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[whitespace] Raver On the Map: Last year's Cyberfest looked like the beginning of a dance-music revolutiion for Silicon Valley.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


How Long Can Rave Wave?

Cyberfest's forced move to Fresno from San Jose is part of a growing conflict between law enforcement and the contrary culture of the electronic-music scene

By Michelle Goldberg

THIS YEAR'S CYBERFEST, the massive electronic-music festival with one of the most astonishing lineups ever to appear in America, could have put San Jose on the dance-culture map. But it won't, because the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, caught up in the anti-rave hysteria that's swept the country, backed out at the last minute and refused to let Cyberfest's promoters, Coolworld Productions, use the Santa Clara Fairgrounds. So, the biggest dance festival ever to hit California is moving to Fresno Saturday (July 22).

Coolworld has spun the last-minute venue change as a positive development. The capacity of the Fresno Fairgrounds is double that of the Santa Clara Fairgrounds--there's room for 80,000 attendees--and Coolworld is billing the move as a choice. "This year, due to popular demand, we've expanded to hundreds of acres of dance freedom, which will once again be transformed into a mind-blowing dance-music theme park," says the company's website. Buses will be available to transport party-goers from Santa Clara to Fresno, so no one who bought a ticket need be left out.

But although the increased size may be a good thing for Coolworld, it's definitely not a good thing for San Jose. After all, Coolworld has been holding hugely popular events at the Santa Clara Fairgrounds for a year now, including the previous Cyberfest, putting the South Bay at the epicenter of a thriving music scene.

The company had a contract with the fairgrounds, but in the wake of salacious reports on 60 Minutes II and Dateline and in newspapers nationwide, the Santa Clara County Board decided that Cyberfest 2000 couldn't go on without a whole host of restrictions that would have castrated the event.

"I have nothing against concerts, but I do not think there is a need for a concert that goes until six o'clock the next morning," said Supervisor Pete McHugh, one of the event's critics. Sounds almost like Footloose, right?

But wait. The fight over Cyberfest isn't simply a battle between vivacious kids and their straitjacketed elders. Rather, it represents a somewhat inevitable culture clash resulting from the mainstreaming of an underground scene, one whose values conflict with authority. A highly visible domestic rave culture in its present form can't coexist with puritanical American drug laws without one of them changing. Either the dance scene or the drug war is going to have to change.

That said, much of the uproar that led to the Santa Clara County Board's concern was engendered by irresponsible panicmongering by the San Jose Mercury-News following a June 17 Coolworld party. It all started with a piece by Betty Barnacle conflating the Coolworld event with a completely unrelated bash at Parkside Hall downtown.

In a story titled "S.J. Parties Race Out of Control," Barnacle wrote, "A weekend rave party at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds that was sponsored by an out-of-town promoter had too many kids, too few deputies and a rash of drug overdoses, deputies said."

Then, in the next paragraph: "In another party Sunday night in downtown San Jose, a crowd of 500 turned on police, smashed windows and later trashed a mini-mart." The Coolworld event had nothing whatsoever to do with any riot, but the structure of Barnacle's story implied that the two were somehow related.

Soon after, in a story about the county's cancellation of future Coolworld events at the fairgrounds, Eric R. Drudis and John Woolfolk wrote, "The developments came two weeks after another such party erupted into a melee that ended with two stabbings, eight arrests and numerous drug overdoses."

Then, once Coolworld was moved to Fresno, Drudis filed a story saying, "Undeterred by a reputation of violence and drug use at raves--both of which surfaced at a June 18 event sponsored by promoter Coolworld.com [sic] at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds--officials in Fresno say they welcome the events."

The thing is, even Santa Clara County Sheriff John Hirokawa says that Coolworld's events have absolutely no reputation for violence, nor was there any "melee" on June 18. "We've always said that the violence out at the fairgrounds was only isolated incidents," he insisted. "We didn't have a melee, and we never said that. We said that the assaults and the stabbings were isolated incidents that were controlled and didn't get out of hand. Certain things are going to happen at any major event, and those particular instances are not way out of line with what happens at any other major event."

As Coolworld CEO Sason Parry said, "Eight people died at a Pearl Jam concert, but nobody wants to stop concerts."

ALL THE SAME, the dispute between Coolworld and Santa Clara isn't just a misunderstanding. It's a conflict, at its core, about drugs, and whether a culture that values hedonism can flourish within one that values order. When Sergeant Hirokawa estimates that 40 to 60 percent of the 20,000 attendees at the June 17 party were on illegal drugs, it doesn't sound far off from what I've seen in the dozens of raves I've gone to over the past eight years.

I'm going to come out and say, just for the record, that I take Ecstasy, or MDMA, and I adore it. It's the reason I fell in love with electronic music in the first place, and it's been a part of some of the most sublime nights of my life.

That doesn't mean that the best raves I've been to always correlate with the pills I've taken, or that I can't appreciate brilliant electronic music sober--after all, I listen to music every day, but, responsible girl that I am, I only take drugs a few nights a year.

Still, that warm molasses glow, the feeling of being massaged by a million tiny fairy hands and, most of all, the melting away of my intractable inhibitions are a huge part of the joy I've felt dancing madly amid sweaty strangers at 4am.

Lot's of people go to raves just for the music, and there are famous DJs who are known for abstaining. But to me, dance music and MDMA go together like sushi and wasabe. So when Hirokawa, a man in his 40s, tells me that he's heard that the dance scene is full of chemicals, I can't argue with him.

Besides, at 24 I'm a professional, married woman with a masters degree from Berkeley, not some street-corner junkie, and since my habits haven't hurt me I don't see why I should be ashamed of them. There are risks associated with Ecstasy--some scientists believe it damages serotonin receptors and increases susceptibility to depression--but those are risks I've chosen, occasionally, to assume.

Coolworld's Parry, who according to himself and his staff has never done drugs, emphatically denies the connection between Ecstasy and rave culture, even threatening to end an interview when there are too many questions about pills. He also adamantly disputes Hirokawa's numbers.

"That's ridiculous; that's inaccurate," he says of the 40 to 60 percent figure. "We don't condone any drug use. Ninety-five percent of our patrons are definitely there for the music. It's about people dancing, coming together, breaking barriers and celebrating life. Ecstasy just happens to be this new drug that's out there, and [the media] are looking for someplace to place it."

Parry also goes out of his way to distance Coolworld's events from the term "rave," and technically, of course, he's right. Raves originally were guerilla events. The term meant breaking into a warehouse or taking over a faraway field, passing around directions clandestinely, setting up a sound system and hoping the cops didn't catch on.

In that sense, Cyberfest is to raves what Lollapalooza was to underground punk: a sanitized, mass-market take on something that started out as a subculture. At early raves, the DJs were anonymous figures, reinforcing a community vibe which subverted fame-based hierarchies.

Conversely, Cyberfest's lineup is a breathtaking who's who of dance--among the event's dozens of acts are Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins; soulful British techno god Carl Cox; house legend Jesse Saunders; trance maestros BT and Paul Oakenfold; Mixmaster Mike of the Beastie Boys and Invisbl Skratch Piklz; and drum 'n' bass stars Ed Rush, Optical and Aphrodite.

Cyberfest 2000 will also include extreme sports, rides, massage therapists, a yoga station, trapeze artists, tarot reading, video games and organic food. MTV will be covering it. It's a smorgasbord of lifestyle options, and in many ways no more threatening to the establishment than Urban Outfitters.

Raver
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Dance the Night Away: The mix of music and events drew a large crowd to the fairgrounds.

NEVERTHELESS, Cyberfest is primarily about electronic music, and Ecstasy is entwined with the electronic music scene. Simon Reynolds writes in Generation Ecstasy, his groundbreaking book on electronic music, "The Ecstasy-enhancing aspects latent in house and techno were unintended by their original creators and were discovered accidentally by the first people who mixed the music and the drug. But over the years, rave music has gradually evolved into a self-conscious science of intensifying MDMA's sensations. House and techno producers have developed a drug-determined repertoire of effects, textures and riffs that are expressly designed to trigger the tingly rushes that traverse the Ecstatic body."

Reynolds, of course, didn't mean this as a condemnation. As films like Groove demonstrate, the vast majority of Ecstasy experiences are overwhelmingly positive. The standoff, then, isn't just between authorities with an insanely overblown notion of drug use at dance events and the kids who just want to have good, clean, chemical-free fun. Its also between those with a nuanced view of drug use--those who believe that MDMA, taken responsibly, can be beautiful, and worth the risks--and the authorities charged with persecuting them.

"There wasn't a problem per se with violence at the fairgrounds," Hirokawa reiterates about Coolworld's June 17 event. "We've never said the crowd was out of hand in a violent situation. In our opinion, though, what was out of our control was the amount of illegal drug use that we could do nothing about. As a law enforcement agency, how do we respond to that, if we know drugs are being used but we can't do anything about it?" he asks. "What does that say about law enforcement? Can we publicly say, yes, we condone use of illegal drugs as a law enforcement agency?"

He sounds almost apologetic as he says, "It's our responsibility to enforce those laws. Parents have a certain expectation--whether its reasonable or not that--that when law enforcement is there, it's a drug-free atmosphere, especially when they're sending their 12- and 13-year-old kids there."

Therein lies part of the problem--preteens and their parents have gotten involved in what was once an out-of-sight subculture. In America, no one seemed to care much about raves and Ecstasy as long as they stayed underground, confined to city kids and artsy freaks.

Now authorities are glaring in harsh scrutiny at the scene. There's a bill currently going through the Senate called "The Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000," which would increase penalties for Ecstasy-related offenses to levels commensurate with those for methamphetamine and ban information about buying, selling, making or testing the drug.

Though Ecstasy use has spread far beyond the dance culture, the bill will nevertheless serve as a pretext to crack down on raves. Those within the scene are faced with a choice between denial and defiance.

WHAT'S HAPPENING in America right now parallels the attack on raves in Britain in the early '90s. Then, amid a rash of tabloid stories decrying the Ecstasy scourge, the English government passed 1994's Criminal Justice and Public Order Act contained specific anti-rave provisions, leading to a huge youth uprising.

As Mary Anna Wright wrote in her essay "The Great British Ecstasy Revolution," from the book DiY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain, "The Ecstasy revolution took time to gather force. In the beginning, a few people took a few pills at a few parties. Now the E-thos of peace, love and unity has become so much accepted into our social lives it can almost be taken for granted. ... When people who take Ecstasy read about it in the press they tend to dissociate themselves from what they read. ... This mistrust of the media went hand in hand with the questioning of authority and a legal system which outlawed a social life gaining in popularity. When the culture surrounding Ecstasy came under attack, this disbelief at the moral panic turned, for many, into a more tangible protest."

In other words, the drug was key to the activism the scene spawned. Similarly, American kids won't get far by denying the truth about their culture. If it's worth doing, it's worth defending.

Coolworld is trying hard to separate the scene from the drugs originally intrinsic to it, taking an accommodationist approach by insisting that rave culture can mesh with mainstream values. Indeed, Coolworld is a big, efficient business run out of an office suite in Alameda, not a fly-by-night promoter crew. Parry genuinely wants to spread the music he loves as wide as it can go, and that means detaching it from its illicit underpinnings.

But others are refusing to be defensive about recreational chemicals. DanceSafe, a Berkeley-based organization funded, in part, by Microsoft millionaire Bob Wallace, sets up harm reduction booths at raves, nightclubs and festivals that chemically test pills for purity, so that users can be sure they're taking MDMA instead of dangerous adulterants like DXM or PMA. (PMA was responsible for the recent death of an 18-year-old Chicago girl who took it in a friend's basement, not at a rave.)

After a Salon story about the Chicago girl's death, a letter writer voiced outrage over the prohibition policy that leads to such dangerous substances being sold on the black market. "Every time I see an MDMA lab go down, I'm a little more wary of buying my next pill, because I no longer know where it came from or what's in it. The current U.S. policy is actually harming the public more than if they had just left it alone," said one letter. Ecstasy users often refuse to slink around like criminals; there's little shame or stigma attached to it.

In order for electronic-music festivals to thrive as a business, they may have to side with the authorities against their patrons. But in order for electronic music to thrive as a culture, it needs to stop apologizing. I've heard from friends in strict countries like Singapore that dance events there are full of energy and enthusiasm despite the absence of drugs, and I've seen the same thing firsthand in Istanbul, where, due to Midnight Express-type fears, I wouldn't have touched a pill with a 10-foot glow stick. So maybe Coolworld can succeed in creating a wholesome carnival instead of a bacchanal. For their sake, I hope they do. For my sake, I'm sorry they have to.


Cyberfest happens July 22, at the Fresno Fairgrounds, 2pm to 6am. $35. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster. For more information, call 408.235.1077

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From the July 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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