For jaded millennials like me, vintage 90s rave footage on Youtube offers a perfect wormhole. Clips of tracksuited Dutch skinheads at Thunderdome and zonked British teens at Fantazia rack up millions of views with captivating images of a wilder, more innocent world. I've watched hours and hours of these videos—they provoke bittersweet nostalgia for something I never experienced in the first place. Sure, raves still exist—check out our photo gallery from Detroit's Movement Festival or VICE's Locked Off documentary—but there's a freaky danger to these 90's parties that few contemporary events can match. They feel closer to myth than reality.
Watch enough of this footage and it starts blending together into an endless cavalcade of grinding teeth and huge pants. Still, sometimes I find clips that can still knock me over with utopian impossibility. Especially when they take place in broad daylight in downtown Manhattan before Bloomberg-era gentrification. Take this clip, from a rave thrown by a group called Blackkat on May Day, 1999. Blackkat was a DIY arts organization started in 1996, which describes itself its "roots and influences" on its website as spanning the "LES squatter movement, NYC experimental warehouse events, nomadic sound system and circus crews, the Midwest r@ve scene, American punk culture, the Rainbow family, and community-based direct action groups."
If that sounds like an impossibly vast spectrum, well, check the tapes. In the above video you can see how this rave—the first in a series of May Day parties which ran until 2008, when Blackkat's founder moved to Poland—drew hundreds of revelers from every downtown scene to dance under the spring sky in Tompkins Square Park, which served as an inflection point for punks, metalheads, art school socialites, anarchist squatters, ravers, and every other category of freak.
According to their website, Blackkat intentionally threw parties on May Day "as a way to align our goals and ideals with the history of the anarchist/labor movement in the US." This radical slant is reflected in the livewire punk energy coursing through these clips. Below, watch Lenny Dee—founder of Brooklyn dance label Industrial Strength Records, a pioneering Brooklyn-based hardstyle and techno label—peer out from behind space-age Y2K sunglasses and twist the crowd into a mosh pit with his acidic hardcore grooves. It's hard to overstate how out of place this would look at a modern party. You can't really imagine hundreds of rowdy teenagers bouncing off each other at a Wythe Avenue megaclub. But in those days, moshing at raves was part of the scene—Industrial Strength even threw parties at CGBGs.
There's something so quintessentially New York about the Blackkat party's crossover between every type of creature in the downtown menagerie. This party has NYHC punks in hockey jerseys, breakdancers in parachute pants, ravers grinding their teeth in visors and kandi, metalheads with leather vests and Slayer tees, and blond bros in Nautica and Abercrombie & Fitch. A homeless man carrying his belongings kisses the hand of a girl in a sports bra. A guy in a "DOPE" t-shirt, a bead necklace, and a camo hat slamdances with a girl in oversize gray cargo shorts. "Make some noise!" roars Lenny Dee, and a sea of fists raise together.
The comments on old rave clips are always a treat—on the video above (Blackkat Jason BK spinning at Tompkins), a commenter named Kookamanga Walla points out old friends: a girl with pigtails and a water bottle is "Care Bear, makin' sure everybody is hydrated," while a black kid with pink hair and a spiked choker is "Dream...a dancer legend." Someone asks after Dream's whereabouts. Kookamanga responds, "Wife and kids, smashing life."
This footage showcases a Manhattan that barely exists now—diverse, wild, coursing with energy. Sure, it's not always healthy to wallow in nostalgia. But in today's increasingly bland New York, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on what exactly went away, and how it might be regained.
Lenny Dee plays Bossa Nova Civic Club on Thursday. Read more about BlackKat here.