20 years ago today I went to my first rave, the flyer for that party + flyers for (nearly all) of the parties I ever went to are below:
We’d been collecting these trippy digitally designed flyers at our favorite record shops. With proper conditions– driver’s licenses and the perfect alibi of sleeping over at each other’s houses on Saturday nights before our 9 am Early College Program ceramics class at the School of the Art Institute– we were able to make this a reality. We called the hotline on the back of the flyer, which I believe led us to Wax Trax on Damen to buy tickets and get the address for a second checkpoint where we’d pick up a map to the actual location of the party. I cannot tell you where this party was– (though a post on this message board recounts it being a suburban location and that it got busted, neither details I recall) we pulled up on a desolated stretch of an industrial corridor and were hurriedly waved down a dark alley by a shadowy figure, the telltale thump, thump, thump signaling to us that we were headed on the right course and not about to get jumped.
Once inside the warehouse, there was some familiar ambiance from our already-growing-up-too-fast-in-the-suburbs lifestyle– nitrous oxide tanks hissing, inflating giant punchy balloons and Lawnmower Man being projected onto a white sheet. The deeper we penetrated the thick crowd, things got considerably more exotic– club kids in three foot tall platform shoes, naked flesh, chill out rooms dripping with sex and out-in-the-open drug use. The main dance floor was a wall to wall throb of too loud bass and jacking bodies. This was an urban crowd and there were all kinds of people losing themselves in the orgiastic rhythm. I remember not being intimidated, not like my first industrial concert a few years before, but feeling exhilarated and a little bit jittery. This was a safe space to get freaky. We let ourselves go and joined the pulsating hive.
Unfortunately, the subsequent 20 or so raves we attended were not quite as idyllic. At our second party, who did we run into within a half hour of stepping foot into the warehouse, but the same assholes who were pushing us down the stairs at school a few years earlier. The same kids that were copping our Ministry and Red Hot Chili Pepper t-shirts, co-opting all of the subcultural expressions that we had to work so hard to discover and establish ourselves as different from them and proud of it. Those were the times– Lollpalooza, alternative rock radio, recreational drugs– it was cool to be weird. At least we really were weird, and onto cool stuff a year or two before those jocks. There was a sea change in the rave scene. We’d been the first wave of suburban kids gentrifying a vital urban culture and it just kept going that way come 1995. The parties even moved to the suburbs, I remember one in a parking lot of a trucking company like a mile from my high school. I’m stoked we got to see a party like Ladybug– to have a taste of the halcyon era of the early 90s that seemed to be the natural progression of the utopia of House. Sure there were other good nights– the right concoction of a good buzz, cute looks, and communal vibes focused on the dance. But for the most part, when these parties weren’t getting shut down by the cops, they looked like open air drug markets with zombified suburban kids, dressing the part with the oversized polos and visors, becoming prey to dope peddlers (perhaps connected with the promoters) who scammed their parent’s cash in exchange for god-knows-what (the ecstasy was also very expensive, we could never afford designer drugs after shelling out $20- $25 at the door. My only cash flow at the time was selling Fimo beads at school). This was not PLUR, kids.
But I’m glad I was there. I took pride in pulling together outrageous outfits– the oversized plastic wallet chains, GIANT pants, tiny tops repurposed from stuffed animals, all sorts of home made jewelry. Inclusivity and individuality were high priority values for me throughout my teens and early twenties and I constantly desired supportive scenes. These ideals were certainly a major appeal of Ox-Bow for me. There’s something pragmatic about the utopia of the rave– for one night, no matter who you were, you could dress up, get high, and dance and everyone around you was a part of this whole. In the morning, you’d drive home, go to bed, wake up and go back to work or school. The one nighter.
And of course, the music. After many years of living in the city, I’ve come to savor the impersonal, sometimes harsh quality of electronic music, it reflects the landscape. Herein lies the other dystopic/utopic flip of rave– an embrace of the urban situation. Redirecting the isolating hostility of city life and making a party of it.
Back then it was nearly impossible to figure out what we were dancing to. I was too shy to approach the DJ booth (and back then in the white label era, DJs guarded their tracks) so mixtapes were the only access to taking the jams home. In my two years raving, the music changed a lot as well. At Ladybug and my other favorite parties, the DJs were playing hard, minimal house sounds and sometimes nudging into faster European techno. If you look at the flyers and know these DJ names, it will make sense as you scroll, I preferred the Chicago vets like Derrick Carter and Mystic Bill. Terry Mullen and Hyperactive were the two we followed most closely and they were very prolific at the time. I collected all of the Hyperactive mixes, which were a mix of old school Chicago acid house and more contemporary hardcore. By 95 everything was getting faster and harder and there were more and more European DJs flying in from the Dutch, Belgian, and German hardcore scenes. And then jungle happened which seemed to divide the scene further by 96. I like a lot these styles, but the old school Chicago will always be close to my heart. I could listen to Acid Tracks everyday and it would sound different every time– cold and alien, yet seductively organic. We are Phuture you can’t defeat us.
Seemingly a lifelong quest, I am still hunting down the unidentified ear worms that are fossilized deep in my memory banks. I started DJing about 10 years ago and have collected a lot of old school Chicago stuff by digging through everything I can find on labels like Trax, Dancemania, and Relief/ Cajual. Also, fortunately, on websites like ravearchive.com you can download many of these classic mix tapes and with the handy technology of Shazam, I’ve been able to track down a bunch of the classic dance floor bangers of the era. Here’s a list of my favorite rave jams:
And of course the flyer art. If you scroll up and down this blog, you will see the lasting impression bad old digital design will always have on my work.