Raving, we’re raving
A review of “The Underground Is Massive”. Michaelangelo Matos’ book on the history of US dance music before and after EDM
The Americans are raving like never before. The country may have invented house music in the first place, but it has taken years, nay decades, for house music and club culture to make it to the mainstream in the United States. That it took the music to be dressed up as Electronic Dance Music (EDM) to do is just one of those things you have to accept, however wrong-headed it seems.
But while EDM has ensured that there are now hundreds of thousands of Yanks going to huge festivals and that the DJs who’ve embraced EDM are superstars like David Guetta or Calvin Harris or Steve Aoki, there was life in the rave before EDM. There was actually, as Michaelangelo Matos points out in his fascinating and enthralling history of America’s underground club scene, a lot of life in that scene.
“The Underground Is Massive” tells the story of a scene which began underground and eventually found itself to be the biggest music game in town. It’s the big picture story told through the experiences of the kids, chancers and hustlers who put on clubs and parties which ranged from the black, gay underground clubs of Chicago and the rave events which exploded in Detroit to the electronica wave of the 1990s, the rise and rise of acts like Daft Punk and today’s EDM juggernaut.
Matos is ideally placed to tell us why it took nearly three decades after dance music became a global soundtrack for it to hit big in the land where it all began. A journalist who contributes to Rolling Stone, Red Bull Music Academy Magazine and NPR and the author of a 33 1/3 book on Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times” album, Matos has been covering the dance scene Stateside for yonks.
One thing is clear from the get-go and that is we are dealing with, as title makes clear, a massive scene. Matos could easily have written twice as much material in his efforts to document a huge, crazy, breathless, massive movement. In order to cover 30 years of dance music in America, from its underground roots to its corporate globalisation, Matos divides the books into 18 different chapters, each named for a different club or party so the reader can follow dance music’s rise and rise from the warehouses and illegal gatherings of the early days right up to the current massively commercial scene.
Matos relies on 300 first-hand interviews, with everyone from Juan Atkins and Moby to Derrick May and Richie Hawtin, and a fascinating treasure trove of secondary sources in the shape of ‘zines, mailing lists and online forums which predominated in the mid-1990s and 2000s. It’s interesting to note that raving began to bubble and take off in tandem with the internet’s rise and Matos is meticulous in mining these sources for first-hand reportage and views. Who knew that the excited yapping of monged ravers after a big night out would prove so useful to cultural historians 20 years later? For Matos, these accounts provide rich “I was there” reporting on the nascent scene, as he makes clear he wasn’t at all 18 events he chooses to talk about.
What’s particularly striking is how Matos writes about the formation and development of rave as a States-wide culture as opposed to just leaning on artist biographies to tell the tale. While there’s a lot of music and artists in the book – and a lot of reminders of great records which need to be revisited – “The Underground Is Massive” is the first book to tell the story of that US scene from its very birth. We’ve seen many such accounts emerge about the birth of the UK and European scenes – such as Luke Bainbridge’s “The True Story of Acid House: Britain’s Last Youth Culture Revolution”, for instance – but this is the first to focus exclusively on what was happening on the ground Stateside.
While the book isn’t necessarily about artists, they do appear in the story to punctuate the narrative. Moby is a central figure in the book, for instance, someone who first emerged with strong electronic tracks before becoming a pop star. There are also telling contributions from DJs and producers along the way. The real gold, though, comes from those who actually put on or attended the events which Matos writes about. The stories which concert promoters like Disco Donnie in New Orleans and Pasquale Rotella in Los Angeles, who was organizing underground events for decades before striking gold with Electric Daisy Carnival, are far more colourful and telling than any artist anecdote could be.
But while the scene was underground, it still created enough waves to come to the attention of the authorities. There are stories throughout the book about police crackdowns, over-the-tip raids and arrests at illegal events. By 2002, raving had reached the US Congress and then Delaware senator – and current US Veep – Joe Biden introduced the Reducing Americans Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act. The RAVE Act (subtle, eh?) allowed for onerous fines and prison time for any promoter or venue found to have allowed the use of MDMA on their property. The act didn’t get enough votes that time but eventually made its way through all stages in 2003 as part of another bill. The rave scene appeared to have been scuppered.
But something strange happened. While the illegal raves which held sway may have withered and died off, the music itself certainly didn’t go anywhere and began to turn up again and again in the mainstream. Matos talks about how dance music became a huge part of the Coachella festival in the 2000s and details Daft Punk’s performance at the event in 2006 as one of those defining moments which led to the EDM explosion.
Indeed, Matos’ initial plan was to end the book with the RAVE Act but it’s probably better that he continued right to the present day. The strength of the book is how he weaves all of these individual histories and accounts and reports together to form a really cohesive narrative. Some characters pop up again and again as their own stories dovetail with how the scene is morphing and developing and their re-appearance is a really good way to keep track of what is a monster story and it makes sense that Matos kept the tale going to the present day.
His coverage of the EDM scene of today is also important. While just a small part of the overall story, it’s illuminating to get a read on this scene as part of that bigger picture. It’s all interesting to get it from someone who admits his halcyon days with dance music were the raves and underground music of old and it’s clear from his writing that Matos had to grapple with his own quality control when it came to popular EDM acts like Steve Aoki, Bassnectar and Guetta.
The reason why these musicians blew up – and why the scene got so big so quickly – was because they were populist and appealed to thousands and thousands of people. It wasn’t the case that they were attracting the outsiders and freaks like the raves of old – EDM became huge because it appealed to the masses. It was mainstream, it was global and it was lucrative.
The Underground Is Massive is a well written, enthusiastic and detailed account of the micro scenes and craziness which went into how dance music and club culture developed in the United States. Like Legs McNeill’s “Please Kill Me” on punk, Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life” on alternative music and Jeff Chang’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” on hip-hip, it’s a vital, immersive, colourful and charged history of an underground culture putting us right in the front row to experience the excitement of these events.