The Electronic Dance Music scene as we know it has come a long way since it began in the late 1980s. On a quest to better understand the origins of the culture that has come to play an integral role in my own life, I stumbled upon the 1999 documentary, The Origins of EDM: Better Living Through Circuitry. The film is a must-see for ravers of all ages and chronicles the early days of the scene, helping the viewer gain a deeper appreciation for the music and the culture we are fortunate to experience today.
Imagine a time when going to a rave wasn’t as simple as buying a ticket through Eventbrite or Ticketmaster and then Ubering to the club. Word of a party wasn’t spread through social media or targeted online ads because the internet hadn’t yet become the behemoth it is today. Not to mention, the parties themselves weren’t legal. To prevent law enforcement from discovering the whereabouts of a party, raves were held in unassuming locations.
When we started throwing parties, the whole thing with raves was you broke into a warehouse or you went and took people and music to a place where it has never been, like an abandoned warehouse that hasn’t had life in it for 20 years…not putting it in a club or glamorizing it as the new ‘club craze.’DJ Frankie Bones
In a very real sense, rave culture was a revolt against the club scene that was dominating the mainstream music culture back then. In the absence of established, above-board clubs drugs flowed, beats dropped, and people were free to be whoever they wanted to be. On the dancefloor, they were liberated from the chains of their everyday lives.
But the illegal nature of the raves cloaked the scene in secrecy and forced promoters to get creative in their advertising.
As the film portrays, to discover the whereabouts of a party, attendees relied heavily on promoters who served as guides directing the masses to warehouses, distant deserts, and crowded basements where they could leave their inhibitions behind, let go, and lose themselves in the music.
To maintain secrecy, the promoters themselves often didn’t know the location of the raves until just a few hours beforehand. Sometimes, there was no precise location at all. Instead of an address, attendees who sought out promoters or called rave “hotlines” were given obscure directions like, “drive into the desert until you hear the bass.”
Ravers featured in the film recall sometimes driving as long as 12 hours just to attend a party. But finding the rave was part of the experience. “It wasn’t the destination, it was the journey,” one raver recalls. The fact that attendees were so willing to travel far distances to escape the mainstream club scene in pursuit of fringe Electronic Dance Music tells you a lot about those drawn to rave culture. The ravers didn’t care about the legal status of the parties. They were seeking a more spiritual musical experience and they were willing to go outside of the conventional norms to find it.
But it wasn’t just about the music, it was about the people. Even more so than today, 90s rave culture provided a safe space where people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, and beliefs could come together to form their own community. Once you arrived at a rave, you entered an oasis far removed from the rest of the world. There were no rules in this space except the expectation of mutual respect for the other attendees.
This was uncharted territory for law enforcement, who had no idea how to navigate this new scene. The growing Electronic Dance Music movement was almost entirely out of their control. DJs often found themselves the target of police who believed them to be drug dealers, not artists. One DJ recalls having his home raided. Another tells of a rave that was shut down after police mistook the loud bass for a bomb.
The mass adoption of computers that was occurring during the 90s also set the dance music scene apart from all other countercultures that had come before it. No longer did you have to find the money to buy expensive instruments and learn how to play them. On the contrary, the rave scene was largely a “do it yourself” movement, where barriers to entry were abolished and anyone could create music if they were willing to experiment.
The DJs and producers of this era were digital pioneers, throwing out the old rules and inventing something completely new. You didn’t have to be a classicly trained musician to make it in the scene. These modern musicians were constructing their own narratives and they were taking the dancers along with them on their journies.
Where the Punk scene had paved the way for “take back the music” mentality, dance music perfected the model in a way that was truly decentralized and inclusive. Unlike musicians from eras past, DJs didn’t have to compromise their principles or bend over backward to land a record deal. Burgeoning technology and the advent of the internet allowed these “made at home” musicians to spread their music, and the genre as a whole, throughout the entire world.
At a time when Grunge music and Alternative Rock were fueling the angst felt by America’s youth, rave culture was a form of rebellion. Ravers weren’t giving in to their sadness or misery, they were rebelling against the angst. Life is hard and instead of using music to exacerbate these negative emotions, raves offered an escape—a place you could go for a night and remember how beautiful life could be. Just like today, when you attended an old school rave, there was a sense of belonging and a connection to a time and a place that only existed for a few hours, until the lasers faded and the music stopped.
Some aspects of rave culture may have changed, but at its core, the meaning behind it remains the same. As DJ Scanner says in the film, “There is nothing worse than feeling lonely in a big world out there. I think dance music in some sense acts as a catalyst to just bring people together.”
No matter what your style of dance music, understanding the roots of the community is important. Watching this film serves as a reminder of why we dance and how we got here.
*Featured Image of Better Living Through Circuitry Cover Via YouTube*