Drugs

How the Philippine Drug War Could Kill the Underground Dance Scene

A controversial drug raid leads to the closure of a dance club in Manila, leaving a music subculture lost and scrambling.

by Sai Villafuerte
09 January 2019, 9:41am

TIME Club during the night of the drug raid. Photo sourced by VICE

As the sun descends behind the silhouettes of Manila’s skyscrapers, the neon lights in Makati Avenue slowly start to flicker. At the junction entering P. Burgos Street is the red-light district, lined with boozy girly bars and midget boxing shows. Around the corner is Poblacion, a dimly-lit neighborhood where hole-in-the wall speakeasies are tucked under dangling phone lines. To any resident scurrying these backstreets after dawn, they become trapped between the claws of madness as the dizzying traffic lures them into the weekend chaos.

For Herb Cabral, the wee hours of August 11, 2018 were to be spent once again in this underbelly of Manila. He was one of five DJs poised to play in Makati Avenue’s TIME, the Philippines’ only dedicated club for underground dance music.

Cabral watched the events unfold from the back of the club. At 4 am, as blue smoke shrouded the dance floor, the crowd whirled to the deep and fast grooves of techno. With the bass swelling from the sound system, stomping boots vibrated the floor beneath them.

But the thumping didn’t come from the dancers. Policemen, armed with rifles, raided the venue. Scrambling through the club’s three floors, they hunted for traces of drugs: under couches, and inside backpacks; empty beer bottles, even chewing gum boxes.

“I thought it was temporary,” the house producer said, “but it dragged on until we were there for about three hours.”

By sunrise, 123 clubbers, including 57 foreigners, were sent to the police for profiling. All 31 staff members were arrested, with several drugs allegedly seized from a security vault on the second floor: 850 grams of methamphetamine, some 18 baggies of cocaine, 19 Ecstasy pills, and around a gram’s worth of kush, according to media reports. It wasn’t long until the police called for the immediate closure of TIME, one of the longest-standing clubs in the city’s history.

The face-off between clubs and the authorities – most recently in London’s fabric and Tbisili’s Bassiani – have come to represent a defining modern challenge: the clash between hardline, conservative values; and nightlife embodying the morals of liberalism.

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Police claim to have seized drugs from the club's security vault. Photo from the NCR Police Office.

Yet, the effect of club closures vary depending on where in the world it is. In the West, the underground dance scene finds refuge in other venues where support from the community is much stronger. In the Philippines, where “the underground” is associated with illicit, organized crime, the closure of TIME symbolized a subculture’s brush with death as its members struggle to find a place where their music is less misunderstood.

With the Philippines dominated by commercial clubs, TIME’s dark and atmospheric sounds appeal less to Top 50 evangelists. “Like anywhere else, most people are into popular music,” says Ryan Pamatmat, a house and techno producer who has opened for Dubfire at TIME. While club owners are generally supportive of one another, they are often forced to choose between passion or money.

“You can’t blame them, it’s a business,” Pamatmat said. “Even the commercial club owners love underground dance music. But if you’re making a loss, what can you do?” To attract foot traffic, club music policy tends to lean more towards "obvious hits," defined by the homogenized “EDM” sounds of Martin Garrix and Calvin Harris.

Still, TIME’s seven-year lifespan exceeds most clubs in the country—which typically fizz out within five years. “When we started TIME, we had a very clear direction for it to be purely underground,” said Pav Parrotte, Director of Music at TIME who has brought the likes of Eddie Richards and Dave Seaman under its roof.

This is not to say TIME was the only exception to the rule. Underground dance music has been in the Philippines since the early 1990s with clubs like abg’s and Euphoria being bastions of techno and house. Groove Nation, a music collective, organized the city’s famous “Consortium” parties with Richie Hawtin and Derrick May spinning in Manila’s warehouses during the global height of Detroit techno. Parrotte knew from the get-go the kind of legacy he had to uphold.

“As painful as it was in the beginning, fighting to give the crowd something special to leave the club with at 8 o’clock in the morning was worth it,” Parrotte said. “Sticking to your guns is the key principle.”

This principle will go far for the club's partners as they face the Philippine judicial system, looking to clear TIME’s name as a “drug den”. This is especially challenging as the current administration, under strongman president Rodrigo Duterte, wages a violent and bloody drug war. Thousands of Filipinos have been killed by police in controversial drug raids since Duterte took power in 2016, including numerous instances where police were accused of planting evidence in crime scenes.

“There are certain parameters which considers a place a drug den,” explained Senior Superintendent Rogelio Simon, Makati City’s Chief of Police. He was referencing the 2002 Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act. “If people are using the area to take drugs, and if drugs are being sold inside, then it’s a drug den.”

A week prior to the raid, a member of a wealthy Filipino family, arrested for a drug law violation, confirmed purchasing drugs at TIME, Simon told VICE. This intel instigated a “buy-bust” operation on the club where someone would pose as a user, looking to purchase PHP 22,000 or $416 USD worth of drugs.

What Simon and his operatives allegedly discovered was a bottom-up process involving the doormen, waiters, supervisors, managers, and a security vault on the second floor. “From there, our asset, with a hold of the drugs, called the rest of the drug enforcement unit into the club,” he said. “All employees were apprehended, and customers were invited to identify themselves in the police station.”

This, however, contradicts several other accounts. Three lawyers representing the club were arrested for “obstruction of justice” after demanding a search warrant from the police a few days after the raid. One of the club’s partners who spoke to VICE on condition of anonymity, said the buy-bust was, in fact, unsuccessful. “They just acted with impunity and decided to make it look like there was a buy-bust when there wasn’t one,” he said. With no takers, it compelled the police to plant evidence during its search operation and destroy any remaining CCTV footage from the raid, he explained.

Other witnesses said the police acted maliciously where due diligence was not strictly enforced. An eyewitness source, who chose to remain anonymous, was one the 123 people taken to the police station.

“We asked why we were being taken to the station,” she said, “but the policeman escorting us seemed like he didn’t know either.” Those that wanted to go home were asked to sign their names and have their photos taken. But something didn’t feel quite right.

Clubbers and staff were herded into a police station without explanation. Photo sourced by VICE
Clubbers and staff were herded into a police station without explanation. Photo sourced by VICE

“I told them that, before I sign, my lawyer was asking for their details and that she’ll be arriving soon.” Shortly after, she and her friends were allowed to leave the station.

Her worry was that the names would be used to populate the police’s exhaustive list of people “involved” in drugs – many of whom, in the past, were later found dead in dubious police encounters. Indeed, two days later, it was reported that 120 “patrons” of the bar were charged for violating Section 7 of the Dangerous Drug Act, for “visiting a drug den”.

“Had I put [my name] down, I don’t think I’d ever feel safe again,” she said.

“Why would we plant evidence?” Simon affirmed when asked about these allegations. “There was CCTV in the area. We had a legitimate search warrant for the entire property with local government officials, as well as the media, in the premises."

“If that was what happened, it will weaken the case against [TIME] and those apprehended will eventually be released from jail.” Although 28 out of 31 employees posted bail, three remain behind bars under non-bailable offenses as “major participants in a drug den,” according to Simon.

With court hearings currently underway, it’s too early to foresee the club’s future beyond its resolution with the judiciary. Nevertheless, TIME’s closure has left its members soul searching, with Manila having one less place for underground dance music to be heard.

“It was a place for the misfits,” Parrotte pondered. “These people didn’t fit in the commercial scene and they needed to be where the music really did it for them.” Likewise, as an independent producer, TIME was an important platform for Cabral.

“When you see people respond to your tracks at 5 o’clock in the morning … there’s nothing like it,” he said.

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TIME Club is the go-to place for underground dance music. Photo sourced by VICE

Can the raid effectively kill underground dance music in the Philippines? To Cabral, its survival should not be dependent on one venue: music goers should make sure they save it.

“I get most of my support internationally where the response is much warmer,” Cabral explained, having released his tracks in Baltimore, Berlin, and Rotterdam. “That’s because I receive virtually no support in the Philippines since nobody buys music here.” Clubs like TIME allowed these producers to be more than just a voice in the wilderness, providing people an escape from the stasis of their everyday lives — even for just a few hours.

The weekend after August’s raid, Pamatmat was in Poblacion where he was set to spin in Oto. A bar-cum-music-lounge without a dancefloor, Oto became the back-up venue for a night that was supposed to be held at TIME. While Pamatmat found relief in this temporary refuge, the underlying mood was low.

“Without TIME, the good vibes everyone shared suddenly disappeared,” Pamatmat said. “Underground dance music is a feeling. It’s the nod you get from the crowd when they listen to a track you’re playing for the first time."

“It’s love, man. It’s a love lost.”

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