America - New School Dancescapes (Toronto: ECW Press) 1999
Chapter 4 - THE MIDWEST:
White Chicago, Black Milwaukee, and the Case of the Raving Satanists
thumbnails to enlarge front cover or read back synopsis
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.
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!"
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."
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.
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."
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.
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).
friendly citizens of America's dairyland: Wisconsin ravers at
Even Furthur (1998)
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
bloodied Matt Massive protests the presence of the Teletubbies,
at the Drop Bass Network New Year's Party (1998)
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."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
Drop Bass Network flyer (1992)
DBN "Shake hands with the big guy downstairs"
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.
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
...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.
We are in the Garden.
Let us open our eyes.
Milwaukee raver takes Elmo into hardcore territory
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
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."
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.
Devil made me do it: |
Kurt Eckes and Wife, April
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
of the day: Massive's "Sound System" after enduring
Even Furthur (1998)
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.'"
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.