Tuesday, 29 April 2014
Fairly shit Guardian article:
It's after midnight in a repossessed college building in east London. Hundreds of ravers in their early 20s shuffle in front of a wall of speakers, cutting shapes to heavy drum 'n' bass as an MC raps. Upstairs, a queue snakes away from a small table, where a man is selling balloons for a pound. A girl buys one and bounces back to the dancefloor, sucking on its nitrous oxide – laughing gas – before passing it to her friend. For the next 36 hours, the narrow road outside is clogged with vans, cars and taxis arriving and departing. About 1,000-1,500 people come and go until a pipe is broken, the floor floods, and the Valentine's Squatters Fancy-Dress Ball comes to an abrupt end.
Yes, illegal raves – those secret warehouse parties so synonymous with baggy jeans and luminous whistles – are back.
Oscar, 35, runs a cleaning company. Nick, 24, works as a marketing consultant in the defence industry, having recently left a multinational investment bank. Both are part of a new school of rave promoters who use Facebook rather than flyers to organise their free parties. Crews are popping up all over the country. Some of those Oscar works with, he tells me, learned the trade from their parents, first-wave rave promoters.
Facebook pages used by Nick and Oscar's crew have about 10,000 users. Nick handles the lineups – assessing Soundcloud samples sent in by those wanting to play the parties – and writes the online promotional text. Facebook replies are a reliable gauge for how many beers or balloons of nitrous oxide they need to buy to sell to the punters. "Are we over 2,000 [RSVPs] yet?" he asks Oscar as they plan another Project X free party. "I invited 300 more earlier today."
Scores of other crews operate in the city, with the new rave economy built on failed mortgages. Parties often take place in properties on which the banks have foreclosed, and that lie derelict. Perfect homes in which to set up quickly, party, and leave. "Everyone wants to get in on the rave scene lately," agrees Oscar. "Looking at how relaxed the police are about it, I sense there's something coming round. Another law banning squatting, maybe."
Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for The Guardian. Frantzesco Kangaris for The Guardian
Just as before, an air of moral threat hangs over the rave scene. In December, a teenager was stabbed and a police officer injured at Oscar's Santa Stomp party in Wapping, with local politicians calling for the party sites to be secured against "troublemakers". Even then, social media played its part. "[The teenager] recovered well and we caught the little bastard who did it, but it cast a black cloud over our parties," says Oscar. How was the culprit caught? "I had 2,500 people here, so we got on the net and we found a picture of him. We took it to the hospital and the kid recognised him, so the cops took it over from there."
I first talk to Oscar and Nick while they're in the process of stepping up their business by investing in their own soundsystem. We drive to a garage in Croydon packed with another crew's gear, where the pair shop around for two new "scoops" (speakers) and an amp. "We're a network – we know each other all over the country. In a couple of weeks we've got someone down from Nottingham playing our party," Oscar says. It's international, too. "We're doing France in March."
No one's in this to get rich. "I've put more money in than I got out," Oscar says. It cost him about £7,000 to put together a new rig – 8,000-watt speakers, Technics turntables, CDJ consoles, mixers, lasers and lights and a rack of festival-grade amps – and that's before you start adding up the runaround money he needs for fuel, maintenance and to pay squatters for location tips. He keeps in touch with groups of drifters who scout London for suitable buildings (known as "goers"). They get in as homeless residents, inform the police of their new abode, and Oscar starts planning a party in the building that is notionally their home. Once the rigs are in place, a voicemail is recorded on a phone number revealing the location. The phone number is listed on their Facebook pages. Then the doors open. By the time the case against the original squatters comes to court and bailiffs are appointed to evict, it can be weeks since the building served its purpose as a party venue.
Like Oscar and Nick, most promoters have day jobs and are in the scene because they're ravers. Their only reliable source of income from parties is from door fees and selling balloons of nitrous oxide. Given that popular DJs need to be paid at least a token sum and that security companies charge £10 an hour for every bouncer, there's little profit to be made.
The raves are called "free parties" not because they don't charge for tickets, but because they're free from restrictions. Nobody worries about smoking or taking drugs. "We let you do whatever you want," says Nick. "Security only throws out those who act aggressively. You'll get checked for glass and weapons. Otherwise, you're totally free."
Any dealing is usually done by small-fry freelancers who generally pay their way in with some of their goods. More serious drug pushers tend not to be involved – the millions of pounds generated by dealing at the 90s raves ended up attracting the attention of the police, and in turn killed the scene. The idea, says Oscar, is that "some people need to let their hair down properly. Down here we live first by the laws of the land and then by the government – there's a difference." The police seem to be fully aware of this ethos and relatively comfortable with it: at one party I go to, in Beckton, east London, police arrive only to leave after handing out flyers about the dangers of drugs.
At the first party I go to, in a warehouse in Silvertown there's no headline DJ – he's been poached by a rival outfit – and Oscar demonstrates his own unique way of dealing with fire alarms. "It's crying of thirst," he says, taking the screeching object into the bathroom to run it under a tap. The screeching stops. "There you go. A little common sense never goes amiss."
At 10, before the event has begun, there's a cry of "Old Bill!" and two plainclothes officers come in. Oscar makes an announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, the police are here to have a look. Please stay calm." They leave after five minutes, seemingly content, and sound-testing resumes. At 11, there's a power failure and both rigs go down. An engineer in wellies scrambles between the two systems and the main electric panel, finally getting it up and running until the party powers down around 7am.
"See what a little Facebook post does," Oscar says the next week, at the end of another party, handing me a beer in the back of his van. About 150 people had turned up to a food-processing plant in Stratford, on just six hours' notice, the lights silhouetting the dancers against stainless steel walls: moving shadows in purple and green. The event had a charitable cause: door fees (£5) were donated to a family who had recently suffered a death. "We need to clean up the brand a little," Oscar remarked.
Although illegal raves have been an incubator for the electronic music and dance scenes – Wiley and the Roll Deep crew reportedly debuted their acts at raves – you won't hear many artists who've made the crossover to the mainstream talking about it. Media coverage of the scene has been so toxic for so long that few will admit to a connection (even though some name artists do still appear for free at squat parties). Some overground outfits openly support the movement, among them the award-winning radio stations Freek FM (which plays house and garage) and Kool London (drum'n'bass). Tune into Freek and you can hear DJ Madness calling out the party lines for the next squat bash. But that's pretty much where it stops.
So what keeps those on the scene involved, weekend after weekend, hauling tons of equipment though warehouses, factories and institutional buildings? "It's not about the drugs or the money now," Nick says. Instead, it seems to be the excitement of being part of Britain's cultural underground. "Rigs on standby! Call the usual lines after 9pm for location. See you by the stacks," reads a note saved on his phone, ready to be broadcast every weekend.
Names have been changed at the request of the participants