It’s been 23 long years since 1994.
That was the year that I got my first true experiences of where techno and underground electronic music thrived. After finding a taste for the afore-mentioned less-popular kind of music the last couple of years on my own, I made the conscious choice to make new friends and join a tightly-knit community who proudly called themselves “Ravers”.
Socially-conscious and intelligent, we ravers understood less mainstream humor and viewed society from the perspective of outlaws. We made our own rules for how we wanted to live. Most of us were very adept at using computers, which back then was something only used by “nerds”. We tinkered with the technology and hacked our way into sending a message to the world about what we thought of it. We were the outcasts at school and most any public place we frequented. Not only as anti-establishment advocates, we also started a style movement: we were the most enthusiastic adopters of colorful “phat” pants – those with leg size reached up to 69 inches. That is over twice the size of the average person’s waist. We made huge colorful beaded necklaces. We spiked & dyed our hair. We wore kids toys as jewelry. We knew how to dance. We loved the burgeoning underground electronic music that wasn’t understood by the average person. We based our existence on the simple rules of peace, love, unity and respect. Some took drugs with friends, to enhance understanding of each other, the world, and get deeper into the music. Others just enjoyed the experience. The only drinks you could get there were water or vitamin smoothies called “smart drinks”. Everyone was conscious of each other, and accepted exactly how they were.
Although we lived side-by-side most days, and often congregated to hang out at our favorite spots downtown, the most important and central aspect to our being was when we met and celebrated our culture to the utmost: attending raves. An all-night party focused on dancing to the music we loved. They were organized by friends of friends. The flyers were like calling cards for our experiences, collected by a promoter on the street corner who knew you were “hip” to the scene, anticipated and talked about for the weeks that led up to them, and reviewed and talked about for years (and now decades) afterwards. They were often held in less-than-optimum venues and hidden from authorities, and you had to hop on a bus at a secret location or call a designated voicemail box the night of to get directions. They were not easy to get to, but once you found your way there, you were accepted without prejudice into an exclusive family. Raves were where our music lived, and where our community blossomed.
Outside of rave parties, it was very difficult to access our music. Borrowing from a friend who had already acquired it on their own was usually not successful: chances are you would keep it and never bring it back. So we literally had only two options: tune into late night college radio, where the underground DJ’s showcased their newest finds from the small records shops that catered to selling these records, or actually visiting these hallowed shops ourselves. Without being a DJ, it was an intimidating prospect. Even being a DJ, it took you many months and years to build up a reputation as someone who really wanted to be a part of this scene, and even more financially painful: someone who has already casually dropped $100 on new releases each week that entire time period.
Let’s take either scenario.
You find out where this hole in the wall was located almost as if by legend, through word of mouth from other established DJ’s that you took months to develop a trusting relationship with. It is open for only a few hours in the evening, so you walk up the rickety stairs to the entrance where the latest exotic music is blaring, invariably at unintelligibly loud volume levels, while two to a couple dozen (depending on when new record day is) uber-cool people are chatting with each other about the last rave. Leaning imposingly against the listening booths and cash counter. If you’re lucky, there will be record bins. But more likely, you will be trying to weasel your way between the chatting dudes (who have no interest in you other than the fact that you are a bother to their conversation) to ask if you can listen to a certain record you can see laying on the wall behind the guy working there. If you mustered up enough courage to do that, and you like the record, be prepared to drop up to $20 on one to two tunes, just to leave the store as your first step towards being a DJ. Then what? You still need to buy turntables and a mixer to listen to them – which were the most expensive part of the whole gig. And at that time, only available by custom order through a few sound & lighting warehouses.
Now let’s forget about the aspiring DJ, most of us were mere ravers. Let’s say you just want to hear the music – there was usually a bootleg cassette section in the record shop that contained studio or live mixes from local and international DJ’s that cost ridiculous amounts for today’s standards. If you picked one up and brought it home to listen to, you were offered a glimpse into the glorious sounds of music you would find at a rave. These cassettes were the most valuable things to hit your walkman. They got played until the tape ribbon split, they were shared & copied with friends you could trust, studied and left a deep impression – as you the outcast, walked through the city of non-ravers. It strengthened your connection with the rave community, even as your completely impractical phat pants dragged in puddles waiting for the bus, you “raved” (danced) there, alone, in the cold, smiling. We all did it. If we made it through the rituals of these first steps, we all felt a deep feeling of belonging and being loved. We all looked forward to the next chance to be with our “rave family” again, and the next event date. What would it be like? How would it compare to the last ones, and what new music would you experience that you couldn’t yet imagine?
These cassettes (DJ mixes) are never forgotten. Your favorite ones can still bring a smile to your face. Any memory of the rave scene remains as a special time to you always.
Why is something so basic as a common taste in music mean so much in the lives of those who were a part of it?
Because we were the last generation of people who had to work hard to belong to a scene, to a subculture. We didn’t really have internet at the beginning, and even when we did, it wasn’t used for instant messaging and social media. Even in 2000, CD burning and file sharing was in its infancy. If the rave community appealed to us, we actually had to make friends, find out what it was about, research the music and go to the raves. We had to stay up all night to catch our music on the radio. We had to face the fears of entering a record store for the first time, learn how to DJ on analog turntables, find the money to buy cassettes, be able to buy the turntables and build a library of records. We even made extreme changes to our wardrobe and proudly wore them out in public.
Because of this, the connections we made were much stronger, much more genuine, and satisfying. Sure, today’s millenial culture is convenient, addictive, fun and the way of the future. But there is little struggle required to become a part of a “scene” and leaving it. Bonds come and go much quicker, easier and without memory.
It doesn’t make sense to go back to an “old way” of doing things, this is clear. But I do suggest that the new generation of young people think twice if they are unsatisfied with the subcultures they identify with. Try and imagine if the root of your dissatisfaction might just be a manifestation of the lack of struggle, resulting in higher sense of satisfaction to build your scene. Because things have only been this way for a little while so far. Maybe lessons can be learned and understanding and experiences passed down.
DJ K is a jungle DJ & producer from Ottawa Canada. Started raving in the mid-90s, and moved his way from dancefloor to DJ behind the decks, becoming a local favorite by 2000. He has since released on various labels and toured worldwide.
Also by DJ K: A Beginners Guide to Jungle Music
Follow DJ K and the Killa Podcast at Killarecords.com