Amsterdam: The Home Of Gabber

Even harder than Jaap Stam.

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Mar 24 2015, 12:15pm

If there was one item of clothing that defined the Netherlands' gabber scene it was the Air Max, especially the 90s. So to mark Air Max Day, we thought it would make sense to talk to some people who were there from the start about what made gabber one of the most exciting moments in dance music history.

Listening to gabber is the sonic equivalent of being repeatedly punched in the head. It's a very excited bald man in a fluorescent tracksuit grinning at you and hurling his limbs around for eight hours. A girl in a sports bra who looks way harder than everyone else on the dance floor. A relentless, overdriven bass drum, synths like the ones you get on fairground rides, and vocals that have often either been so distorted that it sounds like someone screaming, or actually are just someone screaming.

It's the grindcore of dance music, with electronic blast beats continuously ripping throughout every single song for an entire night until you get tinnitus and it sounds like everything's underwater.

Originating in Rotterdam in the early 90s, the genre was a response to all the attention being paid to Amsterdam's acid house scene. Taking the hardcore sound that had emerged out of Frankfurt a year or so earlier, Dutch producers shunted everything up a notch to spawn gabber, defining the city's nightlife with a noise nobody had really heard before. The drums were faster, the lyrics more extreme and the look much more stylised.

According to Ari Versluis, a photographer who started documenting early gabbers for his series Exactitudes it was the first real Dutch youth culture, and it happened to be kids who listened to hardcore, aggressive techno and chose to wear candy-coloured neon tracksuits, which was amazing.

Ari recalls a shift in Rotterdam; the city went from having zero record companies, to suddenly having 2000, all selling gabber. And as the tunes made their way over the border into Belgium, Germany, Austria and Italy, a lot of people started going to gabber nights. Not all of them dressed the same. Plenty just kept wearing the same clothes as your average European human in 1996 but there was an easy way to spot who was heading to a rave to shout over the music at potential sex partners, and who was there because they'd devoted their life to gabber.

For the guys, the standard issue look was shaved heads and sportswear. In the Netherlands, during the boom years of 96 and 97, that meant garish, colourful jackets by Australian tennis companies and the kind of Italian brands favoured by England's football casuals in the early 1980s. For Italians who got into gabber a few years later – like Alberto Guerrini, who now runs the Gabber Eleganza blog, dressing Gabber meant; T-shirts and sweats with slogans such as "United Hardcore Against Fascism and Racism" the immortal "Hardcore 'Til I Die" and "Hardcore, You Know the Score", or something involving the word "Hakken", the of dancing native to gabber.

It's a hard thing to describe, hakken. Imagine someone, for some reason, is trying to tap dance on a treadmill. Or that they're doing really aggressive keepie-uppies with an imaginary ball. It looks a bit like that.

When it came to housing your feet, everyone agreed: it was either the Air Max 90 or Air Max BW. "They were – and still are – the 'gabber shoe'," says Alberto. "Lots of people, including me, used to customise them with marker pens – painted chessboard patterns, or label logos, or tags, or with fluorescent laces." Sneakers had to enable furious footwork that kept up with gabba's beats and look as sharp as the blade zero haircuts.

Customised bomber jackets were also big. People would sew phrases and logos onto the back panels, says Alberto, many of which were very angry-looking skulls or the kind of thing you might find in a graphic novel about the apocalypse.

"I used to have one that I customised myself – I cut a picture of Pinhead from Hellraiser into the back of it and covered it in gothic writing and patches and stuff," Alberto tells me. "But I think they're seen as kind of lame in the gabber scene now."

Jewellery wasn't too important; heavy bracelets aren't really that convenient when you're jabbing your arms about to some 170 BPM onslaught, so guys tended to stick to earrings if anything, usually hoops, and usually gold. Girls were the same initially, though as the 90s went on facial piercings gradually became more fashionable, which is presumably why you now see loads of neon stud snake-bites at all those sponsored American raves.

Instead, the simplest way to spot a gabber girl was the hair: a severe undercut with the remaining locks pulled back into a tight ponytail, either plaited or left dangling. A kind of reverse Chelsea cut, a favoured by the girls who would have been hanging out with the original British skinheads Alberto and his friends were emulating.

"That haircut was the iconic gabber girl look," he tells me. "For the youngest girls it felt like a test of bravery, because it's not really a your parents will be too pleased about if you're 16. Then the hardest girls would shave their heads completely."

Bounce into Nightmares, one of the big gabber parties at Rotterdam's Energy Hall, and you were likely to have seen most of the girls in tracksuits similar to those worn by the guys, if not a little less obnoxious. The oversized T-shirts were out, though, replaced with the sort of tight, monochrome crop-tops you now find on health goth tumblrs, worn with Nike sliders and an enormous amount of mesh.

As the end of the 90s approached, gabber's popularity began to wane – a bunch of hardcore sub-genres came into play, and what had been the gabber sound became a mish-mash of all sorts of beats and BPMs. With that, the original Rotterdam was diluted. "Back at the boom time of gabber in Italy – 2000 or 2001 – about 80 percent of people at a rave or a club dressed in the gabber style," says Alberto. "But today it's more like 30 percent."

There have been minor resurgences, though, and a number of fashion designers have based their designs on the subculture – notably Tom Nijhuis, whose entire "1995" collection was inspired by his youth in the Netherlands, looking up to the older gabber kids.

As for the raves themselves, spend enough time scrolling through Google and you might just find one near you, the flyers promising "no commercial mega hits" and, most importantly, "no chill out" whatsoever.

Read more in this series:

London: the Home of Shuffling

Photographer - Alex de Mora
Creative Director and Stylist - Kylie Griffiths
Assistants - Ellie, Sian and Thomas
Production Assistant - Tabitha Martin
Hair - Johnnie/Moroccaan Oil
Hair Stylist Assistant - Kumiko
Make Up - Lucy/MAC Cosmetics
Make Up Assistants - Lydia Harding and Celia Evans
Models - Anna and Amy from Anti Agency, Michael from AMCK Models

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