This last great subculture of the 20th century could be the perfect one for the 21stOakley
Fast, visceral, and artificial, Gabber is extreme music for extreme times. Derided from its birth at the close of the 20th century as music for and by hooligans, gabber’s musical and aesthetic language is proving resonant for a new generation of designers, musicians and fans. Simultaneously marginalised and commercialised, dystopian in aesthetics and utopian in ethics, this last great subculture of the 20th century could be the perfect one for the 21st.
This hardest of dance musics emerged in the mid-90s in Rotterdam, a fiercely proud port city in the Netherlands. Flattened during World War II, the city’s architecture and landscape was completely reconstructed post-1945. It’s a city of clanking cranes, housing estates that tried to look like brick trees and endless, brightly lit walkways. Labour was largely manual, and heavy. Rotterdammers are known as being bold, friendly, direct – a reputation that didn’t dim as the jobs, inevitably, evaporated in the 80s and early 90s. For the tough teenagers of this tough city, life was getting tougher. And unlike the more easy-going house clubbers of Amsterdam, Rotterdammers liked their music hard. At the club Parkzicht, DJs pushed the tempos and textures up as the night wore on. By 1992, they arrived at gabber. Like normal techno, gabber is made with synthesisers, samplers, computers and drum machines. Unlike normal techno, gabber’s infamous 909 kick-drum operates far faster than a human could ever play, often going up to 200 beats per minute or beyond. Distorted vocals and melodies are laid over the top.
Despite its extremely extreme sound, gabber became big business in the Netherlands. A popular single could sell 50,000 copies. TMF, a Dutch MTV equivalent, would host gabber music videos and TV reports. Each edition of Thunderdome, a brand of mega-raves that solidified gabber’s visual identity, sound and cultural codes, was attended by tens of thousands of people. Millions of compilation CDs, bomber jackets and energy drinks would be sold. Thunderdome would even have on-site tattooists, ready to ink attendees with its furious wizard logo, part of an aesthetic that suggested iconography from metal music and video nasties, combined with the cartoonish futurist signifiers of rave.
For contemporary Parisian label collective Casual Gabberz, gabber’s valhalla remains an influence. “Thunderdome is our main reference. We are amazed by this faculty to create fanaticism! People would get tattoos of the logo, it’s crazy! The visual part of it is really appealing: it’s a good point of entry, even if you are a bit scared of the music.”
Dutch photographer Boris Postma grew up in a village in northern Holland, and was struck by gabber’s visual identity as well as its musical power: “As a child, I was not allowed to listen to gabber because of the stigma connected to the social group it was affiliated to. But I never stopped listening to it. I secretly collected rave fliers that I hid in the back garden. I would look at them, and copy the drawings.”
Gabber’s classic look is as hardcore as its music. Bomber jackets. Razor cuts and plaited ponytails or heads shaved to the bone. Bright, baggy tracksuits over sports bras or bare chests. Trainers bouncy enough to pull off the high-kicking hakke dance. “You could instantly tell who was a gabber by the way they dressed. It was mainly tracksuit pants and hardcore bombers jackets, even in Spain, where it’s not a big scene,” says Marta Hakkuh, a 21-year-old Spanish fan who performs in Italian curator and producer Gabber Eleganza’s Hakke Show. She shaved the sides of her head three years ago, after moving to Holland. “It really does feel good to rave like this! It’s so strong. We just decided to do it because this of old school style that you couldn’t see anymore. We’re bringing the real, the old school gabber back!”
This visual identity is an almost perfect match for the music and history. All of the looseness of earlier rave fashion was shorn off, tightened. This was a fresh, sleek look that required constant upkeep (small wonder the main documentary about gabber style is called Uniform). As with so many working-class styles, meticulousness was deployed as armour: a forcefield of flashiness; self-regard as self-defence. At once hyper-masculine and unisex, with both men and women wearing the same tracksuits, trainers and razor-shaved haircuts, and Oakley Eye Jacket sunglasses. It’s also explicitly futuristic. Clothes to sweat in. Clothes to turn heads. Clothes not to mess with.
Just as the music shows off its machine-made qualities, so too do the dress codes: performance sportswear and artificial fabrics dominate. Oakley’s Eye Jackets, for example, launched in 1994, time perfectly with gabber’s rise, and echo this same hyper-modernity. While round-lensed hippie sunglasses were worn as a part of the classic outfit, later generations of the gabbers picked up Oakleys (or, perhaps, faux-Oakleys). allowing the look to advance the sci-fi aesthetic even further, the polarized lenses providing a subconscious mirror of the scene’s values.
High fashion’s interactions with gabber have accelerated in recent years. Raf Simons continues to draw on its influence, even deploying the Rotterdam Terror Corp logo on bomber jackets for his iconic Summa Cum Laude collection. More recently, Gosha Rubchinskiy used gabber music in a show, and Matthew Williams of 1017 ALYX 9SM published a zine dedicated to Dutch gabbers. For Boris Postma, the appeal is obvious. “It’s a hooligan look! It’s tough, it’s cool, it’s bold. If that becomes an inspiration to new designers and labels then it’s nice because I want to see more of it, as long as it’s an inspiration not a copy, and taken with respect and knowledge about the scene.”
Italy, France, Spain, Russia, Poland and the UK all developed their own particular strain of the music. If nowhere quite took it to heart like the Low Countries, everywhere it went, it was a marginal music, largely enjoyed by economically marginalised people. While other dance subcultures merged into each other in the 90s and 2000s, gabber and its myriad hardstyle cousins would remain a genre apart, with speedcore, terrorcore, Frenchcore and happy hardcore all cultivating distinct sounds and audiences, while all the while sounding prohibitive to outsiders.
“It’s a hooligan look! It’s tough, it’s cool, it’s bold. If that becomes an inspiration to new designers and labels then it’s nice, as long as it’s an inspiration not a copy, and taken with respect and knowledge about the scene” – Boris Postma
These divisions are starting to melt, however. “We hate dividing different styles into different things, and we try to remove these divisions. Hardcore will never die!” say Casual Gabberz, who have released compilations of brazenly genre agnostic music, as well as collaborating with more mainstream dance music institutions like Boiler Room. “We really want to have a global approach to the music, with no barriers.”
Recent times have seen gabber globalise further, used as touchstone in other genres of electronic music. Nkisi, Evian Christ, HDMirror and others have all deployed hardcore-adjacent music in the last couple of years. There was even a night at the elitist techno institution Berghain in Berlin in 2018 organised by Gabber Eleganza. Under the name The Hakke Show, a handful of experienced dancers performed on stage. Marta was one of them: “People were going crazy! I expected that everyone would just go to the smokers’ room, but instead it was really incredible. People went insane for the music.”
“Gabber is a family,” says Nikita, the 21-year-old behind Instagram account UK Gabbers. “There’s three rules: First of all: always be kind to each other. (Two:) Respect each other’s boundaries. Three: have a good time. I’ve never in my life smiled as hard as I’ve smiled at raves. I’ve looked at the stage, looked at everyone around me and I just cried and cried with happiness… In places where kids have much more problems with life, the sounds that they listen to or envelop themselves with are way more harsh and darker. And it’s very tough to be a kid right now in Britain. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get a job. Most of my friends and I cannot say that we feel supported by the government or university. But I do feel supported by my gabber family.”
For Boris Postma, its contemporary resonance is clear. “We’re looking at a time when the future is not so certain, let’s say. For the young audience, having these dystopian scenes on the news everyday, it might be a logical step to listen to dystopian music. It always reminds me of the Day of the Dead in Mexico, when people deal with mortality and loss by addressing it in a festive manner. This is what hardcore does as well: it is a process of dealing with darkness and fear. Instead of running away, we’re facing them, and capturing them in music.”
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