But what happens to a nascent core of DJs, scenesters, and other true believers as they face the inevitable march toward adulthood? From a small group of early Phoenix dance-scene pioneers comes the ^UP collective, a coterie that's made the transition from the fervent passion and wide-eyed enthusiasm of the "good old days" to a band of chilled-out grownups simply known for good music.
The ^UP collective consists of six old-school scenesters who joined forces to create a weekly event. ^UP, their Saturday-night soiree upstairs at Homme in central Phoenix, is a who's who of Phoenix underground dance history for DJs and scenesters alike. Derek, a club kid from way back, described it as "a retirement home for aging ravers."
And it's true. Promoters, club kids, DJs, and everyone else from the early days of the Phoenix underground dance scene have made their way to the second floor of Homme in an odd homecoming, of sorts.
Before I go any further, I should confess: I'm old school. Waaay old school, à la 1991, when Mill Avenue was still cool and there were midweek after-hours options for dancin' fools. Once a promoter, I've known nearly all those involved with ^UP for at least a decade. I remember giving promo records to DJ Jynx, now 31, when he was still in high school and learning to spin. And I remember Ryan Jeffs, a.k.a. DJ Inertia, 36, teaching me in 1992 how to tell this brand new music genre called "breakbeat" from a 4/4 beat techno track.
Back in the early '90s, events were beginning to jump from clubs to warehouses. Downtown was empty on the weekends, and finding your way to unmarked warehouses often meant driving with the windows rolled down, hoping to catch the unmistakable bang of the bass line, or better yet, someone with a whistle. It was wise to get there "early," which was around midnight, because promoters might not always have the necessary permits. If the event was going off at midnight, it was a safe bet that it would go all night or, at least, late enough to feel like you got your $10 worth (the average admission price of an early rave). Back then, crowds hadn't reached a jaded critical mass, and film loops projected on white bed sheets were impressive visual enhancements. Walls of speakers faced the crowd, people blew whistles with reckless abandon, and, oh, the outfits. Dressing for raves was nearly an Olympic event, full of freshly sewn ensembles, made of whatever quirky fabric was cheaply and readily available, or the newest Fresh Jive T-shirts (no glowsticks, as those would come nearly a decade later). Smaller, more intimate parties packed in 300 or 400 people, while larger events easily cleared 1,000 people.
But for the early '90s crowd now, gone are the JNCO baggy jeans, shiny fabrics, and swath of VIP passes that once signaled your cachet in the scene. Now, it's cocktail hour with credit cards, texting on BlackBerries, and pictures of your kids on iPhones. What hasn't changed is the music solid and soothing beats as familiar as a favorite T-shirt. Just don't be shocked by the laptops sitting next to the Technics. It's no small wonder that "techno" leapt from the word "technology," and DJs today are just as likely to be mixing their own tracks off their laptops as they are to be spinning someone else's 12-inch on vinyl.
One of the founding parters behind UP, Shane Silkey, 32, was first introduced to the local underground music scene on Mill Avenue, where he was handed a flier by Sandra Collins and Tall Paul, both early Arizona scene pioneers. Seminal city events like Noiz, one of the very first self-described raves of the early '90s, began to establish a local rave culture, and Silkey said Noiz influenced his view of the scene. "It's one thing to listen in a car or club. All of a sudden, it felt like something important, idealistic. People are trying to do something," Silkey says. "This is a legitimate counterculture; it's our version of the 1960s."
In 1994, Silkey joined forces with local production company Swell and started the annual Acid Reign rave, which recently held its 10th iteration. (Swell, incidentally, spun off a sound company, Swell Pro Audio, now run by ^UP cofounder Justin McBee and Scottie McKenzie, another early and legendary underground promoter.)
Following a 1998 stint with Microsoft in Seattle, Silkey relocated back to Phoenix with a renewed faith in the techno scene. Silkey discovered that people had been discussing the cultural significance of underground events for years, since the hippie subculture co-opted house music and infused subsequent gatherings with spirituality. "Maybe there is some significance to it, the whole temporary autonomous zone we're creating every time we put together an event," he says. "We're separating ourselves from society, creating this temporary space where, at least for a little while, we can re-create our self and our surroundings."
But its not just the old-timers who are climbing the stairs to reach ^UP. There's a bevy of new faces, too. There are five DJs and a sound guy involved here, spinning everything from dark techno to fierce house to trance, and everything in between, often in the same set. Each Saturday brings two guest DJs, including Sonique des Fleurs, Kevin Brown, Acid Circus, and Chris Flores. It's not such an inside gig that you'll feel out of place if you haven't been around since the early days or can't tell where electro begins and breakbeat ends. It's just a cozy spot packed with friendly people who love music, and they plan on being here for the long haul. "We're a group of like-minded people, all here for a different reason, but the same focus," Silkey says. "It's an outlet to listen to music, see friends. Our goal isn't to do something for everyone. We're here for the people who are into it."
So, all these years later, the ^UP collective has provided an outlet for Phoenix's early underground dance scene to come full circle. Recently, Chris Flores was the guest DJ. Flores, roundly considered the first underground DJ in Phoenix, has returned to the Valley after a decade in Los Angeles. Now, he who inspired many DJs was in the house to see how things have changed many, many years later. "Honestly, the guys here, what they are doing is a positive thing. And the scene? It's always been developing. Now, there's a bigger art community, and I like seeing art and the community as active as it is," Flores said. "For people into the music, it's not about going to the clubs it's really become a way of life."