Colorado’s clandestine nightlife spawned one of the most important underground scenes in the nation

Colorado’s clandestine nightlife spawned one of the most important underground scenes in the nation

Cowtown indeed.

MusicJanuary 07, 2020 By Brian Frederick

A typical night out often requires a few basic necessities. Overpriced concert tickets? Cell phone? Drugs? Check, check and check. It’s a fairly ritual experience, to the point many often take it for granted today. Yet as tens of thousands religiously soak in one of the largest and most diverse music scenes every weekend, it’s easy to think Colorado has been like this all along. 

Looking back, however, it’s amazing to think it went the way it did at all. The state’s nightlife had immeasurable pushback from powerful teams of naysayers for years. Political challenges, social taboos and a flailing industry were against it, all attempting to keep underground electronic music from boiling to the surface.

Scrolling through anyone’s social media account today, it appears the candy-toting, baggy jeans wearing ravers of yesteryear won. And they were pivotal in advancing a powerful cultural statement in the process.

In the 1990s, Denver had about half of the people living inside its city limits than there are today. Riding the light rail meant one quick semi-circle trip around downtown. The “Cash Register Building” was still considered new. Professional football was played in a completely different Mile High Stadium. RiNo? Never heard of her.

Cowtown indeed.

There were also these things called payphones littering the city streets. It was the only way for friends to keep in touch, and came in real handy when a “69,” “420” or “911” message scrolled across the screen of a Motorola pager. To have any sort of social life, kids had to get creative.

“Instead of everything being online, you’d have to go to Imi Jimi and Soulflower Records and Fat Tuesdays and see what rave flyers were on the counter,” says Michael Landis. He’s the creator and owner of a now-defunct online message board that was popular in the late-‘90s called Underground Network. Like Reddit, it had crude graphics and long comment-type threads of conversations from like-minded folks. In its prime, it was a catchall for valuable information on the parties being thrown around the state. 

Yet before the Internet grabbed hold of the scene, going out on the weekends was more blissful scavenger hunt than concretely scheduled events.

“You’d memorize the phone numbers,” says Landis. “303-575-1175 was one of ‘em [laughs] — and you’d call them so you’d see what parties were happening. Saturday 10 o’clock at night you’d go to a map point, buy a ticket from someone, get the map, and then they’d send you all over creation.”

The biggest promoters of the time were peers, friends, people who knew how to party and the best ways to throw them. And for a while, the fabled warehouse-style gatherings were underground, underground … few people knew about them. But toward the mid-‘90s that all began to change because of those involved: Ha Hau of Triad Dragons, Ryan Rushing of Roofless Entertainment, Jason Bills of Come Together Productions, Ryan Dykstra … to name a few. 

Because of them word got out and the rave scene took off.

“As it was getting closer to ‘96, ‘97, ‘98, this was becoming bigger and bigger across the country,” says promoter Ryan Dykstra. Since 1993, he’s been a major part of thousands of shows across Colorado. His name was one of the few synonymous with Colorado nightlife toward the turn of the century. He still books shows, often selling out DJ tribute nights, and stays close to the music of that era selling vintage vinyl at dozens of boutique drop points around the state. 

That period, he says, was exactly the time opposition against the scene grew fierce.

“The news outlets, you know 20/20 and Dateline, you started seeing a lot of news stories — a lot of negative stories — about the underground and the drug use and the danger of allowing your kids to do this,” he says. “There wasn’t any celebration about the culture of DJs and the fact you’ve got this thing that’s exploded in Europe and now it’s in America. It was all negative.”

Before Facebook, less than half a dozen news outlets controlled much of the narrative in the country. When someone like Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings or Oprah said something was evil, parents listened. There were no Twitter-like checks and balances calling them on their bullshit. As such, the government used these tools to sway popular opinion. In its crosshairs: MDMA — then known on the streets as ecstasy.

Because of its wide use in party atmospheres, “techno” music and ecstasy were unbreakably linked in the collective psyche of America. 

In 1985, the DEA declared an emergency ban on MDMA, citing its high potential for abuse and no accepted medical applications. Not coincidentally, this was around the same time authorities began witnessing a trend of its use in nightlife. But it wasn’t until the undergrounds of Detroit, Chicago, LA and New York began to spill over into Middle America that state governments really got involved.

Things were at their worst after a Colorado girl celebrating her 16th birthday passed away after drinking too much water — a result, authorities say, of taking a single pill of ecstasy. Brittney Chambers’ tragic story (and a handful of others) became the fodder government officials, Joe Biden specifically, used to attack raves.

The former vice president and now presidential hopeful didn’t hold back on how he felt about warehouse parties. “I would be passing new ordinances relating to stiff criminal penalties for anyone who held a rave, the promoter, the guy who owned the building — I’d put the son of a gun in jail!” he once said in a televised congressional hearing. Biden’s sentiment was the bedrock for what would become the Reducing American’s Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act. It failed twice, but would later pass under another name hidden deep within an unrelated bill about child abductions.

It passed that way without public hearing, debate or vote.

For most, the media attention of it all was enough. New laws and regulations passed in Colorado steered venue and warehouse owners — who wouldn’t normally have income coming in from their dilapidated buildings — away from allowing promoters to throw parties. The city began “requiring extensive amounts of permits or creating permits that were un-getable,” adds Dykstra, “hitting parties from every side.”

The events once championed for finding creative loopholes, were forced to adapt.

“The parties then weren’t cool unless it was all night,” adds Dykstra. “(Events now) all end at 2 or before. Back then if you did that, it wasn’t cool and nobody would buy tickets. It had to go until 6 o’clock in the morning. That was part of what added to the fact that you couldn’t make an event in a regular licensed building. They didn’t have the ability to go all night.”

A typical night out did initially consist of clubs — Rock Island, Synergy, Pure — but then at closing time, the mass exodus of those looking for an afterhours spot would flood the streets. Pressures from the authorities and the lack of venues opening their doors to anything called a “rave” brought much of that paradigm to a screeching halt. 

As Dykstra explains, some of those last Wild West-style gatherings of the early 2000s were still growing exponentially before enforcement did them in — a time he says will likely be remembered as “the epicenter of everything, as far as the absolute largest parties of the time.

“You always had to have enough gas,” he says of those nights out. “You didn’t know where you were going. You didn’t know when it would end.”

There were two distinct music scenes in Colorado around that time. The legitimate venues — Red Rocks, Fillmore, Ogden — brought in popular radio artists as they do today. And then there was the “techno” scene, still yet not taken seriously by anyone outside the know. 

After it was understood that property owners could be held liable for any illegal activity on the premises with or without knowledge, the two grew rapidly apart even though they were sort of experimenting at the time with electronic nights for mutual benefit. Police raids on those were common, and legitimate venues were pulled into the fray by proxy.

“We just need to get ourselves disassociated from these things because we’re not a nightclub,” Ogden Theatre’s Jesse Morreale told Pollstar after a series of raids. “We’re a concert hall.”

The term “rave” was even banned for a few years in Denver. In 1999, KTCL went in big with electronic music. Its Rave on the Rocks series was the first mainstream dance music show in a mainstream venue. “Then the city of Denver said, ‘We will not let you call it Rave on the Rocks,’” says Dykstra. “So they called it Weekend of E. [laughs]”

A few years later, Ha Hau and his Global Dance / Triad Dragons imprints took over the concept and legitimized it. He and his team had been working shows for years alongside Dykstra and many others, too. Almost two decades since, the Global Dance Festival has become one of the most successful EDM events in the nation. The Decadence NYE party, another one of Hau’s events, is too. Many in the scene agree, had Hau and his team not stepped in at the right time, electronic music in Colorado would look wildly different than what it does today.

Music giants often credit big city scenes for making the industry. The aforementioned Detroit, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles are the obvious ones. But somehow, Denver makes it into the shoutouts too. The way Landis explains, it was Colorado’s unique ability to structure the underground that set it apart from others.

“Even though the raves were happening nationally, what was happening in Colorado was everything that made rave culture sustainable,” he says. “Meaning, Beta, Beatport, Industry Labs, Factory Labs, these are all things that are national tools. We don’t have the name Chicago or Detroit, but Colorado was able to do things other cities couldn’t. The work we did made it so that Minneapolis and Albuquerque and all these other places had rave scenes too.”

Globally, electronic music is estimated to be worth $9 billion as an industry and growing rapidly with each passing festival season. Looking at any of the streaming charts, it’s easy to see why: people love it still. 

Like so many music scenes before it, the EDM culture was also one of inclusion — Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. And while it had its occasional dark clouds hovering above it, it came out virtually unscathed by the powers that be. The sky never fell. The architects of it just needed to persevere.
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Oldschool Rave Flyer Archive
[Vintage Colorado rave flyers preserved by the RavePreservationProject.com]