Every New Idea Must First Appear as Heresy
The quest for freedom extends to love and sexuality and Altered State makes explicit that house music, the alpha to the omega of techno in the electronic dance music genre, came out of the underground gay culture that exploded into the world after the Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969. The gay scene in New York City and elsewhere (the Daughters of Belitis in San Francisco was a lesbian counterpart in the west) was marked by the requirement of having places to socialize away from the prying eyes of straight people and the batons of the police. It was at these parties, in lofts and bars that the first evolution in dance music began: the invention of the modern dance music DJ.
The pioneering DJ’s in the late-‘60s were less Dick Clark and more shaman. They would hold hours long dance parties in the underground gay clubs and lofts of New York City, playing everything from Led Zeppelin to James Brown. They pioneered the art of DJ’ing by mixing in elements from other sources playing on a separate turntable and tape decks. Sounds like African drum rhythms that would punctuate the beat of the song. They also began using volume to mix songs together, helping to create a seamless experience, and utilizing graphic equalizers to accentuate low-end frequencies. These techniques would typify house and techno music in the years to follow, also influencing hip-hop. Existing technology was being used in unexpected ways to create art.
Almost from the beginning electronic dance music had international roots. Over the next decade and a half DJ’s would pick up their craft in New York and then be transplanted to Detroit, giving rise to Techno, or Chicago, where house music was born. From these locations other DJ’s would begin traveling worldwide, ending up in places like Brazil and Ibiza. It was from Ibiza that the music would make the ultimate leap to London. The uninhibited, hedonistic Ibiza was where in the mid-‘80s young, unknown DJ’s like Paul Oakenfold would take the right drug, hear a certain beat and be forever transformed.
The music was much more than just music. It was the egolessness of overpowering rhythm, intoxication on a euphoria inducing drug and dancing with thousands of other people for hours. This combination had the inscrutable ability to transform people’s perception of the world and their place in it. Today’s Burning Man Festival is a relatively watered down version of the days long parties that came out of the explosion of the house music and techno scene in late 80s London. Loosely affiliated groups formed, the most well known was Spiral Tribe, which used the music as evangelizing vehicles to blast open the doors of people’s perceptions. Spiral Tribe and others hoped to change the world through the experience. The music would last for several days straight, the drugs would flow, and new levels of consciousness would be attained, if only temporarily.
These massive parties eventually became known as raves, and recent history shows that they’re as popular as ever. The Love Parade rave held in Germany in July 2010 had 1.4 million attendees, according to the Los Angeles Times (also at that rave a crowded tunnel and a panicked crowd resulted in 18 deaths). It’s difficult today to say that groups like Spiral Tribe attained anything beyond blazing the path for organizing massive parties, but at the time it must have seemed like they were setting the world on fire.
As has been repeated so often that it’s become cliché, the culture and music eventually became a business, and given the interplay of drugs and money it was inevitable that organized crime and law enforcement would become involved. The cycle of fringe culture, transformed to criminality, transformed to legitimate business is one that Collin documents carefully and not without a noticeable twinge of regret. He invokes a once vibrant scene that due to criminal involvement, government intervention and eventual takeover by moneyed interests, became a hollow shell of its former self.
Nothing good can last; such is the way of the world. The gentrification of one culture inevitably leads to the creation of another. Working class disco music led to house and techno, but not before it became Saturday Night Fever. Matthew Collin makes the convincing argument in Altered State that marginalized and disenfranchised cultures are the ones from which true cultural innovation springs. While bordering on a truism the idea has resonance. If it’s folk music, or jazz, the blues, or the avant-garde in writing, painting or even technology, it’s seemingly those on the periphery of mainstream culture who invoke what will eventually become the new mainstream. Every new idea must first appear as heresy, and a bunch of people high on drugs, some of them possibly gay and others definitely black dancing maniacally to loud unintelligible music in dark, scary clubs, was definitely heresy.
It’s in the shadows of pop culture that the future is being born. Perhaps somewhere in a slum of Mexico City, an apartment in Moscow, or a tract house in Austin a new sound is being unwittingly coaxed into life, built around the tools at hand and the human need to create. Perhaps in a nearby University a psychedelic drug that is easily synthesized with common household chemicals is being discovered. Is this the future? We can only hope.