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Better Living Through Revelry

After the RAVE Act and social stigmatization clamped down on the local electronic music scene, area DJs and promoters are bringing it back to the dance floor

by Ali Hibbs on April 6, 2011 · 7 comments

It’s been been about a decade since electronic music events featuring superstar DJs were being thrown in vast music halls, abandoned warehouses and vacant fields across the nation. The rave culture phenomenon, which originated in the United Kingdom following the club disco era of the ’70s, took hold in the United States during the ’90s and was peaking by the millennium. Reminiscent of the countercultural hippie movement of the ’60s in its nonviolent ideology, emphasis on individuality and liberal attitude toward illegal drugs, the rave scene revolved around electronic dance music and drew tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans—in abnormally large pants—to huge events with names like Narnia and Electric Daisy Carnival. Popular DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Frankie Bones had become bigger names than many mainstream pop stars. Then, shortly after the turn of the century, it all seemed suddenly to end.

Hey Mr. (Ms.) DJ: veterans of the Albany electronic music scene. Photo by Leif Zuhrmulen

On a large scale, this was primarily due to a wave of negative national sentiment provoked by an onslaught of bad press. In response to widespread concern about the party drug ecstasy that had become associated with the rave subculture, legislation known as the RAVE (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy) Act was surreptitiously piggybacked onto the Amber Alert bill in April 2003. The law made event promoters legally responsible for the actions of everyone who attended their parties. Around the same time, in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg passed a series of cabaret laws that prohibited dancing in certain public areas with the intention of discouraging an electronic music culture that was getting a bad rap nationwide. Modeled after crack house laws, they were used to raid, arrest and threaten club promoters and partygoers. When SWAT teams with helicopters and rifles raided events in Utah and New Orleans, it was effectively the end of an era. Promoters still promoted and DJs still spun records, but the culture and music they helped build was, to a large extent, forced underground.

In the Capital Region, local DJ and longtime promoter David “Scooby” Carolan remembers sitting down with his lawyer and wondering if it was still worth it. He was trying to open a record store in 2003 and found he was facing insurmountable obstacles. “I remember feeling like Don Corleone,” he says. He sat in a Common Council meeting where he was accused of being “just a rave promoter” and of “trying to sell drugs.” Massive Audio finally opened its doors in March and immediately faced a whole host of problems from the Center Square community in which it was located. The neighborhood association, via zoning committees, managed to shut down the store for three of the first four months that it was open and forced it to get rid of some of the merchandise. Ultimately, it was compelled to close its doors due to zoning laws that allowed for a bookstore and art gallery—but not a record store.

Carolan has fond memories of the store on Lark Street where he bought his first record in 1996. Audio Underground, owned by Damian Galban (aka DJ Dames), was a place where local electronic musicians gathered, exchanged ideas and found out about upcoming events. The store burned down in April 2001 and was never rebuilt. Carolan and other local musicians believe that the loss of a hub lent significantly to the dissolution of the electronic dance music scene in the Capital Region years before it became nationally stigmatized. He decided to open Massive Audio with fellow musicians Ryan Kick, Mike Backus and William Wood in an effort to provide the same sort of professional haven that Audio Underground had, and says he is disappointed that he was ultimately prevented by what he views as “completely insane preconceptions” about his intentions.

Not to be entirely thwarted, Carolan and company continued to organize and promote local events in Albany under the Massive Audio banner for several years. “I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t being foolish,” he says. “I knew that I would be vulnerable. But I also wanted to know that people still had a place to go dance in Albany that wasn’t only playing top 40 hits or hip-hop.” Carolan acknowledges that certain extreme aspects of the rave culture have cast a pall over the very music it celebrated, but he refuses to accept that it is irredeemable. “The music is awesome and the people should hear it.”

That conviction is common among those who have labored, sometimes thanklessly, to keep bringing headlining DJs and exciting new sounds to an upstate scene that has often seemed to be gasping for air over the last seven years. No longer able to expect the same kind of attendance on a regular basis that they once could, local promoters have come to accept that their endeavors can often be hit-or-miss. A night with all-local talent may be packed one week, while the expensive headliner the following week plays to a largely empty room. Local venue owners have moved away, suddenly closed down or simply lost interest. Even so, Carolan and a handful of others are still doing their damndest to keep the Capital Region dancing to their favorite beats.

“We were promised 72 virgins,” explains Adam Littleboy, one half of Lazer and Blazer, the electronic duo who host a successful bimonthly Lounge event at Daisy Baker’s in Troy. “That’s right,” laughs George Washburn, aka Blazer. “That’s why we work so hard. The electronic music gods promised.” Admitted latecomers to the rave scene in 1999, Littleboy and Washburn say they immediately set out to learn everything they could about the music they encountered. “That’s really why we do it. We do it for the music. We want to be involved in every aspect: making it, playing it, promoting it, dancing to it.”

“I like to stay right at the forefront of everything that’s going on with it,” says Don Stone of Gravity Entertainment. “It’s all so much more versatile and accessible now than it used to be. The creative possibilities are pretty mind-boggling.” Like Stone, most current DJs are comfortable with multiple genres and machines, and have begun creating their own music—using software that simulates drum machines and synthesizers—that they can play in front of crowds the same day they create it, something that was virtually impossible in the days of vinyl records. Stone was behind the silent rave at LarkFest last year, along with his musical partner Jason Hamilton and local promoter Nicole Bleichert. The three often work together to organize multi-DJ events, such as the one at Pagliacci’s tomorrow night (Friday, April 8), where Stone and Hamilton’s creative duo, the Dark Flow, will be playing a mix of house, electro and dubstep. Carolan is also on the lineup, along with Matt Tagliaferro (aka RekOne) and Outlet.

Currently, Carolan is also working with local DJ-promoter Jay Balance to bring The Good Life, a popular summer event that has “music for everyone—house, hip-hop, soul, funk and disco,” back to the rooftop at Pagliacci’s in May. And rumor has it that there will be another boat party with Dutch Apple Cruises this June. In addition to Lounge and a Suburban Soul Project house night, Daisy Baker’s also has a Sunday morning Funky Brunch, offering downtempo beats spun by local DJ and producer Brandon Finucan (aka Properly Chilled).

These are just a few of the growing number of electronic music events happening in the area, and many new artists and younger crowds have begun to fill the scene. Last month, a new dubstep night called Outpost, featuring locals Deep Children and Party With Tina, packed the Fuze Box and will continue every third Friday of the month.

In addition to traditional club venues, outdoor festivals and events that used to be considered exclusively jam-band-oriented have also made room for thousands of disenfranchised ravers, adding many different kinds of electronic music to their line-ups and resulting in some interesting creative collboration. Drum ’n bass DJs Jon Santola and Leila Harrison, who organize regular events at Red Square, play several of these festivals a year and make it a point to include a band at each of the events that they throw at Red Square. “It’s an entirely different kind of night,” says Santola.

Electronic music is everywhere, insist Bleichert and Stone. “People don’t realize that; they think it all sounds the same,” says Bleichert. Pointing out that most forms of accepted art once began as misunderstood and maligned subcultures, they say they hope that, in this case, the culture won’t overshadow the art for too long. “We want other people to love it too,” says Bleichert. “That’s why we do this.”

“We do it for the music,” agrees Carolan. “But, I also think we have something to prove.”