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History

House music broke onto the dance scene in the early 1980s in Chicago as a variant of the disco music that was popular in the clubs at the time. Pioneers like Frankie Knuckles built upon the rhythmic, DJ-centered music of disco, but used drum machines and 4/4 time to create a unique, electronic sound with deep bass lines that immediately gained popularity, especially among the gay community in Chicago. Raves, much like the DIY punk scenes, were illegal, underground gatherings in warehouses and other locations.

Image of Frankie Knuckles

“Godfather of House” Frankie Knuckles

By the 1990s, house music had spread internationally and was one of the most popular genres in the UK and Europe, especially among young people. Raves gained the attention of local authorities, and police often shut down these gatherings due to the illegal use of warehouses and industrial locations as venues and the rampant drug use by attendees. House music’s departure from lyric-centered, message pushing pop music created somewhat of a moral panic as mainstream society couldn’t understand this new wave of music and its fans (Langlois 1992). As house music developed, its popularity spread into the mainstream and eventually fused with the legal entertainment industry, meaning bars, clubs, and festivals now catered to house music fans in Europe, and later the US (Anderson 2009).

Around 2010, the term “EDM” (Electronic Dance Music) came to encompass the now plentiful subgenres of dance music that evolved from house music, including trance, big room, future house, dubstep, progressive house and many others. “Raving” now applies to attending massive international festivals like Tomorrowland, which in 2017 attracted over 400,000 fans over two weekends and paid millions of dollars for world-famous DJ headliners.

Tomorrowland Festival 2014 mainstage. Panoramic image of the stage lit up and fireworks shooting out from the top.

Tomorrowland Festival 2014 mainstage

While many still gather there to enjoy house and dance music in a welcoming and like-minded crowd and indulge in psychoactive drugs in the same way as their predecessors, there is some debate on whether the mainstream commercial nature of these events constitutes a “rave,” as it departs from the underground nature of EDM’s house music origins (Marcus 2017). There still exists a more traditional house music scene, with events at smaller venues and with less mainstream DJs, at least in the US. House music, and its closely affiliated subgenre “techno” are still wildly popular in Europe, as evidenced by the Kappa FuturFestival in Turin, Italy. 45,000 people attended the rave in an old car factory to listen to underground house legends like Carl Cox and Sasha Digweed, albeit in a legally-sanctioned, commercial event. Although not exactly a 1990’s illegal warehouse rave, traditional house music events still do exist as an answer to the more commercial, festival-based EDM events. For years, traditional house purists have predicted the demise of EDM as it is known today, but others welcome the spread of popularity as a means to increase the visibility of dance music as a genre and the positivity that comes with it. British house pioneer Carl Cox explains by saying, “EDM’s an entry level to dance music, and I’m very happy about that. We fought for so long for dance music to be respected there. EDM’s a sound America has latched on to, but once people start going left and right of that scene, they’re going to find their art departments, their Loco Dices and their Sven Väths – and that’s a really good place to be.” While the over-saturation of EDM may seem like a death toll to some, Cox explains that with a more worldwide acceptance of mainstream EDM, listeners will have greater opportunities to discover the classic house tastemakers and legends, expand their musical knowledge and preferences, and further enter into the positivity of EDM culture. According to Cox, the commodification of the older era of house music into modern EDM culture is not a demise, but instead an evolution that benefits everyone in the subculture.

In 2017, EDM is now truly a global genre, exemplified by Ultra Music Festival, which for 20 years has been a mecca for dance music in Miami, and now hosts festivals in Croatia, Mexico, Indonesia, India, South Africa, Thailand and Argentina among many other countries. A disproportionate number of DJs come from Europe, specifically the Netherlands, and the DJ/producer in 2017 has become an international superstar. DJs like Calvin Harris, Tiësto, and duo The Chainsmokers raked in around $40 million each in 2017, according to Forbes. Along with numerous festivals worldwide and their own global tours, these DJs receive millions to have a “residency” at a large nightclub in Las Vegas or house music haven Ibiza, Spain, and these DJs perform several times a month at these venues.

This aerial image shows the lights and fireworks of the biggest music festival in North America: Electric Daisy Carnival: Las Vegas 2016

The massive scale of festivals today: EDC Las Vegas 2016

Truly, EDM has come a long way from its humble beginnings to now being recognized by the international nightlife industry as an extremely lucrative and profitable business opportunity. Due to this increasing profitability, the production quality of EDM events has risen exponentially, along with attendance of these events. Due to the high-energy nature of the music, visual effects at live EDM events are almost as important as the music itself. Lights, lasers, projections, fireworks, flames, live performers, and compressed air are all utilized regularly to enhance the event experience. In all, a high-end EDM event is an overwhelming and exhilarating audio-visual experience.

The main rave philosophy is one of good vibes and acceptance, outlined as PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect). Unlike other musical subcultures, violence is not common and ravers are generally nice to each other. People at raves often give each other things, are friendly and accepting, and are understanding about accidents like spilling a drink or bumping in to someone. Some ravers report that they try to take this philosophy of good vibes and apply it to the world outside raves (Wilson 2006).

Despite the near-universally accepted mantra of PLUR, authorities usually look down upon these events due to the rampant drug use and resulting overdose casualties. Organizers canceled the popular Electric Zoo festival in New York after two ravers died from ecstasy-related complications. LA County has considered banning future festivals after 49 concert goers were hospitalized from overdoses at the Hard Summer event, with two women dying. Despite the increasing commercial success of EDM and the comparatively lower levels of violence than at other music events, many cities and law enforcement agencies are wary of the “rave culture” and have banned future events outright. According to a 2002 issue of the Virginia Law Review, “statements by legislators, prosecutors, and DEA agents indicate that the government equates raves with drug use” (Dore 2002).

Raver at EDC 2012. He is wearing a colorful tunic and is covered in flowers and has some sort of orange furry hat on.

Raver at EDC 2012

Rave culture attracts people globally because of the welcoming community and sense of belonging, as other subcultures do for their members. Many are drawn by the usually non-judgmental nature of raves andfestivals. Ravers feel free to express themselves and escape their every day realities, and are not discriminated for their race, gender or sexual orientation. After all, house music’s roots are firmly in the gay community. Due to the international popularity of rave culture, ravers from all over the world attend these events knowing other ravers will accept their cultural identities. Many attendees proudly celebrate their home country by bringing flags.

However, just as in any subculture, performing authenticity and possession of artifacts and insider knowledge are generally important to the members of the rave culture. Being original and having esoteric knowledge of the music is significant to ravers. While everyone is accepted on some level, more casual fans like “EDM Bros” aren’t as interested in the history of the music, or knowing about underground DJs. These casual fans are somewhat looked down upon because they prefer to spend their time at the mainstage, and use the rave culture as an excuse to take their shirts off and overindulge in alcohol and drugs. More “authentic” fans aim to be more original in both their appearance and music preferences, listening to DJs viewed as less commercial, mainstream, or sell-out. As Sarah Thornton explains, “club cultures embrace their own hierarchies of what is authentic and legitimate in popular culture – embodied understanding of which can make one ‘hip’” (Thornton 1996). 

There are several artifacts that can denote an authentic member of the rave culture subculture. Kandi are beaded bracelets that are exchanged at raves and festivals; the more kandi one has at events means the more raves one has attended. In addition, totems are signs, pictures, flags or other distinguishing items that can be held aloft at festivals that can signal friends from afar and give the person a degree of individuality in the crowd. Festivalgoers often attend in costume, and some perform “gloving” routines for mesmerized ravers.

Praying Hands Totem for Tchami @ EverAfter Music Festival 2015. Two women in the crowd are holding the sign up in front of the stage.

Praying Hands Totem for Tchami @ EverAfter Music Festival 2015

Pacifiers are also sometimes worn and used, as they alleviate the teeth grinding associated with ecstasy use (Dore 2002). Many ravers continue this tradition of taking psychedelic drugs, the most popular of which are MDMA, LSD, mushrooms, and ketamine. MDMA has been the primary drug of choice since the first raves, and it is popular with ravers because it “makes them feel closer to those around them, heightens their sensory perceptions and induces psychomotor restlessness relieved by dancing” (Kahn-Egan 1998). The drugs and music work together to foster the openness and energy that are the hallmarks of raves. These mind alterants also serve as a symbol of the counterculture: they attract ravers by “affording visionary insights, often reinforcing suspicions concerning the corruption, greed, and ‘soullessness’ of official culture” (St. John 2003). It is important to note that there are also ravers who do not partake in drugs and are still included in the community. These activities and items denote a more “authentic” member of the rave culture, along with a deeper and wider understanding of the music.

"God is a DJ, Life is A Dancefloor, Love is the Rhythm, You are the music" graphic

Many draw direct similarities between EDM music, PLUR, and religion

For many ravers, there is an aspect of spirituality and religiosity to raves. The idea of people gathering together for a shared, transcendent experience led by a guide shares a lot with traditional religions. Many authors have explored the religiosity of raves: the music and dancing as ritual, the “shamanic” state of consciousness, and the DJ as spiritual leader (St. John 2003). Some churches and other traditional religious groups have embraced this spirituality and incorporated EDM music and elements of raves into their services to attract a younger audience.


EDM tastemakers spread their influence on the overall music scene as the genre has gained popularity in the last decade. Hip-hop/EDM crossover has been especially prevalent, bridging the gap between two of the most popular genres in music today, although EDM producers pull from many musical sources, including country, rock, reggae, and soul music. Despite the obvious differences between a rave and a rock or rap concert, namely the lack of live music being played, the similarities in the culture of the fans remain. Trap music, a newer subgenre of EDM, sounds more similar to hip-hop, employing a slower tempo and exaggerated use of bass and snare drums while maintaining the electronic melodies found in EDM. However, trap music or dubstep events may not even be considered raves in the traditional sense, and perhaps have more in common with heavy metal concerts than house music raves. Fans of trap music go to events to headbang and participate in moshpits in a similar manner as those at metal and punk gigs – a departure from the more dance-oriented raves.

The implications of this are that EDM contains subgenres that appeal to a very wide audience, and perhaps the music fans that would have been attracted to punk or metal in the past are bringing that same intensity and passion to EDM events as it has risen in popularity among young people over the last decade.


Commodification

Green Heineken beer pavilion next to a stage at Ultra Music Festival

The “Heineken House” at Ultra Music Festival

Commodification is the act of transforming original and creative content into a commercialized product ready for mainstream consumption. In the case of rave culture, commodification is an ever present reminder of how far EDM and raves have traveled from their underground beginnings. Raves that were originally condemned as illegal, drug-fueled gatherings, are now corporate-sponsored multi-million dollar moneymaking ventures. This is a process known as diffusion. Ravers originally organized as a response to mainstream culture, but today,  tickets to modern EDM festivals now cost upwards of $400 and $10,000 for special VIP packages, with corporate sponsor advertisements displayed prominently. Some events, like Ultra Music Festival, even have exclusive merchandise and alcohol deals with major companies. In addition to these corporate sponsors, the phenomenon of DJ club residencies, where nightclubs spend millions of dollars to have a famous DJ perform at their venue on a regular basis. Las Vegas nightclub Hakkasan has been estimated to spend roughly $200,000-$300,000 a night on top-level DJs. This figure shows the complete level of acceptance of rave culture into the mainstream nightlife industry. No longer an inferior subculture, EDM has become one of the world’s most popular music genres and a lucrative money-making opportunity for many companies.


 Inclusion and Originality

Person making heart hands at a music festivalEDM and rave culture originated from the gay and black communities in Chicago in the 1980s and at that time, these ravers were characterized by mainstream culture as outsiders. However, as the music and the culture have firmly entered the mainstream, the members of this subculture have remained characteristically open and affirming to new members, maintaining the inclusivity that hallmarked the original movement. EDM festival-goers come from a diverse background of ages, races, nationalities, sexual orientations and economic situations. Not only are these people coming from unique backgrounds, but in rave culture, they are encouraged to be different and original. This sense of welcome and escapism through music is evidenced by the outlandish costumes worn by festival-goers. The vast majority of those wishing to participate in this subculture and attend these events wholeheartedly believe in and practice PLUR when interacting with others, both at music events and in their daily lives.  While perhaps still looked down upon by outsiders, the sense of community and the love of the music unites a wide range of people together in a unique manner.

Significant Scholarship

Books

Cover of "Rave Culture" Book

Anderson, Tammy. 2009. Rave Culture: the Alteration and Decline of a Philadelphia

            Music Scene. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

  • Anderson explores the multifaceted and evolving sociological nature of rave culture in Philadelphia, including drug use, involvement of law enforcement, and the commercialization of EDM. 

Cover of "Rave and Religion" Book

St. John, Graham. 2003. Rave Culture and Religion. Routledge Press, London.

  • St. John examines the post-traditional religiosity of raves, and the ritualism and spirituality of rave events such as Goa and Burning Man Festival.

Cover of "Club Cultures" Book

Thornton, Sarah. 1996. Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT.

  • Thornton’s seminal work focuses on the youth subcultures of raves and clubs, and delves into authenticity and the complex hierarchies that evolve within the rave subculture.

Cover of "Fight Flight or Chill" Book

Wilson, Brian. 2006. “Doctrines, Disappointments, and Dance: Perspectives and Activities in the Rave Scene.” Fight, Flight, or Chill: Subcultures, Youth, and  Rave into the Twenty-First Century. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Kingston, Ontario. 72-105.

  • Wilson’s ethnographic research provides insight and perspective into the rave youth subculture and the subversion of mainstream cultural norms, along with the complex identities and ideologies of the young people who participate in the rave subculture.

 

Articles

Dore, Michael H. 2002. “Targeting Ecstasy Use at Raves.” Virginia Law Review, vol. 88,

  1. 7, 1583-1623.

Kahn-Egan, Chrys. 1998. “Degeneration X: The Artifacts and Lexicon of the Rave

            Subculture.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 20, no. 3, 33-44.

Langlois, Tony. 1992. “Can You Feel It? DJs and House Music Culture in the UK.”

            Popular Music, vol. 11, no. 02, 229-238.

St. John, Graham. 2012. “Tribalism, Experience, and Remixology in Global Psytrance

            Culture.” What Matters?: Ethnographies of Value in a Not So Secular Age,

            Columbia University Press, New York City. 248-276.


(Published by Gus King)

Foundational Music

  • Frankie Knuckles – Your Love (1984, active since 1977)

Often called the “Godfather of House,” Frankie Knuckles collaborated with singer Jamie Principle for a sensual house tune that was a mainstay at gay and black nightclubs in Chicago in the 1980s. The track has maintained a revered status and was a commentary on the connection between gay rights and the freedom and possibilities of nightlife and the dance floor.

  •  Carl Cox – I Want You (Forever) (1991, active since the 1980s)

Building upon the legacy of Frankie Knuckles, British DJ Carl Cox helped establish the house music scene and underground rave culture in the UK. Cox was known as the first “celebrity DJ” and toured the world with the help of breakout hits like this. Cox helped push house music to develop and helped globalize the genre and subculture of raves, and he remains an active performer and producer in 2017.

  • Robin S – Show Me Love (1993, originally released in 1990)

Into the early 1990s, this track took house music into the US mainstream: the song became immensely popular in New York and internationally due to its timeless synth hook. The song reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, number 1 on the dance club chart, and was certified gold by the RIAA. The song remains popular today, and a wide range of artists has remixed and sampled the song in their own works.

  • Daft Punk – One More Time (2000)

Released as a single from their album Discovery, Daft Punk’s track truly brought the rave culture into the 21st century and global mainstream popularity. The French duo used revolutionary audio filters and processed and auto-tuned vocals to bring a very unique sound that retained the house music roots in their message of celebration and the freedom of the dance floor. These new developments pushed the boundaries of house music so much that it was now considered “dance,” a precursor to EDM. The track reached commercial and critical success, topping many charts, and being voted by Mixmag as the greatest dance record of all time and by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest overall songs of all time. The song launched Daft Punk’s illustrious career and remains a mainstay in the EDM scene.

  • Tiësto – Adagio For Strings (2005)

Released off his album Just Be, this track exemplifies the leaps taken in the 5 years since “One More Time”, as “trance” has become the preferred dance subgenre, and the most popular raves are no longer playing house music. Trance is much more electronic, emotional, and powerful than traditional house music, but it retains the repetitive rhythm and beat of its predecessor. Tiësto, a Dutch DJ and producer who remains active in EDM today, sampled the orchestral arrangement “Adagio For Strings” by Samuel Barber. This track remains a seminal piece of rave culture and EDM music, and was voted by Mixmag as the second greatest dance record ever (after “One More Time”).

  • Skrillex – Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (2010)

Skrillex was originally a guitarist and vocalist for several punk/emo bands in the Los Angeles area, but in 2008, shifted his attention to producing electronic music. This track was a breakthrough and put “dubstep” on the international mainstream, using distorted synths and clipped samples and vocals to create a wildly unique and experimental sound that captured the attention of the first generation of young music fans that had grown up with house music and EDM. This track, a staple in hardcore raves, pushed the boundaries of what EDM music could be and launched the career of one of the most technically gifted producers and tastemakers in the genre, evidenced by his eight Grammy awards, the most for any EDM artist.

  • Avicii – Levels (2011)

Swedish producer Avicii and his track Levels are perhaps the most widely known of any in the EDM genre. The progressive house track has one of the most recognizable synth hooks in music, and samples Etta James’ 1962 gospel song “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” The track topped every chart for weeks, was certified multi-platinum, and launched Avicii into superstardom. The track maintained the high-energy rhythm of the rave culture, but made it commercial enough for radio play and product endorsements. This track marked the complete acceptance of EDM into the global music culture.

  • Swedish House Mafia – Don’t You Worry Child (2012)

The DJ super group Swedish House Mafia, which is comprised of Axwell, Sebastian Ingrosso and Steve Angello, produced this classic track with the help of emotional vocals from singer John Martin. The trio had come to embody the role of celebrity DJ: massive world tours, modeling gigs, endorsements, and international fame. Some discredit their achievements in the genre due to being “sell-outs,” but this feel-good track about fatherhood cemented their status as legends in EDM and rave culture, even being called the “faces of progressive house.”

  • Martin Garrix – Animals (2013)

Just 17 when this track released, Martin Garrix is a musical prodigy and found overnight success with this minimalist “big-room” release, following the trend of popular tracks with big buildups and high-energy drops. He is the most famous of the “bedroom DJs,” in that he was a fan of EDM and rave culture and started DJing and producing in his house after watching a video of Tiësto. This track catapulted Garrix to the top of DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJ list and in front of thousands of fans at festivals and club residencies while still just a teenager. The track was a commercial and critical success, and was the first instrumental track to chart in the US in 20 years. Garrix’s success with Animals blurred the lines between fan and celebrity within the rave culture and EDM music.

  • Tchami – Adieu (2017)

Just as EDM critics began to decry the death of EDM due to stale, overused sounds and over-commercialization, music pioneers like Tchami breathe fresh air into the genre. The French DJ/producer created his own unique sound, known as “future house,” and in this song, he features some hallmarks of classic house music, including soulful samples and that timeless kick/clap arrangement. However, Tchami’s incredible attention to detail and production level in creating new sounds has perfectly blended the old house grooves with futuristic elements, creating a fresh sound that doesn’t cater to commercial trends. Many in the rave culture consider Tchami to be the current tastemaker in EDM, and his commitment to quality of music over commercial success in tracks like Adieu have earned him accolades within the genre.

Other Resources

Media

Short Documentary

Frankie Knuckles at Power House Club, 1986 Opening Night (Phil Ranstrom, 1986)

Chicago filmmaker attends opening of new house music club and interviews Frankie Knuckles about the new music phenomenon and the message behind it.

Documentary

Britain’s Illegal Rave Renaissance: LOCKED OFF (Vice, 2016)

Vice documentary surrounding the state of illegal underground British warehouse raves in 2016, as an answer to the traditional, more “sanitized” club culture.

Documentary

Under the Electric Sky: EDC 2013 (2014)

Poster for Under the Electric Sky movie

Poster for Under the Electric Sky movie.

This feature-length film traces the history of the Electric Daisy Carnival festival in Las Vegas with interviews from the biggest artists in EDM. It also interviews and follows several attendees of the festival, who describe what being a part of the rave culture means to them as a central part of their identity and an opportunity to express themselves freely.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ib_2P1J0esE

Live Set

NWYR (W&W), A State of Trance at Ultra Music Festival, Miami (2017)

This hour set from Dutch DJ duo NWYR is a perfect example of the high-energy, high-quality production of a major festival. The duo premiered all new trance songs in a complete audiovisual experience.

Other Resources

Bellstedt, Megan. 2016. The Magic of EDM Culture. Odyssey, New York.

Incorporates testimonials from members of the rave culture about what the EDM culture means to them.

Jenkins, P. Nash. 2013. Electronic Dance Music’s Love Affair With Ecstasy: A History. The Atlantic, New York.

Traces the history of the connection between MDMA and EDM music, and the spirituality connected with drug usage in music subcultures.

Marcus, Ezra. 2017. What’s Underneath Dance Music’s Big Tent. Vulture, New York.

Explores the alleged “death” of EDM music and the relationship between house music’s historical roots and the next generation of EDM.

Rothfeld, Becca. 2014. EDM and Hippies: How Ravers Became the New Flower Children. New Republic Magazine, New York.

Charts the rise of EDM and the culture of the fans, artists and promoters that contributed to the wild growth in popularity of the genre.

VanDuzer, Todd. 2017. EDC, PLUR and the Rapid Growth of EDM Culture. Huffington Post, New York.

Information on EDC and how PLUR plays a large role at the largest festival in North America.