It’s past midnight on a frigid Friday night and Winnipeg’s downtown streets are quiet except for the slight pounding of bass coming from The Planit Restaurant and Lounge, a new restaurant next to Dollarama on Portage Avenue.
Inside, about 25 people keep warm by dancing under a light show that includes a multi-coloured fog machine. Autumn Steinberg is one of those people.
“I came here to support my friend’s husband,” said Steinberg. “I’ve been dancing all night.”
Steinberg is new to the techno dance party scene— usually referred to as the rave scene. She started going to “parties” when her friend Amanda’s husband, who goes by the name DJ Qube, started playing music or spinning.
Before attending the D-Unity After Party at The Planit and events like it, Steinberg never listened to techno music except for the electronic dance music (EDM) she heard on the radio.
This is the case for most young people, says Nathan Zahn, festival director of MEMETIC, a techno music festival in Winnipeg.
“They’re two different beasts,” said Zahn. “The majority of people are still out to lunch, but things have come a long way compared to 10 years ago. You’re up against a battle of awareness for sure.”
The techno scene, while still considered underground, is a large, diverse scene around the world, but it’s the EDM scene that gets the most mainstream coverage.
EDM is a sub-genre of the techno scene. It emerged about five years ago and has exploded into mainstream culture with music festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and Tomorrowland in Belgium.
“EDM is sort of the top 40 of the rave scene,” said Zahn. “It tends to be entry level, like I’ve heard this on the radio and it’s fun, but raves tend to be a little more old school. Generally anyone under the age of 25 will know the EDM scene a bit more than they know the rave scene.”
This is by no fault of the listener at the other end of the radio or computer screen. Almost every pop song released in the past two years features a DJ or producer in the techno genre.
Ellie Goulding collaborated with dubstep DJ Skrillex, Nicki Minaj did the same with house DJ David Guetta, and EDM producer Diplo has teamed up with the who’s who of the pop world including, Madonna, Beyonce, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, just to name a few.
But, for people in the rave community, the music on the radio is completely different from the music that plays at underground dance parties.
Steinberg admits she didn’t know there was a difference between the two scenes. Unlike EDM, the rave scene has a long and nuanced history dating back to the late eighties.
Electronic music emerged in Europe after synth-pop artists like Depeche Mode, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Pet Shop Boys began using technology to create weird and obscure sounds. Not long after, the scene made its way to Winnipeg with the first official rave in 1991.
Empty warehouses in the Exchange District and along Waterfront Drive provided a backdrop for the all night dance parties.
The scene became home to “people that didn’t have a place to go,” according to Zahn. People from the goth scene, the industrial scene and the cyberkids scene came together to decorate the spaces in themes of aliens, space, robots or fantasy. Zahn says it was a more artistic portrayal of what we see today.
Zahn entered into the scene in 1996 when he was still in high school. His friends rented a space in the Nutty Club building on Pioneer Avenue and he helped them throw parties during the summer.
Without the help of social media, Zahn had to rely on message boards to get the word out.
It worked. Hundreds of people would fill famous underground warehouses including the 3rd floor of 123 Princess St. and 318 Ross Ave. now the Frame Arts Warehouse. This went on for four years and slowed down when police started cracking down on code violations.
Following the crackdowns, rave promoters began using places such as Wheelies Roller Rink to throw parties that tried to capture the scene from the nineties, but didn’t quite pull it off.
“Some of the early ones there were kind of neat but they didn’t put a lot of soul into those,” said Zahn. “It was kind of like sound and screen and a bunch of trance music. You have that with the big festivals now, but it’s almost over-the-top. It’s like a circus, where the older ones had a bit more authenticity.”
Zahn’s passion for the artistic side of the rave scene is what prompted him to create MEMETIC in 2010. The music festival was the first to use The Cube in Old Market Square and the venue has become a big part of the MEMETIC branding – a lasting arts community in the city.
This is a stark difference compared to the party scene found at EDM music festivals.
“EDM things are more like bam, bam, bam. Let’s get really drunk and high,” said Zahn. “The reason that happened is because it’s exciting. I mean if you’re 18 and you pop a cap of E or drink booze at a party that’s great, but that’s kind of a flash in the pan. A couple of years of that and its like enough of that.”
MDMA or ecstasy is often the drug of choice in the scene. The synthetic drug has taken on the name “Molly” in the past year. It comes in pill, capsule or powder forms. Often times it will be combined with other drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine. Side effects include feelings of increased energy, euphoria, emotional warmth and empathy towards others.
In a spring 2015 summary, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse reported that ecstasy use was the fifth most popular drug used by Canadians in 2013, but in 2012 it had a lower use among the general population compared to the United States and England.
Alexander Krygsveld has been part of the scene for the past decade. He just recently started putting on after parties with Piero Candiotti including the D-Unity After Party. Together they form Canadian Cartel. He says drugs and alcohol are definitely part of the scene, but for people in the underground scene it’s all about responsible drug use.
“It’s there and I think everyone respects everyone’s choices.”
Candiotti agrees and adds, “The community here in Winnipeg doesn’t go too crazy. Everyone is pretty respectful. If they’re doing drugs you couldn’t even tell.”
The use of drugs doesn’t seem to be questioned, but it’s to what extreme people use them that differentiates the EDM scene to the underground scene. Zahn says most of the people in the underground scene are older and stay in the scene because they appreciate the music. It becomes less about the party aspect and more about the sense of community.
A look ahead
Nostalgia has played a role on underground techno’s continuation in wake of the juggernaut that is EDM music.
“If you were there in the right city, right moment, right band, right DJ, you can always look back and think ‘oh I was there for the first concert’,” said Zahn. “In the 90s it felt like a secret. It was exciting to be a part of something that was so new. Now it’s not new. The tradeoff is that it’s accepted for the most part now.”
Zahn is witness to this with MEMETIC. The festival draws in sponsorship from CBC and other local businesses and it has used venues like the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for dance parties.
“Before you couldn’t get into those places and now they’re saying, ‘oh you’re this artistic techno festival come on down, we love it’,” said Zahn. “Things are better than they’ve ever been if you look at it that way.”
While EDM still dominates the mainstream, Krygsveld says the underground scene isn’t too far behind.
“Generally in the world this is the time of electronic music.”