The Right to Rave
Sean Anderson wanted to throw an intense, all-night rave featuring the pulsating electronic dance rhythms of techno music--plus his favorite DJs and friends. So last March, the 21-year-old promoter and turntable jockey rented the Forest, an old movie theater near Fair Park that regularly holds concerts ranging from rap to jazz. With laconic flair, he dubbed his event "Truth 2.01," sequel to a successful party held a year earlier.
Everything seemed ready for a celebration of hundreds, if not a thousand or more. Anderson put together colorful fliers announcing the party, and word went out through the subterranean word-of-mouth and e-mail network that amazingly connects thousands of techno music enthusiasts. He checked with the theater to make sure its permits were in order. He organized his vinyl collection for his own set of "progressive house," featuring works by John Digweed, Julias Papp, Peace Division and other personal favorites.
But Anderson's party was nearly ruined when the venue owner pulled out at the last minute. While details are fuzzy, the cancellation came after a visit by 10 to 12 Dallas police vice officers concerned about possible drug use. "The situation wasn't nice; they came in force," recalls Forest manager Oscar Warren, who nevertheless emphasizes his support of police. They warned Warren that permits weren't enough. Citing inadequate security, Warren canceled the event with only a day's notice.
Anderson was furious. He hurriedly rescheduled the party at an Arlington venue. Turnout was down because of confusion over the last-minute change. And in the end, Anderson found himself $3,000 in the hole.
For electronic music lovers in Dallas and all over the country, Anderson's bad experience represents more than a botched show. A rash of similar incidents, say techno artists and civil libertarians, reflects a nationwide trend that jeopardizes the First Amendment rights of techno fans. Law authorities' paranoia about the drugs often associated with raves has ripped into techno culture, the musical genre itself and the musicians who practice it. "Our culture is under attack," says Sean Jenkins, a volunteer with a Houston rave safety group.
To hear techno fans tell it, the police and media have declared war on a form of cultural expression simply because some of its enthusiasts use drugs. Anti-rave hysteria, they say, has led to questionable strategies by law enforcement and prosecutors, who in seeking to curb supposedly drug-infested raves have dusted off an old law intended to shutter crack cocaine dens. "They're going after people who provide music rather than people who provide drugs," says Graham Boyd, an American Civil Liberties Union drug policy expert. "The goal," he charges, "is to eliminate raves. To me, that's like trying to eliminate jazz or reggae."
Health officials warn that as raves grow more popular, emergency-room visits and deaths linked to so-called "club drugs" MDMA (ecstasy), Rohypnol, GHB and Ketamine, while still comparatively small in number, have increased. But some defenders think techno's sheer unfamiliarity compared to, say, rock or reggae music, more established genres for which concerts often feature open drug use, is what really draws heat from today's baby-boomer authority figures. "Any other deal, they don't have to be drug-free," says DJ Merritt, who hosts EdgeClub 102, a Saturday-night electronic music show on 102.1 KDGE-FM. (Unlike small amounts of marijuana, however, possession of most "club drugs" is a felony crime.)
Anderson admits some rave attendees take drugs. But focusing on them, he says, misses a larger point: A wave of sensational anti-rave news coverage--think undercover TV newsmagazine reports on raves--combined with increasing police scrutiny, is squelching a new music form that seeks mainstream legitimacy. "We're not drug dealers," he fumes. "You don't have to be on drugs to enjoy these parties."
What's more, Anderson argues that stepped-up police and media scrutiny disregards reform efforts within the rave scene. The term "rave" once denoted blowout parties held illegally in warehouses lacking fire and safety standards. But a new breed of techno promoters is strictly business. They lease licensed clubs, hire security to keep drugs out and work with authorities. "We're willing to do whatever it takes," Anderson says.
Despite those efforts, techno is on the defensive and may have to retreat underground. Recent law enforcement actions nationwide show that raves are still seen as a social menace. To the horror of First Amendment advocates, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is experimenting with a 1986 statute designed to eliminate crack houses--this time, to shut down techno venues. After a six-month struggle in New Orleans, three theater managers recently pleaded guilty to violating the crack-house law, which forbids making a building available for drug use and trafficking. A similar case targets popular Club La Vela of Panama City Beach, Florida, which for several years hosted MTV Spring Break.
Similarly, Anderson and others sense a growing anti-rave environment in Dallas. Promoters want to organize large gatherings, lure national and international artists and possibly earn a living through such events. But they feel stymied since many large venues, such as the Smirnoff Music Centre, won't accept them because of concerns about late-night noise and techno's poor image, while other venues have been shut down.
Civil libertarians have taken notice. Techno artists have formed a national legal defense fund, while the ACLU is helping club owners fight the DEA's crack-house law strategy. They argue that drugs should be fought independently of raves; targeting them chills freedom of association and artistic expression. "We're basically punishing people because the community doesn't like them," says Will Harrell, director of the ACLU's Texas branch. "There's no proof that drug use [at raves] is higher in excess of any other party or bar."
In Texas, a coterie of activists is championing what it says is a legitimate civil rights cause. To combat restrictive laws and regulations, Dallas promoters have formed a group called Metrotribe. Likewise, a statewide organization called Texas Raves Awareness Group is hoping to buff up techno's image. "There's been so much negative press lately," says Aaron Fowler, an Austin fan and founding member of Texas Raves. "We want to promote other positive aspects of the scene."
For instance, enthusiasts point out that fights are rare at raves and that the music doesn't glamorize sex or violence, while the communal and noncommercialized nature of raves makes them a good place to meet friends. At the same time, promoters want to convince the public they aren't responsible for what happens off their turf. "I don't want to create a drug atmosphere," says Anderson. "But it's not my obligation to tell people what to do."
It's Friday night, June 1, at the Home Bar, a small watering hole tucked into a warehouse zone between Central Expressway and Greenville Avenue. Synesthesia Productions, a small promotion company, has hired out the bar for the night to showcase a dozen DJs. To get the word out, promoter Geoff Alleger distributed professional-looking fliers on shiny paper with an earth of swirled blues and greens floating in a hazy purple-red atmosphere. He dubbed the party "This Island Earth."
Synesthesia doesn't have an exclusive lock on Saturdays at the bar. There's a party nearly every weekend held by rotating groups of techno promoters, who share the same fans. Among these promoters, several of whom are twentysomethings with day jobs in graphic design, scheduling events on the same night is a violation of an unwritten code. Organizers try to avoid splintering the dance scene.
By 10 p.m., a crowd is building. There's light traffic at the bar for drinks, and bouncers at the door collect cover charges and search patrons for drugs and weapons. Near the bar are Sean Anderson and his friend Dave Brown, who goes by the moniker DJ Ahman. They are next up on a small stage to spin records as a duo.
Despite their lack of stage presence--many DJs have the charisma of short-order cooks--the partners play a hypnotic set of layered beats and bass lines. They filter a mix of sound effects, such as striking clocks, horn samples and electronic whirs, all while increasing the music's intensity.
From ceiling projectors come green outlines of stars, circles and triangles, while bubbles and mist periodically emanate from machines near the stage, where solo dancers congregate. A skinny girl with red lights attached to her hands weaves them in and out, while others dance like robotic Deadheads. One rave constituency that often attracts criticism isn't present tonight: the so-called "candy kids," who are often blamed for increased drug use in the scene. Because of a 17-and-up age requirement, these younger fans known for oddball fashions such as fluffy Elmo and Cookie Monster backpacks and pacifiers attached to beaded necklaces are in short supply.
Techno, a dance genre born in post-riot Detroit, got its first taste of mainstream attention in the mid-'90s when crossover acts such as Moby, the Chemical Brothers and Everything but the Girl found success. Unlike America's last mass-audience dance form, disco, it lacks the glitz and campy excess.
While ravegoers like the Home Bar, the club only holds about 200 patrons. Fans bemoan the lack of larger venues, especially since they lost a warehouse club south of downtown called Decibel. That space, shut down a year ago, didn't comply with fire codes, and the owner refused to make upgrades. Bronco Bowl, a multiroomed rock concert facility, hosts some large events, but fans say the demand still goes unmet. "Trouble occurs when you try to find venues that hold more than 3,000 or 4,000 people," says Damon Williams, editor in chief of Feedback, a glossy Austin magazine that covers the Southwest's techno scene.
You don't have to look hard to find that some people at the Home Bar are on illicit substances. A tall, dazed-looking kid with a gray knit cap momentarily stops dancing, then exclaims to a friend resting on a sofa, "I'm rolling. I'm on ecs-ama-tasy." But Herb Berkeley, a 30-year-old DJ from Houston, denies the music revolves around drug use, even if some people are using. Raves are about "the music and caring about other people," he says, referring to techno's universal slogan of PLUR (peace, love, unity and respect).
Patrolling the bar with a large black flashlight is Shannon McKinnon, Home Bar's main owner. His bar books corporate events and other large get-togethers, but he says frequent techno shows also attract responsible partiers. "I'd have to disagree with the notion that raves are drug-infested dens," he says. "I think it's just because they're here for the music and to have a good time." Promoters of raves, he says, often ask him: "Do you have plenty of security? We don't want drugs at our event." Some fliers put out by promoters explicitly warn patrons not to bring drugs. "That's pretty commendable," he says. "It's very much different than what the police and families think."
On the other hand, McKinnon blames some clubs for giving techno a poor reputation by failing to curb excesses. Case in point: Robert and Brian Brunet, managers of the State Palace Theater in New Orleans, and rave promoter Donnie "Disco" Estopinal. Their legendary raves attracted legions of pacifier-sucking fans from across the South, but their drug activity drew harsh scrutiny from the DEA.
To put a stop to the flow of illegal drugs at the events, the DEA did more than bust dealers. It put the State Palace's owners and promoter on trial. The agency's aggressive efforts may define the techno scene for years.
The DEA's landmark "crack-house" case centers not on dilapidated rowhouses where slumlords allow addicts to congregate and get high, but on a historic theater at the edge of New Orleans' French Quarter. The State Palace Theater, once a neighborhood cinema, became an all-purpose event hall in 1992, hosting rock acts such as the Dave Matthews Band. But federal law authorities also say the space morphed into a dispensary for ecstasy and other illegal drugs.
It began in 1995 when a young man named Donnie Estopinal, an accounting major from Louisiana State University-turned-rave promoter, insisted he could lure thousands to the State Palace. Robert and Brian Brunet, brothers and managers of the family-owned theater, were skeptical he could pull it off, but they gave him a chance
Word quickly spread, and soon crowds of more than 4,000--a diverse mix of teens, college students and young revelers--were packing the all-night celebrations. The Brunets liked the crowds because they didn't trash the place or create mosh pits. But techno's rapid rise in New Orleans came at a cost: the 1998 death of 17-year-old Jillian Kirkland at the State Palace because of a severe overdose, and dozens of lesser overdose victims shuttled to emergency rooms, averaging two a night during raves, according to the DEA.
Eager to clamp down on New Orleans' burgeoning ecstasy trade, the DEA eschewed the little-fish drug dealers in favor of a big fish--the State Palace. "Operation Rave Review" debuted in January 2000.
During eight visits, a fresh-faced undercover agent scored 45 hits of ecstasy and other pills. He also witnessed dancers with goofy accessories the DEA considers drug paraphernalia, such as pupil-dilating glow sticks, oversized pacifiers (used by some to stop the jaw grinding caused by ecstasy) and medical masks daubed with Vicks VapoRub (which supposedly enhances the ecstasy high).
In making its case, the DEA vilified State Palace raves, belittling the notion that they could possibly have any artistic or cultural merit. "In my time as a prosecutor this is one of the most unconscionable drug violations I have seen," said Eddie Jordan, U.S. Attorney for New Orleans, who has since stepped down from that post. "They used these raves to exploit young people by designing them for pervasive drug abuse."
The end result: In January 2001, the Brunets and Estopinal were indicted under the crack-house statute. None was charged with selling drugs. Rather, the government said they were guilty because they knew their facility was a drug-trade conduit. Facing 20-year sentences and fines of up to $500,000, the trio immediately sought a deal. But the ACLU and techno artists nationwide urged them to fight on Constitutional grounds: freedom of speech--musical speech, that is--and freedom of association.
The Brunets and Estopinal fought back with some success, but on June 13 relented in the face of mounting legal fees. The Brunet family's company pleaded guilty to lesser charges in a deal that merely bars the State Palace from hosting parties where ecstasy paraphernalia--the medical masks, the pacifiers--is sold or present. Likewise, "chill rooms," the extra-air-conditioned rooms set up to prevent the overheating caused by a combination of frenetic dancing and ecstasy, are out.
The DEA insists the changes will help prevent overdoses. As proof, it points to fewer emergency-room visits for club-drug overdoses since the suspension of mass raves (Estopinal now holds raves at smaller venues). But others deride the DEA for banning items with no direct connection to drug use. "Those things are not paraphernalia," the ACLU's Boyd says. "The pacifier is no more paraphernalia than a tie-dyed shirt."
In the wake of the State Palace case, the DEA launched another crack-house prosecution, this time at the mammoth dance palace Club La Vela in Panama City Beach, Florida, which was used three times in the late '90s for MTV Spring Break as well as other trendy events. With the second prosecution under way, as well as crackdowns by local authorities, defenders fear they're seeing the beginning of open season on the rave scene.
Boyd sees that police crackdowns in one locale will intimidate venue owners elsewhere. "All you need is a handful of prosecutions," he says, "then the threats do the job alone." Still, Boyd thinks techno promoters will eventually win the fight. Already, they have launched the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund to fight crack-house-style prosecutions. Susan Mainzer, a spokeswoman for EMDEF, thinks law enforcers blame raves for the type of ecstasy use that is seen in several segments of society, including college students and professionals.
And despite the increasing numbers, ecstasy overdoses are still rare. From 1994 to 1999, emergency-room visits for ecstasy overdoses rose from 250 to 2,850 nationwide. According to the U.S.-funded Drug Abuse Warning Network, however, these constitute only a fraction of the 554,932 hospital visits for drug-related accidents. "The rave community is an easy target," she says. "They dress funny."
A week after the Home Bar shindig, in a remote and unlikely location--a patch of Ellis County farmland--a monster all-night rave is about to take place. To escape the intense sun, revelers take shelter in tents or under gnarled oak trees to wait for dusk, while a few sweat-drenched fans dance to pounding rhythms emanating from several stages. Thousands arrive from all over Texas to pay $35 a ticket as cars carrying four or five partygoers choke country roads to get to the Beaumont Ranch, a 1,200-acre property that typically hosts weddings and corporate events.
For weeks, Internet chat rooms have been buzzing about the Texas Zen Festival, a techno celebration thrown by promoters who have organized more than 100 parties nationwide. Fans were dismayed after reading online reports that a Johnson County judge had issued a restraining order to stop the rave. Authorities feared a lack of Port-a-Potties, medical help and crowd control. No problem: With only a day's notice, Beaumont Ranch operators nimbly moved the party from Johnson County to their contiguous Ellis County property. Savvy kids shot new directions to one another by e-mail. (The fears of Johnson County officials never materialized.)
The atmosphere at Zen makes for a sea change from the Home Bar party. Zen is all-ages, so the "candy kids" are here in droves. With them are the much-criticized pacifiers, medical masks and other goofy gear these teens have popularized. Some techno-scene veterans claim that negative media coverage actually increased the number of candy kids, often mocked as "E-tards," by luring drug-hungry malcontents to raves. Back in the day, drug users were at least discreet.
Seeing well-muscled young men and fully developed young women sucking on pacifiers is a bizarre sight. Elsewhere, such contraband is sold as merchandise even though it's supposedly banned at the door. One vendor called "glitterkids.com" sells pacifiers on beaded necklaces and T-shirts emblazoned with the letter "E," for ecstasy.
While most kids aren't dressed unusually, outlandish outfits get the most attention. Young boys and girls alike sport fluffy white angel wings, shaggy backpacks bearing the likenesses of Sesame Street characters, and arms covered in beaded bracelets. A center stage blasts hip-hop, while smaller stages feature more obscure techno styles favored by the most ardent fans.
Surveying the scene near a booth for Blastro.com, an Austin-based Internet site that streams live techno concerts, DJ and music journalist Merrick Brown is skeptical of the all-ages set. A music editor for Feedback magazine who runs the small record label Tektite, Brown thinks authorities should be concerned with the behavior of some techno fans, especially newer ones. "The only reason they're here is for the drugs," says Brown, who will travel to Munich, Germany, in July to play two shows. "Most of us aren't into that."
Still, techno's PLUR ethos dominates, despite some unruly elements. "People are happy, nonviolent," says Jax Foster, a fan who dances in techno videos. Unlike at regular clubs, where "five guys are trying to impregnate me on the dance floor, I can walk around like this," Foster says while pointing to her blue bikini top. "No one's like, 'Hey, baby.' It's a more comfortable environment."
Sean Anderson is also present. The gaunt, goateed activist, who studies biochemistry at the University of Texas at Dallas when not organizing raves, is busy handing out Texas Raves Awareness Group pamphlets, voter registration applications and ACLU cards that advise what to do if stopped by police. "The only way we are going to be allowed to continue is to learn to be responsible and represent ourselves to the law and community as respectable individuals," the pamphlet reads.
While not explicitly anti-drug, Anderson's group seeks to drive unwelcome elements from the scene by refocusing on music through education. "Many kids don't know who the DJs are," Anderson says.A few booths over, however, a separate group takes a different approach to the drug issue--detached tolerance. Volunteers from the Houston Harm Reduction Project, an affiliate of Oakland-based DanceSafe, are busy handing out drug-safety and safe-sex literature. The Austin Dance Alliance, a similar group vying for DanceSafe affiliation, is also present. So far, there's no DanceSafe affiliate in Dallas.
At their table, a steady procession of teens flips through large binders that feature pictures of ecstasy pills and lab-test data on pill safety. DanceSafe's philosophy is pragmatic to some, reckless to others. Despite anti-drug efforts, the group believes many teens will take them regardless. So why not provide safety information to prevent death or injury by overdose?
But even DanceSafe advocates chafe at the concept that raves are synonymous with drugs.Sean Jenkins of Houston rejects the label "club drugs," a phrase popularized by government health officials. Why fight a label? Jenkins says raves get stigmatized for drugs found in many other places. "It's a stereotype," adds fellow volunteer Cathy Ford of Austin.
About 10,000 kids ended up attending Zen Fest, making it one of Texas' biggest-ever techno events. It broke up at the yawn-inducing hour of 6 a.m. While Zen appeared well-managed and orderly, some fans' insistence on wearing medical masks and pacifiers--the equivalent of openly wielding a bong at a Phish concert--vexes reformers looking for mainstream acceptance.
With the negative perceptions entrenched, it'll be a long road for activists who want to elevate the rave. Anderson even complains of "techno profiling." He recalls an incident in which a highway patrolman pulled him over and, without success, searched his vehicle for drugs, even drug-testing a package of mints, after spotting a crate of records in the backseat and surmising he might be associated with "the rave scene."
But there are signs of progress. While others plan events in cramped, remote or illegal locations, one major promoter is successfully integrating techno into the heart of Dallas' music scene. All-purpose promoter, DJ and graphic artist Jeremy Word is breaking new ground by regularly staging large techno events at the Bronco Bowl entertainment complex in Oak Cliff, which has a late-hours permit.
Word, 23, who goes by the moniker "Kid Icarus" when he spins records, fits the type of the club kid: tall, skinny and consistently upbeat. The dyed-blond impresarioheads Prototype Industries, the 2-year-old company that organizes the Bronco Bowl raves. On his payroll is a "street team" of 15 friends; they lure big crowds by blanketing the area with fliers. The latest show is set for June 30. DJs from New York, London, Los Angeles (who often command up to $20,000 a show) are booked, as are many Texas disc-spinners.
Like others in the techno scene, Word is extremely cautious about talking to a reporter. He asks for a list of questions up-front. Later, he brings his attorney to the interview and even sets a camera on the table to tape the proceedings. Lawyer Steve Chapman explains Word's hesitance: "In the jungle of politics, they are a wounded animal, and no one will come to their defense."
Word actually invites the DEA and other law enforcement agencies to his shows. But he felt burned when DEA video footage shot at his event showed up in a WFAA-Channel 8 report on drug abuse. The report detailed high overdose rates locally for GHB, a liquid depressant that causes euphoria but can also result in comas.
Word says he wants to do more than promote big parties with top DJs. His goal is idealistic, perhaps unreachable: He wants raves to be seen as a valuable part of the community. To that end, he's inviting Rock the Vote, the Dallas County Community College District and military recruiters to set up booths at future shows. As more people from different walks of life tune in, Word hopes techno will follow other music forms and lose its status as cultural bogeyman.
"I see it getting better," he says. "We're going through what jazz and rock went through."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- The Cowboys' 5 Biggest Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast
- Oak Lawn Protesters Pick Fight With Philip Kingston