One RED light glows above the door of a row house on a rainy Saturday night on 19th and Somerset streets.
It’s around midnight on March 29.
Inside the house, there are colorful beads and balloons. The balloons don’t have strings attached, and a sufficient number of people keep one in their hands, the end tightly squeezed between their fingers so they can inhale as they please.
“Let me get that.” A yellow balloon is passed to a boy in a backward hat.
He closes his eyes, quickly inhales and then pinches the opening of the balloon shut and passes it to a friend. When he opens his eyes, they’re glassy and glazed over.
A table is lined with beads to make “kandi” bracelets, or friendship bracelets for ravers. Adhering to the social code, the finished bracelets can be shared or traded, but are never to be purchased.
The nearby streets are mostly desolate, except for a jumpy gray cat and tightly parallel-parked cars.
Following the sound of dubstep music leads to the party, where five DJs are set to play until 5 a.m.
The basement is smoky and smells of spray paint. There are college-aged ravers everywhere you look.
Despite concerns about drug use and other illicit behavior, the city’s rave culture continues to evolve. Particularly in areas with large populations of young people, like Temple, raving remains relevant.
But there’s also a large contingent of those who have been involved with raves since their start in the 1980s, and those who acknowledge the sub-culture’s adverse history.
A DJ with the 1-2 a.m. slot at the party reminisces with his friend about Warehusk, an event where Philadelphia ravers used to party a couple of years ago in an abandoned warehouse in Kensington. During high school, the DJ said he remembers taking a bus from Yardley, Pa., to Kensington every Friday – staying the weekend, then withstanding the anticipation for the next weekend’s rave.
“S— comes and goes,” said his friend, who wished to remain anonymous, about Warehusk. “Everything is temporary in this scene.”
Two girls face each other – one slowly shakes her head, engrossed in the LED-glove performance unwinding in front of her.
A Risky Word
The event at 19th and Somerset streets was not labeled as a rave, but as art – a place for electronic dance music DJs, graffiti artists, vendors, dancers and guests to celebrate street art under one roof.
“Today, people throw around the word ‘rave’ like it’s f—— candy,” said a 22-year-old Philadelphia-based EDM DJ and promoter who requested to go by his DJ-name, Syfer.
It’s detrimental to some because the word carries a load of negative connotations.
In “Rave Culture: The Alteration and Decline of a Philadelphia Music Scene,” Tammy Anderson, sociology professor at the University of Delaware, depicts a promoter who had his event canceled for merely putting the word “rave” on an event flyer.
Now, the word is still cause for skepticism.
“Back in the day, if you heard the word ‘rave,’ you thought about fun,” said Brian Fegan, an EDM DJ who performs as Kyng of Thievez. “You thought about people smiling and enjoying themselves. Nowadays, you hear ‘rave’ and you think about kids dying.”
Dancing in “God’s Basement”
Near the start of the new millennium, Fegan was 13 years old when he attended his first rave underneath a bridge in Brooklyn, N.Y., tagging along with some older friends who were already rave loyalists.
It started at 11 p.m. and ended at 9 a.m.
“It was an absolutely awesome time,” Fegan, 27, said about his first rave. “I was in love right away.”
Fegan said he enjoyed the rest of his teenage years in Philadelphia when the rave scene in the city was more than a decade underway, and rave culture itself was still primarily underground.
On weekends, the basement of Lancaster Hall on 51st and Warren streets housed hundreds of young ravers.
For insiders – those who heard of the spot via word of mouth from a friend who had already attended, read about it on now-defunct online forums like Rave Links or received a flyer on South Street – the spot came to be known as “God’s Basement.”
On weekdays, the basement was used as a cafeteria for the Global Leadership Academy Charter School. Tru Skool, the organization that hosted raves at God’s Basement, would rent the location from the bishop of the church that owned Lancaster Hall.
Hundreds of ravers would flock to God’s Basement to party to local DJs spinning EDM. Fegan said the events would usually end around 6 a.m.
God’s Basement saw its final days shortly after Philadelphia’s NBC 10 did an undercover investigative piece on the spot in 2008. Fegan is quick to mention that a video of the report is still on YouTube.
“God’s Basement – that was the place to be. That was the Philadelphia rave scene,” Fegan said. “The parties were controlled by us. We didn’t have outside security. It was myself working the door, taking money, myself patting people down, myself taking sound [equipment] in and out.”
For God’s Basement insiders, the spot was more than just a place to party. God’s Basement was a community started by a mutual devotion for electronic dance music.
“It was such a family vibe. That love is starting to come back …there are a lot of us who are from that era who are working together in the background making things happen,” said Nicole Tossas, 27, who became involved in Philadelphia’s rave scene by working coat-check at God’s Basement.
Tossas said she started skipping school when she was 17 to travel from New York to Philadelphia to attend raves.
“My whole social circle stemmed from that one venue and its crazy times,” Tossas said.
Tossas and Fegan now work for Light It Up, a production and retail company that Tossas described as “the jack of all trades” for Philadelphia’s rave scene.
Many of the original God’s Basement loyalists still reminisce on their time spent there, Fegan said.
“Radical audio visual experience – that’s what ‘rave’ actually means,” Fegan said. “So when you go to rave, from the second you walk in the door your mind is to be blown – decorations and lights everywhere. Then you get on the dance floor and the music’s literally just taking you from dancing a little bit, to completely controlling your body… Then take the immense lighting that you put in. That’s all, like, five or six hours of the install before the show.”
Drug Usage: From God’s Basement to the Electric Factory
The massive outcry against God’s Basement in 2008 stemmed from the fact that the NBC 10 report acknowledged that drug usage was occurring. During investigation, they found that drug use was suspected – especially the use of ecstasy.
Nitrous oxide balloons, alcohol and marijuana were found.
“They weren’t OK with open drug use,” Tossas said of Tru Skool. “You would get yelled at. You would get kicked out.”
In 2002, then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act. Even before the introduction of the act, major rave venues in Philadelphia had been shut down because of suspicions of illegal drug usage.
The RAVE Act was later revised, and the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act passed in 2003, which essentially held rave promoters accountable for patrons’ drug usage.
“Everybody wants to deny drugs, you know, ‘Drugs have nothing to do with it,” Fegan said of Philadelphia’s EDM scene. “No, drugs do have something to do with it. They do.”
While performing at a recent party, a Philadelphia DJ requested that a nitrous tank in the establishment be shut off before his set.
“Right before I went on and played, I went over to my boy and said, ‘Please do me a favor and shut that off during my set.’ I got 10 minutes into my set, and got all of those kids dancing,” the DJ said.
On the topic of drugs and EDM, a Philadelphia-based event promoter who requested to remain anonymous, mentioned the cancellation of a Zeds Dead concert a couple of years ago.
Five people at the Electric Factory were rushed to Philadelphia hospitals after overdosing before the concert in December 2012. Police believed ecstasy was the drug involved in at least two of the overdoses, according to reports.
Zeds Dead, an electronic music duo, had its show canceled that evening.
Anderson said MDMA, or “molly,” is the recent drug that is a force of the newer, commercialized culture.
“In the past, the vibe used to be ‘peace, love, unity, respect,’” Anderson said. “Some of these events today you see some of that, but really the ethic today is being taken over by getting messed up on molly, and sort of dancing, or in some events, a hooking up objective has entered in.”
Peace, love, unity and respect, or PLUR, worked as the guiding acronym for ravers.
Bringing EDM to MTV
Nowadays, it doesn’t take a trip to insider hideouts to hear EDM.
“I do think we’ve seen a commercialized resurgence, mostly because dance music DJs found a way to commercialize their sound, and primarily that was through adding lyrics,” Anderson said.
In 2000, Anderson fell in love with EDM while downloading music online.
“I quickly grew to adore what I would later learn were house, trance and techno music,” Anderson wrote in “Rave Culture.” “The relative absence of lyrics and the fast beat pattern stimulated and liberated my thoughts from what seemed like constant messages of materialism, machismo and heterosexism in commercial radio.”
In the past, getting into many of the raves in Philadelphia required insider communication and access to knowledgeable ravers who knew about the underground hotspots. Eventually, more and more legitimate venues realized the opportunity to profit from EDM, pushing the culture from the underground scene into a more mainstream environment. Anderson wrote of “corporate raves,” or the fusing of authentic rave culture with a business motive.
Now, popular Philadelphia venues host EDM DJs with significant mainstream acceptance. Soundgarden Hall on Columbus Boulevard and Spring Garden Street opened in September 2012 and has housed DJs with ranks on Billboard 200, like Diplo and Tiësto.
“On the underground EDM scene, [the opening of Soundgarden Hall] was a really big deal,” said a Philadelphia EDM-based promoter who requested to remain anonymous. “It’s that mainstream scene. Sometimes those kids will make it to the underground parties and they’ll be like, ‘I’ve been to Soundgarden six times, and I’ve never been to a party like this.’”
Dedication and Bruises: Adding Performance to Rave Culture
Regardless of whether the event is at an underground or mainstream venue, “flow arts” – performances like swinging poi, hula hooping and LED-lit glove performances – are all gaining greater momentum.
“These performances go perfectly with EDM music,” said Genni Biddy, 21, the creator of Vinyl Doll Productions, a group of five female dancers and hula hoopers that performs at EDM events in Philadelphia.
Anderson said she recalled ravers weaving glowsticks in her experiences of Philadelphia’s rave scene, but groups weren’t explicitly asked to perform or make a presence at events.
Mary Shaw, 31, co-creator of Vinyl Doll Productions, started hula hooping in 2009 while she was attending raves and living in Charleston, S.C. Practicing hooping requires “dedication and bruises,” she said.
“I would be bruised all over my hands,” Shaw said. “Anywhere where you have bone and the hoop touches it, I was bruised.”
For events that Vinyl Doll Productions perform at, Shaw said she makes the outfits – usually crop tops and boy-shorts – because it’s less expensive than ordering clothing online.
“We want to bring this sexy appeal to the stage,” Shaw said. “But also, when you’re hooping, you can’t really wear a lot of clothing because you need the hoop to stick to your skin.”
After moving to Philadelphia in 2010, Shaw said she sees a major focus on underground rave culture and local DJ talent in the city.
Shaw said she wants to work as not only a co-creator of Vinyl Doll Productions with Biddy, but as a mentor.
“Surprisingly or not, there are a lot of old heads in the scene, and they’re the ones that aren’t doing the drugs anymore. They’ve learned from that, and they’re strictly just in it for the music,” Shaw said. “I feel like more old heads in the scene should be teaching the younger crowd, rather than bashing them on Facebook.”
A decade age gap spans between Biddy and Shaw, but both started attending raves in their teens.
“I’m a mother of four, and I have to have a reason to go out and party now because I have a family,” Shaw said. “Now, I’m not just attending raves. I go to the ones that I’m working and I strictly just dance. That gives me the release that I need to be happy in my normal, day-to-day life.”
Kerri Ann Raimo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.