Rave Waves Pt. I - A Brief History of LA's Underground Dance Culture
Our goal at contrast is to serve as your interface to underground LA. That means help you find your sound and tribe in this robust and flourishing network of underground labels and collectives.
But in order for you to find exactly what you're looking for, or even understand the point of it all, you should know more about the nature of the beast that is LA's rave scene. To help you make sense of this dynamic cultural phenomena and understand your place in it, we've written up an overview of the scene's exciting and turbulent past.
The Los Angeles rave scene comes in waves — ins and out, ups and downs, booms and busts. In some of its finer moments, it has served unofficial epicenter of underground dance culture in the country and possibly the world. In its darker moments, it has been all but extinguished by negative media coverage, police crackdowns, and commercialization. But, no matter what happens, it always finds a way to survive, innovate, and push new boundaries. As one wave curls into its climax before crashing down, another one, far out, in deeper waters is already beginning to swell.
2018 was probably the best year for LA’s rave scene since the 1990s. And we’re not talking about Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, Insomniac or any of that other commercial EDM, cheese techno, boots’n’cats bullshit. We’re talking about the DIY scene, throwing underground warehouse parties for none other than the love of the music and community. It's an exciting revival and given the sheer amount of space they have to work with, the scene’s explosive momentum, and the city’s unrivaled well of creative talent passionate about art and technology, there’s a big reason to believe that LA will again be at the forefront of underground, electronic music and culture for years to come. It's coming back LA, but before it does, let’s take a deeper look at the city’s storied history.
The Origins of the Rave
In order to truly understand the history of Los Angeles’ rave scene, you must first get to know Frankie Knuckles and Juan Atkins, the founding fathers of underground, electronic dance music as we know it. House music came first, emerging from Chicago’s underground dance club scene, under Knuckles’ musical direction in the late 70s, early 80s. Its name comes from “The Warehouse”, a primarily gay, black nightclub where Knuckles began to mix Disco classics with Eurobeat Pop. He influenced other DJs, such as Chp E and Steve Hurley, in altering the Pop-like Disco dance tracks to give them a more mechanical beat and deeper basslines. The new style exploded setting a new course for electronic dance music.
While this scene was always very inclusive, and its the original aim was to unify people of all races, backgrounds and sexual orientations, many Americans couldn’t deal with the fact that House music started in gay clubs. This narrow-mindedness, racism, and even corporate music politics played an important role in preventing House music from truly flourishing in the US.
However, it thrived in the underground, and a wave of psychedelic spinoffs emerged. Most notably, Acid House, which caught on like wildfire in the UK — at clubs, warehouses and open-air parties. The word “rave”, which had originally referred to Bohemian parties in London’s Soho District, was adopted to describe these Acid House events.
Meanwhile, over in Detroit, Juan Atkins, and his high school classmates, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, were pioneering a sound of their own. Mixing and melding several African-American music styles such as Funk, Electro, and Electric Jazz with Chicago House.
Added to this is the influence of futuristic and fictional themes relevant to life in American late capitalist society, with Alvin Toffler's book, The Third Wave, being a notable point of reference. Atkins cites Toffler's phrase "techno rebels" as inspiring him to use the word techno to describe the musical style he helped to create. This unique blending of African-American culture and science fiction aligns Techno with an aesthetic referred to as Afrofuturism.
Within the last 5 years or so, the Detroit underground has been experimenting with technology, stretching it rather than simply using it. As the price of sequencers and synthesizers has dropped, the experimentation has become more intense. Basically, we're tired of hearing about being in love or falling out, tired of the R&B system, so a new progressive sound has emerged. We call it techno! - Juan Atkins, 1988
Kraftwerk and other European synthesizer music were also major influencers for Atkins, May, and Saunderson.
"The classy and clean, and to us it was beautiful, like outer space. Living around Detroit, there was so little beauty... everything is an ugly mess in Detroit, and so we were attracted to this music. It, like, ignited our imagination!" recalls Saunderson.
By the early 1990s, the original Techno sound had garnered a large underground following in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium as the emergence of the rave scene exploded across Europe. Without much economic opportunity in Detroit, this eventually led to a mass exodus of American Techno talents to pursue a more fruitful career overseas.
Check out the trailer for "God Said Give’em Drum Machines: The Story of Detroit Techno"https://vimeo.com/260015019?fbclid=IwAR1_uNGJqzQSdqSSL6GfAANHv6iAeX7DefxX7hfcjSddCrhoqf3Uk7xh-LE
The First Wave: East LA Ditch Parties
In LA, as in many other cities around the US, the Latino community caught onto House-and-Techno-inspired DJ culture, far earlier than their white counterparts.
In general, it would be unfair to overlook the importance of the Hispanic community in the emergence of Techno and House. Latin music, was a major influence in both, particularly the Salsa Clave rhythm, which became a dominating riff of House music.
Just a quick glance at the names of LA’s most notable, electronic music pioneers tells the story — John Tejada, Moe Espinosa (Drumcell), Vangelis and Vidal Vargas (Raíz), David Flores (Truncate), Martin Mendoza (Doc Martin) — notice a trend? All hispanic. Yet apart from a few articles and this Instagram account, nobody seems to know much about the scene.
While pretentious, Hollywood-wannabes waited in line to listen to corny Disco and “be seen” at the Roxy, the Chicanos in Boyle Heights were raving the day away, bumping the cutting edge of House and Techno. This party circuit, known as the ”ditch party scene” laid the foundations for the city’s underground dance music scene.
It was essentially a network of parties being thrown in kids’ houses, often during the day, while both parents were at work and the kids had snuck out of school. Usually someone would be collecting a couple bucks at the door. Parties, that would go from around 2 until 5 or 6 in the afternoon, could be found all around East LA, every single day. Party crews with names like Looney Tunes, Unforgiven, Crazy Life, Midnight Pleasure, Brown Authority, Ladies of Insanity, Kaotic Angels of Eagle Rock, Mind Crime, and Aztec Nation, would sometimes break into warehouses in South Central, Koreatown, Highland Park, in the part of Downtown LA that's known today as the Arts District.
It thrived for a few core years in the early ’90s in large part because of how clever these kids were. They developed an efficient system for not only avoiding detection by parents and authorities, but organizing the logistics of the events; finding locations, spreading the word in a pre-internet era, and obtaining the audio equipment. Finding talent wasn’t as much of a challenge as in the mid-to-late '80s, East Side high schools were so flooded with DJs that some established a new position: dance commissioner. At Franklin High School in Highland Park, now home to Stones Throw, the record shop Mount Analog and the LA outposts for Warp Records and NTS Radio, Richard "Humpty" Vission served in that capacity.
The scene arguably climaxed, musically and as a cultural phenomenon, in '92. There are various reasons that people point to as to how it faded away. Some blame too much intermingling with gangs. The promoters grew increasingly violent and territorial as time went on, eventually becoming indistinguishable from actual gangbangers, making the scene too dangerous.
Others attribute the end to a decline in the quality of music played—Strictly Rhythm led to Dance Mania, Dance Mania led to the boring and predictable Hard House, which was more about drugs and less about art. The young ravers who had experienced the ditch scene's early-'90s apex were soon old enough to attend clubs and warehouse parties that wouldn't get shut down just as the night was getting started.
But those few years when ditch parties were at their peak helped introduce a whole generation of young kids to House and Techno music, and it influenced a whole gang of DJs, many of them still spinning to this day.
While the Ditch parties came first, they were not alone. Stay tuned for the next installment of Rave Waves -- A Brief History of LA's Underground Dance Culture, to learn about the earliest adopters to rave culture over on LA's west side.