The Perfect Storm: New York Techno In The Early 90s

In discussions of the American legacy of techno, the focus is invariably on its founders in Detroit. Now that the US mainstream has begun to embrace electronic dance music, Michaelangelo Matos uncovers the forgotten history of the American rave scene, zeroing in on the moment when the British Summer Of Love found its way to New York. (For the accompanying video countdown guide of some of the anthems of this scene, click here.)

September 13, 2012

It was 1989 and Frankie Bones was looking forward to his first trip to England. Karma Productions, a crew in London that threw gigantic warehouse and outdoor parties dubbed ‘raves’, had offered the 23 year-old Brooklyn DJ a slot in the lineup for their July party, Energy Part 2. These things had gotten some media attention, both in the English music press (which had declared 1988 a ‘Summer of Love’ and were on their way to doing the same for ’89) and the broadsheets (thousands of kids dancing to faceless machine beats in fields: what?). But in America they were still a distant rumour.

Born Frank Mitchell deep in Brooklyn, Bones began by making freestyle and soon unleashed a flurry of house tracks under a variety of pseudonyms. The most successful was 1989’s “Just As Long As I’ve Got You”, credited to Looney Tunes, a collaboration with onetime rival roller-rink DJ Lenny Dee – born Leonard Didesiderio in Sheepshead Bay. “Just As Long” fit the hopeful vibe of England’s cresting rave scene.

“We were used to selling 3,000 to 5,000 units on our own,” says Bones. “Suddenly we were moving 10,000 units, and more than half were going to Europe. London was very interested in us.” Bones arrived in London anticipating 5,000 people. En route to the locale, someone handed him a pill. “I didn’t know what ecstasy was,” he told the rave zine Massive in 1995. “[We were] stuck in a traffic jam on a little country road with just two lanes and cars for miles.” As he came up on E, he heard one of his songs playing in another car, followed by another of his songs, playing in another car: “I pretty much lost my mind.” Ditto when the crowd turned out to be closer to 25,000: “That was probably my enlightenment.”

Bones’s 1989 “Call It Techno” was a mission statement: “It started in Detroit/But I’m out to exploit/The way I hear it.” Bones was ready to spread the word to music-loving outer-borough kids like him. He gave away promo mixtapes at south Brooklyn’s premier cruising spot, beneath the elevated train on 86th Street. Frankie handed out cassettes at spotlights to kids in passing cars with his younger brother Adam.

“He would make a speech at the beginning,” says Adam Mitchell, better known as Adam X (and, more recently, Traversable Wormhole). He imitates his brother’s cod-English accent: “Hello party people! I just came back from England! And I just experienced this thing, the rave!” Adam watched as his brother’s salesmanship paid off: “[We’d wait] 30 minutes and they’d be on the rebound. You’d start hearing LFO coming out of the car: ‘Cool. Got one.’”

On April 21, 1990, Bones opened Groove Records on Avenue U. “Other shops in New York were selling techno,” says Adam, “but they didn’t push it as a movement. My brother wanted to make a scene around it.” Soon after, Adam began working the counter, his brother returned from another trip to England. (“We were going back and forth, two weeks there, two here,” Bones recalls. “No recovery time, just a lot of non-stop flights and parties.”) This time, Frankie had some pills to share. Ten people gathered at the Avenue U store. “We pulled the gates down and turned the system up,” says Adam. “In an hour I was like, ‘Whooaa.’” So were the others. “The people in the group told their friends, I told my friends, and it spread like wildfire, the whole idea of it.”

“Parties were happening everywhere: at McDonald’s, in the subway, [in] diners. [It’s] hard to compare with the restrictive policy today.”

Pretty soon, Adam says, “We were doing 50 people in a gutted-out apartment on Coney Island Avenue. It happened so quick. By ’91, we were doing generator parties in the junkyards down by Foster Avenue, by the freight tracks, with 400 people showing up.” Bones began to call his parties Storm Raves. “By winter of ’92, Staten Island: 1,500 people,” Adam says. “By [autumn] ’92, we’re doing 5,000 people on Maspeth Avenue. That’s how fast it grew.”

“Parties were happening everywhere,” remembers Austrian techno producer-DJ Patrick Pulsinger, who moved to New York briefly in the early 90s and played regularly at the Limelight alongside another techno transplant, Detroit’s Jeff Mills. “At McDonald’s, in the subway, [in] diners. [It’s] hard to compare with the restrictive policy today.”

That raw energy transferred to the studio as well, and not just for Bones. Oliver Chesler was studying political science at SUNY Purchase when he went to his first raves; soon he befriended John Selway, a music-composition major. Together they made what Selway calls, “an epic rave overload – Euro-ravey, big chords, that early hard, dark sound.” Selway played it for his class.

“It completely blew away the whole class,” he says. “There weren’t actual letter grades, but I got a lot of props for that. I don’t know how much they liked it, but they were pretty impressed by the advanced-ness of it.” Another Brooklyn DJ, Jimmy Crash, issued the track – “Schizophrenic,” credited to Disintegrator – on his label, Direct Drive, in 1991.

Joey Beltram - Energy Flash

New York rave’s biggest pop hit came courtesy of its biggest pop star, Moby, who spun at the winter ’92 Staten Island Storm Rave: “Go” reached No. 10 on the UK pop chart in October 1991. (He’d get even bigger with 1999’s bestselling Play.) But the most widely respected New York producer of the period was Joey Beltram, whose 1990 “Energy Flash” is one of techno’s most iconic records. So is “Mentasm”, from 1991, by Second Phase, aka Beltram and Mundo Muzique. That track’s ‘hoover’ noise was all over early-90s rave. One copycat track was “Tingler” by Smart Systems – an alias of Future Sound Of London. They made a similar noise rather than sampling Beltram, but Adam X then turned around and sampled “Tingler” for his own 1992 track, “Lost In Hell”, cheekily bringing things full circle.

Moby - Go

Soon Manhattan clubs came calling. A London ex-pat, DJ DB, started a couple of nights; the one that clicked was NASA, every week at the Shelter from 1992-93. The big one was the Limelight, a deconsecrated Episcopal Church in Chelsea owned by Peter Gatien, whose other properties were Club USA, the Tunnel and Palladium. Promoter Michael Alig’s 1996 murder of drug dealer (and roommate) Angel Melendez, and the subsequent dismantling of Gatien’s New York club empire – the city of New York went after it, leading to years of legal hassles, followed by Gatien’s deportation to Toronto in 2003 – makes it easy to forget how central Limelight was to techno’s musical rise in New York.

Still, when Bones took the Storm Raves to Ninth Avenue near 13th Street in Manhattan on July 18, 1992, someone called the authorities, which then shut it down. “It was always suspected that the Limelight pulled the plug,” says Adam. “We stepped into their turf. Whenever we did a party when they did their club nights, we would empty their club out.” The same year, Bones was assaulted on a Sunday night near his apartment in Brooklyn. “These guys came up to him with bats and tried to kill him,” says Adam. The crime was eventually linked to Limelight promoter ‘Lord’ Michael Caruso. “Lord Michael [was] very Mafia connected,” explains Adam.

This was typical of New York nightlife’s Mob involvement. “Everything was controlled,” says Adam. “When we started doing Storm Rave, we had connections. We had to, because if we didn’t we’d get busted by the police.” During one party’s bust, Adam watched “these two Italian Mafioso guys” have a sit-down with a Staten Island club owner: “Like out of Goodfellas. Next thing you know, the [Mafioso] guys own the club. Straight up took it.”

The July 18 mishap was righted in spades two months later. “The most satisfaction I’ve ever [gotten was] the Storm Rave when we had 5,000 people in a truck loading dock in Queens [on] September 19, 1992, after previously getting shut down, losing $32,000, thinking the whole scene was over,” Bones told Massive.

But soon, the Storm parties were over. The final blowout was on December 12, 1992. Bones nearly missed it. “It snowed two feet from DC to Toronto on December 11,” he says; he took Amtrak for 16 hours to make the gig. Tommie Sunshine, now a DJ but then a well-known party kid from suburban Chicago, told Montreal journalist Mireille Silcoff (her 1999 book, Rave America, is credited to a pen name, Silcott) about watching bug-eyed (and on at least four kinds of drugs) as Lenny Dee, spinning behind a 25-foot chain-link fence (regularly climbed onto by frothing dancers), would finish spinning a record and then, with a flourish, shatter it against the wall.

In 1991, Dee started Industrial Strength Records specifically to push the harder-faster-louder techno sound that was beginning to be called gabber – Dutch slang for ‘friend’. The music didn’t exactly walk up and shake your hand, though. This was for banging your head, even sampling Pantera on the 1994 gabber classic “Fuckin Hostile”. (Industrial Strength Records, at 21 years old, is the longest-running New York techno labels; these days it concentrates largely on sample packs.)

Bones, on the other hand, had had enough. “I went through a lot of shit after the Storm Raves shut down,” he told Massive. “’93 was kind of a bad year for me because the drug thing got so out of control that I checked myself in. Now I’m a lot smarter because of that.”

Adam and store employee Heather Heart – who also operated the influential fanzine Under One Sky – began managing Groove Records. Later, they and Bones moved the store to Manhattan, where it was renamed Sonic Groove. Adam and Heart also began to throw their own, smaller parties under the name Mental.

“We wanted to scale the parties down because the police were starting to crack down on [large] events,” says Adam. “On Kent Avenue, people were living in abandoned warehouses, so we did a party in one of them. It was fucking incredible: 500 people, the cops didn’t show up or nothing. You could just do whatever you wanted.” Bones fondly recalls a Mental “boxcar rave – we put 80 kids in a parked train.”

Mental wasn’t the only game in town. In the wake of Storm came a deluge of party-throwers: The McMuffin Family, Infinity, Guaranteed Overdose, Uptown Underground, the Caffeine Crew. One of the biggest called itself Park Rave Maddness. Adam and Frankie frequently spun at their parties.

“They could get all these amazing spots: Madison Square Garden, Felt Forum, Randall’s Island,” says Adam. “They had the money to do it right. It was real techno. These guys would only book proper shit. The scene got better because it got [to] this professional level of working.” Circus, a Park Rave party held on June 17 headlined by Robert Hood, DJ Skull and Patrick Pulsinger, drew 10,000 people. As Pulsinger recalls, “They had to hide all the mics from Frankie Bones, who gave a speech on techno anyhow – into his headphones.”

As the scene’s movers became more entrenched, the partiers grew younger — and flaunted it, donning pacifiers and candy necklaces. Even in a druggy scene, these ‘candy ravers’, or ‘candy kids’, were notorious for their chemical intake. “Once you get to the mid- to late-90s, you started to see puddles of kids on ketamine on the floor,” says John Selway. “You’re just like, ‘What’s the point?’”

That was the mindset Chesler played to under his alias the Horrorist. “Somewhere around ’96, I started to really get an itch to return to new wave and industrial,” he says. “There are really good techno producers with a lot of skill. The only way for me to stand out was to use my own voice and tell my own story. I did my first drugs around that time, so I [wrote] stories about drugs.”

Tales such as “Mission Ecstasy” – with its unforgettably blunt tag line, “Because I like fucking drugs” – and “One Night In NYC,” about an NYU student’s trip to the Limelight to pick up a guy who “fucks her all night” in her dorm room, were unsettling. Chesler shopped them to a number of labels. “Nobody wanted them,” he says with a laugh, “so I started my own label.” He called it, hopefully, Things To Come.

But things were beginning to wind down. In 1997, Nicky Fingers – a member of DOA (Disciples Of Annihilation), one of the star acts on Industrial Strength – died of a heroin overdose, a blow to that segment of the scene. Mainstream media attention also took its toll on a defiantly underground culture.

“The spread of ecstasy in America was getting really big, even outside of the rave scene,” says Adam. “Feds really started cracking down. They were on a mission to stop these parties: ‘No more armouries for raves. You can’t have Randall Island no more.’”

The simpler, more loop-based production approach to techno that took hold around 1998 had turned the music stale. By 2000, raves were largely gone; you went dancing in clubs, and only those with cabaret licenses. A number of rave vets immersed themselves in electroclash. Selway’s label Serotonin issued the original, 1,000-copy pressing of Fischerspooner’s classic debut single “Emerge.” Later, DJ DB of NASA helped get a deal with the Ministry Of Sound label.

The once thriving business of making and playing straight up techno in New York City was gutted. “It was all happening at once,” says Adam, who was forced to close Sonic Groove in October 2004, after its profits had plummeted to one-fifth of their height. “You have 9/11, you have the advent of high-speed internet, you have Final Scratch, you have the Euro getting so much higher than the dollar, [all] within a two-year period. We used to be able to sell imports for ten dollars. Now we had to sell records for 13 dollars.”

Now, house music is techno music, and techno music now is more [like] house music. Pretty strange how all of that flipped about.

Lenny Dee

Berlin, it seemed, was where the action was, and a lot of Americans moved there – including Chesler, Selway and Adam X. In 2009, Adam released a flurry of 12-inches anonymously under the name Traversable Wormhole, tracks with the same unfettered forcefulness that once typified New York City techno.

Today, that harsh futurism has long been assimilated into the club-music landscape. In the early 90s, though, things couldn’t have been more different. New York techno evolved from house music, but as Kerri Mason recently pointed out, a DJ like Danny Tenaglia could, as late as 2000, receive “tons of flack from the ‘old-school’ house DJ community for playing current, not-necessarily-house music,” including the Berlin techno artist Maurizio.

New York techno, for a while, was truly something else. “It was the new breed,” remembers Lenny Dee. Now, he says, “House music is techno music, and techno music now is more [like] house music. Pretty strange how all of that flipped about.”

Special thanks to Abe Duque and Maria 909.

Header image © YouTube

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