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Rave America - New School Dancescapes (Toronto: ECW Press) 1999
Chapter 4 - THE MIDWEST:
White Chicago, Black Milwaukee, and the Case of the Raving Satanists

by Mireille Silcott
(page 99-120)
ISBN 1-55022-383-6



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The greatest boost to Milwaukee's rave culture has been the fact that there is nothing much to do in Milwaukee. Not many venues. Limited nightclubs. Few local bands. Not many DJs. And hangouts are scarce - unless you include antler-bedecked biergartens where crackling TVs Blare from opening 'til closing. The city is both depressed and depressing. The police are notoriously racist. Racial segregation is entrenched. Unemployment is skyhigh, primarily because the breweries that sprang from the city's great stream of German settlers in the nineteenth century moved off in search of cheap Mexican labor in more recent years. The only major brewery left in the Wisconsin town that beer made famous is Miller; located close to the center of Milwaukee, it spreads a sickly, tangy, yeasty odor over half of the city every single afternoon and evening. Charm is hard to find in Milwaukee. Futurism is even harder to trace - most shop signs look as though they date from decades back; their hand-painted lettering is peeling off, the victim of years of yeasty soot. Greasy-gray Formica diners cluster on street corners. Bus stations and banks look dilapidated. Even the airport looks haggard, empty, and dull, perched at the end of a cracked-up highway, a raised road lined with high concrete smokestacks, that nobody ever uses anymore. Shining America, this is not.

Milwaukee is a postindustrial problem. A dead city, a real one. And it's creepy. Doomsday prophets in big, black station wagons bearing slogans like, "Our day has expired!" prowl the streets. The cabdriver who took me into town informed me that "[conspiracy magnate] Art Bell is the sanest man in America," and asked if I knew that Wisconsin had the highest concentration of serial killers per capita in the country. He went on to tell me that the hotel I was staying in was the one where serial bodychopper Jeffrey Dahmer used to "meet his victims." The hotel staff confirmed the Dahmer bit. When I told Kurt Eckes - the main person I am in the Midwest to interview - this tidbit, he replied, "Spooked, huh? Yeah! Good! Welcome to Milwaukee!"

Eckes, the brains behind the remarkable rave-promotions outfit Drop Bass Network, is the most successful and celebrated promoter to come out of the Midwest rave scene, which exists within a circuit of cities that includes Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, and Chicago. Originally from a rural-Wisconsin town, Eckes developed a rave vision that, hand in glove, fit Milwaukee's taste for dark music: metal from thrash to death, plus dirgy "heaviosity" rock. Eckes's body is covered in Marilyn Manson and Black Flag Tattoos. He loves Kiss, Cru, Sabbath: he is metal. And the music he introduced first to Milwaukee and then to the rest of the Midwest has been termed "heavy-metal techno" by some - ferocious Belgian hardcore techno, Dutch and German gabba, Brooklyn hardcore, and an accompanying cast of terrorcores, deathcores, and speedcores, hard acids and hardcore acids. Dark, shattering mayhem music to go mental to. Noise that sounds as sinister as pounding jackhammers, swarming bees, and exploding bombs: techno so harsh and stomper-romper it's often described as "nosebleed."

Eckes also introduced the Midwest to his somewhat funky version of Satanism, informed equally be Anton LaVey's Church of Satan and good ol' rock mythology. In Milwaukee, ravers talk about dancing under giant goat heads and pentagrams at Drop Bass Network parties as if these decorations were nothing more than pin spots. For years, they've shopped at record stores that also distribute cool flyers promoting hell and Satan. They've head-banged to techno. They've found fave rave drug Ecstasy "too soft," preferring the heavy pulse of LSD. They've gone through phases where everyone who's anyone dances with their heads inside the bass bins. Traveling through the urban decay of Milwaukee, it's easy to forget that farmland exists about twenty minutes out - Wisconsin is, after all "America's Dairyland" - and so, amazingly, many of these scenes of techno carnage have happened in barns, often surrounded by voluminous amounts of cow dung.

"I guess the Satan stuff may have seemed tongue-in-cheek to everyone outside Milwaukee, but it was real to us," says Eckes. "This is what we were all into. We started doing the Devil stuff and then [Midwest rave zine] Massive started doing it, and it became a daily part of our regular life, the bond of the time. Everyone walked around with the Devil. It was what set us apart from the rest. It was our identity. We were happy with that."

One of the more surprising things about the 1990s Midwest rave circuit is that Chicago is a part of it and yet the history of 1980s gay-Black Chicago house did not directly inform it. The major points of inspiration for Kurt Eckes and the Midwest Hardcorps group of DJs and producers rallying around his Drop Bass Network are to be found not only in the Storm Raves of New York, but also in European rave - notably the rave scenes of Germany and the Lowlands, the sounds coming out of places like Belgium.

While it might seems weird that Belgium was a center for any kind of influential dance music at all, even weirder is the fact that one great, seminal strand of the Belgian techno sound originated in New York. Joey Beltram was one of the favorite Storm Rave DJs. Some of his early techno tracks could not find a home imprint in America, and so they ended up being released on the Belgian label R&S. The most notable of these was Mentasm (1990), a record featuring a cold, swarming-buzz sound, which proved inordinately influential in Belgium. It led to the creation of the spooky "Belgian Hoover" sound (try to imagine a vacuum sucking up the sound of a choral record), heard on such Belgian hardcore records as Human Resource's "Dominator" (1991) and Traumatic Stress's "James Brown Is Dead" (1991).

The friendly citizens of America's dairyland: Wisconsin ravers at Even Furthur (1998)

With the Beltram tracks as catalyst, the Euro techno sound loudly 'n proudly moved away from Black America's housey spiritual booty shake. And, unlike the scene in England, this scene was also traveling away from the happy/kooky, flying in a rather more sinister, dark, industrial direction. The Hoover sound eventually turned into an all-round appreciation for harsh distortion and noise; the extreme pinnacle of this is to be found in gabba, the German hardcore techno that is distinguished by a pounding, distorted kick drum; a mean, terroriffic vibe (track titles: "Fucking Hostile," "Extreme Terror," "Cunt Face"; and bpm that can range from a fast-as-fuck 170 to an astonishing fuck-off 300.

Gabba exploded in the northern bits of Europe and in France. It never really caught on in England (which, remember, had its own version of hardcore - breakbeat hardcore), but pockets of appreciation did crop up in the US: in Brooklyn, through the Storm Rave crew, which would heavy-metalize the gabba sound and retitle it "Brooklyn hardcore"; and in the Midwest, where gabba met the Wax Trax! industrial tradition of Chicago, toughened 303 acid squelches, and became hard acid, the area's favorite sound, primarily through the efforts of the Drop Bass Network and affiliated DJ/producers like Minneapolis's Woody McBride and Chicago's Delta 9.

Euro-influence aside, this Midwest story is pretty much an all-America tale. The Midwest taste for heavy metal in dance started long before gabba was invented, even before the first Storm Rave occurred. A seminal spot for the hard-dance synthesis was a Chicago club - not the Warehouse, not Ron Hardy's "harder" Music Box, but an alternative establishment called Medusa's, where house music was played alongside industrial, punk, and metal, and the crowd was mainly White.

Kurt Eckes, who was so passionate about Medusa's that he bought up relics from the club when it closed, learned about house music there. So did many of the kids who would become his patrons. "Being White, straight, and from the Chicago suburbs, being the type of kid who wore Guns n' Roses T-shirts, there was no way I could have ever found out where the Warehouse was," says former Midwests raver Tommie Sunshine. "I mean, the way I found out about house - I think the way most White kids in Chicago found out about it - was by reading about what was going on in our city in the British [music weeklies] Melody Maker and NME."

Tommie Sunshine was born in Naperville, thirty-five minutes out of Chicago. He insists he was your "typical suburban Midwest youth" until, in his twenties, he earned the dubious privilege of being able to say that he went to almost every important rave thrown in the Midwest between the years 1991 and 1994 ("I was a rave celebrity"). "The join between the me who camped out all night for Kiss tickets and the me who became a tweaked-out raver was Medusa's," he explains. In 1987, a friend introduced him to the weekend house mixes on the radio stations such as WBMX and WGCI, where the Hot Mix Five played. "After that, I'd be sleeping outside for heavy-metal show tickets with my Walkman on. And it's funny, because dance music, in my world, only existed on Friday and Saturday nights in my Walkman. There was no place for kids like me to go dance. Let's be serious - there was almost no way to crack Chicago's Black house underground when you were so far out of the loop."

"It was segregated," continues Sunshine. "I remember, once, coming out of somewhere late at night and getting a little paper flyer. It said, 'DJs Derrick Carter, Spenser Kinsey, Mark Farina' and had an address on the north side of Chicago. My friend and I knew the word rave by then; we figured this would be like the parties with the big smiley faces in England. So we went. We walked up a big flight of stairs and stepped into a room that was almost completely filled with Black [people], predominately gay, with one strobe light and a lot of heavy, heavy house music. People were, like 'Who the fuck are these kids?' At first we thought we were crashing somebody's house party. In a way, we were crashing someone's house party, actually. And we tried, but we had a very hard time tracking that scene again."

Soon, Tommie Sunshine and loads of White youths like him, who listened to house on Chicago radio, who were interested in the house music NME and Melody Maker had told them came from their own hometown, found Medusa's. "The club was the most amazing of meeting points," says Kurt Eckes: a three-floor roll-up containing a rock stage where banks like the Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, and Fugazi would play, a video room where music vids would run on all four walls (not Madonna - more like Stigmata), and a dance arena. Terri Bristol and Neil Strauss, who is now well known for being Marilyn Manson's biographer, were the main DJs.

"It was such a crazy musical mix," says Tommie Sunshine. "The Medusa's DJs would play not only Mister Fingers and Phuture and Marshall Jefferson and Adonis and all the early Chicago house, but also Ministry, Nitzer Ebb, all the Razormaid records, Nine Inch Nails, heavy industrial rock, heavy doomy Euro electronic stuff, some metal, and house stuff, in no particular order. Nobody thought it strange at all. You know, new wave was done, industrial was losing ground, and raving wasn't anything yet, either. We were like this weird midsection. I mean, I distinctly remember wearing Girbaud jeans that came up past my navel, a black-and-white polka-dotted shirt with a silk vest and my hair slicked back. Either that or a triple-extra-large De La Soul T-shirt. That was me. Surrounded by lots of Mohawks. It was the late eighties. I guess in Europe they had things all figured out by then, but us White folk in Chicago? We were still confused."

Medusa's influence on Midwest rave did not immediately make itself felt. The situation in the Midwest was like it was in many other American centers. Rather than being primarily influenced by local clubbing experience, the first raves followed the toy-towny British 1990-92 how-to-rave model - the most obvious choice - and the result was what people in the Midwest now derogatively term "candy raves." The first of these capital-R Midwest raves went down in Chicago in October of 1991, at mythical venue Cabaret Metro. The driving force was Wade Hampton, a somewhat-nomadic dance-culture entrepreneur who had done E while it was still legal in Dallas, thrown some of the earliest techno one-offs in LA, and helped launch the Hardkisses in San Fran. This party Hampton concocted was called Fresh Jive, and it was sponsored by the Fresh Jive apparel company.

"Wade brought the Fresh Jive guys to Chicago for the party. Superstars!" say Tommie Sunshine. "Like, DJ Keoki and John Digweed and Scott Hardkiss were on the bill, and no one cared. But those Jive guys! They came with all their clothes and set up a stand where they were selling their T-shirts and hats. We couldn't believe it was real. It was the first time we had ever seen clothing that was made in America, for our lifestyle. We were begging all our friend to borrow money so that we could buy more stuff."

To the nineties America raver. Fresh Jive became what Lacoste was to the eighties preppy, what Hang Ten was to the seventies surfer, or what Fred Perry was to the sixties mod. It was a kind of cotton badge of certification, as powerful a unifying force as any important DJ or record or promoter. "You saw someone on the bus. You saw a Jive logo stitched on their clothes. You knew they'd be the same place you were that weekend," says Sunshine. Launched in California in 1990 by a young graphic designer named Rick Klotz, the company produced T-shirts Klotz says were inspired by 7-11 itself and the convenience-store chain's stock of Wacky Pack cards, Big Gulps, and sugar-zap cereals. By around 1992, Klotz's designs had induced a nutsoid trainspotter-ism in North America ravers. Kids would wait for the next batch of Fresh Jives to hit the one or two shops that carried the stuff in their town, then snap them up within days: brown-striped phat pants, toques and caps bearing poparty patches, and, most popular of all, T-shirts with detergent/cereal-box logos - the so-commerical-it's underground supermarket imagery that also became a popular and enduring element of rave-flyer design in America.

"The night of Fresh Jive, we were there with a bag of lollipops, ready to fuckin' rave, man!" say Sunshine. "Ecstasy had not arrived in my world yet. That night, I robo'd - I drank a bottle of Robitussin - because I couldn't find real drugs." The party was a sensory production. Wade Hampton had decorated the Cabaret Metro floor to ceiling with tenting, onto which he projected movies and cartoons. On the stage where bands usually played, he'd piled close to forty television sets, all showing lunar landings and deep-space footage. "I remember saying to my friends, 'I'm home. Look around: this is all ours,'" says Sunshine, who believes that the group most attracted to rave in the Midwest was the "freaky kids who ate their lunches alone in the cafeteria. People who probably felt like outsiders.

In Chicago, where you can supposedly pay off the police with a pack of smokes, the Fresh Jive-style candy raves took off. They happened in elementary-school basements, skating rinks, and loft complexes. Corporate-logo mania continued throughout 1992; there were parties called Gatorave (featuring a flyer that looked like a Gatorade label) and Raveyear (snatching the Goodyear logo). "Personalities" like Tommie Sunshine, who soon took to wearing size fifty-two overalls and keeping a fuzzy Muppet in his back pocket, were emerging, too. A guy named Bob Smiley used to arrive at Chicago parties with a nitrous tank and sell balloons full of the laughing gas for five bucks. Smiley would also tour the dance floor carrying a four-foot inflatable toothpaste tube and bonk people on the head with it, egging them on as things started peaking.

Candy raves spread to Minneapolis and Wisconsin's homey state capital, Madison, in the spring of 1992. In Madison, they often happened in decorated barns. Parties were called Ravee (featuring the Borden Cow as mascot, a Dairyland ha-ha) and Alice in Raveeland (Borden cow meets nineteenth-century LSD lit). At sunrise, as fingers of light penetrated the cracks in the barn walls, ravers would wander out to the pasture to pet the cows and horses.

In the summer of 1992, Kurt Eckes decided to move into a warehouse so that he could throw raves cheaply in his own pied-a-terre. He wanted to launch a scene in Milwaukee. For their first party's flyer, he and his housemate, Patrick Spencer, copied the M&M wrapper, only they turned the Ms on their sides so that they read "E&E": "a delicious pure bass center smothered in rich headstrong energy dipped in wonderful, blissed out ecstasy." Eckes and Spencer DJed at the party; Eckes called himself "JethroX" and Spencer chose "Jedidiah the Messiah." They thought these were "funny hick names, Bible-belt names," say Eckes. "You know, it was ironic." Now thirty-two Eckes rolls his eye when he shows me the E&E flyer. "Totally uncool," he says. "Uncool," and hardly a foreshadowing of what his and Spencer's rave company, the Drop Bass Network, would be doing a year later.

It is in this era of the candy rave that the rave cities of the Midwest began linking up to form a circuit. The word Midwest might, for some, conjure up the idea of "small" - small-time, small-town, small-minded - but the geographic reality of the place is anything but. The American Midwest is several times the size of the entire United Kingdom. It takes six hours to drive from Milwaukee to Minneapolis, seven hours from Minneapolis to Madison or Chicago. Nonetheless, by 1992, Midwestern promoters had noticed that ravers were willing to travel megamiles through long stretches of bland cow-horse-cow-horse-barn-barn-barn scenery in hot pursuit of the next party, and they had begun advertising their events accordingly.

A bloodied Matt Massive protests the presence of the Teletubbies, at the Drop Bass Network New Year's Party (1998)

"The very act of driving became a huge part of the culture here," says Matt Bonde, editor of Milwaukee techno zine Massive. "Nobody traveled the way we did in the Midwest. Pretty soon, we were traveling even outside the Midwest, majorly cross-country. I remember leaving for Kentucky one Friday - that's a twelve-hour drive, by the way - just because we were bored. People in, like, New York [City], would never do that. They won't even drive to Jersey for a party. But when there is very little to do in a place, like in Wisconsin, you can become obsessive; whatever you are doing means more to you. So, to us, a car was freedom, and driving a total of twenty-four hours was a small price to pay for eight hours of raving."

In the fall of 1992, promoter Kurt Eckes and professional raver Tommie Sunshine met at a rave. They became fast companions after discovering that they had both started their clubbing careers at Medusa's. "Kurt seemed like a metal-rock hick with a thick Wisconsin accent to me," say Sunshine. "He didn't seem to come from happyland, but I liked him anyway." They soon started traveling together. Eckes would drive from Milwaukee to pick up Sunshine in Naperville on Friday, and they would return Monday morning. They were usually lucky enough to find places to crash, and they did most of their washing and primping in Denny's bathrooms or eerie highway rest stops. In December of 1992, they decided to make an extra-long trip to attend something really special. Both had read about New York's Storm Raves in Heather Heart's Under One Sky magazine. A pilgrimage was in order.

The journey, by rented van, took over a dozen hours. The Storm Rave - the last one ever - was held in a Staten Island stable. The experience (which is described in full in the prologue to this book) was nightmarish or wondrous, depending on which member of the Midwest contingent you speak to. Sunshine was nervous about the apparent street gangs that seemed "hard and dark and mean" and the "kids smoking crack." The music was new to him, harder and "scarier" than anything he had ever imagined; he was "in disbelief" over the walls of sound Storm Rave had installed for the party, too - speaker stacks so overpowering that they could burst eardrums. "I had never really heard hard-as-fuck, European-style, gabba-hardcore before," he confesses. Storm Rave had gone Euro-pummeling-hardcore by this point, and so Sunshine found himself subject to the meanest, most extreme DJ lineup that anyone outside Belgium or Germany could have conceived at the point: the core Storm DJs Jimmy Crash, Adam X, Frankie Bones, and Lenny Dee. When Jimmy Crash played, says Sunshine, "every record had a woman screaming, or ambulance sirens, or cursing in German, or babies crying....Scary, mean drug music - it was evil."

Eckes's reaction was different. "That Storm Rave was a revelation," he remarks. "I was, like, 'This is exactly what I like!' It was the music that I liked, the atmosphere, the whole vibe. I just couldn't believe that they had a whole night of music focused on one sound. I was, like 'We can do this thing. This is what I want to do. This kind of music. This kind of everything.'" Sunshine says, "Kurt was running around like a five year old at Christmas. In pure ecstasy. He had never seen anything that appealed more to him in his whole life. This Storm Rave was the exact point where he and I went north and south. That night, in that dark place, Kurt discovered his vision....He shook hands with the big guy downstairs, and I decided that wasn't such a hot idea."

"A few months after that Storm Rave," says Eckes, "I resolved to stop fucking around. We [Drop Bass Network] did our one-year anniversary party, and it was all hardcore, like German hardcore, just like Storm Rave. We had to do it right, so it was in a horse barn, and the barn had a dirt floor, and [we] got a huge, huge sound system that took up one whole end of the place, like Storm Rave had. I was trying [to] totally emulat[e] what I saw there, coz I just couldn't fake liking all that everyone-together-happy-Midwest-vibe stuff anymore - so many people, just clueless, walking around thinking some grand interpersonal connection really exists in raves. Coming from my background - you know, metal, punk - it was incredibly annoying to me. I figured there is always a yin and yang, and if there's nobody promoting negativity and darkness in raves, then we [Drop Bass Network] have got it all to ourselves. I knew the combination could, should, exist. Not this light Ecstasy hedonism stuff, but real hedonism - like, decadence, in the classical sense."

By the winter of 1992, the Midwest rave scene was already in a pretty somber situation due to a Halloween party that had gone down in Milwaukee called Grave Rave. The Milwaukee police had been easy on the scene until this event, but then they staged something of an intricately planned ambush. "The police came in, the lights came on, the police brought in desks and chairs, coffeemakers and snacks for themselves, plus several garbage bags of plastic cuffs, the kind usually used to keep cow legs together at slaughter time," says flyer designer Cody Hudson, a Grave Rave patron. "Boys and girls were separated into two areas and made to sit on the floor. We were not allowed to talk and would be barked at if we did, even if we smiled." The Grave Ravers sat in the unheated warehouse for over six hours, until everyone was charged. Some of the males dressed in Halloween drag were made to sit with the girls. "Standard Milwaukee police racism"," said Hudson. They were fined $350 each for aiding and abetting in the illegal sale of alcohol, "even though no booze was sold at the event, and the police only found a total of nice bottles of beer behind the DJ booth, probably [the property] of the lighting crew." The ravers were then carted off to jail for the night, simply for being at a kegless keg party. All one thousand of the. On drugs, and in fancy dress.

The December 1992 cover story of Chicago rave zine Reactor was dedicated to the "MPD Rave." It bore the melodramatic headline, "They might stop the party but they can't stop the future." Yet most promoters in Milwaukee and the surrounding area were dropping out fast, fearful of a Grave reprise. The Drop Bass Network stood fast, though. "I had a job to do," shrugs Eckes. "And [the Grave Rave incident] was perfect for me. It was a way to prove my company. I was not going to let anything stop me."

Drop Bass was obsessively careful in the planning and positioning of its parties, often holding them outside city limits. Between the winter of 1992 and the winter of 1994, Drop Bass threw sixteen large-scale raves. One fifteen-hundred-to-two-thousand head event came off approximately every three weeks, and not one got shut down. The music Drop Bass promoted was extremely hard acid and jackhammering gabba techno, mainly from Germany and the Lowlands, as played by an expanding Midwest network of tough-as-hell DJs: Woody McBride, also known as DJ ESP, from Minneapolis; Delta 9, Astrocat, and Hyperactive from Chicago; Mr. Bill and Acid Boy Todd P from Milwaukee; Terry Mullan from St. Louis, Missouri who subsequently became on of America's better-known progressive-house DJs). At one party, in an "effort" to quell the complaints of some ravers who thought Drop Bass raves should include a bit of house - or something less than 170 bpm - Eckes partitioned the room with tall hay-bale dividers, which acted as a sound barrier. He put one little-known Midwest house DJ (DJ Davey Dave) on one side and a herd of slamming hardcore DJs on the other. "The sound system on the hardcore side was twice as loud," giggles Eckes, "effectively drowning out the house. We were trying to prove a point. I guess it was pretty immature."

Drop Bass Network was legendary for its masses of sound, because Eckes had used Storm Rave as a blueprint. Woody McBride had put together a Storm-worthy wall of sound in Minneapolis, which he would cart off to Drop Bass parties. Kids called it "Woody's Wall of Sound." They still talk about how clear the bass was. "I had fifty bass bins," explains McBride - "manifold boxes with eighteen-inch subwoofers and a rock-scene techie." Soon, he continues, walls like this were in demand among Midwest ravers as a party essential; flyers would advertise speaker stacks as prominently as they'd promote DJs. "Yeah, 'one hundred thousand watts of trouser-ruffling bass!' - that kinds thing. A lot of the mystique was visual: nobody really needs that much sound. The wall took on some big meaning. It became the center of a spiritual, communal experience - people dancing right up to it, people hugging the speakers, sticking their heads in bins, just totally enveloped in hard-beating, pounding bass. It was gorgeous."

Eckes set up appropriately hard atmospheres for his speaker-hugging ravers. He remembers one Drop Bass rave for which the venue was a "burned-out building with holes in the floors, in the process of being sandblasted." There was debris everywhere, and before the party they swept the rubble into a pile. "I guess to some ravers it looked like a sandbox. By the middle of the night there were tons of them playing in this heap of asbestos, fiberglass, and broken glass. That was a crazy night. There was a big bloody fight because of gang-bangers. We like having gang-bangers at the parties because it gave this rough-and-tough atmosphere we wanted."

Drop Bass punters would swallow multiple tabs - sometimes quarter-sheets - of acid, ignorant of, or simply against, the huggable-snugglable E. Eckes admits that he may have "had a hand" in this ascendance of LSD. "The music - the distortion of hardcore and gabba techno - just fit with LSD so well," he says. "We encouraged everyone to take acid and fought extremely hard not to let E into the scene. We wanted to define Milwaukee's rave culture more than anything. Ecstasy, and all the happy songs and stupid talk that came with it, were irrelevant to us."

Before:
Drop Bass Network flyer (1992)
After:
DBN "Shake hands with the big guy downstairs"

The 1993-94 DBN flyers are a treasure trove to peak-era Drop Bassian rave ideology. Eckes would always include phases like, "demons of the darkside taking control of your soul," using fonts so Gothic-ly serifed as to be almost illegible. Parties were called "Ascension" and "Psychosis" and "Hellbent" and "Grave Reverence" (a year after the Grave Rave police bust; "We can't take credit for last year's legendary Grave event," reads the sarcastic flyer, "but we can for this one"). Soon Drop Bass had started describing its events as "techno-pagan rituals" instead of raves. By this point, DBN ravers had developed a casual interest in the writings of Anton LaVey, who, in 1966, founded the Church of Satan, the notorious wing of Satanism sometimes referred to rockers like Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, and, before them, Ozzy Osbourne. Ravers took what they needed from the Church of Satan's library ("indulgence instead of abstinence!", and ignored the unravey bits ("It is un-Satanic to cloud your brain and impair your judgment with mind-altering substances"). They confused Satanism with Ozzyland heavy-metalism, saluting each other with the sign of the Beast, wearing badges that proclaimed, "I love death metal" or "Last night the Devil saved my life," and tossing the work "extreme" around a lot. There was even a faction known for its "hair swinging": Rocker longhairs who would stand in the back of the room and sling their locks around in time to the music.

As did the organizers of San Francisco's Come-United parties, Drop Bass used Xeroxed pamphlets and little information flyers as the medium for their message. "Our propaganda process," explains Eckes. "We did all these flyers that we'd give out [at parties], just like basic advertisements for hell and stuff, promoting the Devil." One of Eckes's favorite handouts featured the words of Das Engery's Paul Williams and was title Hell, Satan, Drop Bass Network:


...There is no such thing as evil.
The concept of evil is a crutch.
We will not heal until we toss away the crutch.
...Stop chasing your tail. Embrace your Self.
Lucifer returns to Heaven!
Let there be dancing in the streets.
The only sin is self-hatred
We call it sin but its true name is Delusion.
We have got to get back to the Garden.
Easily done.
We are in the Garden.
Let us open our eyes.


Nosebleed: Milwaukee raver takes Elmo into hardcore territory

In a strange way, Satanism was an ideal religion for the American raver. In Europe, a good part of the earlier ethos of rave had to do with people dropping themselves into a mass, getting lost in the crowd, giving up their personal identity for a much stronger group identity. When rave reached American, though, this idea was gradually lost, beaten down by the all-American Gap/CK cult of be-yourself-be-orignial-be-different. "I think here rave was thought to be more about being an oddity, a freak," says Eckes. It was about being eye-catching: you weren't a drop in the bucket - you were more like a drop on a flat canvas, clustered with thousands of other drops, all with slightly different shapes.

There is an intrinsic irony in joining a group as means of individualizing yourself. How can you be part of a herd without blending in, without being herded? The Church of Satan has some nifty answers to that question. Although you have to join the Church of Satan, among that institution's venal sins (bad sins, not good sins) is "herd conformity: only fools follow along with the heard." "The key," Church of Satan high priestess Blanche Barton one wrote, "is to choose a master wisely instead of being enslaved by the whims of many."

Kurt Eckes was, without a doubt, the "wisely chosen master" of Milwaukee/Midwest rave. He is still the only rave promoter to speak of in Milwaukee and the only promoter in the Midwest capable of drawing in the whole Midwest circuit, which began fracturing in the mid-nineties. In 1993, along with Patrick Spencer and Woody McBride, Eckes set up Drop Bass Records (both Spencer and McBride have since left the label). Drop Bass, with its "cute skull" logo, "Midwest Hardcorps" school of producers, and tracks like Delta 9's "Deep 13" or McBride's "Bad Acid - No Such Thing," immediately found much acclaim in European hardcore territory. The label was a piece of underground marketing perfection. It had a fantastically crafted Web sit, adhered strictly to certain recognizable logos and typefaces, and offered merchandise - like the popular "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil - live evil!" T-shirt. The official colors of the Drop Bass labels, used on everything from record sleeves to T-shirts, were red, black, and white.

The Devil made me do it:
Kurt Eckes and Wife, April

"The colors of the Fascist flag," says Eckes. "I found the combination aesthetically pleasing." In college, Eckes had minored in history as he worked towards his engineering degree. It was during this period that his interest in Nazism was piqued. "Look, I do take pride in my German lineage, and I won't block out big chunks of history. So, I thought, even though I've been taught to believe the Nazis were fucked-up people, they still had the best-dressed soldiers and the best imagery, the best rallies and the best architecture. Everything about the Nazis looked incredible. Visually, even the swastika appealed to me. I realized it worked. Nazi imagery worked. The Devil stuff had worked in the Midwest, so I figured this might be the next step in terms of just filling people up with extreme imagery. I pushed the [Fascist] aesthetic as far as I could on flyers, record sleeves, logos....Some kids hated taking flyers from us, but no promoter dared come up against us, so people had to take flyers from us."

By the mid-nineties, the worst-kept secret in techno was that gabba-hardcore had become the sound of certain sections of Germany's New Right. It was being played at neo-Nazi rallies and extolled by right-wing youth leaders as "pure," indigenous music. Yet the king of Milwaukee's scene says he was not down with that; he claims he is not a Fascist. He says that much like his "total hero," Marilyn Manson, he is "just into getting a rise out of people so that they will react and start thinking." I mostly believe him - although it would also be reasonable not to believe a word he says.

It's unclear whether Milwaukee ravers began to think that Eckes had gone too far or whether the increasing availability of foreign DJ-culture magazines like Mixmag and Muzik, as well as burgeoning American versions like Urb and XLR8R, opened kids' eyes to other forms of dance music besides gabba and German-style hardcore. But, by 1994, while Drop Bass Records was finding success in Europe, most gabba and hardcore stopped selling well at the three Milwaukee record shops. Established local DJs toned it down by turning to hard acid, and budding spinners turned to Relief Records-style 1990s Chicago house or breaks or Detroit techno instead.

An incredibly keen businessman, Eckes began rethinking his "only hardcore" party-making strategy. In 1994, he arranged to meet a friend, Reactor magazine editor David Prince, in a coffee shop. Eckes had just finished reading Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the kaleidoscopic account of a cross-country trip that acid crusader Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters took in a painted bus. Eckes says the book "struck [him] with an epiphany." "I was like, 'Oh, wait a send. I take acid every day, and here are some people from the sixties who took it every day twice, and they are still living, and they had a really good time.' That whole, 'on the bus, taking things further' concept - it clicked. It related to everything I'd always thought the rave scene should be about. David Prince and I thought it would be cool to do something along those lines - going places no one's ever been." They began planning a three-day rave camp out.

This first Furthur event ("Furthur" was the word on the sign fronting Kesey's adventure-bound bus) took place from April 29 to May 1, 1994, on an expanse of farmland in Hixton, Wisconsin. In his book Energy Flash, Simon Reynolds describes David Prince and DBN's techno-pagan camp out as "a lawless zone." Tommie Sunshine describes it as "a place where there was just no reason to stop." It was Eckes's ultimate vision of decadence and hedonism expanded, yet softened to attract all of the growing Midwest rave sector - there was nothing about the Devil, and no Nazi-tinged graphics were used on the psychedelic poster-style flyer, which (almost nauseating) reads, "a gathering celebrating the flowering of our summer and our culture....Three days of blissful enlightenment." House and techno and drum & bass and ambient DJs were fully represented; Ecstasy was available. From the outside, the party may have seemed completely un-Kurt Eckes, a bit hippy-dippy. There was a conglomeration of the smashed VW buses and RVs you'd normally see at a Grateful Dead concert. There was also plenty of parking-lot-age-of-love mysticism and tie-dyed dance-around-a-bonfire paganism (instead of the usual fuck-your-mother Devilism). Teenaged "soft ravers" came from as far away as Kentucky intoning their fave buzzword, "PLUR" (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect). Still, from the inside, the party was pure Drop Bass.

Tommie Sunshine had decided that Furthur was to be his last rave ever. He had been traveling for four years, "showing up in polyester suits with a hot chick on each arm" at every type of rave imaginable. He always got in for free and never paid for his drugs; he had "major status - the destructive kind." And he just couldn't do it anymore. He felt depressed, burned. He had been telling people for months before the event that he was either going to OD at Furthur or - if he made it through the three days - move to Atlanta "to start [his] life over." "I had seriously cast my fate to the gods," he says. But why, over all others, was this the determining party? "Because this was Furthur. And, after it, things were never, ever, going to be the same. It would have been like dying at Woodstock. That's what this party was: the Woodstock of the Midwest, the best party and the last party.

The list of twenty DJs at the 1994 Furthur included the Hardkisses, Spenser Kinsey, Barry Weaver, Frankie Bones, Adam X, Nigel Richards, and Diesel Boy; there was an Aphex Twin live show and a host of Midwest regulars. The list of drugs Tommie ingested from the time he arrived in his Monster Truck T-shirt and polyester tracksuit is much longer: "seven hits of E, twenty hits of acid - I took them regularly, in halves - a zillion amphetamines and downers washed down with Jack Daniels. I was smoking opium, hash, or pot every five minutes for the entire three days. I never slept (no one did), didn't eat a thing. Water was hard to find - I didn't drink anything but alcohol. At one point, I sat in a tent for three hours with a tank of nitrous."

By Saturday, the second night of Furthur, Tommie's clothes were completely caked with mud. Exhausted, no longer even able to remember what hunger felt like, he traipsed up and down the mudslide hills of springtime Hixton in complete darkness (DBN was not known for its lighting), searching for water, friends, a different tent to hang in. "It was fucking Lord of the Flies," he recalls. "I simply couldn't believe this whole thing was allowed, that a lightning bolt from God didn't crash down on the Furthur site, it was so decadent." In America, the ravers are young, usually under twenty-one. These young revelers rolled in the mud flaked on acid mixed with E, nitrous, meth, K; they hung from trees yelling incoherently; they stood nude in front of fires "for no apparent reason," sharing drugs and having sex and dancing like maniacs with people they had just met. Furthur truly was "a lawless zone."

"That night, Saturday, the second night, was the most powerful night I had ever experienced," says Sunshine. "There were no lights in the main tent. We were in pitch darkness, only lit by one laster and some kids who had flashlights, in the middle of nowhere." His friends were worried about him. "They were watching me dance. I had gotten to the point where by body wouldn't stop the knee-jerk reaction of dancing, but I looked like I was in agony. Physically, I was in hell, but my body couldn't rest because I was so pumped up on drugs. They had to drag me off the dance floor and put me to sleep in the car. They watched me try to sleep for five hours and they wouldn't leave my side because, at five-second intervals, I would laugh, I would cry, I would thrash around. It was a complete spiritual-sensory freak-out. It was like I was possessed. We were all basically dancing to the apocalypse at that point. If anybody had brought a video camera to Furthur, it would have exploded."

Remains of the day: Massive's "Sound System" after enduring Even Furthur (1998)

Furthur, population four thousand, status still completely illegal, celebrated its four-year anniversary in 1998. It has proven itself one of the most durable rave events in the whole of America, and Drop Bass Network has proven itself one of the country's most resilient promotions group. Kurt Eckes, who still lives in a Milwaukee warehouse - only now with a wife and two Porsches ("my babies") - says he feels he got "his message across" through the events he staged. Yet he sees them as separate from his "hardcore musical vision," which remains the vision of his record labels. "The future of hardcore," he says, "is in taking it out of the rave scene, more into the experimental-rock direction." He name-checks German DJ/producer Alec Empire as a kind of mentor. In the early nineties, Empire, a German Jew who, like Eckes, often uses Nazi imagery for effect, removed himself from what he called "the apathy and empty ideologies of Germany's rave scene." He then initiated a genre title "digital hardcore," a consolidation of punkish live shows, hollering politized vocals, winging guitars, and pummeling gabba-hardcore beats. His band, Atari Teenage Riot, has had much success on the American indie-rock circuit. Following the road paved by Empire and ATR (among others), Eckes has lately been pursuing a "noisier, nondance" direction with his DBN sublabel, Ghetto Safari: "I think in order for it to be allowed to go further, it has to stop being seen as party music or dance music, because, at least from my experience, you just reach a ceiling in the party [context] - like people saying, 'Hey, this isn't fun anymore.'"

The Milwaukee scene essentially revolves around Furthur now. Drop Bass concentrates on the one event, and there are very few raves besides. A hardcore techno scene does exist in America but Milwaukee is far from being its capital. "I guess the city has suffered since Drop Bass stopped doing regular parties," says Eckes. "Nobody has taken our place, and the city is dead again." As their counterparts do in lots of other American rave cities circa 1998, Milwaukee kids say their scene is "pretty over." There is lots of talk of the golden years of the earlier nineties when Milwaukee ruled the Midwest. Tommie Sunshine thinks maybe he should write a book about it - put it all down on paper lest he forget anything. He now works consulting and managing bands and house producers like the Wamdue kids - in Atlanta.

 

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