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Thirty years later and rave still hasn’t left the dancefloor

As The Rave Story launches in London, we look back at the movement that shaped clubbing as we know it today

“Twenty five years ago nothing was possible, but everything was possible,” resident Rinse FM DJ and rave aficionado Uncle Dugs tells me. We’re sitting in the basement office of Club Aquarium on Old Street along with some of the pioneering DJs and promoters from the mid-80s to early-90s UK rave scene. In a few days, the club will see the launch of The Rave Story, a showcase celebrating rave culture through original artwork, posters, and photos from the era, alongside a series of seminars hosted by some serious rave scene royalty. Described by the organisers as a culture that came from nothing and went on to inspire thousands, if not millions, of people, The Rave Story will tell the real story of rave “by those who shed blood, sweat and tears to keep the vibe alive.”

As acid house exploded in the 1980s and the popularity of ecstasy boomed, the UK witnessed its greatest cultural, societal and musical revolution since the 1960s. In what was perhaps the most important youth movement of the last 50 years, rave culture emerged as a backlash to the hyper-exclusive clubbing scene that existed in Britain at the time. It gave people who were not only unwelcome on the existing club and music scene (but who didn’t want any part of it) a space to listen to the music they wanted to, and the opportunity to party in a far more organic, hedonistic way than had ever been seen in Britain before, or, some would argue, since. In the same way as punks, rockers and mods before them, ravers created a new space for themselves in British culture, totally transforming society and paving the way for music and clubbing as we know it today.

Before acid house and rave, the UK’s nightclubs were one of two things: either places like Elton’s in Tottenham, where “even on a Thursday night you’d have all blood up the mirrors from where someone had been glassed, you didn’t want to catch people’s eye and there was always tension,” according to legendary DJ Slipmatt, or “West End elitist clubs, for the beautiful people and the art students, listening to Rare Groove at Shoom,” as Richard Raindance, one of the organisers of the famous Raindance raves, puts it. “They weren’t for us. We were the outsiders,” says DJ Billy ‘Daniel’ Bunter. The natural step for these outsiders, then, was to create their own space. The creation of the rave scene was the social revolution that began to break race and class boundaries in Britain. For Bunter and others from working-class backgrounds, “at school we were told: you work hard, then you work hard for someone else and this is your life now. Going out, getting pissed, getting into fights. That’s what surrounded us. But we didn’t want to go to the pub and get pissed, we didn’t want to be told we have to slave away for someone else and get very little pay at the end of it.”

“As jungle crept in during the early 90s, it became more about brands, Moschino and Versace shirts began to appear, and by ‘94 everyone was wearing the big high-end brands. Jungle was more of a flashy thing, much more show-offy than the rave era that came before it”

The natural progression was to start putting on their own parties and creating a space for themselves. “We did it all ourselves. You wanna put a record out? Fuck it, do it yourself. You wanna put out a magazine? Fuck it, we’ll do that by ourselves too,” says Raindance. The music also began to change. While they had initially been drawn to the dance scene, with its drug culture and acid house-soundtracked freedom, the dance scene didn’t give them what they needed. So they moved away from house and ended up with hardcore and jungle.

“Our creative edge, our ruggedness and our backgrounds came out in the raves,” says Raindance. “Our surroundings and our energy came out in the music. It gave us all a creative outlet.” Up until this point, race and class stereotypes had dictated people’s lives in Britain. This new refusal to conform “led to a real breakdown between people of different colour. It was a real game-changer. It was madness.”

Initially, raves had been put on in warehouses. People like Richard Raindance and Joe Labyrinth would spend their evenings scouting out suitable abandoned buildings in London, kicking the doors in and getting a team of people together to squat the building for the raves. As the police began to crack down harder, the game of cat-and-mouse intensified and, as Uncle Dugs says, “whatever the police tried to do, these guys found a way round it”. And so the rave scene moved into licensed venues like the Four Aces in Dalston, where legendary rave night Labyrinth, which shared its name with rave kingpin Joe Labyrinth, continued to keep rave alive. Far from ending rave, the move into licensed venues merely changed the nature of the parties. The demographic became wider and people could come from all over to enjoy rave culture regularly. “Who made the rules at the Four Aces?” says Labyrinth. “We did, we made the fucking rules.”

Style-wise, rave again kicked back against existing trends. “It was a loose-fit thing,” says Uncle Dugs of the eras prevailing fashion ethos. Brands such as Chipie, Naf Naf and Ton Sur Ton were big in the early days of rave, alongside the synonymous acid smiley face t-shirts, which were “everywhere in ’88-’89”. As the years went by, rave style progressed in the same way the music did, never keeping still and taking influence from everywhere. It became fashionable to wear record-shop, label and rave-promotion clothing as well as “stuff that was kind of piss-takes of big brands of the time. You would get a t-shirt with something like an Evian bottle on it, the font would be the same but the wording would be changed to ‘raving’,” Dugs continues. As jungle crept in during the early 90s, it became more about brands. Moschino and Versace shirts began to appear, and by ’94 everyone was “wearing the big high-end brands. Jungle was more of a flashy thing, much more show-offy than the rave era that came before it.”

What was it that made rave so popular, so transcendental when it came to colour, creed and social background? What brought people from every walk of life together? Its euphoric, ecstasy-fuelled atmosphere where the predominant feeling was love and happiness, rather than people getting drunk and fighting, appealed to a broad cross-section of people. The clandestine, ‘no rules’ nature of the raves themselves kept it fresh. While anyone was welcome, in an age where internet and mobiles were basically non-existent, you had to be in the know to get to a rave, adding to its popularity and its ‘us against them’ feeling. “Clubbing culture is everyday now. Back then it was mystical, no one knew anything about it. It was like nothing that had ever come before it or since,” Uncle Dugs elaborates.

“After 25 years, the interest in rave goes beyond the music,” says Bunter. The rave scene spawned a whole new form of art. The artwork on the flyers used to promote raves was unlike anything seen before. When Slipmatt sampled “Under Me Sleng Teng” in a hardcore context, that was art. The way people put on raves, they created a culture. “It was not a fad,” says Bunter emphatically. “It was never a fad.”

Today we crave the freedom, energy and rebellion that the rave scene represents. We live in an age where music, as Slipmatt says, is increasingly saturated. The stories of people kicking in warehouse doors and throwing impromptu raves seem wild to a generation of young people whose closest experience to raving might be a night in Fabric. And yet, we are still trying to keep the spirit of rave alive. Their music endures, more than any other genre I can think of. Every genre of dance music today can trace its roots back to rave, and Lipmaster Mark, one half of rave duo The Ratpack, sums it up nicely. “They all want a bit of us,” he says.

And so we carry on throwing squat parties and raves in abandoned buildings. The relationships forged in the underground music scene during the era of rave continue to produce collaborations between musicians from different musical genres, backgrounds and colour. It is not only nostalgia and a feeling of ‘we want what they had’ that sees the rave story gaining the interest that it has. Rather, as Richard Raindance says, it is about ravers “reclaiming their history” and then moving forward to break new ground. Rave is not the story of a short-lived musical movement, but rather, an enduring cultural, societal and musical transformation that continues to resonate today. In order to understand our own society and our own music, we have to understand the transformation that came first. When I ask the guys if they have anything final to say about a culture that changed their lives and the lives of so many others, there’s a chorus of “we’re not stopping”. That is the essence of rave. It will never stop.

The Rave Story will exhibit Wednesday February 24–Friday February 26 at Club Aquarium, Shoreditch