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.
Ramirez has late-night security-camera footage of a young man who looks a lot like one of Blatt's homeboys, pissing through the Swell store's mail slot.
Blatt, in return, says he and his partners received voice mail threats on their lives if Wise Guys didn't "Tranceform your ass out of Arizona."
One point in Tranceformation's favor was that in 1998, Musik got busted by Phoenix police, who dropped by the party--staged at the Hyster building, a warehouse at Ninth Avenue and Madison--around midnight. The official reason, according to the police, was a car parked blocking a fire exit outside the building. Ramirez says the actual cause was probably the kid who lost his head inside the rave, stripped and ran outside, naked and freaking out, just as Ramirez was showing the last of his event permits to the sergeant in charge.
This year, Musik was originally to be held at the Icehouse at Third Avenue and Jackson. Ramirez says he had all the permits in order; then, as a safeguard, called the Phoenix police six days before the rave to make them aware of the party. He says the police tacked an extra condition to his conditional special use permit--hire 20 off-duty Phoenix cops in uniform to patrol the rave, in addition to the 20 licensed, private security guards Ramirez had already contracted.
To make up for the Musik '98 debacle, and because Swell/Basshead's motto is "Bigger Is Better," Ramirez and McKenzie had gone huge on Musik '99. They'd booked world champion battle deejay Craze, and the legendary live electronic act Dynamix II, who had yet to perform west of Chicago. S/B also had on tap a massive sound system for two rooms (94 JBL cabinets, in case you care), a six-watt, full-spectrum laser, a multimedia projector that makes a 20-foot-by-30-foot video screen look like a Trinitron (and costs three grand a night to rent), and two 25-foot-tall, moving light sculptures of dancing ravers.
Further, Swell/Basshead had hired a helicopter to fly over the Icehouse's courtyard at 1:30 a.m. and stage a fake police bust, complete with searchlight, sirens and the bullhorn announcement, "Turn off the music and go home!"
Yes, this is ironic foreshadowing.
Ramirez says the off-duty cops requirement would have added another seven grand to the tab. Cops are also known to cause buzz kill. So, under pressure and nearing zero hour, S/B gambled and moved the party to an 8,000-square-foot hangar of the Desert Skydiving Center on the outskirts of Buckeye, 35 miles from downtown Phoenix.
"I was picturing maybe a get-together with a couple hundred friends," says Desert Skydiving owner Tony Landgren. "Then all these trucks and trailers started rolling up, full of speakers and slipper-slides and lasers, and I was like, 'Oh, shit. This looks like it's going to be one hell of a party.'"
Moving the party to Buckeye was a calculated risk. There was no time to get a special-use permit from Buckeye. Also, as Landgren notes, "This is good-ol'-boy country out here."
As per rave tradition, the location of Musik wasn't announced until hours before the show, and few were aware the party had run into trouble. Tickets continued to sell briskly.
The set-up for Tranceformation, meanwhile, was comfortably under way at its fully legal location on the Pima County Fairgrounds, southeast of downtown Tucson.
The night of March 27, both raves got started just before 10 p.m. The first bad omen for Musik was the stink bomb a saboteur ignited soon after the doors opened. Two hours later, Buckeye police rolled up, supported by Maricopa County sheriff's officers armed with shotguns and tear gas.
Buckeye police Sergeant Dave Owens told me his department received four noise complaint calls, starting just after 10 p.m., the hour Buckeye's weekend noise ordinance goes into effect. Owens said a patrol car was dispatched, and the officer reported loud music and "about a thousand cars" outside the hangar, with more arriving.
I have a problem with the validity of those noise-complaint calls, which no one at Buckeye P.D. cared to consider: The hangar is more than a mile from the nearest residence. I asked Buckeye town manager Joeseph Blanton about the location. "It's a good place to have this kind of event," he says. "It's really out in the middle of nowhere. Our problem was they went behind our backs."
Fine, but who called in the noise complaints? Motive and opportunity point toward the Wise Guys, yet Blatt says, "Bullshit. . . . That's ridiculous. We were so busy we didn't have time to breathe that night, let alone worry about trying to get someone else's party shut down."
To be fair to Blatt, Swell/Basshead have made other enemies over the years who may have seized an opportunity for payback.
In any case, by the time the badges arrived in force, 2,100 people (based on ticket sales) were either inside Musik or on their way. Ramirez managed to get Blanton on the phone and pleaded his case.
"Then," Blanton says, "a police officer came on the line and told me they smelled marijuana in the parking lot."
That whiff of eau de ganja was the scent of death for Musik. Blanton advised the police to shut down the party. The music was turned off, and the lights on. No shotgun rounds or tear gas canisters were fired, as the ravers peaceably dispersed.
Now, my educated guess is that many of the ravers--I'll be conservative and go with 500--were in less than optimum shape to operate a motor vehicle. They'd planned to be in Buckeye all night, down to earth by dawn. So you have to wonder just who was protected and served by forcing them onto the freeway.
Certainly not Swell Records and Clothing.
As soon as they heard the party was busted, workers inside the store stopped selling tickets ($28 the night of the party) and closed and locked their doors. Between midnight and one, Ramirez says, a "mini-mob" of around 200 milled around outside his store. Many shouted demands for refunds. None was forthcoming (Swell has yet to announce a refund).
A woman in a white Chevy Blazer hurled a blue bottle through the store's front window. Several others threw beer bottles at the windows and doors, but they did not break. Someone etched curses in the intact glass.
Meanwhile, Ramirez, McKenzie and their crew were busting ass to move the party from Buckeye to the Nile Theater in Mesa, where it got under way just after 1 a.m. and went until dawn, sans the rented sound system, light show and mock police bust.
Ramirez estimates the shutdown and subsequent move to the smaller-capacity Nile cost S/B about 1,500 tickets, or $32,000.
On the flip side, Tranceformation's cash roll got fat. Blatt says total costs ran about $37,000, and he had 2,700 paid through the door at an average of $22 per ticket, for a net of (my math here) roughly $22,000.
As soon as he heard Musik was busted, Blatt asked his laser guy to display "Swell party got busted" on the wall.
"People had to make a choice that night, and I wanted to let the people inside our party know they made the right one," says Blatt.
"We had a great party going. The music was fantastic, the vibe was wonderful, the sun came up right above the stage. . . . It's really a shame something so trivial as permits had to break up Swell's party."
I could tell Blatt is really broken up over it.
Ramirez, on the other hand, is genuinely dispirited, and not simply over the money. It's the bottle through his window and the flaming, anti-Swell posts to the AZ-Raves online bulletin board, and the kid who came into the store and demanded his money back, saying he'd planned to sell drugs at Musik and had lost out.
"It's interactions like that that make me think, you know, maybe I'm naive about all this and critics of raves are right, that it's just a bunch of kids getting fucked up," Ramirez says. "Sometimes it seems like the only ones who are really into it for the music and the idea of raves are the people who actually make the music and put on the parties."
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Ramirez does not include Wise Guys in that circle.
"They had a bad attitude from the beginning," he says. "They are in this scene just to make money."
At press time, the message on Swell's info line was this:
Yes, we were shut down again by the police because of our drug-infested parties. Bullshit! We will not be put down. We will continue. May 8: a protest in the City of Phoenix at a park. Plus a full-on free event for everyone in this scene, whether you were there or not. . . . All we want to do is party all night and maybe listen to some techno. . . . Thank you for your support.
The name of the make-up party?
"PLUR," dude. "Phoenix Let Us Rave."
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: email@example.com