Here we are again, enjoying the spoils of once more having taken an underground culture and slipped it under the door as pop culture. There’s a new electronic music festival popping up in every available sunny patch of land, and the radio is awash with sounds once heard only in dark warehouses, basements, and other fringe locations within the historically inextricable context of a rave. But just like rock and roll and its rise to household fame, there are bound to be casualties.
Since the American rave culture’s sudden thrust into the daylight of beaches, stadiums, and city streets–and the eyes of the media–a divide has widened beneath a historically all-inclusive American electronic music culture that is indicative of a greater shift in how we will view the scene in the future. A growing distinction is being made by many major electronic music festivals between themselves and the idea of an “indoor, glow-in-the-dark rave,” and manifestations like the bans of traditional rave gear are only the beginning.
It’s Not A Rave. It’s A Music Festival
CRSSD and Ultra Music Festival are the latest major events to join brands like Diplo’s Mad Decent Block Party and HARD Events in prohibiting key items of a raver’s outfit, which extends to “excessive kandi” in the case of HARD, MDBP, and CRSSD, since 2014. While it might seem arbitrary, it’s one of the only tangible ways to enforce the trending stance that HARD founder and CEO Gary Richards confirms personally in his just-released teaser video for HARD Summer: “HARD Summer’s not a rave; it’s a music festival.”
There has been pushback on ravers in the past, and to some, this will feel like nothing more than a trend on a downswing having simply seen its day. Others feel that what we’re seeing today could mean a more permanent splitting off since the opposition is coming from within–from the events that have given the culture life, and vice versa–as they alter the very definition of the event to discourage ravers from attending. While electronic music enjoys the fruits of its unprecedented surge into the US mainstream, it’s impossible to deny that key aspects of the culture are being sifted out along with those who practice them, leaving only components that are rounded and scalable, with ravers’ own mainstream attention earning them a one-way ticket back to the underground. But could raving ever truly belong in the public eye anyhow? Or is it fundamentally bound to the shadows? Either way, with major brands like UMF and HARD setting the example of how to address ravers,” their current days in the sun seem to be numbered.
But the distinction of being a raver-free festival hasn’t been necessary in the US until a few years ago. Nobody cares what you wear in fringe cultures, and there’s no need for a more homogenous alternative when it’s only the fringe attending, anyway. But with the popularity of electronic music in The States at an all-time high, the demand for rave-free events has reached critical mass as well. Perhaps the time has come for rave culture to jettison the mainstream sensation it helped smuggle back into the Americas and retreat back into dark warehouses. But no matter your opinion–whether you consider the accessories and attire a timeless expression of individuality or the outright scourge of the live music scene–this is the next major factor that will affect your annual festival choices and define the events themselves: rave gear and the presence of ravers. Granted, the distinction is manifesting through the rules and regulations of major events, but are they solely to blame?
The Age & Technology Gap
This divide is in many ways an age issue. Many of today’s late 20s/early 30s fans remember raving and sympathize with the rave culture as something they did in their teens and commonly the first place they first encountered electronic music in person, some altogether without the use of the Internet for music discovery until later in life. However, with the advent of digital streaming and major festivals, raves have not been a necessary part of the average fan’s gateway to the culture for some time, resulting in a generation who is either introduced to the eccentric dress and customs outside of its dark, clandestine original context or never at all. Meanwhile, as dance music spreads across radio and television, first-time fans are finding all-new love in the sounds on offer and joining the culture far beyond the ages socially acceptable for raving, if there even is such a thing. Never has the demand for a raver-free festival option been so primed to expand into permanence. Thus, you have the rise of events like the all-new CRSSD Fest in San Diego, which celebrated its first-ever edition in March. Granted, it’s a 21-and-over event, and they said a few pieces of kandi are acceptable, but nonetheless it confirms our grander situation in plain English: “this is a festival, not a rave.”
Kevin Chapman, aka SNBRN, played the inaugural CRSSD Fest and said the “mini Coachella” went off smoothly and clearly reflected the idea of a mature alternative, although this was likely a result of the higher age limit and the funk-and-disco-heavy lineup and not the ban itself, which was not absolute.
“We’ve all kind of had our run-in with it, you know, when you’re much younger,” Chapman said of his raver days. “It was a thing, but now what I see is it has shifted–like anything in the music scene. Our generation missed the raver pants, like the bell bottom-styled stuff. We had the kandi kids, but that’s slowly moving away.”
But “raving” and the behaviors and attire that define it are part of a 20-year-old culture in the US–one that has survived direct attacks from the highest forms of government. Is it really just dying out on its own?
Widening The Rift
CRSSD Fest, who was not reachable for comment, was joined almost simultaneously by Ultra Music Festival in March of 2015 with their own announcement that facemasks, totems, glowsticks, pacifiers, backpacks, and more would not be permitted at the festival. They add themselves to HARD Events and Diplo’s Mad Decent Block Party in being vocally against the colorful attire and accessories.
Diplo and Mad Decent cut off kandi, in addition to “LED Gloves or LED microlights used for light shows,” pacifiers, and anything stereotypically “raver,” at their Mad Decent Block Party in 2014 in response to drug-related deaths the previous year, claiming along with a “come for the music” argument, that kandi offers a place in which to hide contraband. HARD Events openly opposed kandi bracelets in 2014, but the kandi making station at Day Of The Dead the year before makes for a confusing overall message. Both have carried this stance into 2015. While not every festival’s reason is exactly the same, they all contain some version of the declaration “this is not a rave,” and “come for the music.” But does dressing a certain way really prevent anyone from doing that?
Music blogger and veteran festival-goer Gideon Miller has a live-and-let-live mentality when it comes to kandi and the rave culture.
“There are two different directions you can take this. One is that people are doing this because they assume it has some sort of danger associated with it, and the other is that they are trying to clean up their image. They’re going to tell you that it’s probably the first, that they’re concerned about people’s wellbeing, but everyone knows that’s crap, because unless people are poking holes in pills and wearing them on their wrist, I don’t see how they can use them to smuggle or hide drugs.
The second piece is probably the more real one, that there is a really strong negative stigma in pop culture with the idea of a rave, and the easiest things to point out would be the kandi bracelets and some of the other objects. You can’t really moderate people’s outfits who are coming in, because that’s a really tough thing to enforce, but if you’re really trying to separate yourself, it’s the jewelry, it’s the necklaces… because it’s something the security guards can do fairly easily. It just feels a bit disingenuous, the reasons that they say they’re doing it.”
The Image Issue
Here’s the underlying public relations factor that couples with our broader explanation of the age and technology gaps to explain today’s lack of sympathy for kandi kids: when it comes to drug use, the public thinks that the outward, strangely dressed ravers are the bulk of the problem. The festival organizers and fans know better, but are unable or unmotivated to convince the major media and politicians otherwise. They can only wish to build a better image, and kandi ravers present a convenient scapegoat. The only ones who think kandi kids are the only ones heavily intoxicated are the outsiders–lawmakers and the media–but make no mistake: theirs is the only opinion that truly matters, especially if you’re trying to maintain the image of a major festival.
“First off, there is no difference between the people going to a night time ‘rave’ event and Ultra,” says Chris Barlow of Terravita. “It’s the same people. Now with that said, Ultra is under a lot of pressure from the City of Miami this year due to security concerns from prior years. The city views rave attire and toys as being associated with drugs. This is the real reason they are being banned. It is a bummer that people can’t wear what they want or play with the toys that they want at Ultra, but they will still have the ability to dance with their friends to amazing music, which is what it is all about anyway.”
He admits that while the situation is complex, the real message here is in the outcome, regardless of the logic behind it.
“It is better than not having Ultra at all, which is the other option. If people want to wear rave gear, then they need to learn how take care of each other and handle their shit so these security concerns do not arise and force cities to put pressure on promoters. Promoters are already taking a large enough risk throwing events in the first place. The last thing they need to worry about is fighting against the city.”
All three members of LA-based Terravita have been involved in the rave scene dating back as early as 1996, which is where they eventually got their start as a unit. While they never got full-on into kandi on a personal level, they could be seen regularly in the era-standard UFO, Kik wear, or JNCO pants and zip-up track jackets commonly seen alongside their multicolored, fluorescent-clad brethren.
“In our opinion, people should be able to wear whatever ever they want, wherever they want,” Barlow says, “but at the end of the day, people should be coming for the music, not so they can wear specific clothing.”
As a member of the bass music vanguard, Barlow and the rest of Terravita aren’t concerned with the affect these bans will have on their shows, as bans on rave gear and the greater decision to make a distinction between a rave and a festival is being seen almost exclusively from non-bass events.
“To be honest… there is barely any bass music booked at Ultra anymore, and there is zero booked at CRSSD, so at this point, there isn’t an issue,” Barlow says. “When this starts happening at festivals that book a decent amount of bass music, like Shambhala (pictured above), Moonrise, Imagine, Electric Forest, or EDC, then there may be an issue.”
So the Clippers are better than the Lakers, marijuana is becoming legal, and rave culture is no longer an inextricable part of dance music. And? Is this the end of PLUR and kandi raving? How large of a claim can this demographic lay to the state of dance music scene today anyhow? In search of answers, we pulled up a chair with the walking, talking, big-ass beard-having, 25-year veteran, Tommie Sunshine.
“This core, these kandi kids who have kept this going and kept this spirit alive for so many years–and it really is two-plus decades at this point–they’re a huge part of this, and it’s probably a pretty thankless place to be, because if it wasn’t for them, this scene wouldn’t have evolved, wouldn’t have sustained–they truly are the beating heart of this. And anyone who turns a blind eye to that is fooling themselves. They are the real ravers. They are the ones who get this on a level that has existed for two decades. And these ‘tourists,’ as I like to call them, drop in and in 18 months will cycle out.
Tommie pre-dates the kandi culture, but recalls seeing the first weak glows of what we now know as the kandi raver. Backpacks, bracelets, glowsticks, and kandi started taking root around ’93 or ’94, too late for him and his circle of friends to genuinely adopt, but perfect for an annual Halloween gag costume.
“So I’d borrow JNCOs from someone. And whatever the cool new brand was, I’d have the T-shirt on; I’d put the bracelets on, and it was hilarious because one night a year, I actually got to feel what that was like–to kind of step into the world. However, I always had a very close connection to those kids, because I really got it, and I understood what they were–you know, the PLUR thing, I always got what their center of gravity was, and I continue, to this day, love the fact that there is such an unbridled innocence to that. And if we can be living in a world that’s this topsy-turvy, and this upside-down, and these kids are living in an idealistic utopia, God bless them. I think it’s amazing that has continued, and it’s still kicking–it’s going nowhere.”
A warm thought, but is it realistic with so many leading event brands adopting this stance?
“This is a very 2015 approach to solving a problem. They think that by banning the gear and the paraphernalia, they can somehow crush the circumstance. If you want to solve the problem, you have to get to the root of the problem, and you have to understand the problem… they think that if kids don’t wear [rave gear] to Ultra, then there won’t be any drugs at Ultra,” he says. “And in doing this, you’re choosing to alienate yourself from the culture. And when you do that, you have to be very careful, because the culture could choose to alienate itself from you.”
Tommie expects that in the end, this will only be a temporary setback for the culture.
“This kandi debate, this has gone on a dozen times already. This was going off in 1994; people were complaining about this, and you know, that’s two decades ago… you can’t stop this. And what I think is very important about it that everyone has to recognize is this movement is so powerful, and these kids’ center of gravity and their ideals are so true and so real that over the course of two decades, nobody’s been able to squander them. That’s intense. As much as everyone’s ever tried, they’ve never been able to wipe this out of the equation. So will it end now? No f*cking way. There’s no chance.”
Somewhere To Call Home
Kandi’s history suggests that its native home of Los Angeles will be a prime canvassing ground in its campaign for survival.
“In the US, the beating heart of the rave scene was always LA. It was the first place to have raves in America, and that is unarguable,” Sunshine says.
It would seem that lovers of kandi raving still have an ally in the City of Angels. Insomniac CEO and LA’s godfather of massive-scale raving himself, Pasquale Rotella, and his fleet of A-list festivals have no plans of implementing such a dress code.
“Let people wear what they’re going to wear. It’s crazy,” Rotella (pictured below) said in a press conference. “Dance music events were supposed to be the one place you could go and not be judged. You didn’t go to a Hollywood club back in the day. Everywhere you go, you get sized up in Los Angeles. In the underground events that later became raves, that now are festivals, you’re supposed to feel comfortable. There are enough bad things happening in the world, and if people have a belief or have something that allows them to connect with others by trading beads, that’s a positive thing. Don’t kill that. That’s crazy.”
When it comes to Insomniac events, Rotella subscribes to a mentality as old as raving itself.
“Right now, we encourage people to dance like no one’s watching. We want people to wear whatever they want. It’s not a place where we want people to feel uncomfortable or feel like they have to dress like everyone else. It’s a beautiful thing.”
A Separate Piece
So in theory, our live music environment–which is where every scene’s culture lives and evolves–is developing a dividing line along dress and behavior. While there will always be overlap, the more eccentric, frequently kandi raver culture will look to fortify itself at events by Insomniac, the major bass music festivals like Shambhala, and others not wishing to follow suit, lest it slip back into obscurity. Those wishing for an experience without the presence and implications of “ravers” will have plenty of options as well. In short, if you care one way or the other, this is the latest major criteria by which you will make your festival selections in the future.
“Just in the same way that people choose where they’re gonna go by the lineup, I guess people are gonna have to pay attention to the rules,” Sunshine says, “like ‘well, what are the rules? What am I allowed to do?'”
And whether or not you agree, we’re all essentially looking to foster the same culture in the end.
“I see everybody going in the same direction of wanting to be taken seriously. With American pop culture and the reputation of the kandi kids, and all of that, people are trying to distance themselves from that in order to be taken more seriously and grow as an establishment and not be this underground thing. So you’re seeing all the festivals start to do it,” Chapman said. “I think we’re looking big-picture here.”
And choices aren’t a bad thing.
“I think it’s healthy to have multiple markets under the umbrella of EDM or Electronic Music,” says Anthony Rotella, aka Mayhem (no relation to Pasquale). “If kandi culture is your thing, there are places for that. If it isn’t, there should be environments for that as well. I can understand the frustration on both sides, but in the end, we’re all here for the music right? The specifics shouldn’t inhibit you from enjoying the show.”
And logic aside, choices have consequences.
“If the freedom to wear what you want is important to you, please be accountable for your actions and watch out for those around you so that the privilege is not taken away due to security concerns,” says Terravita’s Barlow. “With that said, sometimes it’s unavoidable… we ask that people don’t let it ruin their fun.”
And if you don’t like it, don’t go.
“When you sign up to go to something, you’re voting ‘yes’ for its existence. If someone is presenting you with something you don’t like, don’t go,” Sunshine says. “There are too many choices to have to adjust who you are to participate.”