On the Rave Underground and Pre-Digital Discovery

One afternoon in our high school library, I noticed my friend studying a glossy, colorful postcard of sorts, folded into a few sections. She opened it horizontally to reveal a triptych of thick paper. A jumble of text was plastered all over, on the front and back.

She handed it to me. There were lists of people’s names in scattered boxes; each column was labeled. The left column was titled Feel ItWhere old school heritage meets the new school vibe. The typography reminded me of the Sega Genesis games I played when I was little.

I scanned the backside. All are welcome. Doors open at 9:00 pm. Fully permitted, friendly, and safe centralized Bay Area location. Addresses and phone numbers of record stores and other shops were listed beneath—Wicked, the skate store in Redwood City, and Magic Theatre, the smoke shop in San Mateo. Three phone numbers were listed at the bottom: 415-263-0483. 510-888-2368. 408-881-0785. San Francisco, East Bay, and San Jose numbers, respectively.

It looked like a festival, but I wasn’t sure. It was tomorrow night. I wanted to go.

“So, where is it?” I asked.

“You have to call one of those numbers,” she said.

* * *

In 1997, it went like that.

* * * * *

In the early nineties, you got even less:

old san francisco rave flyer

A single phone number. A lineup of San Francisco house DJs. A simple “save the date” of what was coming—a teaser suggesting you had been there before. Yet there wasn’t a concrete, physical there. A party flyer provided logistic details, but ultimately was not a resource for information. It was a piece of paper that represented something. Something bigger.

What you had experienced before.

What you looked forward to.

The past and the future at once. That long moment in between—the anticipation—for the next party.

area 51 rave flyer

Inch forward to 1995.

You hold up an Area 51 flyer in your hands. A UFO graphic. A few lines of text. And the date. That’s it. But that elusive yet enveloping element of the party—the vibe—lingers: a tangled sensory bundle filling up in your fingertips as you turn the flyer over. You see sound in the nimble movements of dancing silhouettes; you feel it, throbbing against your chest like a second hearbeat. You feel darkness that’s warm and sweaty and suffocating but still welcoming—it feels like a womb.

This flimsy flyer offers no details. But there is a subtext that floats.

Those days when information was scarce. When we had to ask around for it, hunt for it. A time when underground seemed to really mean something—when it was something I felt, descended into, climbed out of. A scene in which we experimented and shared and learned from one another—how to dance, how to spin records, how to look after ourselves over a long night.

A boundaryless world where I participated and created, lost in moments mostly undocumented.

* * * * *

Discovery. Secrecy. Inaccessibility.

I miss these things. But it’s not that they have disappeared. Everything is just different now.

In the mid-to-late nineties, I had an AOL account but didn’t spend much time online. My friends and I learned about underground parties in abandoned flats in downtown San Francisco and makeshift outdoor locations in Oakland through word-of-mouth: from friends, their friends, or the crews that threw them. In pre-cell phone years, when just a few high school friends had pagers, we had less ways to get in touch. We’d head out for the night, and sometimes we couldn’t reach each other, couldn’t coordinate a ride, missed one another at a meeting spot, or had no idea where someone was. A night happened if it happened.

old rave flyers

And then there was SFRaves. Black-and-white and link-heavy, SFRaves was a beacon of this neon-tinged darkness: a digital bible for the community, and a master rave calendar for gatherings big and small, for trance or breaks or house or jungle or happy hardcore parties. It was a helpful online forum, but nothing like the fancy party promotion and club websites and Facebook event invitations of today. I liked learning about upcoming parties other ways: from a flyer created with a pen, stuck on my windshield at 6 am; or a friendly girl wearing Kikwears and candy bracelets up her forearms, waiting at a bustop.

audio impact flyer

* * * * *

A few weeks ago, I came upon “Facebook is destroying fragile subcultures,” an article about how the Internet can both nurture and kill a subculture. The piece talks about how The Eye Scene, a forum for enthusiasts of myopia, has given people with a particular, peculiar fetish a place to express themselves. But because of the knowledge that Facebook tracks our every move, and the increasing ability to tie one’s virtual persona to their real-life identity, quality engagement among members has dropped.

Where the internet once offered a safe harbour for the most outré behaviours and interests, the social revolution is killing off much of the vibrancy and diversity of the web.

I don’t fully agree; the web is vibrant and diverse. But the use of killing off seems on point—things are disappearing.

I think about how my entire rave experience would have been different had the technology been there. Losing my friends and wandering through a crowd to hunt for them—and serendipitously befriending strangers along the way—would not have happened if I had a cell phone. Or perhaps it would, but not in the same organic, oddly beautiful way. And if I had a smart phone with a camera, with social networks accessible with just a click? I could have captured, and shared, any moment. The fleetingness of a night, which lasted hours, would have been documented. The slippery sensation I’ve tried to capture in my writing over the past fifteen years could have been encoded into a tweet.

But those moments were not meant to be recorded: Some were supposed to be forgotten. Others work better, and are sweeter, as blurry memories.

I love social media: the ability to connect, share, and be informed. But I miss those moments of raw discovery: Not knowing the location of a party. Not figuring out what exactly that was in the dark. I miss those moments of getting lost trying to find a party in the industrial part of Oakland, finding it, and somehow being inside a secret. I miss those moments of inaccessibility: dancing for hours with a stranger whose name I’d forgotten by the time the sun rose—and not having a tool like Facebook to search for him or her when I got home.

I miss the randomness of those days. It’s interesting how today’s online experience strives to be natural—apps and social networks offering recommendations based on your preferences and connections. Even the site name “StumbleUpon” implies that something wondrous is at work as you browse. Amusing, that.

I love Twitter: seeing what’s trending, what’s going viral, the memes-du-jour. But there is something empty, sterile, and rigid about it all. I actually don’t like being told what to read; I rely on recommended links from my stream, but would rather discover new stuff on my own. And to be honest, I am a bit uncomfortable with the idea behind retweeting: sharing information fed to me from elsewhere. Creating an illusion of knowledge. Liking and reposting and favoriting and curating. It all means something; it all means nothing.

And so, what we have access to in 2012? It’s amazing.

But it’s different. Oddly, I sometimes wish getting information, and learning about things without physically experiencing them, wasn’t so easy.

* * * * *

My years in the rave scene? An unrecorded experience, digitally speaking. I have old photos and flyers in shoeboxes. I may have a pair of 42-inch-bottomed Jncos in a box somewhere. But I have nothing to post, nothing to tweet. And even if I did, anything shared or retweeted or churned through the Internet would be stripped of that extra dimension—that something bigger.

That sensation you feel if you had been there.

Note: The flyers above were sourced from this Flickr collection by sioenroux, SFRaves, and this Rave Project Archive by John Kuzich.


Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

11 thoughts on “On the Rave Underground and Pre-Digital Discovery

  1. Not ashamed to admit I got a bit misty eyed reading this article.

    aw, break-ins. <3

    It is undoubtedly my time in "the underground scene" that were my formative years, but I didn't really know until last year. I contrast myself and my behavior with my peers, and while I like to feel part of something bigger i.e. Vision, they prefer goal-oriented living. I can't deal with non-fluidity, they thrive in it (or at least fake it well)..

    I do miss the sweet uncertainty of those years, the possibility that something great (and probably will) happen. Again, this stays with me up until the time of this writing. It hasn't left me and is fueling me to travel.. but to savor each bite of life.

    Thanks for your words, Cheri. They bring me memories but also revelation that humans really aren't that different, which is something I also learned back then: not everyone likes the House room, but they do like to dance so they move to D&B room. (if they're intelligent, n pun intended ;P)

    On an unrelated ending note, Jeno and Garth. Let's not forget Dan and Donald. YAY!

    1. I’m so thrilled you enjoyed and identified with this — always nice to come upon readers of my blog who have had these same experiences as me. I gather you’re from the Bay Area, then?

      And Jeno and Garth and Dan and Donald, certainly. Several months ago, around the time of the 20-year Gathering anniversary, Carlos sounded *especially* good, too. One of my best memories of DJ Dan was early on, in the super-tiny (and now-gone) Big Heart City in downtown SF.

      “Sweet uncertainty” is a great way to describe the sensation from those years.

      1. Seattle area. I started out in Alaska (winter parties are no joke) and my family migrated around ’90 as the rave scene was coming alive. Donald was going by the name ‘The Dominator’ around that era. It wasn’t until around ’95 I really understood what I was doing: preparing myself for the my life ahead of me. I was futureproofing myself; i think a lot of us partykids (i still wince at the term but haven’t created an alternative.. haha) were in some way.

        To the untrained eye, we were just kids going through a phase, and certainly there is that dimension to the overall experience. But to the individual immersed in the subculture (damn! 22 years now!), there is a facet of truth that can’t always be vocalized in explanation; hence the music. Which goes back to your excellent point about the “less is more” ethos.

        Again, what you described above literally IS the reason why I do what I do today. Hunting out map point parties IS traveling. It’s adventure unrestrained. It’s child like wonder at the beautification of raw sound and organic elements. It’s nice to know other people took something out of those years and applied them, or at least still appreciate them as a valuable experience. 20 year anniversary party w/Carlos? I’m jelly.

  2. I think about this all the time! However, it wasn’t until this year that I realized how lucky our generation is for getting to experience both sides. We are so caught up in the moment that we fail to realize how dramatically our brains are being reprogrammed.

    We’re like the first struggling amphibians that gasped for breath in air, and have to periodically go back underwater to feel comfortable (we call it “going off the grid,” a phrase that won’t even make sense in 100 years).

    The tone of this post (to me) is mild ennui, but I think there should be a lot more excitement — realize in cognitive experience you are getting two lives for the price of one.

    1. Thanks for this. One of the ideas I kept returning to in the book I worked on in graduate school was how we indeed straddle two…periods? Ages? (What word is appropriate here?) So when you say “you are getting two lives for the price of one,” I totally agree. And it *is* exciting, so I appreciate your comment about the tone. I guess I’m overly nostalgic here — I long for and miss something, almost as if I’m mourning it.

      But that aside, I do think we’re lucky to have grown up in the years we did. Love the gasping amphibian analogy!

  3. Like the mood of this piece very much. Like the flyers – they feel like relics even though they’re not that old and must have been produced in large numbers at the time (suppose many ancient relics are a bit like that).

    Kind if sounds like you’re implying that your style of writing belong to a time before Twitter. Not sure you’re trying to say that, but I got the feeling at one point. In a sense I think that’s true; not many bloggers take the time to deal with evocation like you do. There isn’t much fog in the blogosphere. But for that reason I think what you’re doing is very, very contemporary. Even if it’s casting a glance back over its own shoulder.

    And I do agree that much of internet turns life into a series if input/output functions. Punch a few words into a field and be given a list of texts you should read, things you should buy, people you should date/already know.

    Very much looking forward to reading more of your work this year!

    1. Actually, no, I wasn’t suggesting that my writing style is more fit for a time before Twitter/social media, but that’s an interesting insight. I think the piece can mean different things to different people; for me, I was mainly thinking about a time in my life that’s largely undocumented (in the digital sense), and how that makes it all the more special, I guess. I also kept thinking about how we used to get information — versus how we get it now — and how stumbling upon places and people and things felt so much more random before.

      On a somewhat related note, I’d read an article on how “the Internet is killing serendipity” the day I posted this, and while I thought that was interesting, that’s not really what I was implying here, either.

      Glad you liked the mood of the piece — fog is inspiring.

      Thanks for reading it!

  4. I think many people share their pics, thoughts, locations etc as a kind of ‘look at me, I was there.’ It’s natural to want to share in this way but sometimes I think people get distracted from just fully being in the moment — and then revelling in those emotion-saturated memories afterwards — because they are so caught up in documenting, disseminating and curating. Like you said, kind of dilutes the poignancy that is made more pure by privacy — only you and the people who were phyiscally there with you can share those memories. Not even sure if that makes sense … will have to think about it more … 🙂

  5. I remember, I remember…how many people will still say that 10 years from now? Or will they be asking google+ to “refresh” them? Memories, those that we carry in our hearts, seem to have so much more vibrancy than those we record with today’s social media. They even seem more real to me in some ways. Don’t get me wrong: you know I love it! The immediate connect, the “never alone” is on one hand, is good, bringing us together in ways I could never have imagined, but on the other hand, those ways can dull the very senses we need to hone.

    Always, thoughtful & provocative.

    1. That is interesting — memories we carry, out of sight, are more vibrant (and real) than those recorded today via social media. I sense this, too.

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