Warehouse to Warehouse: Midwest Rave in the '90s
by Michaelangelo Matos | August 28, 2012
The word "dirty" comes up a lot in remembrances of the '90s Midwest rave scene. The parties largely took place in dusty warehouses in the suburbs or isolated downtowns, and the music -- mind-bending acid, techno and trance, with plenty of Chicago house to either goose things up or wind them down -- had a lot of grit in it as well. That was generally truer of those genres overall during that time: Much of the music was still made with unruly analog machines, especially the Roland TB-303-generated squelch that defines "acid," and you could hear the joins in the sample-based disco-house that held sway by decade's middle. But the places -- midsized cities like Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Louisville, Madison, Milwaukee and the large but still homey Chicago, all of which nurtured local scenes -- certainly enhanced that feeling. Rave was a needed injection of hands-on futurism for industrial cities largely gone to seed. When you don't have the options that a giant city can afford, you make your own fun (or did, before the Internet came along).
Rave's car culture -- driving for hours to parties -- suited the spread-out region as well, and as a result the Midwest was constantly in motion. In Minneapolis, my hometown, I was lucky enough to see pretty much every major techno draw from the region play at least once. I have distinct memories of Richie Hawtin playing in a striking white-walled room under blue-purple light in 1993, and of Jeff Mills performing at a Minnesota Fabrics store gone out of business in 1994. Watching Mills smash one record after another onto the turntables, practically tearing them new center holes, and mix in and out of them with dizzying rapidity and exquisitely choppy timing, was one of the live performances that transformed my life.
Some of the Midwest's biggest rave promoters were essentially one-time farm kids who'd gone to college towns to reinvent themselves. Minneapolis's Woody McBride, aka DJ ESP, was one; two others were Kurt Eckes (Jethrox) and Patrick Spencer (Jedidiah the Messiah) of Milwaukee's Drop Bass Network. All three liked it hard and rugged, sonically, though McBride became more whimsical and less teeth-rattling as the '90s progressed. Drop Bass housed some of the gnarliest music of the period, specializing in hard acid and gabber, the latter speaking loud and fried at the edges to burnout kids looking to taste the future.
Eckes had been inspired by a trip to New York for what turned out to be the last-ever Storm Rave -- DJ Frankie Bones' legendary parties. The mayhem Eckes witnessed (slam-dancing, head-banging, Lenny Dee throwing records at the wall when he'd finished playing them) helped crystallize what he wanted his scene to be.
Still, the trippier mindset that typified early rave on the West Coast was always in evidence at most of the big Midwest parties. So was most everything else. A big blowout was guaranteed, most times, to include a little from each side of the ever-expanding table of rave-friendly genres: jungle (simply dubbed "breakbeat" for a long time), trance, gabber and Chicago house were staples of warehouse events, along with acid (McBride's specialty) and every shade of techno. This tendency reached its peak with the Furthur events Drop Bass, McBride and others helped put on in rural Wisconsin every year from 1994 to 2001. (Aphex Twin headlined the first one. By the time he went on I'd been awake for two days straight and went back to the tent after ten minutes. C'est la vie.)
There was an ahistorical sense built into the very idea of raving: The music was so compulsive and deliberately futuristic that it existed in an eternal now. But as the '90s progressed, that began to change. More disco was being sampled by Chicago DJ/producers like Paul Johnson and DJ Sneak, as evidenced by tracks like Gusto's "Disco's Revenge." Both "Chicago house" and "Detroit techno" began to assert themselves not just as styles, but ideals of some sort, meaning cutting-edge, up to the minute, yet tied to a tradition even as that tradition was busy being mutated into different shapes every few weeks.
The Midwest got its raves cracked down upon in the early 2000s, just like everywhere else in the U.S. But in light of the surging EDM scene, the region is also a kind of beacon. The Midwest rave scene was so far from major media centers that it could grow organically. That's not unlike the current wave as well, which doesn't pride itself on sophistication but on aggression and gut reaction -- not to mention a certain amount of schmutz standing between the source and the listener. You needn't have walked through exhaust-blackened snow banks so you could dance all night to understand. But it doesn't hurt, either.
As for the playlist above, it's a mixture of tracks that were big in the Midwest during the mid-'90s, along with material from actual Midwesterners (Mike Banks, X-313, Richie Hawtin remixing Slam, Freddy Fresh, DJ ESP remixing Planet of Drums, Jeff Mills, Cajmere, Paul Johnson, DJ Sneak and so on). It starts techno, then goes into house. Have fun.