Photo by Isaac Miller.

In the first decade of a new millennium, at the rock bottom of a nationwide economic crisis, there is a tent full of people without a care in the world. A thick layer of fog fills the air, and the only sources of light are the multi-colored lasers zipping over people’s heads in perfect sync with the pounding base. In a place like this, people believe in fairies and free massages, and happiness comes in the form of a pill.

The Sahara tent at this past April’s Coachella Music Festival was a small-scale attempt to resurrect what was once — and still often is ­— referred to as a “rave,” a four-letter word with more color than a rainbow and more controversy than Tiger Woods’ sex life.

From its euphoric birth in the late ‘80s, rave culture spread from Europe to the U.S and generated a movement bumping with electronic music and powered by pills. However, just as quickly as the party started, by the start of the new millennium the scene was beginning to wither away.

Then and Now

Rave culture — a movement that is stale to many — originated in the late ‘80s long before the candy beads and the glowsticks. The birth of electronic dance music made way for an onslaught of new types of performance and produced a new kind of pop culture icon for the public: the DJ.

“DJ culture, club culture, electronic music, dancing in huge warehouses and clubs. That goes back to the 60’s, when it was discovered that with mixers [devices used by DJs] you can make sure the music never stops,” said Associate Professor of Literature Louis Chude-Sokei. Chude-Sokei teaches Topics in American Popular Culture: Writing Music and Listening to Culture at UCSC every year.

And indeed the music never stopped. With current electronic demigods like Benny Benassi and Deadmau5 (pronounced dead mouse), we now live in a day and age where as Chude-Sokei explained, “the DJ became the replacement for the rock star.”

“When I was out there in the earlier days, people who did live music would laugh at DJs and laugh at electronic music.” Chude-Sokei said. “They’d be like, ‘Who would want to listen to this? There’s no musicians, it’s not live,’ and this was just 15 or 20 years ago.”

Jason Sperling, co-founder of electronic music powerhouse Skills Productions, is currently producing the upcoming electro dance event “Pop 2010: The Dream.” Sperling has been producing this event for the past 13 years, since Skills Productions first started in 1997. Pop, also known as “Electro Techno Disco (ETD) Pop,” is one of the many colossal dance parties today that still offer all of the elements of a rave, without being referred to as such.

“Originally it was called ‘Electro Techno Disco Popsicle,’ which really fit the times back in ‘97, ‘98, ‘99 when the raver and candy culture was really popular, and was actually just starting to get really popular in San Francisco,” Sperling said. “We used to give out popsicles to everyone at the event.”

These days popsicle giveaways are long gone, due to a much larger attendance list. And as the audience grows, so does the excess of the event’s production.

“The first few years of doing Pop was mostly local artists, and slowly we started building up and using bigger venues and booking more internationally-known talent,” Sperling said. “Really now our passion is production and technology, and making the event look as beautiful as it possibly can.”

Beautiful is an understatement. With the growth of technology, these dance parties have shifted from crowded abandoned warehouses to sold-out sports arenas full of up-to-date sound systems and special effects, designed to literally transport ravers to a different world.

Derek Smith, the sole composer of the electro-glitch musical phenomenon Pretty Lights, felt a similar sentiment in the sense that although the word ‘rave’ may not be as prevalent, it may be in the midst of a new awakening.

“It’s interesting how similar things are sort of recurring and popping back up — even though there are no 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. all-night house massive rave parties, people are still finding ways to get that experience,” Smith said. “Right now it seems as if it’s through touring artists like Pretty Lights and Deadmau5, and the whole scene has gotten a lot bigger recently and has sort of been revitalized in a new sort of way.”

And The Beat Goes On

While the rave resurrection has been going strong across the nation, many in Santa Cruz have been made efforts to keep the party going on a local level, regardless of its reputation.

Don’t Panic is one of several electronic dance music (EDM) crews in the Santa Cruz area. The crew’s two primary organizers, who refer to themselves as Mr. C and Mr. J, host and DJ at dance parties in various locations, from local venues to the woods on campus.

“Don’t Panic itself is legal, but occasionally there’s an issue with public land; mostly it’s when it’s deep in the forest,” Mr. C said.

From the secret event invites, to the glow sticks illuminating the path to the party, Don’t Panic is all about less production and more simplicity, harkening back to the days of youngsters dancing the night away in an abandoned warehouse or somewhere out in nature. These secret events, in which party locations are not determined until hours before the party starts are often times referred to by some as “Easter egg hunt raves.”

“We’ve basically paid for everything,” Mr. C said. “We provide the sound system, lights, art. All of this stuff is in my garage right now.”

The Don’t Panic boys are not alone in their quest to revamp the electro music scene by any means. Local DJ duo RealBoy is another example of two college kids who love the music, and know how to host a good party.

Austin Jacobsen, one-half of RealBoy, sits outside of Jamba Juice as he describes his take on the rave scene.

“At a rave it’s all about the big bass that you feel, and you have lightshows, and the drugs and the candy on the wrists,” he said. “And at these new things that aren’t classified as raves, it’s not about the candy, it’s not about drugs, it’s not about what you’re wearing. It’s about the music.”

Jacobsen, a firm believer in electronic music and its healing properties, denounces self-proclaimed “ravers” who only attend EDM events to indulge in illicit drugs.

“People that call it a rave are still getting into it, and are mostly about the drugs and the good time,” he said. “Whereas the people that don’t call it that, are about the music and the technicality.”

And while electronic music may seem like one basic genre, it is part of an entire electro ecosystem where house, glitch, drum and bass, trance and others coexist peacefully.

“Trance is a lot slower and more progressive and a lot more energetic and I will say anthemy,” said Sperling, of Skills Productions. “There are a lot of genres that have split out of electro like dubstep, which is really growing fast.”

As dubstep slowly makes its mark in nightclubs everywhere, it is important to note that while the genre is shifting with the times, it is not going away any time soon.

When Sperling listens to dubstep, he hears “some drum and bass, some two-step, some hip-hop sometimes, some electro…a mash of some of the genres.”

Whether it’s a pounding bassline or a progressive track, many of today’s DJs have flocked to the ever-expanding genre of electronic dance music.

“Take a famous pop star like Justin Bieber, and let’s say he actually writes a song. So then he has somebody else help him with the recording, someone does the mastering, somebody rewrites some of the parts, different people do the instruments for him,” Jacobsen said. “But in [EDM] everything is under that one person, and that’s what electronic music is all about.”

The R-Word

In 1989, 16-year-old Clare Leighton suffered complications after taking an ecstasy pill at UK nightclub The Hacienda — the godfather of rave venues. She died that same night from internal bleeding.

The Hacienda, a breeding ground for drugs, youth, and electronic music, was where ecstasy made its first debut on the dancefloor, keeping partiers going and floating somewhere over cloud nine.

However, after Leighton’s death, the club’s “Madchester” scene began spiraling down a rabbit hole of negative media coverage and condemnation.

In a state of ecstasy, the rave had begun its fall from grace, and would continue falling through the ’90s.

“1999 or 2000 was when  ‘rave’ became a bad word,” Sperling said. “There was a lot of attention towards a lot of young kids on drugs at warehouses that were overcrowded, and they [were] going undercover and [the media] sort of exploited that part of it and didn’t show all of the other sides.”

The “RAVE” Act, also known as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, was passed in 2003 as an addition to the AMBER Alert bill for child abduction protection. Pushed by current Vice President and former Senator Joe Biden, the “RAVE” Act changed people’s perception of the once praised rave culture.

“The word rave has just gotten a really bad rep over the years,” said Sperling. “It’s a shame, and hopefully one day that will change.”

With the passing of the “RAVE” Act in 2003, producers like Sperling can no longer refer to their events as raves, but instead as electronic dance events, simply due to the word’s recently-attached stigma. The word rave became associated with underage kids on drugs, which parents and community members saw as a recipe for disaster. However, it was not too long ago that a rave was considered just another party.

“I don’t call my events raves because of the media and the media’s view on that, just that word alone could possibly be negative, without even knowing what our event’s about,” Sperling said. “I don’t think our event is negative, it’s all positive. We spend all year-round trying to make it as positive as possible.”

Although the media is partially responsible for beating the credibility out of rave culture, the relationship between drugs and the movement is undeniable.

“Every single time a new musical popular form emerges, certainly in America and in Europe, the first thing the government does is say ‘Oh it’s drugs, they’re smoking reefer!’ Or in the ’20s they would say it’s all about gin and illegal alcohol, and oh it’s about marijuana in the ’60s and it’s about acid!” Professor Chude-Sokei said. “It’s thestory of popular music!”

Derek Smith of Pretty Lights recalled the crowd at Coachella, during various EDM shows, and the collective willingness to relive the rave as much as possible.

“That [Sahara] tent really did remind me of the real raves of the past, this sort of multisensory experience was a huge part of it,” he said. “Whether it’s just through dancing or ecstasy or whatever it is.”

Ecstasy, also known as MDMA, first became a street drug in the 1970s, and has been circulating since then. The substance most associated with rave culture, ecstasy is often referred to as E or X, and is a popular party pal for many a raver.

“When you’re rolling you just feel very open and you just want to talk to everybody,” said Chris Gonzalez,* a second-year at Cabrillo College.

Drugs, although an irrefutable element to rave culture, are not what the culture is all about. However, like any social movement, there will always be an excuse to label it as taboo.

“Who are involved and committed tend to have a much more open relationship with drugs, not all drugs, but certainly ecstasy,” Chude-Sokei said. “Yes it’s a part of it — no it’s not what it’s about.”

Peace, Love, Unity, Respect

Jasica Smith, a second-year at UCSC, is one of many who still believe in the thriving rave scene.

“I’ve been in the scene since maybe July 2008,” she said. “At every rave there’s always something crazy.”

Smith attends both massives — raves with about three thousand or more people — and underground events, with 100 people or less. She goes to massives at least every other month and undergrounds every other week.

Amid the smoke and flashing strobe lights, the die-hard raver style is definitely made to makes its wearers stand out. The three main rave essentials which are found at any dance event include glowsticks, sparkles, and candy bracelets.

Candy culture, which has carried over from the ’90s, was founded on the basis of sharing and trading homemade candy bracelets with other ravers. The bracelets are not really edible, but made of plastic beads, often with words spelled out on them using letter beads. Gonzalez explained the significance of candy, often spelled kandi, as he practiced a popular PLUR (peace, love, unity, respect) hand movement used to exchange candy.

“The candy is mainly [for] when you’re rolling, it’s another bonding thing,” he said. “[At raves] they usually give you these names, mine was Gravity ‘because I’m always down!’”

Glowstickers who peruse EDM parties also keep the idea of PLUR in mind, giving free light shows to whoever wants one. These are all elements that add to the friendly environment that rave culture embodies.

“PLUR rubs off on a lot of people who didn’t have the best life,” Sperling of Skills Productions said. “They could come to this type of event, and just be loved and be part of a family.”

And while this four-letter word “rave” has received so much flack over the years, much kudos are needed for events that promote the use of various creative mediums.

“We have a cuddle puddle, we have a giant eight-by-eight piece of canvas for people to paint, and everything you need for stage support is in the trees,” said Don’t Panic’s Mr. C.

“By expanding it and making it more interactive, it doesn’t just close it off to people who are using illicit drugs,” UCSC student Smith said.

The rave has evolved over the years to cater to a rapidly-changing society, with the need for constant sensory stimulation. However, it is the mysterious element of disguise that has sparked interest among many rave-goers to this day.

“I would describe it as the urge for carnivale,” Chude-Sokei said. “The urge to celebrate and to become someone else and to dance, that is a product of harsh economic times as well.”

Smith reminisces on a time when six female stilt walkers dressed in white Victorian garb and and put their stilts up on a police car, blocking it from breaking up a rave.

“Another time, I saw this guy wearing a lime green belly shirt with leopard print hot shorts and wearing pink fairy wings, and he was squatting between two cars taking a dump!” Smith said.

“The idea of a rave is coming from a lot of people who listen to mainstream radio who are now finding this culture, so it’s more of an excuse to dress up this way and take the drugs and go crazy and let loose because it’s new for them and it’s different from [the] mainstream,” RealBoy DJ Jacobsen said.

Regardless of whether we choose to condemn the culture or not, raves and electronic dance parties will always be part of what Chude-Sokei refers to as a “part of a longer continuum” of music and pop culture in the face of socioecnomic uncertainty.

So is rave culture on its way out for good? Are the glowsticks fading out and the DJs packing up? Take a trip down the rabbit hole and see for yourself.


*Name has been changed to protect the anonymity of this source