The Home of the Rave

Promoters hurry to get their acts together -- before parents, police and the courts decide the party's over.

"And sometimes, you have to change along with the system."

Ten years ago, impromptu promoters weren't above smashing locks and windows in order to gain access to vacant buildings in lower downtown and the desolate Platte Valley. Back then the events weren't raves, but parties -- a local offshoot of the underground, electronic dance music scene that had started in the British subculture and in the late '80s moved into abandoned warehouses across America. By the early '90s, Denver had caught the buzz. Hundreds of scenesters were connected or committed enough to find the local parties; in most cases, their locations were announced the day of the event, sometimes mere hours before they were to set to start.

Thomas Heath's Out of Our Heads runs parties like a business.
John Johnston
Thomas Heath's Out of Our Heads runs parties like a business.
Promoter Chris La Soya moved raves up from the underground.
John Johnston
Promoter Chris La Soya moved raves up from the underground.

Like the punk rockers who'd been holding their own warehouse events in Denver since the mid-'80s, early rave promoters enjoyed a thrilling, if precarious, existence. For many, the goal was to throw a party without raising the awareness, or the ire, of Denver cops -- and they sometimes succeeded. In impressive feats of subversion, they'd stage events at which hundreds of people danced to loud music beneath pulsing colored lights -- and no one outside even realized that a party was under way. But other events were not as successful, and eventually the Denver Police Department added the pesky parties to its list of downtown irritants. A few promoters managed to develop law-enforcement relationships that allowed them to continue to operate; sometimes they even hired off-duty cops to work security. But for many others, the cat-and-mouse game of eluding the police was part of the party mystique. It added to the sense that you were part of something decidedly outside the norm -- a tribe of club kids who shared an appreciation for beats and for beating the system.

In rave circles, the early '90s are now considered the "good old days" -- the days before cops, weary of simply stumbling upon events in progress, started figuring out how to stop them in advance by accessing the various Web sites and information hotlines that are the primary means of communication between planners and partygoers. They were the days before "rave" became synonymous with "drugs" in the mainstream media consciousness, before everyone from 60 Minutes to Time magazine to Beverly Hills 90210 (in one episode, an unsuspecting Brandon Walsh is dosed with a fictitious drug with properties similar to those of Ecstasy) attempted to understand and explain this strange new phenomenon that was taking hold in American communities and keeping its children up all night.

Today, of course, electronic music is neither underground nor anti-establishment -- a fact evidenced both by its presence in Gap commercials and by its SoundScan figures. In 1999, techno savant Moby went platinum with his release Play, while artists such as BT and Paul Oakenfold began selling out traditional concert venues. The genre's popularity among the high school set has nearly equaled, if not surpassed, that of hip-hop and rock and roll; its fashions -- the baggy, zippery pants, the cutesy, emblem-emblazoned T-shirts -- are available everywhere, from the Wal-Mart rack to the Calvin Klein circuit.

"Right now this music is 100 percent mainstream," says Rushing. "It's not like this top-secret world that only a few people here and there know about. That's how it used to be. And most of the rave promoters are still motivated by a love of the music. That's what separates us from your average concert promoter who's going to bring in any act of any kind as long as he thinks he can make a profit. But everyone knows there is money to be made in this if you know what you're doing. And, right now, you have got to know what you are doing."

"All of a sudden, things just kind of blew up. It got a little bit ridiculous," says Chris La Soya, a longtime raver who was involved with a couple of local production companies before he launched Pure Form Atmospheres in January 2000. "In the beginning, it was 300 people who were there because they loved the music. But then the music got so huge. It's big-league. You could hide 300 people. You cannot hide 5,000. It's like you wouldn't even think of trying to hold a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in the middle of nowhere and hope that no one would notice. It wouldn't be smart. It wouldn't be safe. But that's what started happening with some of these promoters."

Clothing-store owner Thomas Heath operates a production company called Out of Our Heads with partner Chris Irvin. Like Rushing, Heath has watched Denver's scene give birth to one raver generation after another, with the numbers getting bigger each time. "Madonna is nominated for a Grammy right now with an electronic album that's not unlike the music that you would hear at one of my events," Heath says. "This music has already persevered for more than twenty years. It's pretty obvious to everyone that it's not going away."

The music may not be going away, but raves could be headed in that direction. The death of Brittney Chambers and the even more recent hospitalization of a Highlands Ranch teenager who became critically ill after attending a rave in Boulder have intensified the state's efforts to stop the use and spread of Ecstasy, a task that seems to start with putting an end to raves.

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