Stream of (Un)Conscious Rave Memories
by John Ryan
When my underground electronic dance party days started in Detroit things were rather basic. It was the early 90s, my friends and I were hungry for something other than the punk, grunge, industrial, and alternative rock bands that were dominating nightlife in the city.
St. Andrew’s Hall was a place where up and coming bands got their start and underground bands would play at the height of their career. I caught a lot of good shows there. The Butthole Surfers, Ministry, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, Faith No More, Soundgarden and Voivod to name a few. I remember catching a My Bloody Valentine show there and thinking St. Andrews would be ‘the cool place to catch a cool show’ for the rest of my life. On the surface big things were going on, you could tell that new sounds were going to break, genres were going to change. Maybe music that dominated the radio at the time like hair metal ballads were going to fade away, and new sounds like Nirvana were coming in in a major way.
When I got a taste of techno, even that seemed contrived and not quite where I or my friends that were searching wanted to be. In the summer of 1992, my friends and I went to see the Beastie Boys at the Fillmore in Detroit (Back then it was the State Theater), on the back of the ticket it said Free Rave at St. Andrew’s. I really wanted to check it out. We were on acid and the night was far from over. My friends knew what to expect, I didn’t. It was a small crowd, really dark, the big disco ball was making the room spin, the techno just seemed like geometric shapes moving on a conveyor belt through another dimension. It was pattern music, not that groovy. I really wanted to dance. I thought, if they would just put the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique on from start to finish it would really work. My friend Doug pulled me onto the dance floor with him, to watch him dance and get the groove of the music. Nothing was really happening…then Blow Your House Down by A Guy Called Gerald came on. I was hooked.
Early ravers were a strange breed, they were usually misfits from a mix of scenes and all walks of life. There were your bored of everything alterna-freak music-heads (I guess that was me), anti-government true hippie types with a modern twist that came out of the industrial scene, then there were the gay kids that were tuned into the awesome DJs that spun this style of music called house. Back then there was a fine line between house, techno, acid, booty, and rave.
I remember getting little flyers that seemed like a pass into a secret world. There would be a number to an answering machine you would call and get a far out message, techno in the background, telling you where to go. The cover was rarely more than $5. The party seldom got going before midnight. If it was a good one you would be dancing into the morning. Everyone thinks that E (Ecstasy/MDMA) was all over the place, but at first, it was just the energy that fueled the crowd. There was a vibe so thick and heavy that you could cut it with scissors, take some home with you and share with your friends. The energy would have my friends and me completely juiced. We danced all night, often until the sun came up, not on anything.
We all knew something was really going on. We were spoiled by the likes of Derrick May, Jeff Mills, Juan Atkins, etc, etc. These guys were the ones doing it! At first, I was mystified by what was going on. I really thought it was more than DJing. It was magical. I thought they had other gear like drum machines and effects, but I discovered that they were mostly DJs with two turntables. Some of them would bring drum machines, reel to reels, and tape decks to add to their mix. It was always dark. A lot of parties just had a strobe light, a decent little PA system and Technic 1200s in a room with around a 100 people fiercely getting down.
I remember thinking that although magical, what the DJs did was selfless, more about the people and the experience. Maybe because it didn’t matter to me who was DJing, I didn’t realize that I was in the mecca of techno and was being spoiled by the very best. I remember mostly hearing tracks by Jeff Mills, Derrick May, and Juan Atkins. At first, it didn’t matter. I figured I would never be able to tell the difference. At the time there was a very small domain of tracks for the DJ’s to play, especially all night. You would sometimes hear the same track played 2 to 3 times throughout the course of the night.
Wade Kergan gave me a cassette tape of Cybotron. He told me I would like it, that it was Juan Atkins. It was the first time I ever associated a name with a techno DJ. I was familiar with the song Clear and was astonished at how much Kraftwerk had an influence on it.
I thought that this truly underground scene would, most likely, never sell out. I didn’t think it would ever be liked by the mainstream, mostly white culture, on a large scale (lol). It was a great point in my life, an amazing gift of music and culture that was very Detroit. I felt that I was a part of, that I was never going to have to worry about it getting popular, it was personal. I was wrong…In the course of 2 years, it did. It consumed itself the way I saw Nirvana consume itself. I was there for their first show in Ann Arbor at the Blind Pig. Not all of my friends instantly liked them. I knew something was there, and after three weeks of Smells Like Teen Spirit on MTV, it was done. Two years later I found myself in dark lofts, dancing all night to electronic beats, sick to death of grunge and Seattle, promising myself I would never wear jeans again for the rest of the 90s, which I did, not pulling a pair on again until 2002.
This seminal music scene that I found myself exploring was at first mostly a black crowd. My friends and I seemed like some of the only white people. We would congregate up in Rochester at the Java Coffeehouse, talk all week about where the next party was going to be. About half of the people that talked about going would chicken out. We always stressed that we were probably going to do E and stay out till the next day (which at first didn’t always happen). It ended up being a caravan of a few cars of people, usually including me and the late Dean Major, who later went on to become the person who introduced the big motherfucking raves to Detroit known as Syst3m parties, that would forever change the scene.. He also became my good friend and the manager of my band Spacelings & Bassheads. Other people that went to the parties from our Rochester friends were Dean’s brother Jim, who became one of my best friends and Wade Kergan (Hello Records, Detroit), and some other scenester people such as Dion, Erika, etc. The reason I mention some of these friends, they weren’t pure ravers, is that the early rave crowd was kind of an indie rock crowd too.
Some of my first big raves were Voom parties, which I associate with Steven Reaume. I remember the club Industry being a place of cultural relevance. So it was maybe 1994 and Industry was the spot for techno heads to have like a big plastic dreamy type experience in a huge club setting. Saturdays were becoming the norm for the party scenesters. I particularly remember the British electronic band 808 State coming. I am pretty sure it was a Voom party. We met up in a parking lot, then a white van came and got us and took us to an abandoned power plant located in a desolate place out in the woods in Pontiac, Michigan (which is roughly 30 minutes north of Detroit). The projections, music, and vibe were thick.
It’s funny I remember going to Industry in Pontiac, the night they booked the NYC club kids to come out. It was DJ Keoke and Michael Alig’s crew. I kind of liked DJ Keoki’s music but I thought there was like a concert or something, and it was just these drugged up club kids walking around, like a costume party with a look at me, look at me thing going on. I wasn’t making fun of them, I was trying to figure it out. I asked Michael Alig about it and believe it or not he was very personable and we became friends, talking about fucked up horror films, but mostly Kenneth Anger because back then nobody I knew talked about Kenneth Anger. When someone knew about him, they were very special to me. Later in the night DJ Keoki and everyone was hanging out at Sid’s Hang 3 coffee shop a few blocks away. My friends and I were mingling with these NY club kid freaks. I was wearing chrome platform boots, which were some hunting boots, that I had custom platforms put onto, and I painted them chrome. DJ Keoki called me Rock’n’Roll. He was sporting some New Balance running shoes. It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but that was the first time I had seen someone wearing some New Balance as like a fashion thing. I asked him why he was wearing running shoes if he had planned on running from anyone or chasing anyone down. I figured that was a good comeback to him calling me Rock’n’Roll. Michael Alig helped stick up for me, I’m not gay and didn’t realize these guys were a couple.
I fondly remember the Voom parties at The Bankle Building in Detroit. You could still breathe. Even if you weren’t on anything, a combo of the lights, decor and the music would make you go home with beats echoing through your mind and spirit. Dean may have had his first parties in 1994 (I wish he were around to ask) once he and his style of partying hit, it was a wrap. Things expanded. The crowd became more and more suburban and white. Drugs became a prevalent part of the culture. Your average rave-goer did not want to step foot in a party without a $20 hit of Ecstasy. The price of parties went from $5 to $20. The number attending rose from like 200 to 1500. Loft parties were too small, places like the Packard Plant were preferred. Phat pants were in, I never wore them.
The parties got big and stupid. It was still the coolest thing going on, but of course, at the time, I had to criticize and be the cooler person.
Unfortunately the bigger they came, the less the white suburban kids were booking the originators. Until the whole thing became so huge, that it couldn’t be ignored. In 2000 the Detroit Electronic Music Festival happened. Carl Craig was the main organizer. Things had come full circle. The world was ready to be made aware of the cultural significance this music had on it. Most of the originators headlined. I performed too, on the Detroit underground stage, alongside Ectomorph (BMG & Erika), Adult, Carlos Souffront and DJ Godfather.
Man, what I would do to check out one of those parties now, to go back and just check if they were as cool as I remembered… Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t that big into E, I liked it when I did it. But I figured any drug that demanded you drink that much water and could make you become friends with your worst enemy can’t be that good. I originally didn’t like Dean, until I spent a night on E hanging out with him. Then he became my manager and dear friend, and I became something like an advisor to his big badass god awful rave parties.
Long live the Detroit Underground. The good, the bad, and the ugly…let’s never forget the beautiful.