Rave Rivals

Big money and big egos fry the Arizona rave vibe

It was one night in Arizona's rave scene. One night of glow sticks, blow pops and pacifiers. Of whispered lies, sabotage and cops with shotguns. One night of cuddle puddles and the best dance music on the planet. Of stink bombs, broken windows and gambles gone bad. One night of stacks upon stacks of $20 bills. Of a quick-hit fortune made, and another lost. One night that made it clear, if there was any longer any doubt, that the cherry days of raves in Arizona are dead and dried.

You should know something before we get into this: I rave.
Some nights I find myself in a state of mind where the world only looks right through a pair of amber-tinted shades. So I dial an info line where the location of the party is posted a few hours before midnight. Usually it's a warehouse in the industrial wasteland west of downtown Phoenix, where I pay 20 or 25 bucks to spend seven hours straight, lighted with lasers, hugging people I don't really know, checking in with those I do, and dancing, all night, one of a thousand or two thousand souls, grooving in front of monolithic speaker stacks that are linked to a set of turntables behind which a deejay making four figures a night spins electronic dance music with a beat, a beat, a beat that doesn't stop. Until it does. Then I'm outside among the sweaty, spent throng, internally hissing like a vampire at the new day's sun.

It's my stress outlet of choice. A rave is one of the few places in the Valley where I can see people of all pigmentation hang out in the same room and not self-segregate. Everyone at a rave feels loose enough to dissolve their egos in the music and really dance. You won't see a lot of the white-boy shuffle step favored in dance clubs with valet parking.

For me, though, a rave is not a deeply spiritual experience. I utter the acronym "PLUR," dude (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect), in jest only. Neither do I view a rave simply as a well-appointed place to get high, like some sort of five-star crack house. For me, like most, raves are in the fog-machined zone in between. I've gone to 50 or more in the past seven years. I started in college, in San Francisco, and found the Phoenix scene when I moved here in '95.

Then, 1,000 ravers at one party on one night was big for Arizona. The night of Saturday, March 27--that one night I alluded to above--there were two raves, each of which drew more than 2,000 bodies. One would have topped out around 3,500 and laid claim to the "Biggest Rave in Arizona, Ever," if the police hadn't busted it before midnight. Multiply those figures by an average price of $25 per ticket, and you have an underground, cash-only economy where $100,000 to $140,000 is changing hands in a 10-hour period.

Peace, Love, Unity, Respect, good times, good music, and the motherfuckin' money. That's what this game was all about. Let me introduce you to the players.

On one side, we have Swell/Basshead, a rave promotions collective whose namesakes and leaders are Russ Ramirez, 29, and Scotty McKenzie, 28. With his wife, Alyssa, Ramirez owns Swell Clothing and Records in Scottsdale. It's the commercial and social nexus of the Valley rave scene. Ramirez and McKenzie are the veteranos among the growing legion of Arizona rave promoters. They and their posses represent the old guard, the purists. The ones who got in the game when the only ones in it were in it for idealism, and for the rush, because throwing raves in Arizona in the early Nineties was a high-risk, nil-return endeavor.

I asked Ramirez recently why he still bothers. His store has to be more profitable and manageable. Why not focus solely on it?

"Because it's an amazing form of expression, putting on a rave," he said. "The rave scene allows people to feel comfortable with who they are. No one will judge you because you're fat or gay or Indian or black or dorky. The general feeling is Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. Not to mention the music is amazing."

Every year since 1994, Swell/Basshead has thrown a Swell anniversary party on the last Saturday in March. That party--called Musik--is S/B's yearly showcase. They bring in the biggest talent, sound system and light show. It was considered sacrilege--or at least a sign of flagrant disrespect--for any other promoter in Arizona to put on a rave the same night.

The young turks who would do just that have an apt moniker: Wise Guys Productions, which is fronted by University of Arizona sophomore Darren Blatt, 20.

Blatt moved to Tucson last year from Southern California, where he had thrown five raves with partners in Los Angeles. Those same partners invested in his first Arizona foray. He called his party Tranceformation, and held it the same night as Musik.

Both S/B and Wise Guys had Phoenix street teams--crews of volunteers who worked the crowds at raves and club nights, handing out fliers and talking trash. Members of both crews say the other tried to start trouble when they crossed paths.

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