Alternate Spaces: Taking The Party Back To The Underground
My first party was at a defunct and dirty warehouse in the summer of '97. The venue had been changed several times and the only way to find it was to go from checkpoint to checkpoint on a curious little scavenger hunt in search of a good time. There were no windows, no washrooms, no sinks, no security, and no door personnel collecting money. Kids had set up a generator to power the ghetto blaster speakers and turntables. It was very dark, aside from one light that occasionally rotated around the room.
I was instructed "not to talk to anyone I didn't know", as there were some definite sketchpads around, gripping onto heroin needles or blowing lines of Coke off the concrete floor, looking up at me with vacant eyes. Inside I was terrified. Outside I tried to play it cool. Until the cops came, that is. Then it was time to run for your life: through the crowd, up a ladder, down a hallway, out a hole in the wall, into a dumpster, run, run, run for your life. These were the "Old School" rave days. There was nothing glamorous about them.
Days later, however, I felt an exciting little thrill while sitting in Math class: I had seen things my classmates couldn't even imagine. I had witnessed a secret world that most of Buffalo could and would never know. I was a rebel, a delinquent, running from the cops. The whole experience was so surreal. In some strange way, as scary as that first time was for me, it felt cool. Nonetheless, I steered clear of this hidden dimension for a few years until a post-prom party at Buffalo's Pier Nightclub lured me back to dabble in the mystery one more time. This time I was hooked.
Initially raves were born in the mid-80s out of a disdain for the increasingly more commercialized nightclubs and "meat markets". Promoters in NYC, San Francisco, the UK, Canada, and other areas around the world found out-of-the-way venues to play their non-mainstream music. Raves caught on like wild fire and gained almost mainstream status by the late 90s. But along with the increase in raves came an increase in emergency room visits and drug overdoses by partygoers, as well as escalating noise complaints, breaking and entering charges, and organized crime busts, which spurred a jolting crackdown on renegade parties. Suddenly promoters were going to jail, small venue owners were being implicated on overdose deaths, and many organizers were throwing in the towel because the personal risk of getting busted was so feared.
"If you're a proprietor, a landlord or a property owner and you're allowing this kind of activity to occur on your property, you're going to face some consequences," Bob Runciman, Consumer and Commercial Relations Minister told a local news station.
With all the media hype over ecstacy use and the influx of people attracted to raves for that very reason, many rave veterans called it quits too. The party scene shifted into nightclubs where less stringent restrictions were in place and promoters were no longer responsible for the safety of partiers, so long as club security was in place. But for people who have seen the transition from warehouses to clubs, the "death of raves" seems like a sad and harsh reality. Droves have accepted this and moved on with their lives, while more optimistic promoters and partiers have sought out the "old school vibe", and in remaining true to themselves, pursued alternate spaces.
As recently as three years ago, I attended a renegade party in Cleveland Ohio located in the warehouse district. Buffalo NY also saw an illicit party held in an old train car. It was fun to explore the area and meet up with old friends, not to mention skip the $20 cover charge and indulge in FREE popcorn and FREE water. As the sunlight filtered in at 6am, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense that THIS was what raves were truly all about.
In modern day Toronto, the stage is always shifting to evade law enforcement officials.
September 25th I attended Sourkee's "Old Skool Party" held at an art studio space off the beaten path. Once inside, we were greeted with the overwhelming sense of renegade nostalgia. There was no Gestapo element here; Big Brother wasn't watching; and joints were shared freely throughout the night in the smoking room. "I can't even remember the last party I was at that wasn't at a bar," DJ Marty Mcfly beamed. "This is great!"
Expertly designed Pacmen, Ghosts and Pacwomen decorated the walls. Unlike many clubs, there was optimal chill space - with comfy couches in every corner and large fuzzy, yellow letter-shaped cushions. "This is the best seat in the house," one partygoer sighed, climbing into the plush O-shaped seat. The smoking room also featured a special lightshow extravaganza from the art studio professionals. I had never seen glass light shows or coloured water reflecting off the walls in strange patterns. I looked at the table of gears and gadgets whizzing and whirring, amused to say the least. "I keep coming back here just to see what has changed!" one girl giggled. "Mesmerizing," another agreed, staring at the lights.
The legendary 129 Spadina was a haven for many parties that wanted a large two-room venue complete with washrooms and security, and no drinking curfew. This location was utilized for months before cops broke in and seized the venue, dressed in full riot gear, taking names and numbers.
Studio 99 is the latest booze can operation that goes widely unnoticed by authorities in a remote part of the city. I ducked in for a minute last Saturday and found the atmosphere to be very strange, like a high school party with every clique you could imagine: blacks, whites, jocks, hoochies, older adults, teenagers, beat junkies and artists. I saw a couple fights almost happen, but there seemed to be a mutual understanding that if anything escalated, they would lose the privilege to drink and party here all night long, so differences were ultimately put aside for the evening. The sound system was banging and the crowd was enthusiastic, dancing and socializing till the wee hours of the morning.
A wooded area at Cherry Beach was home to many weekly all-night techno, house, and hardcore parties, leaving many dancers covered in dust, but satisfied nonetheless. It wasn't always easy to find your way in and out and there were no washrooms, but it was a totally free adventure.
Many smaller more intimate events have surfaced at individual loft spaces. The Green Party was held at a spacious loft which was furnished with chill seating, a heated outdoor patio, indoor stage, a kitchen, and a very intimate underground vibe. Jeff Harris's "FunkN' Fridaze" was a weekly breaks/hardcore/trance event at a Church Street loft that ran successfully all summer long. And Evan G is hosting an Activate New Years Eve bash at a different loft space as well. Promoters like Mike Sitchon and Steve Yanko at Leisure Productions are living proof that the underground vibe is a worthy cause and is a reality in Toronto. They've hosted various little-known parties in lounges, warehouses, alleyways, and art studios, committing their careers to re-establishing the amazing vibe that just can't be captured at your average nightclub.
Last August Toronto was graced with the appearance of David Mancuso, the man whose legendary loft parties in NYC inspired the likes of
Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan to throw their underground parties. "Basically, the Loft is a feeling. It's about a party, not a club," Mancuso told NOW Magazine. "The Loft evolved more into a lifestyle for me, but it was also a way to rebel against bars and clubs. I wanted to do something more personal, stay out of the system and keep it as simple as possible."
So chances are if you're looking for an alternate space to spend your evening, you just may find one if you know who to ask. At the alternate spaces, it's not about booking the cheapest DJs with little regard to talent. It's not about selling water for $6 a bottle. It's not about militaristic door searches and strict supervision, long lines and hour-long waits. It's not about dress codes, style codes, or I-Just-Don't-Like-You codes. It's not about overcharging people at the door. It's not about shallow acquaintances. It's all about the music that first drew us to the scene. It's the rebelliousness, the vibe, the venue, and the freedom. It's 100% pure old school and that's how we like it.
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