs at these parties. A bunch of young adults are experimenting. At any given party, unless someone's older than the average participant and therefore suspected of being an undercover cop, it's not difficult to secure a dose of Ecstasy. No one inside or outside the scene, of course, wants to talk much about it. Though Ecstasy is often depicted as the center around which everything else revolves, it's not, though it is one large piece of the overall puzzle that includes the music, the lights, the sound, the atmosphere. Ecstasy affects all of the above and transforms it.
But Ecstasy's not just a rave thing, nor has it ever been. It seems as if the city in general is in the midst of an E explosion. You can spot it on the faces of countless people on the club circuit, and a few area clubs have even begun selling lollipops and glow sticks. A recent poll of 45,000 teenagers found the use of Ecstasy on the rise; 8 percent of high-school seniors surveyed said they had tried the drug, up from 5.8 percent last year.
But, explains one high-school rave kid: "It's not limited to the rave scene, or any one scene. I'm sure you could go to a country & western show and get drugs if you really wanted to. They might be different drugs, but I'm sure you could still get them. Right now at my high school, I could probably get any drug known to man going into the football practice after school, if I wanted to. I don't think it's fair when some people, they'll hear about raves and they just think, "Oh, that's the place where my teenage kid goes to get drugs.' You can get drugs anywhere, anytime, anyplace. Small towns, big towns -- it's not limited to just ravers or just raves. If kids want to do something, they're going to do it no matter what."
Ecstasy feels incredible when intertwined with the music and the overall atmosphere. It feels like heaven on earth (remember those giggling angels?), especially when you're in a roomful of other like-minded people. You do feel connected with strangers. (One stranger to another: "You rollin'?" "Yeah. Are you?" "Yeah. My first time." "Do you like it?" "Yeah! Want some Pop Rocks?"), and it does feel honest (just as honest as the alienation you may feel toward strangers the day after). And whether it's pure illusion or not, the music, especially trance music, sounds positively transcendent. When on Ecstasy, life is not just good but perfect, and all your new friends are perfect, too.
Hence the potential for abuse. You can see it in the "roll piles" on the ground at any rave these days. The butt of many jokes among more mature members of the culture, the roll piles nonetheless are a part of the scene. In any given room at a party, undoubtedly a mass of bodies will be massaging one another. The scary part is that the roll piles seem to consist of some of the younger members of the crowd who have foolishly overindulged by taking four or five doses at a time, when a single one is more than sufficient. Adding a few more doses doesn't enhance the roll; it simply increases the amount of speed consumed. It's stupid to do more than one.
In Generation Ecstasy, the single best book about rave culture, author Simon Reynolds details the cycle that leads to overindulgence, one that has at its foundation the simple fact that the drug is illegal. Because of this, there are no guidelines. Though his experiences come from London, they're easily transferred to St. Louis: "From the consumer's point of view, the worst thing about illegalization is that you don't know what you're buying. The illegal drug market in Britain has given rise to an ever expanding range of brands of Ecstasy, distinguished by their coloring or by tiny pictograms stamped into the tablets and varying widely in content.... Instead of making ravers more cautious, the uncertainty of supply seems to have the opposite effect. Ravers eagerly assume that they've been sold an inferior product and take more pills to compensate; hence the perennial mantra, "Es are shit these days, you have to take five of them to get a buzz.' Often the weakness of any given Ecstasy pill is caused by the serotonin depletion effect; the bliss deficit is in the raver's brain, not the tablet."
The other danger of Ecstasy, says Reynolds, is its status as a "gate" drug: "Because the overwhelming majority of early experiences with Ecstasy are so rewarding, punters become curious about other banned substances and get drawn into the culture of polydrug usage. MDMA's positive aura has rubbed off on other, far less deserving chemicals. This is the flaw in a drug policy that conflates all "drugs' as a single demon without distinguishing between different levels of risk."
This is why Ecstasy is so dangerous in the hands of kids and why the roll piles are looked down on by the overall rave community.
But if they're indulging in Ecstasy at raves, they're not indulging in alcohol. Other than anecdotal mentions, seldom is a bottle or a beer can uncovered, and no one seems loaded on booze. The only fluid consumed at a rave is the only one sold and the only one desired: water. Tons of it. Dancing dehydrates you, and so does Ecstasy, and as a result the parties deal in bottled water. Throughout the evening, the bottles are tossed, picked up and refilled from drinking fountains; tossed again and kicked around; refilled to be splashed on smoldering dancers. At the end of the night, the garbage is a mixture of plastic bottles and spent glow sticks. No broken glass; few cigarette butts.
Studies have proved inconclusive in regard to the long-term effects of moderate Ecstasy use. A recent study, though, says Wash. U.'s Compton, compared "nonusers to heavy users, and (users) had significant impairments in memory -- this was the specific abnormality found. Now, you don't know, because it's rare that it would just be MDMA; they might have used other things, and we also don't know whether differences in memory predated the use of the substance. And these are not definite conclusions. In animal research, they do show long-term toxic effects to the serotonin system. (In) monkey research, it persisted at least seven years after stopping the drug. And in monkeys, those studies tend to be heavy use, more than humans would take, so we don't know for sure whether that applies to the rave culture.
"I think we'd have to be vague in terms of long-term damage. I don't like to say people are definitely safe. If you have to put a risk on it, this is not one of the things I would worry about people doing as much as some other substances, but I certainly wouldn't give it a clean bill of health, either."
"On my 19th birthday, at a party called "Family Affair 4,' I had the epiphany that this is my family. I was there with three people from St. Louis. It was at a 4,000-, 5,000-person outdoor party. I lost my wallet and my pager, and I found them. I walked up to a friend, and he handed them to me, and I said, "Thanks. You found my wallet.' He said, "Nope. I was sitting right here among all these people, and somebody walked up to me with the wallet open and said, "Do you know an Adam from St. Louis?' And my friend said, "Yeah, he's the guy I came with.' And he got the wallet. It had my money in it, and it was this total scenario. At that point I was ready to go insane. I came to this party and wasn't ready to lose my wallet, not at 12:30 on my birthday in the middle of Ohio. It was that event that will allow me to stick with my family, even if I lose my wallet at a party, even if my car gets broken into outside of a warehouse. Even if this scene dies -- it can never die, even if everybody left St. Louis, everybody ran away to these "good scenes' in New York and Chicago and San Francisco, where there are raves every weekend and blah-blah-blah, that grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side crap. I'll still be here and I'll be throwing house parties, and when my house isn't big enough, I'll get a warehouse, and that will be my house. And if that house isn't big enough, I'll go out to a yoga retreat in Illinois, and that will be my house." -- DJ Adam Louis
It's no wonder, in conversations among participants, that people often get a glimmer in their eye when they talk of a particularly fantastic rave, because when raves are at their best, participants seem to exit the natural world and enter some sort of secret world, a big-scale, hi-fi art project. Walk in and the party's already going, and it feels as if it's always been going, a perpetual-motion machine that constantly rejuvenates itself. It's going strong and loud. It's overwhelming, but it's not scary at all. Turn a corner and there's a guy with blinking lights strapped all over his body. Yeah, he's a freak, or so it seems, but, although he's obviously doing it to attract attention to himself, there's also something altruistic, benevolent about his action: It's his gift to the bigger pool of celebration. If he doesn't do it, then maybe someone else won't do it, and soon enough it's not a big art project but a bunch of people dancing in a warehouse. But these days in St. Louis, the scene is one big sonic and scenic canvas, and every corner of it is covered with splashes of color and drops of beat.
Says one Kindred Groove member: "If you haven't been to parties outside of St. Louis, it's really hard to understand how great it is in St. Louis. Somebody on the Midwest Raves (e-mail) list wrote in saying that he couldn't believe how friendly everyone was in St. Louis. Everyone had smiles, and if someone didn't want a flier, they politely turned it down; they didn't take it and then throw it on the ground. It's not like that in other cities. I feel really fortunate to be in St. Louis."
Adds another Kindred: "St. Louis had a reputation back in the day as the city of love, and that whole movement of us having that distinction again has really taken off in the last six months. We're trying to be the city of love again, and try and make a mention of it in places. I think St. Louis has that reputation right now in the Midwest: St. Louis is the place to go for vibe. It's nice."