After midnight the North Broadway industrial zone seems a million miles away from Washington Avenue. Here, the streetlamps are crooked, the chain-link fences twisted. This winter night, though, the sound of heavy bass thumps deep with promise from within a large tin building.
Earlier, the sing-song jingle of the secret text-message alert arrived like the whistle of a faraway bird, carrying with it the announcement that a party called "Chop Suey" is coming to this former Asian wholesale warehouse.
The venue is no Velvet, nor is it Cheetah. And Chop Suey is no "Spooks in Space" or "Interstellar Dreamfest," two great St. Louis raves of the late 1990s.
In this rambling shack in north city, people swirl amid the flashing colored lights while DJ Astroboy strikes chords on a keyboard, his laptop kicking out the beats. Astroboy has come to play, and others have come to dance and they just didn't feel like doing it at a club. People stand in a semicircle around the DJ, twisting with the music or bobbing their heads. Nearby, in another, smaller room, two performance artists don masks and clang on steel rods.
"This is the first party I've been to in, like, two years," says one partygoer, who, like the others, has no worry about the specter of police intrusion.
"The cops came by once," recalls one of the party's promoters. "They said, 'Is anybody being raped or murdered inside?' They drove away and patrolled the neighborhood for the rest of the night."
To music fans, the words "techno" and "rave" seem so 1999. Has it only been seven years since raves were demonized for their connections with drugs and met with repeated police crackdowns? Used to be an underground party every weekend, huge gatherings of vibe junkies and then, there wasn't.
What happened to those superstar DJs? They're still around; you just don't see them on MTV. But something is afoot (a rave redux, perhaps), and those who dropped out of the scene are beginning to wander back.
On New Year's Eve, local promoters Brown & White (B&W) throw "Champagne Supernova." The bill features eleven DJs, and by midnight, the line pushes down Manchester Avenue in the Grove neighborhood.
Beats erupt from three rooms, the most vibrant emanating from the smallest, where at least 100 dancers rattle the floors beneath the dried flowers that DJ Trevor Matthews hung from the ceiling. In the bigger room, second-hand smoke makes the lasers glow as the East Coast Boogiemen tear through a live techno set.
In the not-so-distant past, the cops would have found reason to shut down a party this size. Now, one can happen across the street from a police substation and officers will actually help control the lines. Elsewhere in the city, little happenings are popping off as "break-ins" as in, literally, to break in and have a party.
All of this is a world away from the halcyon days of 1991, when the rave culture first jumped the pond from England to America or even, for that matter, from the second and bigger wave of 1999 to 2002. "Chop Suey" was a backyard barbecue (with a crowd estimate of 450) compared to "More Good Stuff," which, in the fall of 1999, drew 3,500 to a long-abandoned warehouse at the Lemp Brewery. Much has changed.
"People were literally climbing the brick walls to get into that party," says Bob Stolzberger (a.k.a. Techno Bob), a former member of Kindred Groove, the party's promoter. "I remember it vividly, coming into the space, and you'd see this sea of 2,000 fucking people in this Lemp warehouse.
"You wonder: Where did all those people go?"
On an afternoon in early January, Faith Amber and Jen303 (both pseudonyms) are slowly cruising the city's industrial districts in Faith's Toyota. From the passenger side, Jen is scribbling down addresses from the hundreds of "For Lease" signs. She'll fill three pages by day's end.
In the Chouteau's Landing district just south of the Arch, Faith spots a sign on a small building and conveys the phone number to Jen303. Pointing to a line of garage doors near some railroad tracks, Faith recalls a rave back in '99: "Horizons 5," she muses, "an Alexis Tucci party."
"Look near railroad tracks," Jen303 confides. "There are always good buildings near railroad tracks." They drive past the failed Powell Square condo development near Busch Stadium, the site of a break-in party thrown last year by a promoter named Dr. Kandee.
Faith drives nearer, close to the graffiti-painted flood wall, and decides the raw, windowless building littered with clothing and empty bottles warrants a walk-through.
Soon, a police car drives up and a cop rolls down her window and asks what they're doing.
"We're looking for a space to throw an art party," explains Faith.
"That sounds like fun," the officer replies with a smile, then points to a four-story warehouse. "I know that one is empty."
By day, Faith travels the trade-show circuit as a representative for a deck-railing manufacturer. Clean-cut with short-cropped hair, she looks more like an honors student than a party girl. Who'd guess that, for the past few years, Faith's after-hours have been consumed throwing both legal and illegal dance parties? When she's behind the turntables, she's DJ Butt Plug, spinning acid tech-house.
Faith secured the space for Chop Suey with a phone call and described the event in the city's permit application as an art party with music. And City Hall, says Faith, let it ride with a rubber stamp.
Jen teamed up with Faith to hype the party, printing up 5,000 fliers and posting it on MySpace.com. "We handed out free passes to people who wouldn't typically go to a party," explains Jen, "such as the guy who works at a gas station, or a waitress who looks interesting." That Saturday night, they sent out the text-message with directions.
Like many kids born in the late '70s and early '80s, Faith, 23, and Jen, 29, grew up in a world of house and techno, or "electronica," the common media term for post-disco electronic dance music. Jen first got involved with parties during her days in Columbia, where she was in with the popular Pure Lounge. Back in St. Louis, she worked with Boogie Knights and Kindred Groove on bigger events in essence, riding the end of the first wave into the second wave of the movement.
Small parties in the mid-'90s were followed by a worldwide explosion. In 1998 the "Love Parade" on the streets of Berlin drew 1.5 million people. The same year, Californian desert parties attracted 50,000.
In Missouri's peak rave years, marathon events like the Superstars of Love's 1999 "Spooks in Space" Halloween bash had a certain renegade aura to them. To throw an event with 300 people was easy enough, but to pull off a guerrilla party for 3,000 at the Columbia Expo Center at the height of police scrutiny was remarkable indeed.
At 3 a.m., during a landmark set by Detroit techno DJ Carl Craig, that Columbia crowd moved in lockstep frenzy like a stadium full of North Koreans with Kim Jong-il in the house. There were green laser-guided grids above the dance floor, while lost-in-space revelers drew silly patterns in the air with glow sticks. With Craig working the turntables, smoldering bodies responded with ridiculous elasticity. If you weren't dancing, you were making out, downing bladderfuls of water or scoring Ecstasy, which poured from dealers' hands like candy corn.
"It was like Disneyland," recalls Eric Murphy of B&W.
But it couldn't last. At raves' zenith, the crowds consisted of many tripping teenagers. And when parents started busting their kids, cries went out to congressmen and cops alike shut the parties down!
In St. Louis, police began scrubbing clubs for glow sticks and pacifiers, both defined as drug paraphernalia, and soon they stopped issuing one-night permits for dance parties.
Some suggest September 11 sucked the wind out of all-night rave parties. "With 9/11 and the war in Iraq, people aren't going to go out as much," says Murphy. "If you look at what happened in the late '90s, everybody had disposable income and with the economy the way it was, people wanted to party because they could."
To the people who remained in 2003 and '04, it seemed like partiers were only there to buy or sell. "I could look around and see so many people on drugs," Jen303 remembers. "I felt like at a certain point, for a lot of people, it wasn't about the music. I didn't care to see that."
Only a handful of clubs continue to play electronic dance music on a regular basis. Velvet, once at the forefront of the movement, closed last fall.
"Imagine if your music was taken away from you," says Jen303. "What if you liked country music and you could never go see it, and never go out and dance to it?"
"We feel like people are itching for things," says Trevor Matthews, a DJ and member of both B&W and Boogie Knights, who threw some of the biggest and best parties of the second wave.
"People are starting to talk again," he says "The clubs are gone. There's no good venue aside from the Upstairs Lounge, which is really small. It might be a good time to do a one-off."
"I don't think the police really seem to be worrying about anything," observes Davidian Alterior, a founding member of St. Louis crew the Superstars of Love. He lives in San Francisco now, and says the heat is off as it is, he notes, in Chicago, which in the late '90s passed restrictive ordinances prohibiting warehouse parties.
"I went to one over Thanksgiving. The cops actually came into the party. There's underage people in their underwear drinking just craziness." But the police left, Alterior recalls, and the party continued.
British music writer Simon Reynolds, whose 1999 book Generation Ecstasy traced the history of rave culture, says the new wave of mini-raves isn't unique to St. Louis. In New York, where he lives, promoters are also throwing word-of-mouth parties in lofts and unusual spaces.
"This is completely outside the club circuit," explains Reynolds in an interview via e-mail. "But at the same time, it's nothing like the big, highly organized raves you used to get in the 1990s, with star billings, extravagant lighting and lasers, and lots of different rooms with different sounds and tons of highly paid name DJs."
These new-school underground parties don't distribute fliers, but transmit the information digitally.
"It's gone back to that early autonomous, do-it-yourself, self-organizing ethos," continues Reynolds. "The clubs were dying because they had no vibe, but people were prepared to come out for the one-shot warehouse parties and mini-raves, because they had an edge to them."
It's this very edge, says Jen along with the intimacy of dancing with kindred spirits that keeps drawing her back. "Being able to look across the dance floor and just connect eyes with someone you don't even know that is enjoying the same thing and feeling the same thing as you are is pretty amazing. The older I get, the harder that is to find."
The mirror ball that spun above the old auto-glass repair shop at Compton and Cherokee glowed different colors for different occasions. During a spring 2001 "Midsummer Night's Dream" party, it twinkled green as it sprayed dots of light across the man-made foliage. The dancers below it blossomed like flowers.
During the "Underwater" party, the globe sparkled blue and schools of fake fish floated through the air. During the "Twins" party, where attendees were invited to arrive with doppelgangers, the mirror ball shone purple.
From 2000 to 2003, a group of a dozen-odd people, of which I was one, threw a handful of mini-raves, and all but one took place in the same south-city building. Its defining characteristic: a display window containing a huge pink brain.
The room was a 3,500 square-foot rectangle with a tiny plywood balcony at one end, tailor-made for a DJ booth. Nestled in a corner was a concrete sub-basement, the perfect spot for a second, smaller chill-out room and sound system.
The Pink Brains parties started small, but the music was riveting and we devoured it, with techno from Detroit and Germany, Chicago and French house music, and British drum 'n' bass. Such a brilliant notion: decorating a big garage, renting a sound system, plugging in turntables, and throwing a party. No-holds-barred dancing till dawn and losing your mind. The happenings each had a theme and attracted a vast cross-section of St. Louis nightlife. At their apex, 700 people crammed into the building.
The artists among our group poured their creativity into decorating the space. The goal wasn't to hang streamers from the rafters and inflate some balloons; it was to transform the room, as though the party was a play, and this was the set. They duct-taped hundreds of faux leaves to barren branches for "A Midsummer Night's Dream." For another party, "Monsters," they turned the room into a cave, replete with stalactites tumbling from the ceiling.
One event featured a porch swing hanging from the rafters, and when the party peaked at 3 a.m., it was reeling across the room like a wrecking ball. All the while, DJ Cougar Shuttle burned through the entire Underground Resistance catalog. He peaked with "Jaguar," and a little corner of St. Louis was Utopia.
We never booked out-of-town DJs because the local supply among them Ken Dussold, Don Tinsley, R3, Paul B. Davis, Flex Boogie, Jim K., the 8-Bit Construction Set, Robi was just as hot as any "superstar."
For the DJs like myself it was a dream gig, with a view of the crowd, the mirror ball, and the dancers, who were all wearing radiant smiles as they gazed up at us. The beat prevailed, and the right break in the music would bring a gasp, a momentary pause. When the beat returned twice as strong, the crowd, an unceasing lava-flow of humanity, erupted in delighted frenzy.
Andy Ford (a.k.a. DJ Astroboy), who played most of our Pink Brains parties, has DJed in St. Louis since the first wave raves of the '80s. Astroboy makes lush, melodic Detroit-style techno in his south-city basement and says the parties feed a craving.
"It's great to have concerts where you go and sit down and are just in awe of the artist," Ford enthuses. "But those house-music happenings where people just danced and didn't pay attention to any rock star of any kind, not even glance at the DJ, had [their] own special kind of magic.
"It's a different way of experiencing music, where you're just into it without being in awe of anybody, where you can just get into it without worrying about standing back, scratching your beard and making comments about how Dylan-esque it is."
As word spread, the turnout grew and the Pink Brains parties started to get out of hand. The Ecstasy always a discreet but integral ingredient came rolling in. Dudes with their hands in their pockets scooted across the dance floor muttering, "Rolls, rolls, rolls."
The drug was equally available to the teenagers who'd caught wind of the parties on rave message boards. They were the first to come at 10 p.m. and the last to leave at 6 a.m. Even after entry was limited to those eighteen and over, one of the crew, a high school art teacher, had to stop coming to the parties because she spotted a few of her students at "Underwater."
Police started cracking down all over the nation. In New Orleans, promoter Disco Donnie was arrested under federal crack-house laws for knowingly operating a drug house. (He now co-promotes many of B&W's St. Louis events.) His case was eventually dismissed. In Potosi, Missouri, police swooped down in helicopters to break up an outdoor rave.
Simon Reynolds, whose new tome, Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984, will see American publication in March, says, "Mixmag is selling half what it was at its height, dance record sales are down, and a lot of younger kids got more interested in indie-rock. Hipsters lost a bit of interest in electronic music and got into the nü-folk and other stuff.... [T]he super-club system has really taken a beating in the last few years."
Dr. Kandee is sitting in the darkened room of a Cherokee Street storefront, which he and some friends are fixing up. There's no heat or electricity, and the only furniture consists of two rescued couches.
Kandee envisions the space as a combination record store and party room, but right now it's a skeleton. The ceiling is stripped to the rafters. What drywall hangs is spray-painted with graffiti a cow-skull and some unintelligible scrawling. In one corner, someone has written, "PLUR." (Back in the day, PLUR was the buzzword, an acronym among idealistic e-heads that stood for "Peace, Love, Unity, Respect.")
Like many of his peers in the dance community, Kandee stopped going to parties for a few years. "People started getting shady. Other people started realizing, 'Oh man, what am I doing with my life? Shit, I have to do something.' Other people went to jail. I kind of settled down, got some money, got a good job and got my life together."
Kandee resembles a lanky, bespectacled John Lennon. He wears a floppy white hat and speaks with an uncensored enthusiasm about his decision to return. One night last year, after a hiatus, he landed at Club Legit, a dance club that held half-assed raves during the dead period.
"I was like, 'They're still doing parties here?' What the hell? And all these kids are like, 'Man, I'm at a rave!' I'm like, 'No, dude. This sucks.'"
He got to talking with friends, and they decided that parties should return to the warehouses. They used to be dangerous, and with that danger there came a sense of accomplishment in pulling it off. Now, Dr. Kandee throws break-ins parties by roaming the city looking for unlocked doors.
"Clubs are safe," he says dismissively. "But what we have been doing is going, 'Hey, wait a minute. There's 400-something abandoned warehouses in St. Louis. There are still places to party. You don't have to do it the way that you're doing it. You don't have to pay $20 at the clubs. You don't have to wear nice stuff. Just throw on some stuff and party."
Kandee offers an example: "We had this party called 'Short Notice,' which is exactly what it was. We literally came up with it earlier in the week." They found a place on North Broadway, set up their sound system, but a cop arrived soon thereafter after the owner of the property caught wind.
But as he was leaving, the policeman suggested that they head south of the Arch, near the floodwall. Dr. Kandee laughs: "We were like, 'Did you just tell us where we could get away with throwing a party?' Is this really cool, or is this really wrong?" They landed at the foot of Powell Square, and partied outdoors until the sun rose. The next day they learned that the door was unlocked, and they started planning "Guerrilla Love."
The Powell Square building, home to a long-stalled condo project, is a windowless five-story outdoor structure where Kandee and company rigged a sound system and pumped the party until morning. The cover charge was canned goods, later donated to a food bank and to the homeless gent living on the roof.
"We went until eight or nine, sitting out there watching the sunrise," remembers Kandee.
In October Kandee and friends combined to create a break-in in north St. Louis after spending the previous month scoping out a building with an unlocked door.
"Then it was like, 'Hey, let's hang out here late at night and play music really loud and see if anyone comes,'" Kandee recalls. "Nobody came. We were like, 'We've been lucky so far, so let's try it one more time.'"
The result: "Rolls and Whistles," a homage to rave's glory days. On the night of that party, they went to the airport and picked up the headlining DJ, Skylab 2000. "He said, 'This isn't one of these renegade parties, is it?' We said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Awesome. I haven't done one of these in years.'"