On the cover of The Prodigy’s recent seventh studio album, No Tourists, is a vintage London bus.
Its destination: The Four Aces, Dalston Lane, Hackney – the first club that the rave group played in 1990, seven years before it was closed and 17 years before Hackney Council demolished it to make way for three residential tower blocks where a three-bedroom flat will currently set you back as much as £825,000. If there’s a more bleakly appropriate visual metaphor for the way in which London’s social and cultural fabric has changed over the past three decades, I’d like to see it.
I’ve spent a lot of time in 2018 thinking about this cover. Do The Prodigy know The Four Aces has been shut down? Do they know it’s been turned into luxury flats? Do they understand the irony of using a transport icon associated with a certain kind of twee jingoistic Englishness, especially in the year Brexit consumed us all? Knowing now that two of The Prodigy spent much of the ’90s racing go-karts and bikes in their neighboring mansions, I’m not so sure it’s much more than a nostalgic gesture towards their rave roots.
I’ve thought a lot about what the term “rave” means in 2018, too. One interpretation pitches rave as a sonic signifier or stylistic choice – the genre’s pitched chords, breakbeats and the 303 squelches were familiar fixtures on many of the year’s club releases. Last month, a little over 27 years after XL Recordings released The Prodigy’s debut single, ‘Charly’ (a track that perfectly captures the essence of the typical ‘rave sound’) it released ‘The Core’, a track by a new Shed alias full of pitched stabs and tumbling rhythms that could have come from the same era. “Top tune takes me back to 1990,” says one YouTube comment. “Averagely oldskool ya feel,” says another.
I was only eight years old when ‘Charly’ was released, but I still remember vividly how transgressive that track and the raft of rave hits that followed were when they appeared on television, usually on BBC1’s prime-time chart show Top of the Pops. The Shamen’s ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ – a barely-veiled love letter to MDMA sung by a charismatic frontman wearing leather bondage gear – had to be toned down for the show to remove some of the lyrical references (the chorus is quite literally, “Es are good”) to the drug. Much of the music I’ve loved this year, from artists including D. Tiffany, Lone, Neville Watson and Eris Drew, has referenced the rave era in some way, either directly or indirectly, but it’s hard to imaging any of it causing the same kind of moral panic.
Of course, this music couldn’t cause a moral panic now because, despite The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett saying “rave hasn’t been given the props it deserves”, it’s part of the UK’s cultural fabric in the same way the ’60s counterculture, in time, became mainstream. Where the hoover sound popularized by Joey Beltram’s ‘Mentasm’ and ‘Charly’ was once a kind of a primordial call to arms for ravers, it’s now a cozy sonic reference point. Online clothing stores such as ASOS have entire sections devoted to “festival clothing”, outfits that may not be identical copies of the clothing worn at illegal countryside raves in the ’90s but that acknowledge these events changed the way people dress and experience music in an outdoor setting — even if that setting is a council-owned park or refurbished warehouse.
This leads me to the other key interpretation of rave I’ve thought a lot about this year – not as a sound, but as the communal feeling created when people get together to dance. Holding or even taking part in a rave in the ’90s was, in its own way, a radical political act, one that forced the government to bring in new laws to squash them. A rave today, however, is more likely to take place at an city festival, on a branded livestream or a former industrial space where the party starts at 1pm and ends at 10:30pm on the dot. Spanish party brand Elrow’s confetti cannons and set dressing are so important to its core concept that the parties come across more like a Cirque du Soleil performance than a rave.
The obvious reason for this situation is that the collapse of physical sales and paltry streaming revenue has led artists to do whatever they can to make money – even if that means playing a stage or festival sponsored by an alcohol or energy drink brand. Nobody begrudges artists doing what they need to do to make money, but is it possible to have a transcendental rave experience when flanked by corporate logos? Everyone is different, and I had a great time dancing this year at Primavera Festival in Barcelona despite omnipresent brand sponsorship, but there’s no way that anyone could consider throwing shapes to Four Tet’s remix of Bicep’s ‘Opal’ at the Aperol Spritz Beach a radical act, as fun as it may have been.
Whatever the situation at these gigantic events, it’s never particularly clear where the money is going. The artists will get paid, but beyond that, who knows? As Ostgut Ton artist Barker pointed out on Twitter recently, the producers making the music being played by the DJs at these events don’t get any royalties either. “Dear promoters, please book more producers you love, and book more live sets,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll have a bunch of instagram DJs with nothing to play because we all had to get day jobs.” Nothing could be further from the utopian ideals of rave than a trickle-down model where wealth is replaced with the vague notion of “exposure”.
Even at an underground level, where corporate sponsorship is largely absent, the age-old issues of overzealous door staff, overcrowding and expensive rates for everything from the cover charge to the cloakroom still plague clubs around the world, particularly in London. Objekt recently asked his Twitter followers which London venues were the “most relaxed, comfortable and safe” to be in, and the resulting thread is illuminating, though no real consensus is reached. In my experience, ticket prices have skyrocketed over the past few years, and at some of London’s bigger venues, you can expect to pay the same amount as a ticket to a day festival to go to a daytime party. It’s hard to have fun if you’re already broke on arrival.
So what does all this mean for “rave” as a movement in 2018? For some, our obsession with the past may be preventing us from realizing our true potential. “A picture of the future, imagine a 90s bootleg club facsimile blasting onto human ears — forever,” PAN’s Mat Dryhurst recently tweeted. “What we are witnessing is a consolidation of a mythical golden era in lieu of newer and less obviously saleable ideas”. Whether he was talking specifically about the current obsession for rave is unclear. But his sentiment, that nostalgia hinders us from developing new musical futures, is pertinent, especially in the UK, where Brexit threatens to take the country back to the 1950s.
Personally, I don’t believe nostalgia and optimism for the future are mutually exclusive, especially in terms of “rave” as a stylistic construct; my favorite house track of 2018, Eris Drew’s ‘Hold Me (T4T Embrace Mix)’ and my favorite techno album of 2018, Neville Watson’s The Midnight Garden, succeed because they imagine new possibilities beyond their nostalgic reference points. It’s probably no coincidence that both artists are rave lifers.
The way in which corporate interests have co-opted underground music culture for commercial gain is harder to reconcile. Evidence from the past few years suggests that illegal parties in the UK are on the rise, not just due to venues closing, but perhaps because licensed venues have become too expensive too. It’s depressing to think that young people are being priced out of rave culture, but if even just one of these illegal parties spawns a new scene or genre, then perhaps there’s hope for the future, especially in the UK, where Brexit is positioned to hit the youngest and poorest the hardest.
In trying to figure all of this out in my head, I’ve returned to Eris Drew’s attitude to rave, underpinned by an entire philosophy she calls the Motherbeat. For Drew, rave has the power to be an ecstatic healing ritual, even in 2018, when it’s difficult for people to dance freely together without persecution.
“I think it’s extremely healing to be with other people and enter these states, it’s through community that something becomes sacred,” she told RA earlier this year. “It’s why anti-harassment and safer spaces are so important, because we cannot ask people to dissolve their ego at places where they’re in danger. There’s no such thing as a truly safe space, but there’s a lot you can do to make it safer. And just because the ideal can never be met doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t be trying to meet it.”
Scott Wilson is FACT’s tech editor. Find him on Twitter
Keep up with all of FACT’s Best of 2018 coverage here.
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