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Turn your microscope on the roots of the St. Louis electronica scene, and you find local promoters scrabbling to keep the party hopping. In the wake of controversial warehouse parties such as Operation: Get Down last October, local ordinances now seek to restrict alcohol-free parties to 1 a.m. closing times, about the time a respectable rave really gets going. Big parties outside the city face the hostility of rural police anticipating big drug busts (see "Radar Station," July 25).
"Yeah, the days of an underground party are pretty much over," says Chris Hall, a.k.a. DJ Kwicked of Powerhouse Productions. Hall recites a eulogy for electronic-dance-music events -- he avoids the word "rave" -- in St. Louis: "Here, the scene pretty much is dead. Nobody wants to go to parties anymore because they're afraid they're going to get raided."
Save some of your vibe for Saturday, Aug. 25, when Powerhouse Productions throws St. Louis Style 2, a follow-up to its downtown success, the optimistically titled First Annual St. Louis Electronic Music Festival. That event was an ambitious strike at the heart of the current controversy over parties in the city. Opposed by St. Louis police, who were getting fed up with poorly organized events that attracted huge (and supposedly drug-infested) crowds, STLEMF went on only after Hall appealed to the Board of Public Service, saying that "the war against drugs shouldn't be a war against music." The party was held, but at a substantial financial cost to Powerhouse, which was ordered to hire additional police security from the secondary unit, a cost the promoters must recoup to organize a second annual beatfest.
SLS2's lineup provides an informative snapshot of St. Louis party DJs. A slew of familiar faces, including Bodaleg and Danskii of the Boogie Knights, Oshae of Streetsonic, Trooper of Powerhouse and others from Flovibe, IFU and Streetsonic, demonstrate the strength -- in talent and perseverance -- of our local crews. Spanning the breadth of dance genres -- house, jungle, breaks and trance -- St. Louis DJs are party people and boast a positive vibe. (They also are contributing their services in support of STLEMF2, as well as the Save the Children Foundation.) One notable oversight: SLS2's lineup is 100 percent male. Female talent is packing dance floors nationwide, and it's common sense (as well as decent public relations) to promote locals such as Alexis and Rachel. (Who else is out there? Show yourselves!). Obviously there's no Powerhouse conspiracy to repress women -- one glance at the lineup at the Creamfields parties and you can't help but wonder whether DJ-ing is a macho profession. The SLS2 lineup also indicates that less stage time goes to independents than to DJs affiliated with party crews. A support system is welcome, but the weight of turntable time given over to crewed-up DJs disguises diversity and neglects neophytes -- calling into question whether this lineup really does reflect the full range of "St. Louis style" (as if anyone could ever define such a style, anyway.) The inevitable truth is that a tried-and-true cast and crew is a stronger guarantor of a successful event and will help SLS2 succeed as the latest assault in Powerhouse's mission to demonstrate that you can party all night and not give the city a social hangover. And that's the message Hall hopes not only the city but local party promoters will grasp.
"The music is so popular, there's such a large crowd, and [party promoters] have to accommodate that large crowd," he says. "You have to be responsible." The Powerhouse ethic means that party promoters must stop pretending that the electronic-dance-music scene is underground, get the requisite business licenses and city permits and take stronger measures to keep drugs out of parties. It's an acknowledgment of the inevitable commercialization of rave -- and transition out of the black market. For a music culture ("subculture" just doesn't apply anymore) invested in its outsider self-image, it won't be easy. "It costs a lot of money, and a lot of these small production companies can't even pay their DJs," Hall says.
There are other costs to the commercialization of the scene. "I don't even like to go to raves anymore," says Bob Stolzberg, whose techno-music/visual-art event Displaced also takes place Aug. 25, from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. To Stolzberg, the ascendance of commercial rave has robbed the scene of much of its variety and vitality.
"Things are different now," he says. "You don't see the drag queens; you don't see the guy in the wedding dress. [Promoters] do the traditional things -- the lights, the lasers, the sound -- and they think that's great. I am very jaded. What's so special about that? Why would I ever pay $20 for that?"
Stolzberg organized Displaced as a corrective to the faults he perceives in current rave culture. Conceived as an art event, his South Side happening will be packed with multimedia installations, sculptures and paintings. Onstage, local techno composers will plug in their various devices for some on-the-fly soundscape construction. "I called the party Displaced because I'm taking from so many different areas and putting it under one roof," Stolzberg explains. "I like that concept of taking from various sources and combining it and seeing what you get."
One of the things you will get at Displaced is an interactive sculpture by artist Dan Diaz, who has affixed sound and video to the headgear of some sort of weird X-ray chair. Less frightening will be the animation and digital video projected in conjunction with the musical performances. 5tyleshop's imagery splices video with computer and video-game animation.
Other highlights include Don Tinsley and Christian Oncken of the Urban Jazz Naturals, a group whose live house music frequently packs Lo; they'll combine programmed Game Boys, homemade analog synths, computers and drum machines for your aural amazement. Matt French, Randy Hancock and Kevin Vogel, founders of local label Surveillance Records, will contribute melodic techno. If it's anything like Surveillance's last vinyl release (a white label, SURV002), it will be moody, hypnotic and thrilling. DJ Astrix -- whose groovy, sonically retro single "Expressif" is out on his own new local label, Technocolor -- will join with Kindred Groove's DJ Hypo and a new guy called Tony the Chef to provide some funky, minimal techno collage. This event's emphasis on techno composers is a refreshing party innovation, but we can't neglect to mention that here, too, the lineup is all-male.
Stolzberg says, "St. Louis techno is about to explode," pointing to the rise of new labels and the consistent audience the music attracts to support his statement. Ladies and gentleman both, aspiring local Aphex Twins, step forward. There's a scene that needs you.
For the rest of you, don't stop at Friday -- party all weekend long! For location of and directions to St. Louis Style 2, call the Powerhouse Productions info line, 314-567-2013. Displaced is set in a venue with a limited capacity; for more information on the event's lineup and location, check out www.technoradio.org/displaced.