Feelin' Their Thizzle

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

Trance is an intensely visceral form of music; its low, throbbing beats and tweaky, repetitive tones are designed to amplify your Ecstasy high. The effect is both sedative and euphoric, causing people to dodder around smiling and hugging each other. Le Sheng Liu of DanceSafe -- an organization that promotes drug awareness in the rave community -- says he first gravitated to the scene because it exuded so much tenderness and sensitivity. "I grew up listening to hip hop -- and when I say hip hop, I mean Top 40 radio music," he says. "The rave scene seemed radically different. It wasn't about looking sexy, trying to show off your money, or being better than the next person."

Michelle, who started taking Ecstasy at raves and eventually migrated to the hip hop scene, remembers how her old raver buddies would dress up to express their personal credos: The most flamboyant accessories were angel wings, pacifiers, and charm bracelets that read "I love you" or "I love E." The night she popped her first pill, Michelle found a California ID on the dance floor and spent hours looking for its owner. "I finally found her in a crowd of 300," she chuckles. "That was a little too generous of me. I could have just given it to the front desk."

Those kinds of parties still exist, but they're much harder to find these days. Javier expected to see a lot of people at a Terra Gallery trance event featuring DJs from Germany, Holland, and Britain, and was disappointed when virtually no one showed up. The scene at a recent weekend-long Love Parade benefit at San Francisco's SomArts Gallery reflected the current demographics of the rave community. Friday night's kickoff party reeled in a crowd of teens and young adults who looked like ravers of 10 years ago: They wore button-up Adidas pants, had shocking pink hair, and spent a lot of time hanging out in the parking lot, huffing from aerosol cans. But the following night's show -- which featured the darker, artier trance music subgenre "psi-trance" -- attracted a much older crowd of Burning Man types and SOMA loft yuppies sporting new tweed coats or text-messaging into their T-Mobile Sidekicks.

Now that ravers have grown up and their music has gotten on the radar, the scene appears to have splintered. Parties that used to be held in abandoned buildings or graffiti'd industrial warehouses are now situated in licensed, commercial venues where drugged-out 17-year-old techno fans must mingle with the well-heeled. The demographic and vibe of these aboveground parties are often nothing like the underground rave utopias of the mid- to late '90s that Le and Michelle remember.

On the night DJ Talla performs at 1015, the club seems conspicuously meat-market-ish and largely reflects a Top 40 sensibility that Le says he reviles. People floss their midriffs and bling jewelry; the women try to look sexy while the guys front like ballers or mack daddies. The trance devotees are relegated to a small pocket in the basement, where attendance is sparse throughout the night. Meanwhile, most patrons gather upstairs on the ground level, where they are treated to a numbing hip hop and reggaeton soundtrack that could have been ripped directly from Wild 94.9.

A little past 1 a.m., when DJ Talla is just picking up steam, a fight breaks out in the back of the room. The DJ tries to ignore it, even after a small army of security guards is dispatched to tear the guys off each other. Though he manages to look pretty oblivious, Talla isn't able to stave off a creepy feeling that's beginning to percolate through the room. Some of Javier's cohorts see the melee and are more transfixed by it than by the trance DJ himself. Pablo turns to the girl next to him and whispers, "Hey, if anyone messes with you, tell me. I'll kick their ass."

She grins and elbows him in response: "I'm feelingmyself," she says. "Are you feeling yourself, too?"

"Yeah," he says, quoting Mac Dre, hip hop's most famous Ecstasy enthusiast. "I'm in the building."

Meanwhile, DJ Talla's fans tiptoe toward the stage, perhaps thinking that by huddling close together they'll seal themselves off from the outside world.

A few weeks later, a 29-year-old man will be shot to death at the very same club.

Twelve hours after leaving "Jeans and High Heels," Brittany was still thizzin', but no longer wanted to be. She sat at home smoking blunts and watching TV, letting the hours vaporize. "I just wanna know if this is actually crack or something," she said.

There was only one sure way to find out. I decided to buy two pills from Brittany's dealer and test them myself. I purchased them at the bargain price of $10 apiece, which is conspicuously cheaper than the $20-per-pill rate prevalent at the UC Berkeley co-ops in 2002. Nobody is quite sure why the price has dropped so much in the past four years. At any rate, I called Le and asked to use his DanceSafe pill testing kit.

Le lives in the same East Oakland apartment building where he grew up, a three-story brick tenement that also houses a Vietnamese noodle house and a DIRECTV shop, both plastered with posters advertising the Lunar New Year celebration in Reno. Inside, Le's apartment is warm and clean. Piercing solution and citrus toothpaste clutter the bathroom sink, and there's a low-backed divan in the living room. The kitchen is stocked with a variety of herbal teas, and the walls are decorated with posters depicting all the different strains of several drugs, including Ecstasy. The afternoon I stop by, Le is lounging in the living room wearing baggy warm-up pants, a Puma jacket, and flip-flops. He has three or four piercings in each ear. He has laid out a table with all the paraphernalia DanceSafe typically uses to test pills at parties: a jar of pens, a bowl of condoms, earplugs in sealed baggies, a sound meter to test the decibel level of the speakers, a thermometer to test the room temperature, stacks of splashy, laminated fliers with information about every recreational drug found in the club scene (plus one on heatstroke and one on protecting your hearing), and a drug testing kit consisting of three reagents -- Mecke, Marquis, and Simon, which change color when combined with Ecstasy; speed; the psychedelic 2CB; and DXM, an opiate found in many over-the-counter cold medicines. The test can tell if your pill is completely fake, but won't indicate its purity or how much Ecstasy you're taking.

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