It's hard to talk to women at raves, says Ben Wilke. The big beats drown out small talk. If you really need to, you can go to a "chill-out" room for get-to-know-you conversation. And if you really need them, there's "a moderate amount of drugs," says the 17-year-old from Texas. But for him, raves are "all about the music." Says Wilke: "Real party kids don't do drugs. We go to dance and have a good time." He goes on: "A lot of people don't understand it, but the guitar thing's been done. Electronic music is all I listen to. It beats my heart."
First we had the Beat Generation; now we have the Beats-per-Minute Generation. And it's not just about drugs like ecstasy. Simply defined, a rave is a party — often an all-night-long party — at which some form of electronic, or "techno," music is played, usually by a deejay. A rave can be as small as 25 people or larger than 25,000. Last weekend, more than 1 million revelers attended the Love Parade, a megarave in Berlin. While raves have been around for a decade, the rituals, visuals and sounds associated with raves have finally started to exert a potent influence on pop music, advertising and even computer games.
Several new films about raves are either in theaters or coming soon, including the documentaries Better Living Through Circuitry and Rise, a study of the rave scene in New Orleans; the British comedy Human Traffic, released in the U.K. last year, opened in the U.S. and Europe this summer. Says Jason Jordan, co-author of Searching for the Perfect Beat, a new book about raves and visual art: "Rave culture is youth culture right now."
"Rave culture is affecting pop culture in ways similar to the Beat Generation — and it's being misinterpreted in the same way," says Greg Harrison, director of the new movie Groove, a fictional take on the rave scene. "In the case of the Beats, a complex and subtle ethos was distilled by pop culture to marijuana, goatees and poetry. I would argue that just as there was much more to the Beats, there's something more subtle and interesting about the rave scene."
To find a rave, you might surf the Net and check out sites like ravedata.com or raves.com. Or you might just ask a friend in the know. Raves have traditionally been held in venues without permits or permission, giving them an outlaw allure. Today, however, an increasing number of raves are legal ones, and places like Twilo in New York City and Ministry of Sound in London specialize in re-creating the rave feel in legitimate clubs.
Ravers often wear loose, wide-legged jeans that flare out at the bottom. Knickknacks from childhood, like lollipops, pacifiers and dolls, are common accessories. Dancers often carry bottles of water to battle dehydration, which can be aggravated by ecstasy. They sometimes dress in layers so clothes can be stripped off if the going gets hot, and blue and green flexible glow sticks are popular. One sound you'll hear if the party's going right: a communal whoop of approval when the deejay starts riding a good groove. "The first rock-'n'-roll shows were dance events," says 6th Element promoter Matt E. Silver, who has worked with best-selling electronica acts such as Chemical Brothers and Prodigy. "Now it's about deejay culture." In the movie Groove, the filmmakers refer to that connection between deejay and dancer, between promoter and satisfied raver, as "the nod." Many rave promoters and deejays don't do it for the money. They do it for the nod.
One electronic musician who is definitely getting the nod these days is the American deejay-composer Moby. Most deejays a decade ago were faceless shadows lurking behind turntables. Now deejays associated with the rave scene — like Paul Van Dyk, Armand Van Helden, Keoki and BT — are artists, celebrities, superstars. "If Stravinsky were alive today, this is the kind of music he'd make," says BT, who composed music for the rave movie Go (1999). "It just affords you a broader sonic palette to work from."
Moby has used his palette skillfully. He got his start as a deejay, but he also sings and plays with a backing band when he's on tour. His 1995 album Everything Is Wrong sold about 125,000 copies. His critically acclaimed new album Play, which samples old blues songs and sets them to futuristic beats, has sold 2 million copies in Europe alone. The rave scene is catching on with a new generation of fans, Moby believes, because it offers an alternative to today's version of bubblegum. "The consolidation of all the different record companies under big multinational parent companies," he says, has spawned the current crush of mass-produced teen pop acts. "Your BMGs, your Sonys, your Time Warners ... nothing against these companies, but they buy music companies and they expect music to perform the way that, say, snack cakes or liquid paper performs. There's so much commercial emphasis on disposable pop music that I think it leaves a lot of people desperately looking for other types of musical expression."
One of the most creative ways in which rave culture expresses itself is its party handbills. They are to raves what graffiti art is to hip-hop and psychedelic posters were to the acid rock of the '70s. They give vision to rave's sounds. Sometimes they appropriate corporate logos with ironic visual twists. The MasterCard logo becomes "MasterRave," or Rice Krispies becomes "Rave Krisp Es." Other flyers employ 3-D images and wild metallic hues that draw inspiration from sci-fi films. "In a lot of ways it's one of the most modern visual art forms you can see," says Eric Paxton Stauder, a member of Dots per Minute, a network of designers that focuses on rave flyers. "It's open and unrestricted, and it's a testing ground for combining visual elements."
Rave iconography is already being co-opted by American advertising, which has learned all about digging up the underground and selling the dirt. Toyota is sponsoring a U.S. tour of British electronica acts Groove Armada and Faze Action. Every song on Moby's 18-track album Play has been licensed, popping up in movies like The Beach and in Nissan commercials. Donna Karan's DKNY label plans to use deejay John Digweed's song Heaven Scent to promote a fragrance with the same name.
Wayne Friedman, entertainment-marketing reporter for Advertising Age, says today's admakers look to tap into underground movements quickly so that they can make use of sounds and images that aren't necessarily familiar but that pique interest. Acts like Moby fit the bill. Says Friedman: "It's almost like you can't be overly commercial when you're trying to make commercials."
Many ravers are wary and weary of the media's embrace. In particular, many believe that the press is more interested in writing about drugs than about the music — and that the press coverage is partly to blame for the supposed ecstasy boom.
Indeed, some of the biggest acts associated with the rave scene say they are drug free. Van Dyk says he was introduced to electronic music in East Germany, when he secretly tuned in to West German radio as a kid. He didn't need drugs to enjoy the music then, so he figures he doesn't need them now. Moby says he tried smoking pot when he was 11 or 12 so he could hang out with the "cool kids," but that was pretty much the end of his experimentation. Says Moby: "I've never tried ecstasy, I've never tried cocaine, I've never tried heroin. I don't think there's anything ethically wrong with drug use, but the reason I stay away from it is that I value my brain too much. I don't want to trust my synapses to some stranger that I met in a nightclub. I hope to use my brain for the rest of my life."
Every few years somebody says music is going to break out, that electronic acts are going to storm the charts. A couple of years ago, Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers were supposed to lead the charge. They sold well, but few like-minded acts shared their success. This year it's Moby, and perhaps acts like Alice Deejay and others will follow. Maybe this time rave culture is here to stay ... or maybe it'll slip safely back into the underground with alternative rock. With horrifyingly generic teen-pop acts blaring out from mtv day in and day out, it's a wonder more kids haven't turned to drugs to escape the awful racket. Sure, a fair amount of electronica is wordless wallpaper, but slip on Moby's soulful, cerebral Play, and you won't need any substances to get high. The music will take you there all by itself.