It was New Year’s Eve, 1991. More than 7,000 vibrating bodies pulsed under roving, laser-like green lights, which burst into gyrating, fractal patterns across the crowd. The beat was shamanic, a deep boom that coursed through the sternum and down into the feet. As it built, the lights circled overhead with intensity, beckoning people to look up. Their dilated pupils drank it in as they bounced and surged. It was a heartbeat, an hours-long rhythm that flooded everyone’s veins like a drug.
This was the San Francisco party that put rave culture on the American map. The venue was ToonTown, a warehouse that not only booked teeth-throbbing house and techno DJs, but also created high-tech music experiences the world had never imagined. Besides amusement park rides like the “Gravitron,” ToonTown constructed virtual reality booths and video phone links. Embrace technology, it begged; information is freedom.
By now, we know what a rave looks (or looked) like. Since electronic music went mainstream in the 1990s and then exploded into festival culture, we’ve seen everything from Deadmau5 light shows to Tupac holograms. Technology is deeply embedded in the culture of live shows, and the early rave scene helped establish that.
But tech wasn’t always a gimmicky afterthought. It was part of a deeply spiritual rave experience largely fostered in San Francisco. It found a home in a culture of open-minded, sexually liberated, optimistic young people, many of whom were self-professed computer geeks. They not only created Internet communities around rave culture; they nurtured and participated in the dot-com boom itself. The same ravers who came together 2 or 3 nights per week and danced until 7 a.m. saw tech’s promise as a great equalizer, a tool in the ecological movement, a challenge to capitalism’s greed. The information apocalypse would finally level the playing field for a new millennium. And that was the whole reason to dance in the first place.
“Like the Be-In Babies that announced the coming of the age of Aquarius, the ravers may be the heralds of a new culture, the first weird blips on the horizon of the techno-driven ‘90s,” wrote Cynthia Robins, who covered the ToonTown New Year’s party for The San Francisco Examiner.
The trend had recently migrated from Britain, where displaced middle-class kids had created a subversive, sophisticated network of rural dance parties. Robins interviewed one 27-year-old raver who remembered a flood of Brits arriving in San Francisco in the winter of 1991. They chose San Francisco “because this town is conductive to anyone coming here who, being young and whacked out, stakes their claim and says, ‘This is what we are, this is what we’re going to do.’ San Francisco applauds it. This is such a feminine city, and emits a form of ’60s feminine energy which attracts people who are off-kilter. It’s the call of the wild: ‘Come to San Francisco and watch things happen.’”
But the difference between techno-ravers and their hippie parents, many argued, was a sense of action, a physical rebellion against inertia and a embrace of progress. And if all-night dance parties represented spiritual awakening, then Internet technology was the vehicle to propel it. One 23-year-old described the San Francisco rave scene as “a gathering of youth to engage in ritual dance and techno-shamanism for the dissolution of alienation found in the modern capitalist system, using the technology of the system.” Adds Robins, “The techno-shaman is more apt to be a Mac whiz than a psychedelic guru or leather-clad club cutie.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, before clubs like ToonTown started to fill the rave pool, smaller warehouse dance parties would spin London dance beats and compare tech ideas. Some taught each other HTML; they named electronic gear and composers after their model numbers; an entire genre of dance music known as IDM followed a listserv called “intelligent dance music.”
“Part of the explosion of the whole electronic music scene has been totally tied to the Internet, and the way we can communicate over vast distances,” Richie Hawtin (stage name Plastikman) an early rave DJ, told NPR in 2011. The article called techno the “music of early adopters.”
At the time, the Internet hadn’t even crested its later status of the World Wide Web. It was a sparse network of bulletin board services (BBS) that functioned like virtual phone trees, alerting ravers to underground (DIY) party locations. Message services like V-Rave, mailing lists like NW-Raves, and Usenet were the forerunners of social media, where groups formed information portals for sharing ideas and new music.
Besides concert-organizing, early ravers celebrated tech as the catalyst for human evolution. Ritualistic music and rhythmic dance marathons, appropriated from non-Western religious traditions like Sufi dancing, were seen as a way to ground humans in their increasingly mechanized future. Even the music itself was digital. Associate professor of music René T.A. Lysloff writes, “trance is actualized via the interaction of the human and the machine, implicating a postmodern ‘secular religion’ where technology itself is worshipped.” According to Rave Culture and Religion (2004), by Graham St. John, high-tech and industrialized music, especially amid San Francisco’s experimental tech boom, were tools on the journey to collective self-actualization, and ironically, a return to “tribal values.” It was “raveolution.”
In place of hippiedom, folk singalongs evolved into a collective, musical heartbeat; mind-opening LSD became socially seductive MDMA; peace became PLUR (peace, love, unity, and respect). With technology, claimed rave theorists, young people had the recipe for major evolutionary shift to a new age, a world without borders, a mutual, pulsing consciousness.
Techno religiosity may have inspired nomadic phenomena like Burning Man, but within a matter of years, police crackdowns, increased media attention on drug use, and the dot-com collapse at the turn of the millennium all but extinguished raves. Partygoers had less money to spend on $30 cover charges, and the mega-clubs that had sprung up in the late 1990s emptied. The community’s once utopian idealism melted into the fringes.
In the 2010s, major production companies took over and commercialized a rebranded experience to the more approachable, wholesome sounding “festival.” Mega-productions like the Electric Daisy Carnival, which in 2010 was held at LA’s Memorial Coliseum, drew upwards of 300,000 attendees. In 2016, Coachella made $94 million in sales.
“For a moment in time, hang out with a large number of like-minded people and you’re grooving with them. That’s very evolutionary. That’s very healing,” said Dan Mapes, creator of the visual effects at ToonTown’s New Year’s rave, in 1992.
So, maybe Coachella is the enlightened future early ravers hoped for, after all? Nah, too many selfies.