At the Heart of the Smiley Face: The Forgotten Tenets of the Global Rave Culture

[16 June 2004]

By Yan Sham-Shackleton

Now-a-days, we hear electronic music virtually everywhere, and almost all the time: the rapid bassline of drum n bass used as back drop to car commercials; the sounds of break beat cut into BBC’s TV documentaries. I once heard Robert Mile’s breakthrough hit “Children” while eating chicken wings in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Hong Kong. Not to mention the million nameless tracks served up in bars and restaurants everywhere.

What we don’t seem to remember, or what only its devotees knew, is that the basslines that we now hear through commercial usage were once considered revolutionary music. The innovation and the sub-culture that accompanied basslines heralded a different aesthetic and way of living for a segment of a global generation, much the same way alternative music such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam is said to have defined and screamed out the angst of those born somewhere in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

Electronic music came together into at various points of the globe via what was known as “rave culture”. Germany’s Kraftwerks experimented with drum machines and synthesizers, while Detroit’s Derek May and Friends started creating hard house techno with an unrelenting beat. On newly affordable home recording and digital technology, DJs played on decks in backyards and warehouses. The sound and culture merged again in England, remixed with funk grooves into the psychedelic “acid house”, and the scene turned into parties in open fields and raves held at broken-into warehouses along the Orbital M25 Motorway that circles London.

As the rumor of illegal, all night parties set to this new music spread, it picked up, among other things, the edgier sounds of Berlin, the Candy look from LA, the higher consciousness from Goa, India, the laid back aesthetics of Ibiza, and many other aspects in global youth culture. The new rituals of this global culture gave birth to a generation of free love in the form of late night sunglass wearers, who, no matter where they were, just wanted to dance in unity to the bass.

Because of the underground nature of the rave scene, just going to hear the music was nothing short of a sort of pilgrimage. A typical night in Los Angeles circa early ‘90s went something like this: 1) You’d pick up a flier at a specialty record store, which only included the date of an upcoming rave and a “hotline” number. 2) A few hours before the rave started, you’d spend an hour calling the number, hoping to get through to the voice mail. 3) Once connected, you’d try decipher the inevitably muffled address to a “map point”. 4) After finding your way to the map point, you’d still have to pick up the location of the party. 5) You’d spend another hour or two wrestling with hazy instructions and badly drawn maps, while trying not to lose your temper because you found you’ve backtracked all the way from home for a good number of miles. 6) Eventually you would find yourself at the rave scene, faced with a long line of cars, and hopefully generators, sound systems, lights, and a deck with a DJ and his equipment setting up behind it. Some times the location eludes you completely, other times, upon arrival you are faced with the flashing lights of police cars and the cops are already shutting it down.

I have memories of long journeys, miles of driving which took me all over the coast, mountains and deserts of California, sometimes crossing state lines to Nevada. I’d show up at warehouses in New Zealand, find myself at a concrete factory in Hong Kong, and once helped carry a generator up four flights of stairs at an abandoned hotel in Honduras. With such memories of all the work it took to attend raves, it can feel strange to hear the basslines so out of context, now.

If you were into the rave scene, you know the music really meant something, once. It meant a lot to me, in particular. And as silly as it might sound now that time has passed, some of us thought the rave values of open-minded acceptance and the melting of societal constructs were going to change the rest world as much as it changed each of us. Rave created a new kind of relating, where people could shed the armor that we learned to accumulate while living in this rather rough and cruel world. Rave was a place where we could just be friends no matter how different our backgrounds — where we lived, what we did in life, what race we were, — all those rules of society were dropped at a rave because the only thing that mattered was that we stepped in time with the beat, and that is how we shared our universe.

Unlike bars, where people went to pick up and show off, raves and parties provided a safe place where you could talk to anyone. You could wear your most fantastical clothes, embrace your individuality, and best yet, the “cool” you was self-defined, rather than a style that some record company or fashion magazine had decided was “in”. Any kid with a bit of moxie, technique, and an arm full of records could be a star for the night. If you could work a computer, press a record, and get your work into the hands of a DJ — any DJ — your creation could be shared right at that moment. There were no stars in raves, just a DIY mentality. The joy and freedom resulting from such equality pulsed through the speakers and permeated the ideology of rave culture. It made millions of people throw their arms in the air.

Much ink has been spilled on the tie between the use of ecstasy and other illegal substances, and why a collective millions of kids traveled so many miles to attend raves. I can’t deny that ecstasy colored the way the rave world was viewed by outsiders, but surely a rave scene meant more to kids than just getting high. Why else would anyone trek for hours to the middle of nowhere, often into the worse neighborhoods, lugging generators and speakers, just to be able to dance? The ingesting of a pill takes a few seconds, the effort required to attend a rave is much greater. And much like those from the ‘60s and ‘70s would tell us, “You can’t explain it, it just was”. I would say the same about the rave culture of the ‘90s. I can’t explain why we thought the things we thought or did the things we did. We just did it and it meant something then, and it no longer means the same thing, now.

I understand that the manifest destiny of any scene is to implode. Anything that is underground popular eventually becomes commercialized, and the original ideals fade. Ravers grow up, they lose interest in the scene because of new responsibilities. Admittedly, after attending so many raves, even the scene eventually gets old. But as raves dragged on the drug casualties grew. Once purported to be the wonder drug, non-addictive and without side effects, long-term use of ecstasy resulted in brain damage. My reminiscence of the rave scene is not to say that I think it should have continued as it did, nor even to say that ecstasy aside, the joy induced at raves created a healthy lifestyle that I would recommend. Personally, I know I am done with the whole thing.

But sometimes, when I hear a certain track like Frankie Knuckle’s “Whistle song”, or Orbital’s “Satan”, or just a sample with a heavy bass, I get nostalgic for the time and meaning those beats evoke. I miss when being a “raver” meant there was an understanding among us kids. The fact that it is no longer so makes me a little sad.

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