LA Club Kids / Photo by Michael Tullberg
With top EDM producers racking in tens of millions each year and electronic music festivals routinely selling hundreds of thousands of tickets, it's easy to forget that for decades, electronic music was pushed to the fringes of American music and nightlife culture (while at the same time dominating the dancefloors and airwaves in Europe). For the kids who wanted to hear the hottest new DJ and commune on the dancefloor with like-minded people, often the only place to go was the middle of nowhere. In other words, raves. A new book,
DANCEFLOOR THUNDERSTORM: Land Of the Free, Home Of The Rave, showcases the work of photojournalist Michael Tullberg who documented the rave scene in Los Angeles and Southern California throughout the '90s and '00s. His pictures capture young people in ecstasy (sometimes, we imagine, literally) dancing to the beats of top DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Richie Hawtin along with local producers on the scene. Along with photos, the book includes anecdotes and remembrances of parties, promoters, DJs and more that'll make you want to grab a pacifier and a glow stick and turn on some Prodigy. We had the chance to speak to Tullberg about his book and hear his thoughts on everything from what made the LA scene distinct to that time he went to a rave on an ostrich farm.
When did you come up with the idea for the book?
I first came up with the idea for DANCEFLOOR THUNDERSTORM around 2004 or so, but I didn't do anything with it for about five years. I didn't know anything about writing or publishing a book at that point, so I just left it on the back burner. Then in 2009, I noticed that even after all that time, nobody else was publishing books or anything about the rave scene. I felt a very real sense of responsibility to start putting something together, because I began to sense that the stories from this crucial time period in music history were in danger of being lost unless something was done. In addition, none of the existing books about electronic music in America were current any more, and none were done from the point of view of someone who was actually in the scene itself. They were written largely from an outside, detached, academic perspective, trying to look for some larger social significance or something between the beats. I felt it was important that I put out a piece of work that not only showcased the best artists from the period, but also the crucial relationship between those artists and their audiences in the place where it mattered most -- on the dance floor. That's why there are more shots of ravers in the book than there are of DJs.
What was your relationship to the rave scene?
I was very deeply involved in the rave scene in L.A., in several capacities. As a photojournalist, I was writing and photographing for most of the major dance music magazines of the day, including URB, BPM, Insider, Mixer and Lotus, plus some abroad such as Mixmag and Q. Shooting for all those publications kept me quite busy, especially when they would fly me around the country to cover gigs. I was also shooting album covers for legendary DJs like Carl Cox and Ferry Corsten, usually for Moonshine Music. For a number of years, I was also providing visual projections for the famous Bud Brothers Monday Social Club in Hollywood. Somehow, I also found the time to develop a sitcom pilot based on the rave scene…which never sold, sadly. And there were also clubs and promoters who would hire me to cover their events as a house photographer. So as a result, I ended up at the very center of L.A. rave culture -- I got to know all the major promoters, producers and artists in town, so navigating to the best parties and events became pretty easy. It was a great feeling, knowing that I was in the middle of something, very, very special.
When I didn't have my camera with me (which was rare), I was usually enjoying myself at local dance clubs like the Monday Social, Insomnia after-hours, Logic or Magic Wednesdays. The scene was such a social event in of itself, so it became easy to go from place to place and find people you knew, even without the advent of social media. Actually, the scene had its own primitive form of social media, in the form of rave fliers, info lines, early Internet promotion, magazines, and good old fashioned word of mouth.
What are some of the things you liked most about the scene back then?
I really enjoyed its all-inclusive, embracing atmosphere, as opposed to the elitist, hierarchical velvet rope mentality that dominated many of the mainstream Hollywood clubs. In the rave world, your social status or background didn't matter. As long as you were a fan of the music, you were in, and being a fan of the music was easy because we had the best dance music in the world coming through L.A. on a regular basis. The mainstream clubs were positively pathetic by comparison, particularly music-wise. It was mostly cheesy, third rate commercial house knock-offs mixed with Eighties mash ups…totally unimpressive. What was really dismaying about that crowd -- especially the upscale Beverly Hills club scene -- was that these guys had a lot of money and influence, with virtually endless possibilities as far as putting together quality entertainment was concerned, and they were completely clueless about the music. Just as dismaying was the fact that unknown to them, the best music on the planet was literally right under their noses, but it hardly ever occurred to them to look outside their own little world and see what was going on in the rave universe right next door. I tried numerous times to get my friends in that scene to see for themselves what was going on in the rave world, but almost none of them took me up on it.
"In the rave world, your social status or background didn't matter. As long as you were a fan of the music, you were in."
What made the scene in LA and Orange County different than what you'd find elsewhere, particularly in a place like New York?
The New York venue owners and promoters immediately understood what the deal was with electronic music in the late Eighties. Since some of it had its roots in the old Studio 54 era, this perhaps isn't so surprising. Yes, New York had important rave beginnings as well -- Frankie Bones and his crew had a lot to do with this -- but from very early on, the focus was on the clubs. This is what helped give rise to the superclubs of the era: Twilo, the Tunnel, Limelight, etc., because the forward-thinking venue owners and promoters got it from the get-go.
This didn't happen in L.A., though -- and the primary cause, as far as I'm concerned, was the fact that unlike in New York, the people who ran the major venues did not embrace electronic music. In 1988, heavy metal was at its apogee in America, and L.A. was the heavy metal capital of the planet at the time. This fact was not lost on the owners of places like the Whisky, Gazarri's, the Palladium and others, who were quite happy to milk the metal cash cow for all it was worth. It was a period of major excess and major money, so it's little surprise that the emerging rave music ended up being frozen out as a result. Since the music needed an outlet, the kids making up what would become the rave movement went right ahead and built their own scene by themselves, quite literally from almost nothing. It started small, like most things in pop culture. This was not unusual, for at this point the music was also existing in a similarly small fashion in many other cities, like Chicago, Miami, San Diego, Detroit and San Francisco. However, unlike most of these cities (including New York), L.A. enjoyed a significant advantage in the variety of venues it had at its disposal, and this was in part directly attributable to its location. While most cities' electronic music entertainment was limited to either clubs or warehouses, L.A. promoters had the additional ability to throw parties in the desert, or in the mountains, or on the beach…pretty much any place where an enterprising fellow could plant a sound system. The fact that L.A. has no real winter definitely helped, too, as it meant that folks weren't holed up in their homes due to snow and freezing temperatures during the colder seasons. Plus, it was undeniable that during the peak years of the rave scene, the best dance music in the world was coming through L.A. on a regular basis, with a lot of the biggest DJs moving here as well. Oakenfold, Dave Ralph, DJ Rap, Keoki, Colette, BT…and on and on. So for these and other reasons, L.A. became pretty much the center of rave culture in North America, while New York remained almost the de facto center for club culture…until Rudy Giuliani, anyway.
What about club kids? How would you compare that crowd in LA to their NYC counterparts?
The Club Kids in Southern California were probably a bit more Kandi-oriented than their NYC counterparts, who had something of a harder edge to them. Other than that, the two groups were alike in many ways. Both definitely pushed rave and club fashion to their Nineties limits, while throwing in plenty of their traditional I-DON'T-GIVE-A-FUCK attitude in the process. Both would pave new ground in their pursuits of chemical explorations...though the L.A. scene would ultimately prove not to be as lethal as NYC's Party Monster circuit. Both bended genders as freely as one bends Twizzlers, and flaunted that fact like their heroine Madonna flaunted her boy toys.
What do you make of this renewed interest in the club kids scene and raves/EDM festivals today?
The interest in EDM festivals isn't "renewed" at all; it never went away. Rather's it's been continuously growing ever since EDC, Ultra and the like demonstrated in the rave years that they could continually expand their operations. In the mid-2000s, the rave scene began to diminish in importance as more big clubs began opening in more major cities. The reason for the rave decline was obvious: with centrally located places to go dance in metropolitan areas, you no longer had to go seeking for dance music out in the middle of nowhere, and the need for the rave scene began to wane as a result. This led to the phasing out of many small and mid-sized raves, who could no longer compete with the clubs because the latter were taking away not just the audience, but also many of the top-tier DJs that were formerly available for raves. The major massives that would become festivals were able to survive because of their size, the corporate sponsorship they had acquired, and their ability to maintain those crucial top DJs. Thus, the festivals became the caretakers of rave culture as the latter transitioned into the EDM era. The fact that you could dress and act in such a goofy, ravey way at festivals and not in the clubs helped that along as well.
As far as the club kids are concerned, there isn't a major club kid revival out here in L.A. that I've seen. Most of those who would identify themselves as club kids aren't kids at all any more, they're holdovers from the rave glory years. Since the EDM generation is the one driving electronic music forward now, they're coming up with their own interpretation of what being a club kid is supposed to be. I have the feeling it may be something quite different from what came before.
Let's go back to the idea that rave culture and electronic music was not accepted by the mainstream in LA -- why do you think that was?
There are several reasons why it took electronic music as long as it did to gain mainstream acknowledgement, but the two main ones that need to be focused on are the music business and the press. In the 1990s, when this music had already pretty much conquered the rest of the globe's pop charts, the American music business was having a very hard time trying to make a go at electronic music. Bear in mind that this time period is partly pre-Internet, so the music business that I'm talking about was the major record labels and the big radio networks that existed at the time -- big, bulky, sclerotic media dinosaurs that had basically operated more or less the same for about 50 years or so. They were very adverse to change, because the formula of presenting and promoting music had always been the same: hit singles, music videos, celebrity-driven publicity, and touring with a major marketing push (TV, ads, etc.). It was because of this that they had such a tough time with electronic music, because the music fell completely outside of their experience in so many ways. For one thing, the rave scene was never interested in putting out hit singles for the mainstream market -- the entire focus was on the live experience, the parties. Most electronic music at the time had very little in terms of the elements that make up hit singles: musical hooks, choruses, or even lyrics. In other words, there were very few elements that the mainstream could pick up on and exploit.
Another issue for the music business was that there were very few electronic music artists who they thought they could market. There were no rave sex symbols at the time, male or female -- no electronic Taylor Swifts or One Directions to be found anywhere. To be fair, most DJs didn't have a lot of stage presence in those days, as many of them were just hunched over their turntables and didn't move around very much. There were exceptions, like Carl Cox, Donald Glaude, Fatboy Slim…but most weren't like that. They didn't run around onstage like a live band can. Visually, they didn't command the center of attention like a lead singer does. And since most raves didn't have the huge visual projections and giant LED walls that festivals enjoy today, a lot of what was going on onstage wasn't all that interesting to look at. The main exceptions to that were Deee-Lite's "Groove Is In The Heart", Fatboy Slim's "Praise You", and The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up", and the latter was a hit partly due to the controversy that surrounded the video they did for it. Controversy was easy for the media to pick up on, and they dutifully did so, but they didn't do much beyond that. So, it became very hard for the music business, because so much of the music and the scene didn't fit neatly into their cookie-cutter paradigm. As a result, very little electronic music even made its way through the syndication companies out to the radio stations, most of whom simply wouldn't play it.
Also, the rave scene was entirely independent of the traditional large promotion companies. They weren't beholden to the Nederlanders, Clear Channels and Live Nations that ran the arenas and theaters where mainstream performers ruled. They did it themselves, from the bottom up. Again, it didn't fit into the neat little mainstream box, so the mainstream felt very little impetus to integrate the scene into their own system. That was what made it so satisfying when I would read that gigs like Nocturnal Wonderland were outselling artists like Rod Stewart and Mariah Carey.
And what about press treatment?
For much of its history, electronic music has had a thorny relationship with the American media. The stories you see in the press today about the controversies surrounding EDM festivals are nothing new, as the media has been serving up mostly one-sided stories about the rave scene for a couple of decades now. If you go on YouTube, you'll find plenty of so-called "investigative pieces" about raves that go back to the early Nineties that contain precious little actual investigation. Again, like in the music business, the press had difficulties dealing with the fact that there were no celebrities or superstars in the scene to jump all over. They also didn't take DJs seriously as artists. The parties were taking place in locations that they were totally unfamiliar with (like the desert), and the vibe was unlike anything most of them had encountered in the mainstream entertainment world. In addition, these guys had very little idea of how to contact the rave production companies so as to cover their events properly (apparently they had no idea what a rave flier was). They had to find some sort of angle, so many of them fell back on one they were already well familiar with: controversy and outrageousness. It was a disreputable mode of behavior that has repeated itself over and over again through the years, because it's easy to do and almost always guarantees an audience…the existence of TMZ is proof of that. Today the situation has changed somewhat. Nowadays, you could argue that only about half of the media's attention falls on the controversies surrounding EDM, and the other half is devoted to how much money top EDM DJs are making, or what celebrity superstar they're sleeping with. I'm still on the fence about whether that's an improvement or not.
Can you share any of your craziest memories from the rave scene?
One of the wildest gigs I ever shot was a desert rave called "Dune 4", which took place in 1998 on a Native American reservation near the California/Arizona border. Around midnight, a massive sandstorm blew up and sent most of the crowd scurrying for their tents. It was pretty brutal, with the sand stinging and swirling around like it did. I think about a thousand kids at most stayed out there, braving the elements. One guy who had no choice in the matter was DJ Christopher Lawrence, who had to keep playing through the mayhem. The sand was getting everywhere (and I do mean everywhere), and the wind was blowing Christopher's turntable arms around, to the point where he had to tape stacks of quarters on top of the needles to keep them in place. Unfortunately, Christopher was spinning acetates, so the sand and the quarters ended up totally grooving out his records…poor guy. Eventually the storm blew itself out, and by dawn everyone had re-emerged and gotten their second wind, dancing well into the morning hours.
Another pretty crazy rave was the 1998 edition of "Nocturnal Wonderland" at the NOS Events Center (a.k.a. the Orange Show) in San Bernardino. This event started off all right, at least for those who got there fairly early. Unfortunately things started to go awry a few hours in when a lot of people showed up with their tickets, only to discover that the event was at capacity and had apparently been oversold. The Orange Show people didn't exactly help things much by only opening up one entranceway for arrivals, either. As one might imagine, the folks stuck in line were not amused, and things started to get tense outside. Inside, things were just fine, the party was running like clockwork and everyone was having a great time. I remember one guy claiming that he'd gotten in with 100 hits of E taped to his cojones, which I wasn't really all that keen to verify. In other words, things were hunky-dory -- which made the appearance of police helicopters circling over the parking lot somewhat ominous. San Bernardino's finest had showed up to disperse the outside crowd, who weren't very keen on leaving. Eventually things boiled over when tear gas canisters began dropping from the choppers -- luckily, the gas didn't make its way through the fence and into the party itself. So, chaos outside, happiness inside…a very weird juxtaposition.
One more memorable rave: a gig called Unit-E Massive, which wasn't all that massive but contained plenty of unity. This was held at an ostrich farm about an hour outside of L.A., and when the sun came up after a full night of partying, the farmer came out with his birds. I don't know who was more confused by the sight of all the ravers -- the ostriches or their owner!