The Agony and the Ecstasy: A decade after the heyday of St. Louis' rave scene, it still feels like the morning after

Sep 8, 2011 at 4:00 am

It is 8:30 p.m., and Kenny is dancing alone.

You might actually say he is flailing alone. In the next room, a dreadlocked man in a cowboy hat and plaid suspenders is freaking out, also solo, to an acerbic techno beat backed only by the words "MUSCLE, GUNS, BURN" on repeat. But Kenny is the only one in Atomic Cowboy's central room. Darting frantically across the dark dance floor, Kenny rhythmically snakes his limp wrists vertically, then horizontally, then diagonally, then almost double-jointedly through the air around his face. His legs follow a similar, if more stilted, trajectory as he twists his thighs and jerks his feet even faster than his fingers, nine of which sport glow rings he ordered in bulk online. (The tenth one fell off during an ill-conceived dance move.) Kenny is raving — and he is recruiting.

The other patrons at Atomic Cowboy are, as a result, scooting further into the recesses of their leather sofas. They probably missed most of the era Kenny is single-handedly reviving with all the gusto it takes to be the first person on a dance floor devoted entirely to '90s rave music. The Kenny dancing by himself is now 42, which means he learned how to dance this way in his twenties.

Even today, Kenny holds fast to all the tenets that come with his moves. The first unofficial rule revolves around his lack of a surname. We know only Kenny's first name because that is all Kenny told us, and it's all he told most people at the raves he attended twenty years ago. The second rule is constant motion. If you stop dancing, you stop mattering. "You've got to do it," Kenny tells his attempted recruits as he offers them light-up necklaces. It takes a while for him to find his first partner, and when he does, she is considerably less vigorous than he. "You've got to move more than that," he chides. "Your feet aren't even moving."

The key, he says, is in the hands. "It's simple. Take your hands and pretend you're holding an invisible ball. Now just start rolling that ball, and don't stop until it's not even about the motherfucking ball anymore."

Perhaps it is this instant, with Kenny cradling his make-believe ball, or perhaps it was earlier, when someone plugged in the strobe lights. Maybe it comes even later, when Kenny is finally joined by hundreds of dance partners, and the old feeling of community comes flooding back.

Regardless, at some point, in one of the moments of this night, it becomes clear: The city's original rave culture, one that peaked and plummeted in the ten-year span between 1992 and 2002, has been revived almost twenty years after it mattered the most.

This feeling will last exactly one night.

Even now, there's dissension in the ranks. For a period of approximately ten years, some of them more vibrant than others, St. Louis was a cultural hub for both rave music and the lifestyle that accompanied it. The city was a tactical post between Detroit techno and Chicago's house scene, and its lack of territorial music rivalries made it the most open-minded rave stop in the central United States. St. Louis parties packed the biggest and most diverse setlists in a collection of regional-based sound, says Marc Buxton, a former St. Louis DJ.

Fans of either style of music — and those in between, like trance, ambient and trip-hop — found a comfortable home on the couches of St. Louis apartments. Every weekend, ravers flooded the city's warehouse district on rented buses and in shared cars, coming from Indianapolis, Akron, Dayton, Chicago, Cleveland, Memphis and Nashville. Some of them made the same trip almost every weekend for ten years, while some St. Louis natives were unable to use their own couches for the same period.

When St. Louis lost its title, it was largely because of a deteriorated internal dynamic: A newly mercurial group of people, jaded by drugs and the demands of constant partying, no longer resembled the naïve high school students they'd been when the party started. In the end, dancers kept their backs to the walls and watched their belongings. In the end, ravers called in their friends' drug habits rather than face their own being reported instead. In a homogenized era of pacifiers and phat pants, style-biting grew rampant, and people began to clone each other.

When it was time, the end was quick in coming.

"I have mixed emotions about it," says Davidian Alterior, a founding member of the local scene. "The whole old-school rave scene nostalgia bit — I haven't been too gung ho about it."

Today, most of the stories about the city's rave legacy — how the drugs entered the scene, what genre was most popular, whether rave still exists in St. Louis, whether the reunion should have happened — come from two camps, both arguing aggressively for their own perspective. Members of both groups will warn you whom to talk to, who was first-string, whose memories are wrong and who never cared enough. Those camps came to a head even at the scene's one-off reunion at Atomic Cowboy July 9, with rival factions disagreeing about the event's intentions, lineup and setting.

Alterior, who is the business half of Superstars of Love, one of the scene's dominant promoters, was invited to the event but not asked to be one of the nineteen old-school artists on its lineup. What he sees as a snub influenced his decision to back out and skip a reunion with people he had not seen for more than a decade: "I felt excluded from it, and it was difficult."

He was not alone in his reaction. The most common complaint about the evening is that it attempted to re-create the sentiments of a time that ended past its expiration date. And while several hundred people attended the reunion, it's worth noting one person who didn't — the only mainstream celeb to come out of the St. Louis rave scene, Lance Robertson, better known as Yo Gabba Gabba!'s DJ Lance Rock.

The only thing everyone agrees on, perhaps, is that the scene's heyday can't be re-created. What is less certain is whether nostalgia is enough to bring rave's most devoted followers back together again for more than just a single night.

A dynamic, pulsing, electronic sound predicated on rhythms that compel dancing and sounds that don't appear in nature, rave music originally found footing in the UK in the late '80s and early 1990s. It wasn't long before it reached the United States and cemented itself as a subculture in the coastal fringes. When it reached Brooklyn, rave enthusiasts hosted renegade parties under bridges and refused to disclose the details until a rave was only minutes from happening.

Rave came from underground, and it stayed there as long as it could. Dancers who grew tired of predictable club nights and rotations were drawn to the illicit nature of all-night raves.

In St. Louis, the scene's strongest years took place between 1993 and 1995. The parties were as creative in their execution as they were in their conceptual names: Terror Nova, Nocturnal Wonderland, Rejuvenation, Sodom and Gomorrah, Love Generator, Cyberdelica.

"There was no real nightlife in St. Louis at the time," former raver Aaron Overfield says. "If you were going down the highway at night on I-40 and there was a car next to you, you would slow down to see who was in the car because they were probably going to the same place." Rather than head to a club to listen to the music they already heard on the radio, ravers moved the party to the empty (and technically illegal) warehouses along the city's river. It was an industrial revolution, of sorts: If you were young and had grown tired of the Seattle grunge movement, this, too, could be your alternative.

"The fact that it was underground and slightly illegal had its allure," says Joel Sansone, known at the time as DJ Merlin. (Merlin, a surprisingly common name in rave culture, represented the forging of new and frequently magical identities.) "Are we doing something bad? Are we rebelling a little bit? It worked for me."

Until its demise, rave was always a young person's scene but rarely a teenager's scene. The average age range of those on the dance floor fell somewhere between 19 and 26. Their aesthetic was noticeably similar. "Once you met somebody, you knew them," says Angelo Dower, who attended his first rave in 1990. "A lot of them were outcasts, people who didn't really feel like they fit in. The rave movement was the closest thing people our age could get to the hippie movement of the '60s."

Ravers joined the scene for the music, or maybe even for the dancing, but they stayed for the relationships. Eventually, though, many stayed for the drugs. The DIY aesthetic that covered the scene like a haze became harder to maintain when parties grew larger, longer and ultimately younger. Fifteen- and sixteen-year-old attendees meant less control of the drugs permeating the scene's ranks, and increased drug use meant a noticeable spike in police attention. Parties that originated as uninhibited, music-centric celebrations in grimy warehouses now came with considerable price tags, city paperwork and cops for hire.

And then people started dying.

"I was living in a bubble in this little world we had created for ourselves," Sansone says. "While I might have had some intuitive feeling that what we had started doing wasn't right, it didn't deter me from this fantasy. We got away with it as long as we could — and then we were always on the radar at that point."

One of the St. Louis rave scene's cheesier relics is a two-part news segment that aired in April 1994 and was uploaded to YouTube fifteen years later. In its introduction, the news anchors on KMOV-TV (Channel 4) look visibly uncomfortable as their voices imply the air quotes behind their confusion about why these "kids" do it. "Do you know where your children are?" asks one stoic anchor. "They might be at a so-called 'rave party.'"

His cohost makes sure to lean forward and chime in: "Rave is all the rage among the young group." After this, it's not long before we're introduced to reporter Jamie Allman, who, in a moment verging on parody, uses the phrase "hip and happening" without either irony or embarrassment.

The video finds its story arc in interviews with ravers in hoodies and overalls who appear dejected even as they gush about their lifestyle. "They don't hate their parents," the host over-enunciates. "They don't hate the police. They don't hate the government. 'Peace through the government' is their motto."

Spliced between wide-angle shots of a rave dance scene, these interviews show the pleasantly sloppy teens you know doing wacky things behind closed warehouse doors. The entire segment is targeted hook, line and sinker for the parents and grandparents of a generation they are hopelessly far from understanding. The proof is in the pairing: When the candid dance footage is looped under the misunderstood voice-over, the need for rave becomes apparent: It's to escape from all this.

The single astute comment from Allman is this one, shrouded behind the unfortunate line that the teens "no longer want their MTV": "If the rave generation is rebelling against anything, it's boredom." To that extent, music was an antidote of sorts, in addition to being the rave purist's sole reason for involvement.

St. Louis raves often drew thousands, but they began with a budget and roughly four people. Leading rave promoters Superstars of Love, most of whom lived together in a Central West End apartment known as the "rave cave," followed a specific strategy for their events. "Other people were throwing events, and we just felt like we could do it better," says Ryan Paradise, the group's creative brain. "It was the beginning of something, and we all kind of knew it."

For a rave with a target audience of 15,000 people, the work began three months in advance of a date carefully selected for weather and, perhaps, a seasonal theme. Then came the venue (the bigger, the better) and the talent (the more, the merrier). They used to be significantly cheaper: "If you look at the rosters of the DJs who were playing at these shows, you're talking about shows that would cost more than $100,000 these days," Buxton says.

In the scene's early days, organizers shared a reticence to repeat venues. No event should be noticeably similar to any other; organizers planned even the internal structures of their events to allow for maximum diversity in sound.

In a seven-story warehouse like the one where Superstars of Love hosted some of their parties, each floor was earmarked for a different genre of dance music in a layered strategy that started with tripped-out house and ended with cool-down ambient. "I always went for the trilogy: sound, lighting and flow," says Alexis Tucci Hansen, a former promoter and current DJ. "My plan was for people to get completely high off of their environment. I wasn't ignorant to what was going on, but I didn't want to create a playground for people to eat drugs and lose their minds.

"Other promoters," she adds, "intentionally created a Disney World for people on drugs."

Promoters based the entrance fees, typically somewhere between $5 and $15, on the number of people they hoped to attract and the overall cost of setup. Superstars of Love drew their early financial backing from a friend. (A few less-than-successful parties left them $18,000 in debt to him at one point in their career.)

Before rampant Internet use, the quickest way to guarantee attendance was through fliers, first black-and-white and then full-color, designed to sell the theme of a party in the space of a quarter-sheet of paper. If you wanted 1,000 people at your event, you'd be safe passing out 10,000 to 20,000 fliers a minimum of a month in advance.

The final preparations covered the enticements to keep the party going. Before ecstasy and LSD spread, that was mostly caffeine-saturated beverages and vitamin drinks, Red Bull predecessors like Nitro Cola that included quadruple the caffeine of a Coke. "How innocuous," says Buxton about the caffeine he ingested. He continues with only, "It was a really exciting time for music."

Not all raves took place on a large scale, however. The community was split between extravagant events and standard ones, smaller-scale raves hosted by forward-thinking clubs such as 1227, Fallout, Evolution and the Other World, all defunct today. The handful of clubs that hosted regular rave nights placed a firm emphasis on the music. In the company of two similarly deceased record stores co-owned by Buxton, Deep Grooves and Ultrasonic, they promoted rave culture in the mainstream even as the underground parties did the same outside of it.

"One of the reasons the energy was really special right then is that, rather than the DJ being steps above the audience, they were all dancing on the same level," Buxton says. "Don't tell any club owners that now because they won't put the DJs on zero level anymore. They might as well just sit in a corner with a label on them that says, 'Tonight's Jukebox.'"

To this day, the music remains hard to describe, even for those who still listen to it. St. Louis' role as a musically open-minded city meant it housed no shortage of variety inside the span of a single rave. For a bill that included ten acts before 6 a.m., a setlist could cross trip-hop, trance, techno, tribal, house, disco, ambient, noisecore and early dubstep, depending on which room of the warehouse you preferred.

"It was techno but quirky and sped-up and jittery and boundary-less," says Hansen, who today plays her own variation on the sounds she grew up with. "It was electronic and deep. It was organic and dreamy and always changing. It was intense."

In the beginning, St. Louis' rave scene was all about the music. When the drugs spread, it became all about the drugs. The national and local rave communities were a victim of nothing if not excess, and bigger parties meant younger people, stronger drugs and increased tolerance for what happens when the two combine.

Again, the story has two sides. One argues that drugs were not even a real part of the scene until 1993, when club drugs were said to have been introduced to St. Louis through north-county hangouts. The other, more popular belief, is that the drugs started with the scene. The truth is most likely a bit of both: Although the drugs were always a part of rave, they definitively left the eaves somewhere around 1993.

Joel Sansone's story follows a path similar to the majority of those who participated in rave culture, if ultimately more serious: Chronologically, the music came first, and the drugs came second. On a list of priorities, he admits, the two would eventually be reversed.

By 1995, Sansone's identity as DJ Merlin became prominent enough to require an upgrade in lighting and sound equipment but not quite successful enough to pay for the changes on its own.

"I decided that the only way to support my lifestyle of just playing music and partying was to sell drugs," Sansone says. The ecstasy he sold was expensive, $25 to 30 a hit, while acid cost $1,500 a sheet. Demand was high — until someone called the police.

In his apartment with his girlfriend that night in 1995, Sansone heard yelling and rapping at his door, but his reaction time was too slow to make sense of it before police kicked their way in. Federal officers, already made aware of his drug sales by an informant, spent an hour tearing through his apartment while he lay on the floor, at times with a gun pointed to his head.

"Very dramatic, these guys. I had just gotten a shipment of acid the night before, and they knew it," Sansone says. But a friend had already visited and taken the acid from him. "They were like, 'Where is it?'"

Although they didn't find the acid, the police easily discovered evidence of other drugs and more than $7,000 in cash inside Sansone's south-city apartment — enough that he was charged with conspiring to possess with an intent to distribute LSD, ecstasy and marijuana.

Sansone was the first on the scene to go away, and the retelling of his story contributed to a spike in finger-pointing. "The reason the bubble popped at that point is that, until then, everyone was family," Sansone says. "I would never do anything to hurt anyone — ever. But then you realize that the reason I was convicted was because someone told on me."

Sentenced to five years in federal prison, he served approximately three and a half before his release. Sansone returned to St. Louis only temporarily before backing out of the scene altogether and moving to Los Angeles. (Now 38, he works as a computer tech and Web designer.) "After that, people started falling like dominoes."

In that misguided April 1994 newscast, Buxton is quoted while standing inside Deep Grooves, the record store he co-owned, saying drug use within the scene was impermissible. Although two teens concede to the TV reporter that drug use existed, another rave figure, DJ Nitro, suggests onscreen that the music is his real drug.

When it's Buxton's turn, he shakes his ponytail. "None of us allow it to go on. It's definitely taboo." Seventeen years later, however, he admits the drugs are the reason he left St. Louis for Chicago.

Drugs infiltrated the scene like a fever: What began as a focus on club drugs such as ecstasy and LSD spread to include cocaine, heroin and a generous cocktail of harder and lesser-known partners.

They augmented the party, made it stronger, increased its duration and let ravers stay up longer, conducting their frantic, tripped-out dancing in chemical euphoria. Parties that used to end at 7 or 8 a.m. now lasted past noon, well into the next day. The pull of the drugs and their social effects added ease to the relationships formed in gritty warehouses and packed clubs. One raver met his best friend as a direct result of a bag of acid he found in a Porta-Potty.

Morby, a former member of Superstars of Love who designed the group's logo, took his drug use to an extreme that led to a thirteen-year absence from the community. After a New Year's party at the armory building in 1996, Morby was not seen for more than a decade; he was only recently discovered, homeless and schizophrenic, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"If you have a party with 2,000 people at it, there's a good chance 20 people are going to be really messed up," Davidian Alterior says. Parties eventually came with EMTs and off-duty police officers. (Just about every source interviewed in this story conceded to using drugs at some time, though to varying degrees.) "There's always some shady character standing in the corner and selling god knows what to people."

When the number of those who died began to swell, some hoped that it would wake people up, which would then change everything. It never did. Paradise remembers a particularly painful example when Jajo, an early link to Superstars of Love, overdosed.

Jajo was the first person he knew to die as a result of drug use. "It was devastating," Paradise says. "It's interesting because if it wasn't for the rave scene, I wouldn't have gotten involved in drugs. After a while, there was nothing I would say no to."

On the day he heard the news, Paradise was scheduled to meet Jajo at 9 a.m. The two had made plans to meet at Paradise's club, Quazar. Flustered by Jajo's absence, Paradise drove his Toyota Camry to the hardware store to pick up supplies for a party, where a friend called him: Jajo had died the night before of a heroin overdose.

"He was doing uppers, and he was having difficulty sleeping, so someone gave him heroin, and it killed him," Paradise says. "Or at least that's the story I heard. There were so many stories back then."

In the end, it was the Internet that reunited what's left of the city's rave culture. Six months ago, second-string ravers started (what else?) a Facebook group called "Oldschool crew" for a community that hadn't even been aware of the Internet in its heyday.

Discussion threads list hundreds of replies to prompts such as "You know you're an old-school raver if..." as people share photos of Jajo and others who never left the scene. Without the Facebook group, the one-night reunion at Atomic Cowboy could never have been organized.

Some members joined the group through both their personal accounts (for friends and family) and their public accounts (for parties). Some use the site to promote their upcoming shows, others to post old show fliers, still others to insult dubstep, the child of rave. The point, though, is that they're together again, even if the relationship is based on nostalgia. For a long time, that seemed unlikely at best.

As she talks about just how unlikely the reunion has been, the tone of Hansen's conversation in no way matches her surroundings. Wearing a sundress, Hansen is seated at a table outside the Forest Park visitors' center and arguing about music on her cell phone. Although the person she's talking to can't see her, she's shaking her head with fervor as she mentions "local draw" and "lineup consistency." It's the same trilogy she has worked with since the '90s: sound, lighting and flow.

Today, Hansen, a special-events designer for MAC Meetings & Events, uses the same skills she picked up as a fifteen-year-old in the rave scene to execute large-scale local events such as Soulard Oktoberfest. Nothing in her career since has approached the difficulty of pulling an enormous warehouse up to code for legal permits for a crowd of 6,000 people in five days.

"I need a vacation," she jokes with a bite of chicken-salad sandwich in her mouth. "It's festival season, and it's a three-ring circus. I'll be able to breathe in November."

In the days since St. Louis' original rave scene gave way to excess, its legacy has cemented itself through the careers of those who experienced it. The music itself has morphed into new sounds — dubstep, trip-hop, fusion — while the ravers have evolved into adults in their late thirties and early forties, people who either use their former rave connections to their advantage or hide any evidence from their bosses. It's a mixed bag: "All of the hustlers have hustler jobs in life, and the ones who never really hustled still aren't," Hansen says.

Those careers include party planning (rave promotion) and sound engineering (DJing), as well as hotel management, art and Web design, marketing, PR and jobs such as Hansen's that mix more than one niche. Buxton, Paradise, Alterior and Sansone still DJ at clubs, and Hansen has joined them in a hobby developed after her days in promotion ended. Paradise maintains a weekend residency at Debonair Social Club in Chicago, where he is a pioneer of new disco.

Even today, those people disagree on one key question: whether the rave scene still exists. There are those who choose to believe that the scene ended when the big parties did, that it died when their friends died, when the fun stopped and a police presence replaced it, when the crowds got younger and the first wave ravers could no longer relate.

Symbolically, that's probably true. But in reality, the rave kept going, albeit with less intensity. The scene took a sizable hit in 2001 after Operation: Get Down, a street party on Washington Avenue that drew 6,000 people and became a swan song for the scene. While rave communities in states such as Colorado and California still draw thousands on an average night, and mainstream events like Electric Daisy Carnival tour to spots of 100,000 people, in St. Louis, police opposition and a new law prohibiting the registration of parties that size meant the scene was officially no longer underground. It was a while before it went there again.

"The players have just changed," Buxton says. "There's so much pressure in St. Louis to become detached, to have your kids and move to the suburbs. It's still a place where people are afraid of the city. The chasm between an urban and a suburban lifestyle is immense, and people are going to try to fill it."

By the new millennium, Superstars of Love was promoting acts such as Moby and the Chemical Brothers, while Boogie Knights hosted a three-day rave, or the closest modern approximation to one, in the woods an hour from the city September 2 through 4. Although the lineup was more expansive, and the promotion was digital, the party came with the same info line setup as its predecessors: Ravers were asked to dial a landline to find out where to show up.

If you did show up, you probably noticed that the game has changed. Today's parties have again moved underground, though the definition of that word has expanded with the Internet to include websites, glossy full-color fliers and online promotion codes. Many Missouri events are hosted by third-wave ravers, promotion groups such as Boogie Knights that picked up where Superstars of Love left off.

For the original ravers, looking back means realizing all the things they did without. It means wondering how the scene lasted as long as it did and when it all ended. The latest rave generation, after all, is a digital one.

"Now that I look back, I think, 'How long could we possibly have gotten away with this?'" Sansone says. "As far as I was concerned, everything changed. It definitely lost its innocence."