The Rave's Back, Baby
In a grungy nightclub near train tracks in Hollywood, there's a strange time warp going on. Like the millennium never happened, nearly 200 ravers fill the four rooms of X-it Nightclub. There's a woman who seems to have forgotten to wear pants, her black underwear and thigh-high tights on display as she clutches a stuffed animal. A sweaty couple makes out on the stairs. Three partiers wearing sunglasses sit on a couch sucking pacifiers. The DJ puts on a pulsing techno track that samples Eminem saying "nobody listens to techno," and happy party people sweaty, pierced, half-naked swing glowsticks and dance.
Ravers? In 2006? Maybe so, but these aren't old-timers pushing 40 who wish the party had never ended. Raves were officially killed off when they were labeled drug menaces by the mainstream media, and police cracked down on warehouse gigs and ecstasy-fueled shows in the late 1990s. But the crowd in Hollywood is an entirely new generation, some not even old enough to own driver's licenses and many who were infants when the rave phenomenon first crossed the Atlantic while the first President Bush was still in office.
The funny thing is, this rave revival has an unlikely person to thank for creating the conditions that allow it to thrive: Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti.
The late-night gathering of teens and 20-somethings, some suspiciously spaced out, probably isn't what Giulianti had in mind when, last year, she set out to clean up the city's nightlife. But without her highly publicized crackdown, the rave revival at X-it might not exist.
Giulianti, not known for her love of club life, said she was determined to stamp out an "anti-social crowd" in town when she and the City Commission passed new restrictions on late-night alcohol licenses in July. Police Chief Jim Scarberry derided a "wild club party scene that nobody wants," but many observers noticed that hip-hop clubs and the black clientele they attracted appeared to be the target of the new law. The ordinance specified that alcohol sales couldn't continue past midnight at clubs that employed disc jockeys. It made little sense. A "disc jockey," for example, was defined narrowly as "an announcer who presents recorded music interspersed with chatter and/or commentary." Mute DJs seemed exempt.
But if the law was badly written, its effect was clear. The hip-hop clubs did suffer, and some closed.
Looking for ways to keep the doors open, the owner of X-it turned to a persistent 37-year-old man who wished the rave scene had never evaporated.
A true believer, Mitch Waas still talks about the rave movement as a force for positive change in the world. The kids who come to his parties spout the same warm and fuzzy talk that cranked up the first rave scene. But mostly, they just want to dance, sweat, swing glowsticks, suck on pacifiers, and cuddle.
It's like 1995 never ended.
And Mara made it all possible.
Talk about over. There was little question that the rave scene's days were numbered when, on April 25, 2000, 60 Minutes caught on that kids were dancing to electronica and staying up all night on ecstasy and bottled water. Then in June, Time magazine ran a story designed to scare parents about the prominence of drug use at the parties. Even ravers could see that the party was coming to a close.
Still, there was one final nail in the coffin to come. A federal bill called the RAVE Act (Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy) was drafted in 2002 and after several revisions and a new name (the PROTECT Act) was quietly lumped in with legislation that created Amber alerts. It was signed into law by President Bush the younger on April 30, 2003. Under it, property owners who "knowingly" use or lease their property for the purpose of drug distribution or use can face $500,000 fines and 20 years in prison.
What a buzzkill.
"Rave is still a bad word to some extent. I'm trying to reinvent it," Waas says.
It's about 1:30 in the morning at the club, and Waas finally has a moment to sit and talk. He's fixed numerous technical problems, worked the guest list, greeted regulars, doled out bear hugs, and checked on the cash register. He pulls up a chair in the unused, industrial kitchen at Club X-it, the only place quiet enough to have a conversation, though a constant beat thumps through the walls.
Big, blond, bespectacled, and sweating, Waas boldly pairs a plaid shirt with camouflage pants. A low-key guy, he's probably the least glamorous person at his own raves. Many of his regulars are less than half his age. But that doesn't seem to matter much to a man with a mission.
"This scene is based purely upon unity and respect and love of music," he says. "It's people who truly love music and are really passionate about it, passionate about dancing, and who are looking for a positive vibe at a club. My goal is to bring the entire scene together."
Waas spends nearly all his time thinking about and marketing raves. Most days, he says, "I wake up at 9, and I'm on the computer until I go to sleep at 10 o'clock at night to promote these parties. I advertise on about 600 websites." He keeps a MySpace page and obsessively edits his company's site, euphoriaproject.org. He archives old e-mails and posts attendance records online. The "Back to the OldSkool" rave drew 725 people. "Awakening" attracted 78. But Waas seems conflicted about how to describe his events. His website refers to "Florida's rave culture," and some of his e-mails end with "Mad respect to Florida's rave scene!" Other dispatches, however, carry the disclaimer, "THIS IS NOT A RAVE!" and he keeps the word off fliers because he doesn't need the hassle. He also doesn't really need the money. Waas says there's no real profit motive behind his promotions. "Most of my parties lose money or break even," he says. He charges $5 to $25, depending on the night and the time and whether it's an all-ages crowd or not. He splits the gate with the club.
At X-it, the parties can go late, even with a DJ, because with all-ages shows, alcohol sales are prohibited anyway. With no booze, the rave goes into the wee hours, and Mara's law isn't a concern.
Whatever the situation in Hollywood, Waas would put on events in South Florida and do his best to keep the groove going no matter what. It's just the way he's wired. But there's no doubt that a unique set of circumstances a city's uptight law, a struggling nightclub owner, and youngsters wanting to bring back a movement they missed the first time around has helped the rave scene attain a kind of critical mass in Hollywood.
A graduate of Cooper City High School, Waas was the quiet kid who threw huge parties while his parents were out of town as a way to become more popular. "In 1986, the first party I threw, my whole senior class came."
After a several-years break for a computer tech job, Waas started hosting parties again in 2001. That year, at his house, he threw a "way too crazy party 350 people, a three-day-long party with 75 DJs. It really made a legend for me in the scene." It also got him arrested when police came to bust the party and found acid, weed, drug paraphernalia, and Xanax.
In 2003, Waas approached the owners of Lumonics an art gallery in Fort Lauderdale whose collection consisted of trippy light sculptures. "That was the Euphoria Project right there," Waas says. "It was exactly what I always wanted to do. There was this beautiful, hippieish vibe. It was a beautiful fusion of light, music, and art." However, the facility had been suffering since the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's now-defunct "Rave Task Force" raided it in 2002, and Lumonics stopped hosting regular events in 2004.
In 2003, Waas found X-it. "It's the only club I've ever felt at home at. It feels like a real chill house party: no attitude, no bullshit, no dress code, no velvet ropes."
After every party, Waas says he spends $200 to $400 paying DJs and security guards and setting aside money for fliers for the next event. If there's anything left, he pockets it. "If I make $50 on a good party, I'll be ecstatic."
He supports this obsession on a small inheritance left to him by his father. "I own my own house," he says, "and I rent both bedrooms to roommates. I sleep on a recliner every night, in the living room."
Luxury can wait. It's the rave that matters. "I'm not really concerned with [making a profit now.] I plan on doing this over the long, long, long term."
X-it Nightclub's back patio the only place a person can hear herself think. Rich, with long, dirty-blond dreadlocks pulled back with a bandanna, is sitting in a plastic chair talking to a group of his friends. It doesn't take him long to go deep.
"I'm a kung fu raver, being in touch with the chi of it. Raving is a way to express yourself physically, not verbally. It's like dancing, like an art. But like a martial art. Like the Tibetan monks that come down from the mountain."
Groovy. But what about the bad rap, that "rave" is really about underagers dressing up their drug use in baggy pants and glitter?
"People think they can make money and sell drugs and fuck it up for everyone," he says. But really, it's just "a way to express your inner self with lights. Ravers are just hippies with lights."
He and his friends claim not to be on anything tonight and in fact, they all seem pretty lucid. But if they aren't doing drugs, they sure don't mind talking about them.
Rich's girlfriend, Mandy, a chatty almost-18-year-old with a syrupy voice, says the two met "at a party we were the only two under 19 at a friend's apartment getting wasted."
She "used to be more of a rock girl," she says. "Techno was too repetitive. I wasn't used to music without words. Then I started rolling [taking ecstasy], went to rave parties, and there'd be 30 kids fucked up. I started to really listen to the music, and I started to love it. Now, I actually like it sober."
For her, raving is about "the people you meet in the scene." And it's not only at X-it, she says. There are the three-day campground parties that happen every few months. "The more people you meet, the more excited you get. It's an extremely random mix of people. And everyone has a different style, uses different lights, has a different way of dancing. You might think, 'Oh, she's into hip-hop,' but next thing you know, they bust out some crazy moves."
Their friend Greg is known for his skills in glowsticking. Old-timers might be shocked to learn that newfangled glowsticks now come with on-off switches (though Greg prefers the old-fashioned kind, which are less prone to break). A new-school raver, he buys his toys online, of course.
"I like Brookstone," quips Rich.
"You don't have to be on drugs to glowstick," Greg says he even does it during lunch hour at school. He does, however, enjoy acid (on it, "you can hear techno in the cash registers at Wal-Mart") and ecstasy. Acid goes for $10, when it's around, and for E, Greg says, "The most I've ever paid was two for $30."
"E-tardedness," Rich pipes in. "People on E are dumb, stupid, and clingy. It's a negative vibe. An evil drug."
Mandy says that she hasn't done ecstasy in awhile but that it "and acid are the main rave drugs," she says. "Oxy, pills not so much. Bars [Xanax] make you just want to sit around."
But drugs, Mandy points out, are a part of teenaged culture, not rave culture. At her wealthy school, some kids get weekly allowances of $100. "They've got the money, got the time... what else are they going to do? Almost everyone at my school smokes weed," she says, shaking her head. "People come in high or drunk. They'll do coke in school. Not rolling that's gonna make your eyes all big and noticeable."
Liz, a smiley girl with a skull tattoo, a bikini top, and a short red skirt, describes herself as a former "hardcore death metal chick" who "used to put hooks in my back because the adrenaline hyped me up." But then she "went to a campout in Clewiston, and I had never experienced a group of people like that. People were just so good with each other. It was about love."
Mandy nods. "Anyone I've ever brought to a rave has described it as the best night of their life," she says. "Rave lifts you up and teaches you to be unique. I used to think I was so different from everyone else. Now I don't give a fuck. I used to have insecurities being myself, but I don't care anymore. It just teaches you that there are always people who are going to like you. The first time I took 'shrooms, I cried because I realized how much I had changed since I got into this scene. I cried my eyes out to total strangers."
But Liz cautions: "Don't think that everyone who goes to X-it has to take drugs to have a good time. You'll find that some people get fucked up by the music."
Speaking of which: X-it's favorite DJs include a couple of jesters named Rabbit and Mad Hatter who see themselves as vanguards of a newer, better rave experience. "When fans go see Rabbit versus Mad Hatter," says Hatter, a.k.a. Jason, "they expect exciting hard trance light and happy and progressive. High energy." But part of their appeal is also their antics. The pair come out from behind the decks and jump around with the crowd. They have so many followers, Jason says he spends "two to three hours a day talking to fans" on MySpace. The duo also just landed a coveted slot in Miami's biggest dance event, the Ultra Music Festival, scheduled for March 25.
"These two are the wildest DJs I have ever met," says Dan, their lighting man. "They'll leave the decks alone, say, 'I need a beer!' jump around, go in the middle of the crowd. They perform at the same level as a lead singer. One party at X-it, they drew close to 1,000 people. The vibe is unreal."
"Once I stop serving alcohol, I can have DJs all night long I can have DJs 24 hours," says X-it Nightclub's owner, Bob Gale, who still seems confused by the logic behind Mayor Mara and Hollywood's bizarre anti-DJ law.
Gale's an affable guy with a jolly belly and squinty blue eyes, his gray hair combed neatly back. "This was the original City Hall and police department. It's where the City of Hollywood was founded," he says as he leads a tour of X-it, which looks like it was cobbled together from the remains of several buildings from different eras. "The city sold it when they built a new City Hall. It was various nightclubs, and then it was most famously known as a restaurant called Hemmingway's. In the old days, when the old Diplomat Hotel not the new one but the old one was the hotel, it attracted Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and all those guys. They've all eaten here." And while it was a fine dining establishment downstairs, upstairs, Gale says, Hemmingway's was a brothel.
Newspaper clippings, yellowed with age, and photos of Tiny Tim visiting the restaurant hang on the walls of a back hallway. Gale's general manager, a burly but friendly 30-ish guy named Juan Alboniga, says, "If Tiny Tim and them were hanging out, then this must've been the place! We'll get regulars coming by here to reminisce. It's awesome. We let them walk around, and they'll say, 'The piano was over here; here's where Frank Sinatra was at. '"
As for the club's present incarnation, Gale explains that Hollywood's government practically forced him into hosting raves.
After buying the place in 2000 with a partner he refuses to name, Gale ran it as a nightclub with a 4 a.m. license. But Hollywood's draconian DJ law meant that he'd have to spend a lot more money to bring in live musical acts if he wanted to keep serving alcohol past midnight. But a band is out of his price range and wouldn't be practical considering the club's layout four separate rooms on two stories.
When Gale bought X-it six years ago, the area was a "ghost town," he says. "Then as clubs opened, they brought business. But Hollywood has an ethnically diverse population a large black population. The black clientele changed the color of downtown Hollywood." With developers spending millions on redevelopment, Gale charges, city leaders cast a wary eye on black partiers. "The city is afraid to lose those multimillions of dollars."
"I was the largest dance club," he continues. "I had a large black clientele. One of the only clubs that was really, truly affected was mine." The law does allow some businesses to have DJs and serve alcohol but only if they serve meals and have tables and chairs covering 75 percent of the floor. In which case, says Gale, "You can't have a dance floor. You can't have a club atmosphere. So I chose to give up the 4 a.m. license."
"A DJ has nothing to do with the problems in the city," Gale says. "Everyone knows they wanted to whiten up downtown Hollywood."
It's a shame, he says. "We had a wonderful Haitian party here on Sundays. The people looked like they were going to church, dressed nice. They had their party, it was peaceful, and they left. And I had hip-hop on Wednesday nights."
After Mara's law took effect, however, business tanked. "Revenue-wise, it's like nonexistent," Gale says. "If we do $2,000 a week, we're doing well. When we could do six to seven times that in one night before. Let's put it this way: Between the mortgage, electric, gas, water, what we pay for the parking that we have, and basic staff, I need approximately a minimum of $25,000 a month. I'm pulling the dollars every month out of my pocket."
Gale says he's fortunate he gets other income from rental properties he owns. But he's had to cut a lot of jobs. "Now, I have two permanent people and a couple of part-time people. Before, I had a total of maybe 35, 40 different staff."
Before the law took effect, Gale already had a working relationship with Waas and his Euphoria Project, which held regular raves at the club. But once Gale lost his most profitable nights, he let Waas take over more nights and started allowing all-ages, no-alcohol raves.
"I've worked with hundreds of people," he says, "and Mitch is probably the most honest person I've ever dealt with. Mitch must have an incredible love for the scene. He's like an angel to the scene. He knows all these people, looks after them all. If someone's hungry, he'll say, 'I don't have much, but come to my house and I'll share what I've got. '"
He confirms that Waas is personally making almost nothing in the arrangement that Waas frequently ends up paying more in expenses than he takes in.
But what about the use of the word rave? Doesn't it invite trouble with the law? "We have internal security and our own undercover guys. There's no trafficking in the club," Gale says. Still, he allows that "if someone consumes something outside and comes inside, there's nothing I can do about it." As a deterrent, he charges patrons a $5 reentry fee.
He claims that the police have sent undercover officers into the club on multiple occasions and that he hires off-duty officers to work security details. The police, he says, know that "if you ask where you can get drugs, we'll escort you to the door and show you where you can get them somewhere out there."
Has he seen the kids sucking on pacifiers? Are they sucking on them to relieve the teeth-clenching side effect that comes with ecstasy use?
Alboniga chimes in: "I don't know if they do it for any reason other than to look stupid. It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life."
Gale is more charitable. "It's a little different but people laugh at my fashion. People say, have you seen the guy in the white V-neck shirt and shorts?
"The kids have their baggies and their little colorful beads. It's a different blend everyone comes in here, kids in hip-hop clothes, in baggies, in techno style, with their colors on. The bracelets! The girls come over and put a little bracelet on me."
But Gale sighs and looks a tad bewildered. "I never pictured myself running a huge nighttime daycare," he says. "This is probably the largest babysitting institution in the city."
Now entering Gale's institution: Sean Whisnant, 21, wearing a curious ensemble a black fedora hat on which someone has used fluorescent orange puff paint to draw stars and write "Projection into an alternate reality." Whisnant's shirt is a mustard color, with a print of marijuana leaves. And his wrist is wrapped in bracelets made of cheap, multicolored plastic beads.
"All these bracelets were given to me," he says, sounding less like a hipster than someone who's just come from a science fair. "They're called candy." One spells out "PLUR."
"It stands for "Peace, Love, Unity, Respect," he explains the raver motto. A lot of partiers are wearing them. If one feels a connection with another, they'll pass a bracelet, or sometimes a necklace, along.
More interesting than the bracelets are Whisnant's gloves they're black, with tiny red and blue lights that blink. "I made them myself," he explains. "I used a chip called an NE555 timer with an astable multivibrator. I connected the output to high-intensity LEDs light-emitting diodes so you see traces." Altogether, they cost $20 to make.
"I started getting into electronic engineering in the fourth grade," he says. "I wanted to make a desk alarm so people would stop touching my stuff." These days, he's working on a "top-secret automated device. I'll be able to tell you more about it when I get the patent."
Whisnant goes on to say "I'm sort of a loner" with an endearing frankness, adding, "I don't have too many friends."
Except here, where people entering and exiting the club keep interrupting to say "Heeeey! Haven't seen you in a awhile!" and "What's up man?" He answers them with little eye contact and soft hellos, like he's shyly surprised to be greeted at all.
"I was surfing the web on March 27, 2004," he explains robotically. "I started talking to this girl, and she invited me to a rave. She showed me what raving is about, and I got hooked on it."
So what is it about? And what's up with the pot-leaf shirt? Although he says that people do "little things to heighten their experience, raving isn't about drugs. It's about community. For me, it means friendliness. Raving is about enjoying your life to the fullest. It's a gathering for people from all walks of life. A gathering of misfits."
He's not kidding. There's the stereotypical raver in attendance, but Waas' parties attract an incredibly diverse crowd. Dreadlocked kids, goth kids, and cute pixie girls. Tough construction workers, and guys who look like they just came from a Dungeons & Dragons game. Others include a pair of blond yacht brokers from Estonia, a 20-something bodybuilding nude model, and a 40-ish Costa Rican guy who speaks no English but by the size of his smile seems to be having a good time. One mainstay travels to these parties from his home in Tampa dressed like Hunter S. Thompson every time he makes an appearance. And any DJ who will spin for free is welcome to play at a Euphoria Project event and gain exposure.
However, it's precisely this spirit of inclusion that draws the ire of some of the cooler-than-thou types in cyberspace, who take shots at Waas and his company in on-line forums. Euphoria Project, one hipster writes, is "a prime example of the image that many of us have been working for years to erase from the collective consciousness of society."
That's not very PLUR of him. It's not particularly fair to compare this scene to, say, South Beach. While hipster clubs may use velvet ropes to create an aura of exclusivity, the Euphoria Project is about inclusivity.
Nearby, a peppy, long-haired girl who calls herself Pixel is taking pictures. "Everyone's welcome," she explains. "We come together for unity the music and the people. Nowhere else will you find people who accept you for who you are."
Out back, a girl named Alex with a pierced eyebrow, pierced bottom lip, dog tags, and exquisitely applied glittery eye shadow claims to have been raving since she was 12 years old.
"Of any subculture," she says proudly, "we have the most love. You can walk up to anybody and if they have a bottle of water, you can say, 'Hey, can I have some?' and they'll give you a drink."
A 27-year-old black woman who ventured in with a friend is here for the first time. She says she feels a little old for this crowd. "I just gave that girl a cigarette, and I was like, 'Whoa, was that legal? Are the cops going to jump out and get me for aiding and abetting?'" But she laughs it off. Earlier in the night, a 19-year-old with his shirt off came up and asked for a drink of her water. She obliged.
"It's cool, though," she says of the scene. "They're all just enjoying their lives right now."
Later, at about 1:30 in the morning, a block away from X-it, middle-aged guys in Levi's shoot pool in a nondescript bar. A khaki-clad couple are about the only people strolling on the western end of Hollywood Boulevard. The next block over, the biggest crowd congregates at Sushi Blues Café, where well-behaved citizens patronize the tables on the clean sidewalk.
For the most part, Hollywood's downtown has been sanitized, dulled down, whitened. The City Commission, it seems, got the vibe that it wanted. But inside X-it Nightclub, the music is still thumping and the crowd is still there. Sean Whisnant is dancing unself-consciously. His arms are flailing. His feet are jumping. His fedora is bouncing on his head, and his gloves blink. Surrounded by friends and the music he loves, Whisnant looks... in a word, euphoric. Colby Katz
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