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Request (US); July 1994
Milwaukee's Rave New World
by David J. Prince
(page 22-25)


IT'S EITHER THE END OF THE WORLD OR THE BEGINNING.
AND IT'S ALL GOING DOWN IN MILWAUKEE.


3 A.M., JANUARY 1, 1994. Fifteen hundred young people are packed on the dance floor of Massive, a giant all-night techno event celebrating the New Year. There's no one still moving whose ears are not ringing; the beats have been banging at deafening levels for the past six hours at the rate of 200 per minute and show no sign of letting up. Bodies twitch and move; eyes shut tight in deep concentration; strange smiles fill most of the faces. One kid is sprawled out with his head resting comfortably inside a giant vibrating bass cabinet.

To the uninitiated, the noise is formless and directionless, but each time the deejay switches records and pumps the techno while raising a fist in the air, the tight-knit group of flailing flesh responds with a burst of energy. The sight is surreal and somewhat frightening. The harsh sounds are complemented with bursts of colored, patterned lights provided by six Intellibeams, several grisly film loops bizarrely projected on weather balloons strung from the ceiling, bouncing laser beams, and psychedelic video projections. Multimedia run amok, the scene is one of utter abandon and pure pleasure. It's either the end of the world or the beginning, and it's all going down in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

"I play all over the United States, and Milwaukee is one of the hardest places. They like very hard, repetitive music," says deejay Repete, the man responsible for bringing hardcore techno into New York City's Limelight club and the headliner for that New Year's gathering. "I was impressed by the Milwaukee scene. The harder you play it, the more they like it."

"The night went on, and I played harder and harder and harder and harder. I'm not used to seeing that. I'm used to a situation where you take them up, then bring them down a little bit. Over there, you just pound them."

Ask your friends about Milwaukee and instinctively they'll offer one word: beer. And while you can often smell the hops from one of the city's many breweries while wandering the small but clean downdown, a true underground spirit exists just below the surface of this industrial working-class town. Unbeknownst even to most people who live within the county limits, Milwaukee is home to America's hardest and perhaps strongest rave scene. Incorporating elements from the city's residual punk-rock scene with heavy-metal sensibilities and a comfort with house music it has absorbed from neighboring Chicago, Milwaukee's rave community has withstood the mainstream media indifference, police harassment, and quickly changing musical tastes that have stalled the movement throughout the rest of North America.

Drop Bass Network Conspirator Kurt Eckes
That the Milwaukee scene is an amalgam of hippie sensibilities ("peace, love, unity and respect"), punk spirit ("do it yourself"), and heavy-metal attitude ("f—king hardcore") can be attributed directly to Kurt Eckes and Patrick Spencer, coconspirators in the Drop Bass Network. What began as a couple of friends throwing techno-deejay parties in their loft has blossomed into a business partnership that involves monthly raves for more than 2,000 people, smaller loft parties, and an underground record label, also called Drop Bass Network, which has a growing reputation in the United States and Europe. As Jethrox and Jedidiah the Messiah, Eckes and Spencer are also a popular deejay team that plays a wide range of hard electronic dance music.

The operation of the Drop Bass Network is now a full-time job for the 27-year-old Eckes, who left his position as an industrial engineer eight months ago. With his pierced tongue, Black Flag tattoo, and semi-secret affection for the first Motley Crue album, Eckes embodies the qualities that define Milwaukee ravers and is a hero to those involved in the scene. His ability to inspire the support and devotion of a large group of young assistants and his good luck have kept the whole scene alive.

"What's going on with our label isn't going on anywhere in the country, except in the Midwest," Eckes says. "The same thing with our parties."

"I see flyers for parties in New York and California, and I can't understand it," Spencer adds. "They're getting all these huge, huge acts to come over and these parties are only pulling 2,000 people. Here, you can throw a party with just local talent and maybe one guy from a couple of states away, and you get 1,800 people who really want to be there and stay all night. I just get such a rush out of that. People here really get it."

What is there to get? What exactly goes on at these parties? Tempest and Descension were large-scale warehouse events; One and Genesis were indoor/outdoor raves on remote farms, complete with bonfires, video projections on the sides of silos, and out-of-control techno among the bales of hay; Ascension and Massive were set in aboveground clublike spaces. The duo also has worked on events in other cities, providing a spark to a stagnant Chicago scene by working on two of the best events in that city, Psychosis and Rejoice, as well as producing parties in Madison, Wisconsin, Minneapolis, and Duluth, Minnesota. And they have been responsible for bringing in some of the best and most popular deejays and live performers in the genre, including Moby, Psychic TV, Aphex Twin, Lenny Dee, Richie Hawtin, Dubtribe, Mixmaster Morris, Adam X, and Jimmy Crash.

What sets a Drop Bass event apart is the relentless beat of the hardest techno music. The current favorite is gabber music. Enormously popular in Belgium and Germany, these tracks are "all distorted 909 drum-machine kicks, 170 to 240 beats per minute, hard, fast, distorted guitar samples," Eckes explains. "The majority of the people who come to our raves come from the heavy-metal and punk scenes, and its easier for them to relate to this kind of music."

An unidentified writer for Massive, a Milwaukee rave 'zine styled after Maximum Rock N Roll, explains the appeal of the music best: "They call it cold. Hell yeah, it's cold, and that's how I like it. Hard, rugged, distorted. As a matter of fact, it should be more distorted....This is what Milwaukee's all about. It isn't surprising that a community as German as all shit would flock to the Danish and Deutchen samples of Oranje Bovum and Neuchen in die Keuchen."

Strangely enough, the music on the Drop Bass Network label does not reflect the gabber style preferred during peak party hours. The first three releases, all by Minneapolis deejay ESP Woody McBride, are acid tracks built around the unique sound of the Roland 303 analog bass-line synthesizer.

"The label is more diverse than you'd really think, due to Kurt and Pat's musical knowledge and preferences," says deejay Hyperactive, a popular Chicago spinner who collaborates with ESP and has a release of his own on the Drop Bass Network label. "Kurt is a little more hardheaded and gabberish, more radical; Pat's a little more serious and into the intelligent styles of music. Everyone that knows about the label knows it kicks ass."

"They basically have the principle of hardcore. That's what Drop Bass Network stands for: getting people together to listen to music," adds Mr. Bill, recognized as Milwaukee's hardest deejay and a veteran of the earliest Drop Bass Network events. "They won't press house music, pop music; they're not going to press it just because it's a good song. They stick to their guns."

Only a few American labels press and sell hardcore-techno vinyl: Industrial Strength, Experimental, Direct Drive, 12 Gauge, Plus 8, and Drop Bass Network. All, with the exception of DBN, are based on the East Coast, and the network of American deejays that buys this music is very small. DBN sells about 2,000 copies of each 12-inch release and 90 percent of those are exported. In Belgium and Germany, there is a huge underground following of the Drop Bass Network. Its third release, ESP's "Bad Acid-No Such Thing," was picked by Front Page, the German techno equivalent to Billboard, as one of the best releases in 1994. In Europe, Milwaukee is accorded major respect.

In its hometown, however, DBN's following is almost reverential. There is something about the Milwaukee scene that inspires many people who venture out to one event to get involved and participate long term. Whether scamming free copies at Kinko's to produce a rave 'zine (at last count there were more than 20), starting a side company like Waterworks (which now sells smart drinks at all Drop Bass events), or buying some records and trying to get a few minutes on the turntables as a deejay, young people see something different and inspirational in the Milwaukee rave scene.

DBN's Spencer offers enthusiasm: "People are happy to say that this is something coming from this area. There's a certain pleasure about saying, 'This is what we do here, and we like it.' They have so much energy. It feeds itself, it's always changing, and it keeps going as long as there's something to loosely base it around.

"When we first started doing this, it would be like six in the morning, and things would still be going, and I'd just go, 'Damn, I wish I had had this.' It's good that kids are getting off their asses. When I was in high school, I wasn't doing anything like this; I was hanging out in the Burger King parking lot watching cars go by. We could have actually been getting our brains to work, writing things down, challenging each other's thoughts, picking each other's brains, and exploring each other's minds and bodies or whatever. Everyone talks about how it's the next generation that's going to be doing something, and here I actually see it happening. They're doing something besides accepting and saying, 'This is the way things are.'"

The unifying forces are the relentless beat and the inspiration that comes from moving and grooving in time. "It sounds corny," says Spencer, "but Front 242 has a song, 'Life in the Rhythm': 'I love the rhythm. Any time. Anywhere. Turn up that techno power.'"

 

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