The story of Washington D.C.’s first major rave of the 1990s, which was both a musical triumph and a monetary failure
Rave culture took a while to spread through the United States, but it was booming early in Washington, D.C. By some accounts, D.C. had the first full-fledged scene on the East Coast, and by 1992 parties were regularly drawing 2,000 attendees. The capital’s first promoters were siblings Fernando, Jorge and Giovanni Baez, working as Catastrophic Productions. “They did the first party in D.C. that was referred to as a rave – in fact, the name of the party was literally ‘The Rave,’” says D.C. native and DJ John Selway. “They used to bring in international DJs. D.C. went from being really underground, almost private parties to – by the end of 1991 – getting a lot bigger. It was packed all the time.” Catastrophic also occupied the filthy WUST Radio Music Hall every other Saturday of the early and mid-’90s, before local concert promoters I.M.P. bought and reopened it in 1996 as the new location of rock venue the 9:30 Club.
Catastrophic may have been the first dedicated rave promotion crew on the East Coast. “There is a big international community in D.C., so young people over from the U.K. had discovered acid house and wanted to do it in D.C.,” says Selway. “I remember this guy throwing acid house parties in this old, beat-up, derelict house on North Capital Street in D.C.” By the time Selway left D.C. for college at SUNY Purchase in the fall of 1991, he’d been going to raves in his hometown for a year. “The gay club scene was [also] really open to new dance music,” Selway adds. Indeed, Jean Phillipe Aviance – a key D.C. figure on East Coast’s “ball” scene of competitive dancers, from which the voguing dance style emerged – was one of the first DJs in town to regularly spin techno, on Sunday nights at the Vault.
But the ball scene was very different from the rave scene, which was not just straighter but seemingly growing younger by the month. The music was beginning to reflect that change. For those U.S. teens who’d missed acid house entirely and didn’t know any of its “classics” yet, the new anthems coming from the U.K. rave scene, such as the Prodigy's “Charly” and Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era’s “Far Out,” which fused sped-up James Brown drum patterns with equally cartoonish piano riffs and voices, evoked a life led increasingly in front of pixels. And though this music incurred a backlash in the U.K. (“There aren’t any real classics coming forward,” complained Colin Faver in 1992: “The speed of change in style is now so fast, it’s as if there’s no time for anything to evolve anymore”), in the States it was the makings of the scene.
Catastrophic’s opposite number in Baltimore was Ultraworld, run by Lonnie Fisher and Jason Belote AKA DJ Sun. The two cities’ promoters tended to be friendly. “There wasn’t an us-versus-them thing,” says Michael Meacham, then a DJ in D.C. Ultraworld gained a reputation for wild events that lasted well past normal hours, even for raves: “They would take over the D.C. Armory for maybe a day or two,” recalls journalist Tamara Palmer.
Both Catastrophic and Ultraworld were on board for Future, a giant party on June 27, 1992 that in some ways marks the U.S. rave scene’s final moment of early innocence. That’s Future – not Future Perfect, which took place in Cincinnati around the same time, or Future Shock, a techno weekly at New York’s Limelight. This Future was the D.C. area’s first outdoor rave, taking place in suburban Brandywine, Maryland, at the slightly eerie eighty-acre Wilmer’s Park.
I never said, “Hey, when am I getting paid? What are we doing? What’s our budget?” I went into it eyes wide open: “I’m going to do whatever it takes to make this event happen.”
In the ’50s and ’60s, Wilmer’s Park’s dance hall and amphitheater had been staples of the East Coast “Chitlin’ Circuit” of live venues for African-American musicians and audiences. For Future, it would host a different kind of musical revue, as well as some fairground extras. “Whirl and twirl on the MERRY GO ROUND,” the flyer hollered. “Walk in XTC on the MOON BOUNCE. Enlighten your senses at D.C.’s FIRST AND ONLY SMART BAR.”
Future had an all-star lineup. Apotheosis had scored big with “O Fortuna,” which sampled Orff’s opera Carmina Burana, giving it a propulsion by pairing it with the hard Belgian techno also ascendant in 1992. Disintegrator was dark techno from John Selway and his SUNY Purchase classmate Oliver Chesler. They were part of a large NYC contingent: Frankie Bones, Adam X, Joey Beltram, Mr. Kleen and Jason Jinx, all of them regulars at a new Long Island club, Thunderground, as well as the Storm Raves that Bones had been throwing all over New York’s outer boroughs.
But there was no question who was the headliner. Born Richard Melville Hall in 1965 and raised in Darien, Connecticut, Moby had taken piano lessons as a child, played punk rock as a teenager, and by 1989 was living in Manhattan and DJing at Mars, off the West Side Highway at Thirteenth Street. Near the end of that year, he became the first signee of a tiny New York indie, Instinct Records. “At the time the label had neither a name nor a location, nor employees,” says Moby. “I was the only artist on the label and we started putting out these weird underground records that would sell around 500 copies.”
The first, in September 1990, was “Time’s Up,” credited to the Brotherhood. Frankie Bones put it on as soon as Moby handed him a promo in the booth, mixed it in, stuck his hand out, and said, “I think you’ve got a future in this.” Shortly after “Time’s Up” came the Mobility EP, credited to Moby and featuring the first version of “Go” – when Moby later remixed it to incorporate the chord sequence from Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme, it made the U.K. Top 10. When it came time to promote Mobility, Moby opted not to wear a mask like Altern-8, pull stunts in the manner of the KLF, or play keyboards alongside a vocalist and/or dancers, but to get right out front and interact with the crowd, á la his punk heroes such as Black Flag’s Henry Rollins.
Moby had known Michael Meacham since they were teenagers in Darien; they’d also worked together at Deep, a club in Port Chester, New York, where Meacham was doorman and Moby got his start as a DJ. Meacham recalls a mixtape Moby gave him, full of dark new wave (the Cure, the The, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult) as well as “Sun City” (one of the few explicitly political “We Are the World”-style all-star charity singles) and plenty of scratching. “There was a lot of phasing and playing records backward,” says Meacham. “I spent six months trying to replicate it in my little attic studio.” A few years later, Meacham’s old friend knocked D.C.’s wind out with a frenetic performance. “We were throwing shit at the 9:30 Club,” says Meacham. “The highest compliment you could give somebody is when you pick up a chair and throw it across the room, because there's nothing else to do.”
Meacham wasn’t yet a promoter, but he wanted to put on the biggest party the area had seen. In the spring of 1992, Meacham, Scott Henry, Charles Feelgood and the Baez brothers went over to his house for a meeting over pizza. “How can we take it out of the basement and put it on the first floor?” Meacham asked. Shortly after, a hip hop promoter approached him and offered to bankroll a big party: “I’ll put up the money, you do the show.” Meacham recalls the promoter as “really sketchy,” but took up the offer anyway. “As a 21-year-old, I made horrible business decisions. I never said, ‘Hey, when am I getting paid? What are we doing? What's our budget?’ I went into it eyes wide open: ‘I'm going to do whatever it takes to make this event happen.’”
Yo, Mikey, this is Joey Beltram! What’s up, baby?
Moby agreed to appear straightaway. Meacham knew most of the Brooklyn DJs personally as well: “I called up Frankie Bones and Jimmy Crash and Adam X – no contracts, very open.” An exception was Joey Beltram, whose background had escaped Meacham. “He was on R&S Records” – a Belgian label,” Meacham explains. “My idea of Joey Beltram was this cold German guy that was making techno records like Thomas Dolby, in a cool studio in Dresden or Berlin.” Beltram called Meacham back: “Yo, Mikey, this is Joey Beltram! What’s up, baby? Yo, you've got to keep Bones the fuck away from me, man – we’ve got beef. I might have to fuckin’ slap him if I see him. OK, kid?” (The beef involved a woman and was resolved shortly thereafter.) “My whole world was destroyed,” Meacham says with a laugh.
Future’s ticket presales were slow, only about 1,000 – far smaller than either the cavernous space or the production was intended to serve. The weather was on the party’s side: “This was the perfect night,” says Meacham. “It wasn't cold but it wasn't hot.” Still, he began to seriously worry when the first arrivals trickled rather than streamed in. Then, after a couple hours, the tide opened. “It was full on, out of nowhere,” says Meacham. “It filled up quickly.” After parking in a grass lot, the ravers’ first stop was a small barn. “People were like, ‘OK, this is cool, but is it really worth $15?’” says Meacham. “Then you went to the back and looked down and saw a field full of people. Then you knew you'd arrived.”
One of those arrivals was Damian Higgins, a Carnegie-Mellon student who’d trekked four hours to D.C. from Pittsburgh in a caravan with friends; at one point, he was pulled over by the cops while going 81 miles an hour and got a ticket for $156. Somehow, in the pre-GPS and cellphone era, he found his friends: “Pure luck,” he says. Higgins had been a synthpop and industrial fan before encountering T99’s “Anasthasia,” a frantic Belgian track that mangled a Barry White orchestral sample till it blared like a distorto guitar, at a Front 242 show. He’d purchased it on an expensive English import CD compilation, even though he didn’t own a CD player. “I felt if I didn’t buy it then, I’d never see it again,” he says. Higgins began scouring English magazines for more information: “There really wasn’t much going on in Pittsburgh at the time,” he says. But as Dieselboy, the moniker he still uses, he began spinning Sundays at the Metropole. “It went from being a couple hundred to 1,500 people in a year,” he says.
Once they arrived at Future, Higgins’ crew headed to the barn, where “200 people or so, [were] milling around and checking each other out” to a laid-back deep house set. “To get down to the field, you had to go to this little house,” says Higgins. Emerging on the other side, Higgins heard Westbam’s air-raid-siren pounder “The Mayday Anthem” getting louder with every step. “Everyone was jumping up and down at the same time,” he says. “I felt like all these people knew the song somehow. I felt like I didn’t know anything.”
A moon bounce stood in one corner. “I must have seen at least 20 different Jive shirts,” Higgins posted to mailing list NE-Raves, referring to Fresh Jive, the clothing brand found by Rick Klotz, who was also L.A.’s premier rave flyer designer. As he danced, Higgins was handed a zine: “They had stuff in there about Woody McBride, from Minneapolis. Josh Wink had something in there. It seemed so fucking foreign to me.”
It was about as idyllic a party or event as I’ve ever been to.
The crowd was abuzz on more than the weather and the lasers. “I imagine a lot of people were pretty tweaked,” Meacham admits. “People would go out and do one or two hits of ecstasy, so it was very light and celebratory and happy,” says Moby. (Though one NE-Raver posited that MDMA was in short supply at Future: “There were about ten times as many people on acid as Ecstasy.”) When Moby got onstage, he said, “First of all, I want to thank Michael Meacham. This is the greatest thing I've ever seen in America.” Meacham was touched: “I was like, ‘Mo! Awww!’”
Marci Weber, Moby and Joey Beltram’s manager, who was backstage, recalls “all these kids putting their hands up,” a few of them wearing prominent Mickey Mouse gloves. “Weird versions of Mickey Mouse were making a comeback,” she says; one of them was a T-shirt from the party “where Mickey Mouse has one leg, three eyes, and six fingers. If Disney ever saw it, they would have flipped out.” In fact, they did: That September, a Disney vice president complained about ravers sullying Mickey’s “all-American image” to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Moby recalls that at Future, “The music everyone was playing was very hands-in-the-air, piano-driven, happy music. It was just about when things started to get dark. Jungle was starting to get big, but a lot of the early jungle tracks were very euphoric – early Prodigy, Slipmatt & Lime, Blame, a lot of the stuff on Shut Up And Dance.” But for Higgins, the music wasn’t happy enough. Posting to NE-Raves, he found the Euro-hardcore in Adam X and Jimmy Crash’s sets monotonous: “The music they were mixing with all sounded exactly the same… Are they so far ahead of the pack music-wise that what they are playing is the future in techno?”
In response, another NE-Raves poster, Brian Behlendorf – who a few months earlier had founded both the SF-Raves list and the server, Hyperreal, that hosted it – recalled being in L.A.’s DMC shop, where a woman asked for “hardcore rave music.” She wasn’t satisfied until the clerk put an LP of looped beats on one turntable and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on the other: “When he mixed it in seamlessly, the woman almost had a heart attack. ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh God, yes!’”
The music wasn’t the only thing at Future that seemed like it was heading out of control. At the door, there was confusion between complimentary and reduced-price tickets. Weber, who’d been in the music biz since the ’70s, noticed the chaos immediately. “I was much more by the book than anybody else,” she says. “I just had more experience. To other people, it might have seemed overboard. It doesn’t seem that way to me at all, because I know what it means to see a stage fall down.”
That moment when the music hit again, it was this religious, intense moment – people to this day say they've never experienced anything like it. - Michael Meacham
Around 2 AM the police paid a visit. “The cops put me in the car and said, ‘If you don't shut this party down we're going to arrest you because of the complaints we're getting. We've got people five miles away who can't sleep because their windows are rattling,’” says Meacham, who responded, “If I shut this down, there's going to be a riot.” Instead, the main stage was forced to lower its volume; the crowd’s energy followed suit. By 4 AM, the outdoor stage had shut down entirely and the party was moved to the barn’s second floor. The chill-out room was now the main room.
Around 5 AM, the party halted again. “One of the security guys thought that enough was enough and hit the big pull-down breaker on the side of the room and shut all the music off,” says Meacham. One of the dancers began arguing loudly with the guard, then turned to the crowd and said, “Go tell the cop that you want your money back.” Instead, another raver picked up a bottle and began tapping on it, quickly joined by handclaps, fists hammering the walls and chanting.
New York promoter Dennis the Menace, who’d been downstairs, ready to head out, heard “the sound of a tribe banging on anything in sight” and “rushed upstairs to see a posse determined to have fun,” he later wrote in a letter to the zine Under One Sky. Someone flipped the breaker back on. Frankie Bones, on the turntables, scratched on the dancers’ beat into a remix of Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free.” “Everyone starts dancing like crazy,” Higgins posted. Recalls Meacham: “That moment when the music hit again, it was this religious, intense moment – people to this day say they've never experienced anything like it.” Or, as Dennis the Menace’s letter put it: “I had a ravegasm.”
But the chaos had its downside. DJs and their reps were to collect their fees at a designated trailer. One after another they approached Meacham: “They’re not paying anybody.” Meacham quickly found out why: His co-promoter had taken every penny from the door, stuffed it into a garbage bag, informed an staffer, “Tell everybody I'll pay them later,” and rode off in his Mercedes. (Meacham would later try and fail to contact him.) “At the end of the night I was surrounded by DJs who wanted to kill me,” says Meacham. “It was, ‘Hey, fucker, pay me my money now.’” Meacham took the parking proceeds – under $500 – and began making payouts; then he drove home to grab what he could from there and, finally, hit an ATM.
Marci Weber ensured her clients were paid in full. Frankie Bones was lenient, telling Meacham, “Pay me when you can, man.” Many of the rest were given fifty dollars. “There were those who'd spent all their money on gas and tolls and ecstasy and didn't have enough money to get back home,” says Meacham. “Those were the ones I had to give fifty bucks to.” Eventually, Meacham threw a sequel, called Back to the Future, on April 3, 1993, with an enormous lineup, many of whom had played the first Future, including Bones and Scott Henry. “Whomever I didn't pay, when we did Back to the Future, I made up for it,” says Meacham. He didn’t do any more parties after that: “Reputation was everything. I didn't want to be a sketchy promoter.” But the party’s legacy outlasted the backstage skirmishes. “Four or 5,000 people – that was huge for the time,” says Moby. “It was about as idyllic a party or event as I’ve ever been to. It was a very optimistic time.”
That optimism held sway in the parties helmed by Future principals Scott Henry and Belgian DJ (and then-D.C. resident) Lieven DeGeyndt: Fever, a biweekly at Baltimore’s Paradox run alongside Charles Feelgood, and Buzz, which kicked off at D.C.’s East Side on October 8, 1993. “People have been dying for it,” DeGeyndt told the Washington Post a week after Buzz began. “In the age range from 18 to 25, there really isn't anywhere for those kids to go on the weekends…We have a combined mailing list of over 3,000 people, and we get a great response from direct marketing.”
Henry’s sets from the period take the glitter-gushing feel of the Future party into tougher, more consciously mature terrain. “We're aware that for the first month or two our crowd will be a rave type of crowd, but we're really trying to create a space that after about two or three months will end up about half rave crowd and half club crowd,” DeGeyndt told the Post. You can hear that shift take place on Henry’s set from the 1994 party Bassrush as well as his side of Time to Get Ill Vol. 5, from 1996 – a long-running split-tape series with Charles Feelgood. That maturation would mark the music that began emerging from the Baltimore-D.C. scene mid-decade, with Deep Dish, BT and Thievery Corporation, all in their different ways, pushing a consciously deeper sound. But all of them shared the same DIY spirit that made Future happen. “The guys at the head of the scene in D.C. are very smart,” D.C. native Aden Ikram of the dance label Sm:)e told Frank Broughton in 1996. “They’ve all really worked to build something.”
Illustrations by Michele Rosenthal