Left: Cags in Mexico in 1992; Right: Cags DJing at Club 27 in 2017

The Evolution of Rave Culture

Onnoleigh Sweetman was 21 years old, decked out in “hooker boots and a tight dress,” when she first opened her eyes to the underground world of bright colors, bass drops and ecstasy. Eighteen years later, she has attended numerous raves and has dedicated much of her life to the culture—creating a rave-inspired performance troupe, DJing and using electronic music as a healing and health tool with her dance/yoga studio, Nytronix.

“When I found rave culture is when I found myself,” Sweetman says.

Chris Cags, owner of RedBeard Records music label and a DJ for more than 25 years, says the scene was born in the late ’80s after the disco era in London, when acid parties (where admission was a hit of acid) were chased out of the clubs and into the underground. At this time ravers were often ridiculed. They are all on drugs. It’s dangerous. Drugs are a part of the lifestyle for some, but Sweetman says it wasn’t what brought people together. Instead, it was the experience—ravers could get high on the music alone. But the connection to drugs blemished the scene.

Left: Sweetman in 2003; Right: Sweetman at Burning Man 2011

“[When I started my performance troupe] it wasn’t accepted and people had a really bad connotation about what rave culture is,” Sweetman says.

It’s a stigma that many Millennial ravers don’t have to experience as electronic music has become more accepted. In 2017, electronic music is frequently played on the radio, endorsed by clubs, and festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival (which is coming to the Las Vegas Speedway June 16–18) continue to grow and attract people from around the world. But old-school ravers are weary of new agendas that came with electronic music moving into the mainstream.

“You have DJs who are in this because they want the glory,” Sweetman says. She started to see a shift happen from 2008 to 2011 with the birth of EDM, when she says making money became more important than the music. An electronic music purist, Sweetman made it her personal mission to educate those less informed on the difference between commercial EDM and trance music. “It is known now that EDM is more of the sellout,” she says.

The art’s gone, and now it’s narcissistic showmanship.—DJ Chris Cags

She resents DJs such as Steve Aoki and Avicii who put on massive shows, lording over the crowds on risen stages with the newest technology. Cags, in comparison, describes his idea of a perfect booth: far enough away so the equipment is safe, but close enough to the crowd to enjoy the music together.

“You put the DJ up in this worshipping position when they’re just like you and they put on their shoes on in the morning and brush their teeth like everyone else,” Cags says. “The art’s gone, and now it’s narcissistic showmanship.”

Cags matched beats on vinyl before faster means of mixing music became available through digitalization. Even with newer—and more convenient—tools, he still believes in practicing the old techniques.

He says that DJing with a premixed setlist instead of playing off the energy disrespects the crowd. “It’s not a CD. It’s not a set. … [That’s] an abomination to DJing,” Cags says. While Marshmello and Diplo are sure to bring big crowds at EDC, Sweetman and seasoned raver and City of Las Vegas art commissioner Brian “Paco” Alvarez suggest newer ravers take the time to listen to the artists who paved the way, such as Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold (who will play EDC June 18) and Vegas local Jesse Saunders.

Left:Alvarez at Nocturnal Wonderland in 2000; Right: Alvarez at his desk

But 19-year-old Madeleine Howell, who has been raving for about a year now, says she likes Steve Aoki because he’s fun and the music is easy to dance to. Howell says that new ravers have the same goal in mind: to have fun and feel a connection to the music, whoever the artist may be.

And although Alvarez will never decline a ticket to EDC, he prefers intimate house-style shows such as the nightly sets at Downtown Cocktail Room. But he understands things change— sometimes for the better—even if it means kissing his wide-legged cargo pants and angel wings goodbye.

While raver fashion and the music have shifted, there is one thing that Alvarez believes will always be at the core of the culture: peace, love, unity and respect (PLUR).

“The essence is still there,” he says. “The feeling of unity and not judging people is there.”