Some people think that tainting the purity of Rae Sremmurd's "No Flex Zone" by remixing it is tantamount to a war crime, but ravers are not those people, so the crowd at Lizard Lounge in Deep Ellum, sweaty and bouncing, swallows every downbeat. It's late on a Friday night in early February, and the high-pitched, delightfully shrill voices of Swae Lee and Slimmy Jimmy, the Mississippi duo known as Rae Sremmurd, reverberate through the club. Then, as with most electronic dance music remixes, the song mutates until it's unrecognizable, shifting into a smorgasbord of computer digitations and heavy bass. The bodies on the dance floor grow sweatier with each promenade, the true mark of approval.
It's a quarter to midnight, and many of these people haven't raved with one another, at least on this scale, in about two months. Their old stomping grounds, a strip club called Jaguars Dallas, kicked them out after an overdose and a raid. But now the party's back up. Two go-go dancers — one on each side of the stage, both in neon, fuzzy boots and fishnet stockings — pop confetti into the mass of glistening flesh. The crowd erupts. DJ Shaolin orchestrates a call-and-response chant: Hey, we want some pussy.
A large television screen behind the DJ flashes a checkerboard of photos of a woman's ass. He drops another throttling song, at a decibel level that feels unsuitable for human ears. Smiles widen and steps quicken. There's lots of "shuffling," a genre-specific dance that involves rhythmically stomping your feet. It's best described as a mix of the human jackhammer and crip-walking, the type of grinding that would make the chaperone at your high school's homecoming dance sweat with anxiety. The scene is strange, fascinating and beautiful — and it's only a matter of time until the next one gets shut down.
Jaguars Dallas sits near Royal Lane and Interstate 35, in the part of the city where Dallas likes to bury its impure thoughts. It's a large beige structure with columns that nod to ancient Greece and Rome. A strip club that hosts after-hours parties has no trouble conjuring and then outpacing the hedonism of Apollo and Aphrodite.
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The original Jaguars was a couple of exits down I-35. It was at that location, back in 2006, that Eden Afterhours was born. It was your standard-issue after-hours party: young, loud, a little drunk, a lot high, banging until the rising sun made things weird and everyone fled, to eat Whataburger or kick at their sheets. The party moved in 2008, to a club called Iniquity, before shuttering in 2009. Then, in October 2012, it was reborn at the new Jaguars, where it thrived.
"I like to think that we were the weird kids in school, the outcasts," says Brandon Portillo, a promoter for Eden Afterhours. "Because of this scene, we were able to find each other and become more than just friends, but a family. These people I see every weekend are not just my buddies, they're my brothers and sisters."
Ultimately, the party's free-wheeling spirit seems to have been its demise. There were fights nearly every weekend, says Chris Brown, a longtime Dallas raver. Eden was BYOB, which fueled underage binge-drinking, and it was a haven for drug dealers and users. The ravers there were "fucked up on a whole 'nother kind of level," one regular says.
Early one morning last April, it all came crashing down, seemingly for good, when Brittany Nemeth, a teenager from White Settlement, arrived at Jaguars. Nemeth, 19, had come with her boyfriend and childhood best friend, Courtnei. According to a Fox 4 report, Nemeth and her boyfriend took ecstasy, and Nemeth began to "trip." Club security called a cab, which took them 45 miles west to White Settlement. Parkland Hospital was 15 minutes away, but no one called 911. At home, Nemeth's friends put her in a cold bath. When that didn't work, they decided to take her to the emergency room, but it was too late. She died the next day. The autopsy found methamphetamine, ecstasy and a variety of other drugs in her system. (Nemeth's family declined to comment.)
Her death generated an undercover operation by the Dallas Police Department's vice squad. They're no stranger to raves: In 2011, they infiltrated an after-hours club, DarkSide, that advertised itself as a "youth outreach ministry," and shut it down. This time, working alongside the feds, a handful of undercover officers started showing up at Jaguars' Eden Afterhours party, where they saw drugs being sold and used blatantly throughout the night, according to a temporary injunction filed by the city of Dallas against the club. Between July and December, the undercover officers made 51 drug buys "easily and routinely" at Jaguars. Their purchases included methamphetamine, Xanax, MDMA and a somewhat new synthetic form of LSD called N-Bomb, which has been connected to a recent wave of overdoses across the country.
Then, in December, they raided. Seventy officers stormed the place, throwing on the lights and arresting their targets, ages 19 to 31, including VIP customers and employees at Jaguars. Thirteen people were charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance; two were charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin. One of those arrested was Hunter Lee Foster, 23, the boyfriend of a missing Fort Worth woman named Christina Morris, though Foster was never a suspect in Morris' disappearance, and someone else has been charged in that case.
As the officers led the suspects from the building, the ravers gathered themselves. But once the cops left, they just killed the lights again. The beat dropped back in, and they danced until the sun began to envelop the sky. A few days later, the Eden faithful would learn that Jaguars had pulled the plug on the party, possibly hoping to avoid the city's wrath. The party would need to go looking for a new home.
Two months later, at an Eden Afterhours reunion at Lizard Lounge, the thump of the bass shows you can't keep a good rave down. The city of Dallas is suing to shut down Jaguars, but on this night, the ravers are openly celebrating the after-hours party they cultivated at the strip club. Ask anyone here why it is they go to these parties, and they won't tell you it's to take a shit-ton of drugs. Some are obviously on drugs — sober people don't dance while sitting in a chair, their eyes closed, for half an hour — but the common refrains are community, family and friendship. Fun.
Portillo was at Eden during the swarm of arrests, but he says he had no clue what was happening. He was there to party. As far as he was concerned, the lights came on, the police went to work, and then the lights went back off, and the party resumed. He was upset to learn that Jaguars would be shutting Eden down. "Myself and many of my friends still miss it to this day," he says, "and when we watch videos we all get sad."
He insists that clubs shouldn't be faulted for the proliferation of drug use, abuse and sales. "Those types of people will find ways to get drugs," he says. "It's bad for someone to lose their life, but you cannot blame the club. It is the club's responsibility to prevent those people from getting in, but how are you going to do that? It's impossible."
These raves are basically a game of Whac-a-Mole — ravers are the moles, and the city of Dallas' lawyers and vice cops are swinging the mallet. When Eden's original run ended at Jaguars, it moved to Iniquity, then later to the new Jaguars. DarkSide came under fire, tried to bill itself as a religious gathering, and died anyway; at the time ravers thought that might be the end of the after-hours scene. But another club, AfterLife, raged on, until someone there overdosed and it got shut down, too. It was only a matter of time before a new incarnation of Eden popped up.
Chris Brown has been in the Dallas rave scene since 2009. He's a Whac-a-Raver veteran. So after Eden shut down, he erected a new party at Pearl Cabaret, calling it Unlist3d Afterhours, and calling himself the managing partner. Whereas Jaguars is all opulence, Pearl Cabaret lives inside an industrial brick building, in a smaller space that's dark and sparse. A stage for dancers occupies the middle of the room. It's modest for a scene that's generally about sensory overload.
To get the word out, Brown enlisted an odd couple of raving promoters. JR, 20, is tall and charismatic. He wears a leopard-print fur coat, red jeans and a Tupac T-shirt. His colleague goes by Big Mack. He's 24 and more unassuming in a black jacket and blue jeans — he's the yin to JR's yang.
Though they couldn't look any more different, they take similar positions. Big Mack insists their party isn't about drugs. "It's not about what people portray it to be," he says. "It's not about the popularity. It's about everybody coming out, enjoying it and having a great time together. We won't judge you by what you wear or what you do, just everybody come out and have a great time and enjoy it."
Acceptance, love, good vibes and other bohemian sensibilities are the dominant themes.
"No drama. We're all for the music," JR says. "Good vibes. Positivity. Networking. That's what it's all about, dude. Straight up."
The two mention good vibes often, like politicians hammering home an empty buzzword, though they seem to be sincere. "I pick up good vibes from people, and I go talk to the people I get good vibes from," JR says. "You don't realize how fast time flies. You're chillin' with your homies, chillin' with your squad, chillin' with other cool people. Before you know it, it's five in the morning. It's a good-ass Saturday night."
JR and Big Mack say they aspire to create a positive community, and hope that each week people will "come as they are." They make comparisons to clubs in Vegas and New York — a far cry from a party in a strip club in northwest Dallas, but hell, with all of those good vibes, and all of that positivity and networking, they may never know the difference.
Brown says he feels like the scene is dying, which he attributes to an increased focus on image, and on drugs. He recalls seeing people at Insomnia who appeared to have been up for days, and the wildness of Eden Afterhours.
"Part of that is because it became so big," he says. "They had enough room for the good crowd and the bad crowd."
He acknowledges that Nemeth's overdose could have been prevented. "Everybody plays a role," Brown says. "We have the job to provide a safe environment for these kids to party. After what happened we're in danger of losing the scene."
Though there is a gray area in regard to what a club can and cannot do to prevent illegal activity, especially at a rave, many clubs have been careless. Eden was operating without a dance-hall license, which is required by the city.
"I can't say we didn't bring it upon ourselves," Brown says. His stance is more nuanced than that of his younger friends. In order to keep the scene from disappearing altogether, he believes that parties need to adhere strictly to code and licensing requirements and keep an open line of communication with the city.
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The Unlist3d Afterhours party is still growing. For a $20 entrance fee, you can party all night. There are go-go dancers who normally dance at the strip club, and from time to time there's a special event, like a shuffling contest. Although the bar closes at 2 a.m., the party continues until the sun comes up. And, weirdly, there isn't a lot of dancing. A few circles of people are gathered near the DJ booth, but it's mostly conversational, like a large house party. Sometimes there are more people on the small smoking patio than inside, the group puffing and chatting away, packed tight like a bundle of dynamite fastened with twine.
You can expect to see a few unsavory characters milling about, but for the most part it's just a bunch of young people getting together to enjoy themselves. "It's not ... to provide kids a place to do a ton of drugs and have a ton of sex," Brown says, "it's a getaway for them. Some of these kids wouldn't normally be social."
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