The Rust Belt rave scene that bloomed in the mid-1990s grew out of a sparse but well-connected network of college radio stations, synthwave/industrial bands, adventurous DJs, bored art students and curious, disaffected kids from all classes looking to stand out from their bleak environment. The vast, flat swath of fallow cornfields, suburban office parks and rundown auto plants that covered much of the Midwest proved fertile ground for underground parties, which sprang up like filthy little Day-Glo mushrooms anywhere someone could plant a generator and a couple amps.
Anchored by Chicago house, Detroit techno and the surprisingly cosmopolitan Columbus art scene, with its internationally recognized Wexner Center for the Arts, a sprawling rave caravan circuit emerged that, while not quite as gonzo and pastoral as its British counterpart, effectively spread the techno gospel from Kalamazoo and St. Louis to Akron and Peoria. Midwest car culture and infrastructure were significant advantages, arty party series like the late Dean Major’s Syst3m in Detroit and Drop Bass Network’s annual Furthur near Milwaukee helped establish regular rave migration routes. Milwaukee-based Midwest rave bible Massive Magazine and dance music mag The Underground News out of Cleveland were passed hand-to-hand, Taco Bell and Faygo Redpop became major food groups and flyer art ranged from tacky-trippy, full-color cyberdelic fold-outs to ambitious Apple IIe-designed experiments, run off in in the middle of the night at a nearby Kinko’s.
In the beginning, for the queer people who found it, raving was a cultural if not explicitly political form of protest.
There was a queer streak that ran through all of this: Detroit’s rave scene was launched in part by a collective, Voom, that included gay men, and a sexually ambiguous crew followed Cincinnati rave personality Tommy Tomato. Like elsewhere in the US, Midwest rave attracted misfits from other scenes, and many people from the homocore queer punk movement, which had a base in Chicago, or those dissatisfied with the pop diva music played at most gay bars, found their way to underground dance music. In the beginning, for the queer people who found it, raving was a cultural if not explicitly political form of protest.
Since 1995, DJ Shiva AKA Noncompliant has been firmly embedded in the Midwest DJ scene, one of the very few self-described butch dyke techno DJs from the area – or any area in the US, really. (Her first headlining gig, in 1996, was at a party called Kickin’ in the Corn.) Originally raised in Evansville, Indiana and now living in Indianapolis, she got into rave via the punk scene when some friends’ DIY arts space began hosting electronic music events. “I was fascinated, especially by the continuous mixing and building a mood,” she says. “That was far different from three minute punk songs, but the energy was still very much there.” In the tradition of cheerful Midwestern fatalism, her trademark t-shirt reads “No Coast. No Hope. No Dreams. Midwest Techno.” Her sound, too, is quintessential Midwest: hard-edged techno that can hover around 133 BPM but still retain a funk swagger.
Recent appearances at Panorama Bar and smartbar, weekend gigs around the country and releases on the Detroit Underground, Valence and Flash labels have boosted Shiva AKA Noncompliant’s profile. Much like DJs Mike Servito and the Black Madonna, Shiva’s also been harnessing her voice on social media to speak out forcefully and eloquently on issues affecting queers, trans people, people of color and women, both in the music industry and the country. Last year she added “Noncompliant” to her moniker, culled from a comic called Bitch Planet, in which women who don’t conform to patriarchal norms are condemned to prison as “noncompliants.” Below, she speaks about the socio-economics of techno, old school Midwest DJ styles, the “new queer underground” and more.
How does it feel to live in the Midwest right now?
Indiana is a garbage fire. There are good people here, trying to make it better, but it’s a truly Sisyphean task. The conservative mindset permeates everything and the power is entrenched. Like any marginalized person struggling in unfriendly territory, it’s hard to push through it.
There’s probably an interesting history to be told of how people have tried to push through it in the past – and are pushing through it now – especially musically.
People on the coasts think of us as flyover country. They barely know what exists here, except the people who moved as far away as they could, as soon as they could. And it can be very isolating here. But before the internet it was even worse. It was so much harder to connect with like-minds and find new music, unless you were lucky and had a decent college radio station. Big-ups to WUEV in Evansville, honestly. I first heard Ministry, Bad Religion, Lords of Acid, the Prodigy and Ani DiFranco on that station. All very formative music for me. Before that it was just mainstream radio, but at least that got me Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and Prince.
But because of that isolation, during the days of the rave scene, we were really this spread-out scene connected by various cities, but still disconnected from anything else. And in a way, that insularity really made it special. We got lucky that Chicago and Detroit are part of the Midwest. And we will never, ever let them forget it! So we really had an amazing connection to those cities, and access to such fantastic music because of their proximity. It cannot be said enough, too, that cheap fuel and highway access was a huge factor.
It took an actual drive to find a way out.
It’s always been a matter of people wanting to hear the music they love, and doing what they have to to make that happen. My biggest memories are just how DIY the early Midwest scene really was. Find empty spaces, call a number on a sign, hear about someone’s dad’s friend’s bingo hall, find an empty office building, drag a soundsystem into a barn... All of these things were, I think, what happens when you live in a place where nothing is established for you. No clubs. We still don’t have any clubs in Indianapolis that are specific to this music. We’ve had them before, run by kids from the rave scene. But they are rare here. It was always very “do what you can with what you have.”
But still, we built a scene with our connection to the bigger cities. The ele_mental crew from Columbus was a huge factor (Todd Sines, Titonton Duvante and Archetype being some formative artists there), as was Black Nation from Kalamazoo (Jay Denham, Fanon Flowers, Chancellor, D-Knox). Some of my favorite Midwest parties were Axis in 1996, Dreamfest – I think in 1998. Interstellar Dreamfest in 1999. Emerge, in Columbus, in 1997, was where I met my best friend, who was also DJing.
It didn’t always work out. Indianapolis dealt with the same busts and legal witch hunts that many cities did. At one point, my picture and full name were on the front page of the local newspaper in an article about the busts. My phones were tapped after that. (Call me paranoid, but it’s true.) When I heard my phone start clicking, I would immediately start talking utter bullshit. It was actually kind of hilarious. I never really did anything worth tapping a phone for. I wasn’t a promoter or a drug dealer. Just a DJ.
Music was always the glue that held me together, helped me keep my sanity, gave me solace, a purpose and a community.
As a DJ, though, you must have had to deal with influences coming at you from all over the country. What was the prevalent Midwest DJ style and how has that stuck with you after 20 years?
When it came to DJing, well, if you wanted to get heard at all, you had to be super good. With DJs coming in from Chicago and Detroit constantly, you not only had a chance to learn those styles (the long blends and the tricks), but if you were outside of those two cities, you had to be ten times as good as anyone else to get any attention. There weren’t lots of clubs, so you played raves, and you had an hour to show your stuff. So you went in guns blazing and pulled out all the stops. It’s still a challenge for me to learn to slow down a bit and settle in for longer sets because I want to be mixing, mixing, mixing all the time – boom boom boom, next record – and you have to save at least a little energy when you’re playing for four hours. But that manic always-in-the-mix style has never left me. It’s what I love the most.
I like beats that smack you right upside the face. And mangling sounds. And booty-shaking. And bloops. That’s my “formula” if I have one. My influences are somewhere between Chicago jack and Detroit soul, with a bit of Kalamazoo tweak and a healthy love of various broken beat things. Terry Mullan, Traxx, Twonz, Mike Dearborn, DJ Hyperactive, Paris & Billeebob AKA Heckle & Jeckle... Those cats were huge influences DJ-wise. Musically, Rob Hood, Hyperactive, UR, Cari Lekebusch, Joey Beltram, Surgeon, Dave Clarke, The Advent, Mike Dearborn, Jeff Mills, Jay Denham, Chance McDermott... There are so many.
One of the fascinating topics that you’re very open about is the fact that DJing and producing is work, that it’s a labor transaction located within a specific socio-economic context. What may not be obvious to partygoers is the working class nature of earning a living through DJing. This seems like a very Midwest way to talk about things. You’ve talked about issues with healthcare, dental care, housing, women’s and queer health issues... and how integral the issues are to dance music, since they’re what the people who make the dance music are dealing with.
Most of my adult life I made very low, poverty wages. You walk into most jobs in a place like Indiana looking like an obvious “stereotypical” butch lesbian, it’s... not helpful in finding work. I’ve had people whisper things about me in break rooms, had men try to start fights with me at jobs, had one co-worker (an actual neo-Nazi) who stalked me... fucked up stuff.
I’ve been homeless multiple times. I tried to move out of Indiana, but failed miserably each time. I never felt like I had a queer community that was here for me either. I knew other queer people, I had queer friends, but it never really felt like there was a community here. Music was always the glue that held me together, helped me keep my sanity, gave me solace, a purpose and a community. Activism was always a part of it too, but without music, I don’t know if I would be alive today.
As far as working full-time and DJing on the weekend, I love what I do, but it can be exhausting juggling both. It takes a day or two to recover and then you’re halfway to the next weekend already and then “OMG, I have to do all the laundry,” and everything’s a mess and “What is my life, even?” It’s honestly what I’ve always wanted, though, and I am going to ride it until the wheels fall off and enjoy every damn minute of it.
And in the current political climate, the idea of trying to make a go of just being a full-time DJ (or really any sort of creative, independent endeavor/career) is scary for people in the US because of housing costs and healthcare/insurance issues. The ACA (Obamacare) made this easier by giving options other than employer-provided insurance, but... It’s still not cheap, and with the GOP hellbent on destroying what tiny protections we have against a heartless capitalist “wealthcare” system, hanging onto your day job is more critical than ever. So a lot of us choose the exhaustion over the uncertainty.
One thing I do see in the music community is how we are semi-self-sustaining. A friend pays another friend to write their bio, they put out a record with some of their friends on it, those friends give those records to some other DJ friends, another person books them to play, the promoter pays a friend to design posters for the show, the artist buys records with their money, etc.... We still keep a lot of our money circulating among each other. I love that about creative culture. I think it’s good to be aware of this and to understand how important it really is. We have a little micro-economy/barter economy within a larger one. We still have to deal with the larger economic world, but this can sustain us sometimes when the larger one doesn’t.
I never felt like I could connect my queerness to my love for techno.
One example of a micro-economy could be the “new queer underground,” and how it’s been carving space over the last decade for queer techno artists to perform and support each other at parties around the world, including places in the Midwest that haven’t had queer-friendly techno parties since the ’90s rave scene. What’s your take on it?
I love it and I think we’re seeing it really open up now, too. It started very gay male, and it is becoming more welcoming to women and trans and non-binary folx. We still have our issues we struggle with in the community of course, from the sometimes overwhelming whiteness, to substance abuse, to sometimes having to throw queer events in “straight” spaces and the frustrations that come with that. But at least in my experience in the US, things are changing and there is a connection happening. I am personally glad to feel more included in it simply because I feel quite isolated here, and playing a bit harder-edged techno, it took a while to find queer spaces that would welcome me.
Gay clubs in Indiana are not known for their progressive music selection, and I have played in them before, trying to gently nudge from diva house to techno-ish stuff. They always hated it. I never felt like I could connect my queerness to my love for techno. I wanted to be around my people listening to my favorite music. I can’t even say what it means to me to be able to really play techno now at parties like In Training in Cleveland, Hot Mass in Pittsburgh, Club Toilet in Detroit and The Stud in San Francisco.
There’s a certain resistance emerging to the myth of a past gay dancefloor utopia. One of the dominant narratives of the past decade about dance music is that, especially pre-AIDS, everything was sweetness and light in the queer community and we had these magical safe spaces to gather that were free from class and gender conflicts. People are starting to question that as sanitizing, even infantilizing. What are your thoughts on how the past is portrayed?
Marginalized people are always the ones whose voices are historically silenced, especially in mainstream narratives. I can’t speak to a lot of this just because I was so isolated from any of it. We had tiny gay bars with no windows and terrible mainstream pop music (but very cheap drinks), and so many people were closeted. AIDS affected Southern Indiana – remember that Ryan White, a young kid who got AIDS via blood transfusion, was from Indiana, and he and his family were hounded from their home. The fear in this state was so real. So this wasn’t something that was talked about. The closet hid sickness, too.
But I didn’t really know the connection between the queer community and disco and house music. I didn’t know about any of it until I read Love Saves The Day. That was a history that just wasn’t really a thing outside of the larger metro areas, especially NYC and Chicago. Growing up in Evansville, I was eight hours away from Chicago and it could have been another universe. I am learning everything backwards.
Do you think there is a legacy of lesbian techno DJs? If you were to write a “secret history” of the lesbian underground, what would it look like and who would be featured in it?
There have always been lesbian and queer women in this business, and we generally spotted each other pretty easily. Even so, I never really felt much community or kinship from other queer women DJs for quite a long time. It’s happening more now, but it took a frustratingly long time. I think part of that is just that it’s hard enough being a woman in the business, that being a queer woman isn’t necessarily something anyone was shouting from the rooftops, especially 20 years ago. It was a very different world then. Finding an audience of queer women for dance music has always been a lot harder. And that’s a big conversation that also involves socio-economics and the differences in queer/lesbian social/dating scenes and probably a lot of overgeneralizations. And as always, the disclaimer that I live in Indiana, which is a whole different world from places like SF or Chicago or NYC. Maybe there was more opportunity for a lesbian underground in those places and I missed it. I have no idea. If you find a lesbian underground techno scene, please tell me where it is, because I want in.
In the past year couple years, we’ve seen recent homophobic, misogynist and transphobic controversies involving Ten Walls, Giegling and Bbbbbb, and swift online backlash that has led to some form of apology from all of them.
I’m glad that people are taking folks to task for being assholes. I would venture to guess the effects will be temporary, because largely people don’t give a shit about the asshole-ish things people do or say. Plenty of horrid people still have careers, especially straight white guys. And while I appreciate people getting incensed, some jerk dude losing a few bookings is, in the grand scheme of things, ultimately not that useful. I mean, if they’re replaced by women, black women, queer women, trans folx, then maybe. But it largely is just performative outrage that doesn’t change anything on any major level. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
What needs to happen are structural changes, and that’s a much bigger and much more difficult endeavor. It takes work and persistence. I’m much less interested in punishing individual people for their shitty views (although I do think they deserve to deal with the consequences of publicly being jerks), than I am in actually changing the big picture. It means keeping up the momentum and working every day instead of just short-lived spurts of anger that are forgotten a month later.
That seems good advice for surviving the current political climate in general.
I think the key is always community. We lift each other up. We help each other survive. Life is a struggle, no matter who you are. If you have some strikes against you for being queer or black or a woman or trans (and some have more than one or all of them) surviving is resistance. I am still doing my best to keep afloat through the extra depression and anxiety heaped on us all in these completely mind-blowing political times, so I dunno that I have any answers on this. Just... Keep moving forward.