Feelin' Their Thizzle

How the culture of Ecstasy has changed as the drug moved from raves to hip hop

But since Ecstasy is still new to the hip hop community, there's very little quality control around the drug. Many people aren't even sure what it's going to do to them, or how they're supposed to feel when they're on it. Even the mode of ingestion is different; whereas ravers tend to take E with other uppers like speed or cocaine, most people in the hip hop community seem to mix it with alcohol and weed, which changes the effect.

Perhaps most important, much of what they're taking isn't really Ecstasy. A lot of dealers are getting away with just selling whatever. Earth Erowid, who works at the pill-testing laboratory EcstasyData.org, explains the incentive for dealers to adulterate their product: It's cheaper. By cutting the drug with caffeine or speed, they're able to spread a little bit of Ecstasy a long way, thereby reducing production costs. Erowid attributes the mass-produced, impure character of Ecstasy to changes that have occurred in the market since the drug became illegal in 1986. In the 1980s, Ecstasy was a cottage industry run by small-scale producers, most of whom were either students, employees of pharmaceutical labs, or chemistry buffs with a garage setup. But after the DEA outlawed Ecstasy, Erowid believes that organized crime took over, driving out the mom-and-pops with economies of scale. "The mixing of different illegal drugs into a single distribution stream is one of the classic effects of prohibition" and results in "mixed, unregulated markets," Erowid wrote in an e-mail interview.

Duterte of the Institute for Scientific Analysis guesses that Ecstasy passes through three or four hands before it gets to the consumer. In other words, most users don't really know what they're taking, and most dealers don't even know what they're selling.

If you're not sure what you're taking, then you definitely can't foresee how you'll react to it. Bay Viewwriter Jordan ended her anti-Ecstasy screed with an anecdote about a friend whose family called the police when they saw him hallucinating on "bad" Ecstasy: "He was talking to himself, answering questions that no one had asked him, and he even got naked and tried to put himself into a small paper bag. When he was finally released from jail he had an assault on an officer charge along with resisting arrest."

While some observers are obviously tempted to suggest that Ecstasy was planted in the black community specifically to make people revert to violence, more likely the reason people are freaking out is that they're taking whatever-the-fuck and thinking it's Ecstasy. But Jordan was definitely right about one thing: The culture of Ecstasy is changing dramatically as the drug transitions from white and Asian rave scenes to black hip hop clubs.

Smuggling drugs into San Francisco's 1015 Folsom club isn't extremely difficult, but it's still nerve-racking. Like most large venues in the Bay Area, 1015 installs two bouncers at the door; one for pat-downs and bag searches, the other to check ID. But no amount of fortressing is enough to discourage Javier, who follows a strict personal rule of never popping pills until after he gets inside the club. "I've had too many experiences of standing in line high out of my mind, and then crashing at 3 a.m.," he explains.

On a Saturday night in early January, Javier goes to 1015 to catch a show featuring the German DJ Talla 2XLC. He brings a large entourage: several cohorts from the trance scene, plus a few hip hop heads -- including an MC named Pablo -- lured to 1015 by the promise of really good Ecstasy and anorexic white girls. Musical tastes are still a bone of contention: Driving across the Bay Bridge, Javier and a friend sit in front bumping propulsive, atonal trance music, while a hip hop head in the back issues threats of launching a "hyphy jihad." None of this fazes Javier, who steps into the club at the witching hour, ready for the night to begin. "I always wait until midnight to take my first hit," he says.

Once everyone passes the security check and enters the dizzying never-never land that is 1015 Folsom -- three floors of strobe lights, junk-your-trunk beats, and gyrating bodies -- all conflicts evaporate. Even some of the hip hop heads concede that after watching DJ Talla perform, they are ready to lock horns with anyone who denigrates trance music: Look, try this shit on designer drugs, man. Talla's set is an incredible swirl of sensations. Laser projections and video streams turn the walls into a giant matrix of amoeba swirls and splashy comic-book colors. Slinky women in Catholic-school skirts and fishnet tops dance on either side of the stage. People in the audience bob their heads in intense concentration, flashing glow sticks and gazing at the DJ with giant doe-in-the-headlights pupils. And Talla is the centerpiece.

The DJ's job doesn't look that labor-intensive, but nonetheless, he has the entire audience in thrall. "Talla's sets build on each other," explains Javier -- an assessment that makes sense to someone under the influence of Ecstasy. The sounds come in layers, with each new beat crosshatched onto the one before. Every time Talla makes a slight modulation in the tone or rhythm of his music -- in trance lingo, a "break" -- he points an admonishing finger at the audience, as though preparing everyone for something really momentous. And when the break comes, the crowd heaves a collective sigh of deliverance.

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