A freinds of mine, Yamina (one of the foxiest babes ever), does work for a Toronto community outreach program called TRIP (Toronto Raver Info Project). She asked me for help writing a piece about the history of the Toronto Rave Scene (she also asked a bunch of other old people aswell). It’s a subject that I’m quite passionate about, so I spent some quality time on it. I’ve decided to post it here, where anyone can find it, and I hope you will take the time to read it.
NOTE: This is by no means a complete work. It is an overview and is souly based on my own knowledge, having been active in the Toronto Rave Scene for over 15 years. Here we go…
In the 1990’s, through the support and efforts of several key figures, the Dance Music scene in Toronto rose from meager beginnings to become one of the biggest and most renowned music scenes in the world. While other cities have managed to maintain vibrant Dance Music cultures, Toronto’s was doomed to fall, and did so swiftly after the turn of the millenium.
MARK OLIVER & EXODUS
By 1991, there was a massive scene booming in the UK, which centered around “Techno & House” music, and an exciting new drug, colourfully referred to as “Ecstasy”. The scene had even settled on a name for itself: “RAVE”. But over in Toronto, the idea of “raving” had yet to be conceived. That quickly changed, as UK immigrants, living in Canada, began returning to Toronto, from vacations home, with a taste for this exciting new culture. Some of them even brought back music with them. One of these undergound music collectors was MARK OLIVER, a young DJ of Scottish descent, who took it upon himself to start spreading the vibes of rave music. His first chance to do so was a gig DJing at an unpopular afterhours club, called 23 HOP. It was here that he met ANTHONY DONNELLY and JOHN ANGUS, two fellow Scotsman, who were searching for like minded individuals interested in bringing UK Rave culture to Toronto. An alliance was formed. Together, they grew 23 Hop into a headquarters for rave music, which led to the creation of Toronto’s first rave promotion group. They named themselves EXODUS, and threw the city’s first legitimate warehouse parties, which quickly spread and grew in popularity amongst the more eccentric members of the city’s underground music scene. Exodus events served as an exciting secret underground paradise for those who knew, and they were celebrated with great affection.
For more indepth details on the ORIGINS of raving in Toronto, I highly recommend you spend some time on THECOMMUNIC8R.COM. It’s a wonderful read and highly informative.
In the late 80s, he was a radio DJ who hosted a late night program on CFNY (now known as 102.1 The Edge). Sheppard’s PIRATE RADIO program showcased underground electronic music sourced by Sheppard himself, mostly from Europe and the United States. At the time, the Dance Music scene in Toronto was very small and mostly confined to after-hours clubs. Sheppard would often DJ at these clubs under his then secret alias, DOG WHISTLE.
When CFNY decided to shift its focus, Sheppard found a new home at the cities first all dance music station, ENERGY 108. Garnering major support from the station, Sheppard began to do live-to-air broadcasts from local nightclubs and release major label compilations of underground dance music. He formed a House music group, BKS, and used his major label connections to push his songs onto Top 40 radio play. During this time, Sheppard also played a key role in many ground breaking Rave events.
By the Mid-Nineties, Dance Music had exploded in Toronto (thanks, in part, to the efforts of Energy 108 and Sheppard himself). People were flocking to Toronto from all over the globe to attend dance events and many super clubs were opening to accomodate the mass attendance. Sheppard decided to capitalize on the growing momentum by putting BKS to rest and starting a new, more commercially friendly group, called LOVE INC. He still continued to support the Rave scene, releasing 2 compilations and beginning the first hour of his live to air program under his Dog Whistle alias. His distance from the underground, however, began to grow as he gained more commercial success.
Don Berns should more commonly be referred to as The Godfather Of Raving In Toronto. He was an American radio DJ who moved to Toronto to become programming director of CFNY. Berns was interested in the growing movement in Pop/Rock towards electronic dance music and pushed the station to support these new sounds. When the stations management decided to shift focus back to more traditional sounding rock, they fired Berns and he found a new home at Energy 108, where he continued his quest of exposing electronic dance music to the masses, now with major support from the station.
During his time at CFNY, Berns regularily attended the few after-hours clubs in the city and became a recognized figure in the underground music scene. He was eventually asked, by DJ IAIN (early Toronto Dance Music supporter) to DJ at an after hours event. Iain had also asked Chris Sheppard, Denise Benson, and James St. Bass, who were all radio personalities pushing the new sounds of underground electronic dance music. Berns had never DJed before, but he agreed to do it. Iain’s plan was to use the on-air promotional abilities of his DJs to attract lots of people to his night. Little did he know that this teaming of media personalities would spawn an alliance that would lead to the creation of a world renowned music scene.
Berns had connections in L.A. and had heard stories about the amazing “Rave” culture that was budding there. It took one weekend of raving in L.A. for Berns to conclude that he had to bring this unique experience to Toronto. He formed a company called Nitrous and began to organize and Promote Rave events in the city. His goal was to expose Rave culture to the masses. Through the mainstream media connections of himself, his partners, and his resident DJs, he was able to do just that.
Nitrous parties grew larger and larger and many other promoters began to throw similar events. By 1997, there were multiple Raves being thrown every weekend, as thousands of people flocked to Toronto from all over the world to attend.
CITRUS @ THE SCIENCE CENTRE
In 1997, DJ Citrus, a local Rave promoter, wanted to throw something really big and remembered a 1993 event that Nitrous’ successor, Atlantis, threw in the Ontario Science Centre. He discovered that you could rent out the entire building for an overnight event, with all of the exhibits open. It would be the largest rave event thus far in Toronto, and was exactly what the scene needed to push it into the mainstream. Really, it was the safety of it. The dangers and illegality of partying in an abandoned warehouse had kept the average person from attending the Raves that they had heard so much about, but the idea of one being held in an educational institution funded by the government was one that you didn’t even have to lie to your mom about. CITRUS (the DJ named the night after himself) was a huge success and became an annual event for the following 2 years. It was the perfect venue to expose the Rave Scene to mainstream Toronto, which led to massive raves being thrown in the years to come, some of which even took place on city and government funded property, such as The Better Living Centre, The International Centre, Toronto Island Airport, and even SkyDome (now named Rogers Centre).
THE DEATH OF ALLAN HO
By 1999, Toronto’s Rave scene was getting a lot of media attention, but in general, raves generated a very positive atmosphere and good news is no news so there wasn’t very much for major media moguls to write about. They were waiting for something tragic to happen, and they would soon get just that. In October of 1999, Hullabaloo! (Toronto’s most celebrated and world renowned Rave promotion company) threw an event in an underground parking garage. It was enjoyed by most of the thousands who attended and would have been a great success. Unfortunately, a 20 year old University student, named Allan Ho, overdosed on Ecstasy and his body was discovered during the party. The story leaked to the press and they ran with it, making an example of Ho and painting a picture of Raves as dangerous drug feasts and a threat to youths. Accusations were made against Toronto’s mayor, Mel Lastman, as being a supporter of dangerous rave parties, bringing to his attention that major events had been thrown on city property. In his defense against such accusations, Lastman began to campaign against the Rave scene, leading to the inacting of a law banning electronic music from being performed after 3am.
WILL CHANG, better known in the Rave scene as KLUBMASTA WILL, was a lawyer with a deep passion for Rave culture. He agreed to represent the head of Hullabaloo!, CHRIS FROLIC, during the Coroners public inquest into the death of Allan Ho. Chang, and several other Rave Culture activists also formed a committee, called The PARTY PEOPLE PROJECT, who’s purpose it would be to publically expose the positive aspects of Rave culture, while dispelling the negative myths being spread by the media. It was this committee that invisioned the ultimate response to Lastman’s “Rave ban”.
THE iDANCE RALLY
By 2000, Raving in Toronto had become an industry that employed thousands of people. The size of Toronto’s scene meant that it also effected the success of underground music scene’s in other North American cities, aswell as the livelihood of electronic music artists from all over the world. The rave ban incited an uproar amongst the many businesses that benefited from the city’s Rave culture. With the PARTY PEOPLE PROJECT at the head, all of the major players in the scene quickly banded together to plan the iDANCE RALLY, a massive protest against the Rave Ban that would take place on City Hall property the day before city council was to review the new law.
Some of the biggest names in electronic music signed on to perform and local celebrities and politicians agreed to give their support. Several press conferences were organized to discuss the issue, announce the rally, and explain its importance. Word spread quickly. Promoters in other cities organized busses to travel to the event. They knew too well that the outcome of the rally would have a direct effect on Rave Culture all over North America.
On August 1st of 2000, more than 20, 000 people flocked to Nathan Philips Square to show there support. There was an unwritten agreement amongst most in attendance that drugs were not to be ingested this day. They would show the Mayor that raving was a positive force driven souly by a common love of music and dancing.
The rally was a great success and the Rave Ban was lifted. Lastman, however, continued to work towards crushing the scene, based on recommendations resulting from the public inquiry. He quickly instated laws that would place criminal charges on the owners of venues in which illegal narcotics were seized. Large venues rapidly began closing their doors to rave events. New rules were also made pertaining to running water, security, police and emergency medical services present at dance events. These new rules were to be met at the expense of the promoter. The lack of legal venues forced Rave promotion companies to downsize their events and throw them in expensive night clubs. All of these factors caused Raves to become unprofitable and most of the industry either abandoned Rave Culture or folded all together.
IN THE END
After the success of the first iDance, there were plans to make it an annual music fesival, celebrating Dance culture. A second iDance was thrown the following year (2001) but it was a disaster. With no altruistic spirit to fight for, the attendance was poor and with corporate sponsorship (from The Toronto Star and X-Box) funding a very commercial add campaign, the wrong crowd was attracted. Drug use was rampant this time around and the event only further fed the city’s crack down on Raves. There would not be another iDance.
Don Berns sites his own efforts to expose Rave culture to the masses as the ultimate downfall of the scene. In the beginning, Raves were largely attended by older, experienced partyers that were sick of night clubs and looking for a more fullfilling experience. By exposing Raves to the mainstream, they began to attract younger and younger crowds and because the events were all ages, they were able to attend. As the majority of attendees got younger, the older ravers stopped going. With the Rave scene now dominated by adolescents, it began to face the issues that always follow teenagers, mainly irresponsible drug use, which leads to irresponsible drug dealing, which so often leads to gang violence. The mass exposition of Rave culture also brought it to the attention of the wrong kinds of people. Those who go out with the intention of partying irresponsibly. In a scene based around tolerance and personal freedom, there was little anyone was willing to do against these negative activities. Thus, its downfall was inevitable.
A decade later, Toronto still has a worthwhile underground dance scene but it is much much smaller and very different. A lot has happened within it from 2002 to the present, but I’m going to leave it for someone else to write about.
NOW FOR SOMETHING SPECIAL
To promote the iDance Rally, several Toronto electronic music producers contributed to a small CD compilation made up of tunes protesting against Mel Lastman’s efforts to destroy the Rave scene. The CD was handed out, in VERY limited quantity, to members of the press during a conference organized by the PARTY PEOPLE PROJECT. I have a copy of this CD and am going to share one of the tracks with you.
RICOCHET, by D-REGION & MC FLIPSIDE, is a Drum N Bass jam containing samples of Mayor, Mel Lastman, saying “I didn’t know what a rave party was” and “I thought we could control them”. Grab it below and enjoy. This one is super rare.
Yamina, I hope you and everyone at TRIP appreciate this post. It was a bitch to write. Hahahaaa.
Thanx for reading.