Seeking Brutal Dance Music in Oakland's Gabber Underground, and Finding It Kinder Than Expected
In the mid-'90s, a new sound emerged from the rough clubs of Rotterdam. Young Dutch ravers took to the extreme side of techno and decided they'd create something even more intense. The genre is gabber, and many consider it to be the most brutal form of dance music ever created (here's an example). Best described as the "thrash metal" of dance, it's a vicious onslaught of ultra-distorted kick drums and violent samples at speeds often in excess of 200 beats per minute. (For comparison, hip-hop is often at 90 and house hovers around 120). It's an underground style that's had its share of controversy over the years--most notably in the form of its popularity among European neo-Nazi skinheads. Its negative associations caused it to recede for a while, but a new crop of producers (such as the Netherlands' Angerfist) have attempted to redeem it from the fascists and move it back towards respectability in the modern rave circuit.
You don't often hear of gabber parties in San Francisco. Sometimes a side room might offer a DJ or two, but for the real deal, a dedicated event, you need to venture deep into Oakland's wasteland-like expanse of strip malls and warehouses. This is exactly what my friends and I did last weekend when we called a phone number and determined the location of a rogue gathering called "Yo Gabba Gabbar!" The event's Facebook page says it caters to a "responsible 16+" crowd, listing a variety of sensible commandments such as "no weapons, no attacking other ppl with malicious intent, no stealing, no blah blah blah."
We parked our car in a nondescript parking lot in front of a shuttered Chinese restaurant in a part of town best described as completely dead. My friends -- one a total gabber head, the other more or less oblivious -- had brought a flask of bourbon to augment the night. We sat there in the car trying to figure out which of the many warehouses held our party. Then, a knock on the window. Two glassy-eyed skater kids looked at us with suspicion.
"Hey guys, are you here for the party?" they asked.
"Yeah, oh yeah, totally."
"Oh, okay, we're the security for the event. You're going to have so much fun, it's great in there. Do you want us to walk you in?" They noticed the bourbon. "Oh, that's okay, if you want you can drink that out here. Is it glass? Yeah? Oh, you can just put it in an empty water bottle and bring it in. We have a few inside if you want one."
We walked and talked as they guided us down the street toward a side door on one of the buildings. They started reiterating the rules, but stopped themselves, "Yeah, you guys seem okay -- you're all what, over 25? You're not going to be a problem." I asked if they ever had any problems. First he said "No," then hesitated and said, "Well, yeah, sometimes." He casually lifted his shirt revealing a hatchet tucked into his jeans, "If it ever gets too rowdy they just call us inside and send the guy with the gun out. We pat everyone down. I mean everyone with guns has to keep them in their cars. If anyone gets into a fight it's a race to the trunk ... and whoever reaches their piece first has the smallest dick." My friends and I looked at each other. The door opened. "Have fun guys!"
The entrance to the event was like a mixture between a doctor's office and a TSA checkpoint. A more imposing security guard had us empty all our belongings onto a table and gave us each a comprehensive full-body pat down. In the corner, two angelic sober-faced people did their best to comfort some ravers that appeared to be in the throes of an uncomfortable psychedelic experience. "It's $20, you don't need a hand stamp, there are no ins-and-outs." Another door opened, fog streamed out, and a whole new world of day-glo fluorescence beckoned us forth.
For all the cautions about violence outside, the party itself was one of the most welcoming environments I've ever been in. This goes double when you consider that my friends and I looked like a squad of narcs amid the elaborately costumed ravers in attendance. As we stood there taking it all in, one came up to me and glanced at my camera. An awkward silence, but then a smile: "Hi, my name's Sam, you look overdressed. What's your name?" Kandi kids lounged around on sofas, exchanging bracelets while tripping out on psychedelic projections and an infinite loop of clips from the "Yo Gabba Gabba!" children's show. But it wasn't all Kandi; there were other tribes in residence as well: people in spike-covered full-body armor, girls in Anime shirts and short shorts, some in hip-hop attire, some steam-punks, and even one guy dressed like a retro-futuristic Captain Morgan. The bottom line: it didn't matter what you were wearing, everyone was fully accepted and welcome at this party.
Behind us, two Dancesafe volunteers had set up a booth covered in flyers helpfully describing the positive and negative effects of nearly every conceivable recreational substance: DMT, LSD, cocaine, alcohol, nitrous oxide, ecstasy, you name it. Curious ravers would come by and pick a up a few, read them, and carry them away. I asked the people behind the counter, "How do you feel about the Oakland rave scene today?" Without a beat, a girl responded, "Okay, do you know how we experience linear time?" I said yes. She squinted, "Okay, some people don't. The Oakland rave scene is like a river: sometimes it gets polluted, but then it cleans itself out. A lot of people don't even know what PLUR means anymore." I asked about the favored drugs. "MDMA, though a lot of people take 25I and DOI is getting more popular."
Meanwhile, on the dancefloor, a good natured mosh-pit had developed. It was a modestly sized room, with large glow-in-the-dark depictions of Shaggy, Scooby Doo, and other cartoon characters looming out above the action. A sign hanging prominently in the back showed the word "dubstep" with a bold strike through it. Impossibly fast rhythms formed an awesome sensory barrage that whipped dancers through their frenzied movements. The DJs were impeccable -- obviously seasoned vets, who mixed their extreme music almost exclusively on vinyl. They employed harsh mixer tricks, cutting stuttering rhythms and hard stops that recalled classic hip-hop turntablism. Many of the DJs were costumed themselves; the first wore a neon-yellow mohawk with a black bandanna drawn tight across his face. Later, one cut the music and yelled something to the effect of "ARIZONA HARDCORE!" to screams of delight and fist pumps.
Yet as good as the music and DJs were, the dancefloor came in waves. The speed of the genre doesn't lend itself to continuous dancing, so many would get a dance in for an hour or so, and then cool down before returning for another round. There was a constant ring of people chatting around the floor, taking sips from nitrous-filled balloons while catching up and enjoying themselves. We stayed for as long as we could; we intended to stay 'til morning -- one DJ, named "Cuntpuncher" seemed too good to miss -- but ultimately our exhaustion got the better of us. With the warehouse still jumping, we grabbed our things and headed back to the car for the long ride home.