Rave On?

In the midst of increasing shutdowns and tension with authorities, Bay Area ravers are doing what they've always done -- adapting

The ravers are wall to wall on the dark dance floor of the Maritime Hall. Plastic candy-colored jewelry graces their necks, and many hold pacifiers, whistles, or lollipops in their mouths. Their bodies are illuminated by glow sticks, bike reflector lights, and a webbed ceiling of laserlike strobes above. It's a wonderland for the mostly 21-and-under set — a “utopia,” as one newcomer puts it. At first glance, it seems similar to many other scenes in high school, where the right clothes and accessories are the ticket to assimilation. But unlike the competitive atmosphere of high school gatherings, the kids here are open and friendly, ready with smiles and hugs. No punklike angst, no drunken violence. Most dance to the trance and techno that in later hours will turn into happy hardcore, while others pile up in groups around the room and near the wall, massaging each other, cuddling, or just observing.

In the late '80s and early '90s, when the rave scene erupted in select areas the world over, most of the general population had no idea what raves were, or what to think of the kids seen hopping onto public transportation at 7 in the morning, smelly and beaming after hours of dancing. In San Francisco, Wicked's full-moon parties at spots like Baker Beach and all-nighters such as the Gathering, Toon Town, and A Rave Called Sharon inspired a movement unprecedented in the Bay Area — a churchlike phenomenon among a few thousand who shared a love for music unheard on the radio waves. It was an underground culture, special to those who experienced it, and not quite understood by those outside it.

Through the '90s, however, the atmosphere changed. Those who were raving hard in 1992 are more likely found these days in SOMA clubs with people their own age (and without pacifiers) than in a warehouse or rave tent with the younger masses. But whether at one of the city's ravelike club nights, such as Malachy O'Brien's Come-Unity at Ten 15, a warehouse event, or a house party with a hundred people, the idea remains similar. For many of the promoters, DJs, ravers, and clubbers in the scene, the music, community, and culture are a passion.

Massive parties at warehouses in Oakland, which have expanded the scene over the past four years, have drawn to a close because of tighter restrictions enforced by the city. Many welcome the change, including Diana Eckhardt from San Jose, who's been part of the scene for four years. “Raving to me is a very spiritual thing,” she says. “Massive culture killed that. When raving got big, it sold out.”

Jeremy Gava agrees, arguing that while rave culture has changed, it's far from dead. “There will always be another rave to go to,” he says. “There will always be another party.”

Still, others remain uncertain of what lies ahead, looking at the changes as the end of an era. “I'm not sure what's going to happen,” says DJ Jim Hopkins. “I think the whole music scene is being shut down. As far as big raves, I don't know where they'll go.”

Massive parties and smaller raves operate around the concept of community in music. The music, dubbed “electronica” by MTV and the press, is — simply put — dance music. The list of subgenres is legion: house, techno, trance, progressive trance, cybertrance, jungle, drum 'n' bass, techstep, garage, big beat, and on and on. The distinctions are often blurry, but the music is generally energetic and dance floor-ready.

Kids are drawn into the rave scene for different reasons, usually by the music, and sometimes for the scene's open-minded nature toward drugs, alternative lifestyles, and community. The standard club can offer some of that, but one thing most venues in the Bay Area don't offer is a place to dance until dawn. Says Martin O'Brien (no relation to Malachy), promoter of the Gathering, “If you ask a true raver why raves go on all night, you know what they'll say? 'Because there's nothing like the morning.' That's what's always different about raves. Instead of coming out of a club at 2 a.m., you come out of a rave at 6, and the first thing you need is your sunglasses. It's brilliant, a whole different way of looking at life.”

O'Brien has been a central figure in San Francisco's rave scene since its early days, having begun promoting raves shortly after his arrival from Ireland in 1990. He is best known in the Bay Area for the Gathering parties, which have been running about eight years, as well as other parties such as Basics, Vision, and Freedom, which have spanned much of the last decade. He draws a strong distinction between clubs and raves. “The clubs were about who you were, what you look like, what you're wearing — just attitude, really,” he recalls. But with raves, “you could be whoever you wanted to be and do whatever you wanted to do, and you didn't have to look cool.”

For the past four years, remote warehouses in Oakland have been significant in the growth of the scene, fitting thousands of revelers at a time into booming high-ceilinged spaces. O'Brien and his crew cut the ribbon in December 1995, when they received a serendipitous and unforeseen offer by the owner of a warehouse at 633 Hegenberger, which later became known to ravers as Home Base because of its proximity to the store of the same name. “Normally you'd be pulling teeth to get people to even give you the smell of their warehouse,” O'Brien says. He was involved with the first nine parties; then Vlad Cood, entertainment promoter with Feel Good Productions, began to use the space for his events.

Thousands upon thousands of people from the Bay Area and beyond danced in this and other Oakland venues until dawn, as, year by year, the parties became more frequent. Which was perhaps part of the problem. Last year the city of Oakland finally began worrying about the phenomenon. “Our fire chief and building inspector raised some concern about the frequency of events, now that they were no longer the one-time events happening once a year,” says Larry Carol, administrative hearing officer for the city of Oakland. “[The raves] were happening like a nightclub or any other business. And to operate any of these other businesses where you have large crowds of people coming, generally you would be required to go through the planning or zoning division to get approval, to make sure that your building meets the required fire code, building code, electrical, and plumbing.” [page]

As of this month, the city of Oakland has stipulated tighter restrictions, which have put an end to the massive parties as they've previously existed. According to Carol, in September 1999 all applications for rave events were suspended for 30 days to allow the fire and building inspectors to thoroughly inspect the venues. Only one of the four major warehouses used for parties passed.

“I think we were damned lucky to have gotten away with the warehouse parties pretty much unchecked for the last four years,” says O'Brien, adding that he has worked closely with the Oakland Police Department and has only positive things to say about its officers. O'Brien theorizes that the city itself isn't anti-rave, but that instructions have arrived from a higher level of government. “Stop the drug parties, stop the kids doing drugs, or 'Just say no'” he thinks may be the agenda behind the shutdowns. Oakland officials, however, maintain that it's not about the drugs, and even O'Brien says that the police have never really clamped down on drug use at Oakland raves.

Whatever the motivation, the cost of getting buildings up to code, which would be the responsibility of the building owners, makes the undertaking unfeasible. “They're not talking about simple compliance issues,” says Feel Good Productions' Cood. “They want to actually see us build these places out to a point where we've built ourselves a Concord Pavilion or a Moscone Center.”

With the increase in popularity of the scene in the past few years, and its higher public profile, throwing a party these days involves more a lot more red tape than it used to. “We're not talking about the good old days when you could do a show for under $500,” says Eric Spire, a DJ, promoter, and producer with Santa Cruz-based Silver Pearl Records. “We're talking $150,000 to $175,000 in the budget of a show. And with a 7,000-person attendance at $25 a head, you break even.” Three months of work to prepare for the event must be accounted for, and though 7,000 sounds like a large number, a promoter needs to attract closer to 10,000 people to be successful, according to Spire's reckoning.

Another worry promoters have expressed is the insecurity they face even if they were to invest money in the premises. If a promoter were to spend the money necessary to upgrade a facility in an abandoned area of Oakland, the possibility still exists that the area will go through redevelopment later on, causing permits to be revoked for noise-control reasons. And there's no guarantee events will be allowed to continue for any specified period of time, or long enough to earn back the money that might be invested.

Cood, who considers his “massive” events a safer alternative to underground raves, has already been affected by the tighter restrictions, because his venue didn't pass the city's inspection. Since 1995, he's held his events at Home Base, starting out throwing the parties a few times a year and more recently holding them once a month; they've attracted up to 10,000 people at a time. He admits that these restrictions will “basically put us all out of business [in Oakland].”

However, Cood, Spire, and other promoters plan to continue throwing events. “We'll still survive,” Cood says. “We just won't be able to do it in warehouses. … We're going to have to find facilities that are code-compliant.” Though DJs, producers, and other smaller-scale promoters have mentioned that Cood is one of those most strongly affected by the stipulations, he seems to be taking it in stride. “I think what's happened here is inevitable,” he says. “And the good part about it is it's happening before there's an incident.”

Martin O'Brien agrees that if a death or serious injury had happened at one of the parties, it would have spelled disaster for the scene. “There were all these people who were allowing these events to go on — whether it be the City Manager's Office, the Police Department, or the Fire Department. If somebody had died, all these people's heads were close to the chopping block.”

The city's reaction is completely legitimate, says Pete Glikshtern, owner of S.F. clubs Liquid and Six, as well as one of the original members of the San Francisco Late Night Coalition (SFLNC). “There's only so long that you're going to get away with stuff,” he says, arguing that irresponsible promoters have been a major part of the problem in Oakland. In response to those who hold grudges against the city's actions, he explains that “people are responsible for the city's well-being.” A police officer does not want to fail at his job “and have to go home and tell his wife that he got fired because there was a bunch of kids partying and he didn't do much about it. … [Promoters] will say that they're responsible, but the reality is that some people have pushed the envelope way too far.” As a consequence, Glikshtern feels that a number of groups will have to pay the price: promoters, club owners like himself, and the SFLNC, which is trying to improve the dance scene's drug-saddled reputation as a main part of its agenda.

While most of the SFLNC's energy at present is focused on various SOMA clubs' struggles with the Southern Police District, the organization also plans to work toward creating a standard permitting process for one-off parties and warehouses, the effects of which would carry over to rave promoters wanting to work legally within San Francisco. [page]

Southern Station Capt. Dennis Martel, who within the scene has been repeatedly cited as the man responsible for the complaints filed that many argue endanger the life-expectancy for SOMA clubs like Ten 15 and the Endup, says he is determined to keep rave-type parties in his district legitimate. “If [raves] take place in permitted venues, and they don't engage in any illegal activities, such as narcotics use or sales, or go beyond the permitted hours of that establishment, then we don't have a problem with them,” he says. Martel notes that in December, there was an unpermitted rave at 285 Ninth St., with about 200 people in attendance and where organizers “were selling tickets and alcohol without permits, which is a state code violation. We arrested the person responsible for the party, and I think we arrested a couple people selling alcohol without permits.”

Though the SOMA clubbing community has a negative perception of Martel and Southern Station, promoters and DJs in the Oakland rave scene are generally positive about police. This can be partly credited to the markedly different methods the forces use to approach nightlife. Though both scenes have been accused of drug use, Oakland authorities seem mainly to deal with building codes, whereas SOMA's issues, according to Martel, revolve around noise complaints, drugs, and violence.

Sgt. Tom Hogenmiller of the Special Operations Division of the Oakland Police Department has worked closely with promoters over the years, and maintains that officers are not anti-rave. “[The problems do not stem from] the rave itself,” he says. “It's normally about promoters who come in for a one-time shot. There's many we deal with on a regular basis who we've formed a trust relationship with, but there are others who come in that are just out for a fast buck and don't have to worry about coming back.” Problems arise occasionally from parties thrown by regular promoters, like crowd control (“And we're not talking about a violent crowd,” says Hogenmiller), but most issues have been easily resolved between promoters and the police.

Some old-school ravers have criticized the expansion of the scene, arguing that the original rave philosophy of PLUR (peace, love, unity, and respect) birthed a decade ago is disappearing with the mobs of new fans. “You see it on TV now,” Homero Espenosa, who goes by DJ Huey, says of the rave scene. “They promote rave-oriented clothes, music, videos. It's kind of disappointing, because with a lot of kids the connotation for raves is drugs. Before, it used to be raves were about underground music, and it was about the vibe. A lot of people have forgotten about that.”

Espenosa promotes parties with Nightlife Productions and prefers to be involved in smaller-scale events. With the quagmire that has taken over the permitting office of late, a prevalent theory is that — MTV Fatboy Slim hype aside — the scene in the Bay Area may begin to go underground again. Referring to some of the new ravers who may be following an imaginary Ecstasy trail to parties, Espenosa offers this perspective on the new restrictions to the warehouses: “I think it is going to filter out a lot of the garbage.”

According to MODA — aka Eric Reynolds, an Oakland-based producer, promoter, and DJ who performs across North America — the problems for which raves have become notorious are caused not by the hard-core underground attendees, but by the inexperienced and uneducated partygoers. Though many newcomers seek out the scene with genuine intentions, some have taken drugs irresponsibly at their first parties, overdosed, been carted away in ambulances, and have never shown up at another party. If raves go underground again, some argue, those with a less than pure appreciation for the music and the community of the scene won't be as motivated to seek parties.

“It started out underground and then went massive, and now it's going back underground again, which is kind of fitting,” says MODA. Others foresee the same. Raver Diana Eckhardt feels the massives took a lot of genuine ravers away from the scene. She agrees that it's heading underground, which she says is where she'd like it to be.

But that isn't what Oakland city officials or police hope for, because an underground rave scene could create a difficult situation for them. Silver Pearl Records' Eric Spire voices the conundrum: “It seems to me that they're trying to take the liability away, but they may be increasing it. They are not going to be issuing permits, but events are going to happen within their city limits anyhow, and they're not going to know about them.” Oakland has tightened the reins with respect to underground parties within the past year, with an ordinance stating that unpermitted events must be immediately shut down. If the promoter or anybody associated with the party refuses the shutdown, he or she can be arrested on misdemeanor charges. Furthermore, if the situation requires a police response to the point where an inordinate amount of resources are used in closing the party, the city can attempt to recover the costs from those involved.

“Now I know this isn't going to deter everybody,” says Sgt. Hogenmiller, “and that there will be parties underground. That was one of the reasons that we brought them aboveboard to begin with.” He emphasizes that the department doesn't have a problem with the events in and of themselves, and would be more than willing to permit a venue in the right location if it receives fire safety and building approval.

Some within the scene feel that a number of promoters will take the risks. Some of the practices of the old days, like breaking into warehouses, will probably not happen again, but people are “dynamic with what they think of as a space for an underground party,” says Spire. [page]

Michael Robbins, better known to his cultlike following as Mars, alongside DJ-partner Mystre, has been spinning cybertrance in the Bay Area for about seven years, sometimes at massives. He too believes the scene may go back underground. “I think that it's just an ebb and flow,” he says. “When the forest gets too big there's a forest fire. It's happened before. We used to be able to party here in San Francisco, throw events here. But they don't let you do that anymore. You just have to have faith that everything is happening for the benefit.”

In the meantime, there are definite signs that the scene is changing. “Raves are having to move further and further out,” says DJ Jim Hopkins. Already, parties are in full swing in 2000, and as before, some are being held farther away — in Vallejo, Sacramento, or San Jose. Perhaps all rave events will be forced into the backwoods eventually; nothing is yet scheduled at the Second and Jackson, 633 Hegenberger, or 689 85th Ave. warehouses in Oakland this year.

“People are wondering what's going to happen next,” says Hopkins.

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