House Music Scratches for a New Vibe in Houston
On the drunk side of midnight, in a stylish Midtown lounge called Union, the dance floor is chaotic, yet benevolent; the DJs, effusive, yet democratic -- laying down beats in a way that's part free-for-all, part group effort. They trade off tag-teaming the decks, passing the turntables around like hot potatoes.
Brotha Jibril smiles, tips back a Red Bull and savors the scene through his narrow, squarish glasses. He's been waiting all month for this. Olive-skinned, with a round face and a little goatee, Jibril lived the nocturnal existence of a full-time DJ a few years back and made a damn decent living off it.
Now he puts in 40 hours a week at a mortgage company in Sugar Land.
On Monday, he came into the office and his boss was riding his ass. Had to "pick up the pace" and "meet his quota" and all that. The only thing that kept him going through the week was a whisper in the back of his mind, reminding him that tonight he had his guest gig at Rent, a wildly popular monthly party. Call it aural yoga; the buzz will have to carry him through another 30 days or so of spreadsheets and tabulations.
Brotha Jibril is a master of the house sound -- that stepchild of disco born in Chicago some 20 years ago, with its resolute 4/4 beat, deep bass grooves and vocals often sampled from black divas.
Rent is a speck of light along a dark, quiet musical horizon -- a mature vision of the electronic dance music party, an "adult rave" of sorts. Since its inception, house music, together with its many electronic cousins and offspring, has billed itself as the sound of the future. These days, with hip-hop flexing its muscle, some fear that it may become a thing of the past. So Rent seems unusually optimistic for an otherwise struggling scene. What's stranger still is that Rent's hopes for sparking a revival are resting on the vocals of Stevie Wonder. And Diana Ross. And Joe Strummer.
This is how dance music grows up.
The sky is bleached a gloomy blue-gray, blotting out the afternoon sun, when Chris Anderson steps outside Chemistry Records to have a smoke with a DJ down from Austin. The weather suits the mood just fine.
"Dance music is really the redheaded stepchild," says the Austin DJ, known as Robert M. "You say you're into dance music up there, and they look at you like you might as well be talking German."
"Everything here is still pretty fucking fringe underground," says Anderson, Chemistry owner and a godfather of the local scene.
"It takes that much work to get 200, 300 people out there nowadays, whereas before, you make your flyers, six weeks, go hand 'em out and you get 500, 600 people at your club," says M.
"Man, I been going out to some of the indie shows, and you see all these, like, ex-ravers people there. Like, I walk in there and all of a sudden I know all these people. I'm like, 'Wait, I know you! I know you!' " They share a laugh, a hard laugh. "And they're like, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, I'm into this now. I'm into abstract hip-hop.' "
"Yeah, man." A brief pause and M remembers something. "Did you see that article on guitar sales versus turntable sales? Guitar sales are through the roof, while turntable sales are back down."
Anderson jumps on this point: "And it was just the opposite a couple of years ago! 'Cause it's all about being in a band now."
"Yeah, it's all about being in a band now." They shake their heads, reminiscing about the glory days when you could book five locals, two rooms and add it up to 2,000 people. M says that strangers come up to him now, starry-eyed over his mix tapes from legendary parties back in the day. The nostalgia feels premature and bittersweet, given the recent flatlining in a scene that, more than any other, has to have a pulse, a beat, to survive.
"It's depressing. It really is," says M.
"The future is very grim, and it doesn't look any better," says Anderson. With online downloading, vinyl peddlers like him have been hit just as hard as big studio execs.
"We're all stuck in a situation where we're hitting our mid-thirties and it's like, what're we going to do?" says Anderson. "I've been self-employed for six years. And it's like, yeah, I wanna call somebody up and be like, 'I wanna sell mortgages.' "
It's a cool Friday in late winter, and they go back inside the shop, having finished their smokes. The racks of Chemistry look sad these days, half empty like a Soviet grocery store. It wasn't always this way.
In 1992, Houston got its first taste of raves. Anderson, now 32, had just returned from England and helped put on one of the earliest events here. His quarter-page flyers were ghetto -- pictures snipped out from a magazine, text done in Microsoft Word -- but several hundred people showed up, presaging the slow, steady build of success over the next eight years. As the all-night underground dance parties grew, so did electronic music in its many forms: house, techno, drum 'n' bass and trance, among other hybrids and offshoots. By the mid-'90s, crowds of 1,500 were standard, with the higher end pushing upward of 6,000 or 7,000. One-off parties could easily turn five-digit profits, and local DJs could expect to pull down hundreds of dollars an hour for performing.
The events took place at traditional live and club music venues in addition to abandoned warehouses, open fields and parking lots. The International Ballroom, or I-Ball, in southwest Houston, was a favorite spot, hosting parties almost once a month.
"Pretty much anywhere and everywhere you could set up a sound system, someone tried to throw a party," says Levon Louis, a local DJ and producer.
Adrian Page, who estimates that she went to hundreds of parties during the period, attended her first one at age 14.
"When you're young and you've found something new -- I guess I was pretty much brought up on rock and roll, and for me to be exposed to this completely different world, it was amazing, it really was," she says. "It was just a completely different experience, a completely different world."
"It was coming from every angle," says DJ Bizz, a muscular and imposing 35-year-old who spins at the Rent party. Bizz had been Anderson's partner at Chemistry and was a part of After Dark, a rave promotions organization. At his town home west of Bellaire, he hauls out a box of mementos from the era, including a photo album stuffed with eye-popping flyers. Slick design accelerated throughout the decade, along with the size of the crowds, the frequency of shows, the quality of music and, yes, the amount of ecstasy being ingested.
"In the mid- to late '90s, it was retarded," says Robert M, referring to the serotonin bonanza. "That's what happens when you have kids at an adult thing." Indeed, just as youth largely propelled the success of the rave movement -- and with it, electronic dance music -- youth ultimately sealed its fate.
Chris Anderson watched what might be termed "the pant leg index," a measurement of raver fashions that saw the width of jean bottoms grow to absurd proportions. Teenage kids dragged their oversize denim along the ground like floppy elephant ears, decked out in candy charms, Tickle Me Elmo backpacks and, Anderson shudders, pacifiers.
"The pacifiers became the bling of the rave culture," he says. Such bling -- the paraphernalia of bacchanalia -- threatened to caricature and stigmatize the music.
Mister Spacely, a local DJ who describes his brand of UK hard house as "a car alarm with a bass line behind it," admits everyone was responsible for the indulgences of their scene. It's a sobering self-analysis shared by several others.
"Behind the decks, quite honestly, all I saw was a bunch of kids on drugs," he says, adding that DJs and promoters fed the image to some degree by putting allusions to "E" or "XTC" on flyers, CD covers and track names. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, citing a 2002 study, claims that teenagers who attended raves were seven times more likely to try ecstasy.
In a big way, raves and dance music were the perfect cultural metaphor for the times. The cold war had ended and September 11 had yet to decimate political confidence. An often-spouted (and clumsy) acronym was PLUR: peace, love, unity and respect. With the stock market booming, economic optimism trickled down to a generation of young people with more disposable income to blow than ever before. What better way to express that exuberance than by dropping E and dancing feverishly until the sun came up?
"It was a very special time to be a part of the new media formats," says Louis. "No one knew what to expect. Everyone felt this thing building, and it came through in music and visual art and graphic art and dance and expression and every facet of youth culture.
"The rave concert was at the forefront of that," he says, channeling hippie ideals through a postdigital prism. "Things were going well; the country was in a pretty good spot, and with the millennium right around the corner, everyone had this unison of feeling that something big was right around the corner."
Transit was, by all accounts, that tipping point -- an orgy of underage excess at an AstroArena megaparty of 18,000 people in April 2000.
"Transit was the Playskool equivalent of My First Rave," says Mister Spacely. "A whole bunch of kids told their parents they were staying at a friend's house, and they ended up coming out and taking E and seeing shit."
"It was bigger and bolder than anyone, including the promoters, could have expected," says Louis. "Leading up to that point, it was, well, we're having a good time and we've got great lasers and all kinds of freaky people hanging out -- how far can we take it? How big can we go?"
He remembers showing up to the parking lot when it was still daylight out and seeing a line of thousands of kids snaking around the building, blowing whistles, jacking up their sound systems and shaking the gates to get in. Those who performed were mesmerized by countless glowsticks flickering in the audience like tiny fireflies in the distance.
"It was super-packed, and a bunch of kids were just sitting down on the floor, just being messed up," says Daniel "DZ" Velasquez, who spun that night. "I remember having to walk through just puddles and puddles of kids; that's what I used to call 'em is puddles, because they used to be like liquid."
Several in attendance recall that the water situation turned dire. Lines stretched endlessly to get to water stands, and some people started drinking out of a faucet along the wall. In the bathrooms, sinks overflowed as people clogged the drains with paper towels and dunked their cups in to cool off. The scene had overheated.
"It was just gross. It was grossly bloated," says Louis.
Bizz, ever the entrepreneur, admits some envy looking back on Transit.
"Ultimately, we wanted to do the big show," he says, talking in his mile-a-minute voice. "After Dark was upset because we thought we should be doing the whammy. Was it big? Hell, yeah! Did it wake everybody up? Hell, yeah!"
When Channel 2 broadcast a report from the party, it woke up parents and police. Raves, which had barely surfaced as a blip on the national media radar, now exploded into mainstream awareness.
"It was as if electronic music and techno music and drug abuse went hand in hand," says Louis. In another interview, he adds, "When you got story after story after story of kids too young to be out caught on tape on drugs and dressing like straight out of The Wizard of Oz, these images, they're unsettling at best and definitely raised eyebrows for people across the globe."
Around this time, with calls coming in from parents, authorities ratcheted up pressure on the local gatherings. Lieutenant Dennis Gafford in the narcotics division of the Houston Police Department supervised FAST, a forfeiture and abatement support team that targeted the rave problem through code enforcement and undercover drug stings.
No one in the dance music scene will deny that drugs were a part of the rave movement. What frustrates them is the fact that dance music was unable to disentangle and distance itself from the stigma left by that movement -- and that police squashed the growth of the music by sending a chill through the party scene.
"I'd say that it wasn't uncommon to experience these types of events along with techno music," says Gafford. "But we certainly weren't about to condemn a particular type of music as involved in the drug culture."
Yeah, right. DJs, promoters, fans and the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund, a national nonprofit formed to protect the industry, would hardly buy that, even those who concede that the scene needed to be cleansed. Mister Spacely was spinning at a warehouse party in 2001 when police burst in with their flashlights shining and loud voices demanding that he shut down the music and call up whoever was in charge.
At a Galveston rave that year, police arrested 84 people. Kelly McCann, a promoter for the Scooby Doo Crew, had been throwing the Lovefest beach parties biannually for a few years prior to Transit. He says that two helicopters were used that night to spotlight crowds of people so that police could charge in, grab them and throw them in the paddy wagon. "It looked like a war out there," says McCann. A major party called Cyberfest in Katy ended similarly in disaster as police blocked off roads and barricaded entrances the night of the show.
Along the way, the very term "rave" was discarded.
"After Transit, the heat was on when the city came down on us, especially houstonraves.com," writes VJ, founder of the Web site. "We actually branched off into houstonparties.net in order to beat the heat At one point it was very difficult to do anything, and I feared being shut down by the officials."
As anxiety spread that each new party would be a bust (literally), presale revenues plummeted, and promoters like McCann tried shifting to circuitous -- and comparatively geriatric -- event titles like "An Evening With." (As though Sting or James Taylor were going to show up with an acoustic guitar rather than a DJ toting a crate full of records.)
Hyperia, our Twilo just east of downtown, opened in 2000 on the premise that dance music could be pushed into the clubs. Neil Heller, a longtime player in the local club business who ran Hyperia, sensed the momentum shifting in that direction. "The timing was perfect," he says. Elsewhere, particularly in California and New York, such a model had worked, though not without struggle.
Here, though, "the stigma of rave just became overwhelming," says Heller. He declines to offer details, but he does note that "Hyperia was definitely in the crosshairs for not only the city but also the national scene." In November 2002, after frequent police activity, the club closed.
On New Year's Eve this past year, the Scooby Doo Crew held its final party as well. "The scene had outgrown the name," says McCann. "I looked around at my parties and I said, 'I'm the only 35-year-old here.' "
Brotha Jibril is quick to point out that he's far from being the most prolific DJ in town. He points to legends like Chris Anderson, Andrei Morant and his roommate, DJ Bizz.
"Those guys saw a lot more action than I did. Way, considerably more than I did," he says, leaning back from the mixing board downstairs at the town home he shares with Bizz. If electronic dance music and epic parties were a hurricane force that ripped through the underground in the mid- to late '90s, Jibril caught only the tail end of it.
A self-described "army brat" native of Freeport, Jibril, now 28, bounced around in his early twenties working assorted jobs in retail. He converted to house music from the hip-hop scene, having done fusions of spoken word and jazz.
In the late '90s, when he discovered deep house, a soulful variant on the disco derivative, he fell in love with the sound and it swept him away. Gigs were plentiful, and in 1999 he quit his job as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor and spent a year surviving on music alone.
"I was going to make it," he says. "Shit was just good, man. Gigs were good. All my friends were making money." By no means was Jibril living a lavish lifestyle, but he could eat out often, sleep in late (often until four or five o'clock), bang out the neighbors with his vinyl, and plunk down $400 at the end of every month for rent. "I kinda figured it couldn't last for too long. But, man, it was a great ride."
As quickly as the scene had thrust him into a "rock bottom" rock star lifestyle, the gigs dried up and the residencies, like Trippin' Tha Love, went away. The clubs didn't want to hear his smooth, funky sound; they wanted 50 Cent and Jay-Z.
"I played three gigs where I played popular hip-hop, and I was like, 'This is not me, this is disgusting,' " he says. Other house, techno and drum 'n' bass DJs report much the same. If you want a club gig, you better get used to Top 40, with minimal remixing -- "slam shit in and slam shit over," as one DJ summarized it. "It's going to be, we're going to make a new club and we're going to play the same shit as everywhere else," says Jibril.
Near the mixing board, Jibril and Bizz have a shelf of books beneath a Keith Haring picture. One title in particular jumps out: The Business of Music. In an electronica town home, the title serves as something of an epitaph.
"I know many artists that were riding high on the hog we're all looking for work at this point," says Louis, who shifted over to producing video game soundtracks in order to survive. "I'm not even trying to make a living as a performer at this point with electronic music, because it's become too difficult in the States." Robert M from Austin says it's becoming nothing more than an "expensive hobby."
Andrei Morant, one of the most renowned local techno producers who has toured as far away as Finland, does 25 hours a week working for his father's remodeling company. "You're not really going to make much of a living deejaying in this town, unless you just play hip-hop and all that stuff and you play a bunch of mainstream clubs," says the soft-spoken 32-year-old.
As much as anything, dance DJs cite the lack of radio support as a huge factor in handicapping the scene. "That's one of the things that certainly made it impossible for it to really grow," says Anderson. Radio was especially needed in the critical phase when rave music was hoping to make the transition into the clubs.
There are other possibilities as well. "One of the things that led to the downfall of electronica is there was no emphasis on vocals," adds Anderson. "People like to be able to sing along to it." He also posits that there is something intrinsic to Houston that damned dance music from the start. "There's a macho-ness here," he says. "It's not that cool to dance. You're not real tough if you go dancing. To get dudes to dance in Houston, you have to have a bunch of girls out there dancing, and that's the only reason they're going to dance."
The cultural incubation that fostered electronica's growth -- peace and prosperity -- disappeared with September 11 and the national recession. Dance music, by its nature, has a difficult time articulating messages other than celebration, positivity and, as Transit showed, hedonism. When the mood of the era shifted, such messages seemed to evoke either false promise or cruel nostalgia.
And as for those thousands of ravers who supported the scene five years ago? The almost universal answer is that they grew up and moved on to other musical tastes, like indie and hip-hop.
"Here I am, I'm 32 years old. I've accomplished a lot. I've enjoyed the things that I've done. I have had an adventure. I certainly can't look back with regret. I thought in one capacity or another I would be involved in music, especially dance music, for a long time," says Anderson. "But now, it's just like, man. I'm searching right now, like, what's my direction in life?"
He seems like a man burned out -- a man who's a long way away from the days of when he would tour Canada and cross customs with three grand in cash in his pocket.
"Yeah, it's weird, you know." Pause. "This city's really weird." Pause. "Yeah, people don't care so much." His pauses are like potholes. He keeps falling into them. "They don't care anymore." Pause.
When Brotha Jibril picks up the phone during the week these days, he answers with his birth name, Gabriel DeLua.
"Before I knew it, there was no more gigs. I wasn't playing out as much, and it was starting to die," he says. He works for the mortgage company now, wakes up early and stays until 8 p.m. some days. "This is kind of me growing up. It's like, well, fuck, it's time to get busy." He hopes to start a label sometime soon, when he saves a little from his real estate ventures. Bizz, who says he deejayed for crowds of 30,000, has started working at the same home equity company and answers the phone with his birth name, Albert Rowan.
"I like the hustle, man -- and being a rave promoter was all about hustling," he says. "I wanna focus more on something that has benefits -- medical, dental, you know."
Jibril knows it. He doesn't have to like it, though.
"I want to be producing my music," he says. "I don't want to be in an office! I want to grow my hair out long if I want to; I want to color it red or purple if I want to. That's how you know you're a rock star."
If Martin Prendergast, a.k.a. DJ Little Martin, had pulled up five minutes later that night, Rent might not exist. It was 2:30 in the morning in February of last year, and Jonathan Sewell was walking out of a DJ night at Sonoma restaurant in the Montrose. Sewell, a native of Sandwich, England, had been working in Houston as a software-implementation consultant for two years, but his passion since age 14 has been organizing music events.
As Sewell was walking to his car that night, a Manchester accent rang out in the dark: "Is 't oohver?" They began chatting. Sewell discovered that Prendergast, 37, had deejayed in the 1980s at a legendary Manchester nightclub called The Hacienda.
They went back to Prendergast's apartment to hang out, flipping through records and drinking coffee until morning. Both say there was always an unspoken understanding that they would do a project someday. At that time, like Sewell, Prendergast was new to town -- he'd been in Houston for only a few months -- but he quickly learned about the city's musical tastes.
"What I was finding was that Houston is a hip-hop town. Hip-hop. That's nationwide; it's not just specific to Houston. But in other cities you still find reasonably healthy dance scenes," he says. "There really isn't here. There's no club; there's certainly individual nights -- great nights -- but there's no club known for it."
Last summer, Prendergast spun at a birthday party held at a small club in the Montrose called Helios. It was a tidy affair -- maybe a few dozen people partying until 5 a.m. The owner liked it well enough to invite them back again the next month. When Sewell came out for that, he recognized instantly that it would be the perfect spot for a running party like Rent.
"We don't market it as a house night," says Sewell. "The fact that we play variations of house music is just a part of it, and we also play a lot of disco, a lot of funk."
Talking about the core of electronica fans in Houston, Prendergast notes: "These people are all converted to house. They don't need convincing. What we're trying to do is reach out to the people that live in Jersey Village, in Kingwood. People that are driving around listening to Al Green and Otis Redding in their car -- that obviously have an appreciation for good, soulful music, but have written off techno as druggie, after-hours music. To these people we say, 'You know what? You might have the wrong idea about that.' " They hatched the idea of selling Houston dance music on the sly, and thus far the results have been impressive.
The first of the monthly Rent installments last August drew about 100 people, mostly friends of Prendergast and Sewell. In the coming months, that number ballooned to 300 -- sufficiently eclectic and diverse for their aims (part of their goal is political: to get black and white, gay and straight dancing side by side). Still, it was a tight squeeze at a tiny joint like Helios. This January, they shifted the party night to Union in Midtown, and they say they clocked more than 650 in attendance. At one point, Jibril says, they had to open the doors to let the heat out.
"My knees -- I felt like Bambi. I couldn't stand up. I couldn't dance," says Sewell, who estimates that they probably spend less than $1,000 on overhead putting together each event.
"I have very big plans for it," says Sewell. "I want people to be coming in from other cities for Rent." Prendergast adds: "Ministry of Sound is London, Hacienda club was Manchester, the Buddha Bar is Paris.
"We'd like to use Rent to put Houston on the map. It's important to us to break this nationally. So when people, when New York or Chicago or Wisconsin, think about what's going on in Houston, they have an idea. And maybe Rent isn't it, maybe it'll be something else, but it's important for Houston to have its own thing."
It's the spirit of PLUR, minus the E, with a few wrinkles around the eyes for good measure. It's not going to pay the bills. Jibril went down that road before. But for one night a month, it's a rush and a small reminder of what was.
"Things are still good. It's different, man. It's not really the same. I feel, like really at home a lot more now. Back then, I was a hip-hop kid, I hung out in the rave scene, but I didn't really connect so much with all these kids. They were all, like, electronic hippies," he says. "I love everything else that I do but there's something about Rent. I feel like I connect to these people a lot more now. I feel like I can just talk to them through the music."
The party, and his smile, last until 4 a.m. this Saturday night. On Monday morning, the alarm clock goes off and he's back to being Gabriel again.
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