The author (right) with her new BFFs
Last weekend, I flew from New York to Los Angeles for one of the largest hardstyle shows to hit America yet: The Sound of Q-Dance LA. For the uninitiated, Q-Dance is a 16 year-old Dutch company that has become synonymous with the "harder" strains of dance music, hardstyle especially.
Back in October of 2013, Q-Dance got some buzz when they threw their first full-throttle hardstyle event in the States. Apparently they'd raked in enough dough to do it all again (same location, different line-up) just a few months after their debut. This time, they hauled in four hardstyle superstars from the Netherlands - The Prophet, Frontliner, Brennan Heart, and Wildstylez - along with three rising LA talents, Lady Faith, Sylence and Mr. Skeleton. I didn't know whether to believe the hype surrounding the genre's recent boom. In the last few months the buzz around hardstyle's "next big thing" status in America's already-exploding dance music scene went from gentle murmurs to a deafening shout - if you're listening in the right places. Even I haven't been immune to the excitement.
But how much of this sudden surge in popularity is the result of a grassroots rave moment that's finally embracing hardstyle's kick-in-the-face beats? And how much of it stems from a top-down effort by pot-bellied executives and sharp promoters to ignite a new dance craze, and reap the resulting profits? When I made my pilgrimage to this unholy temple of hardstyle, the first question I needed to answer was: who the hell is really listening to hardstyle, anyway?
At 10pm on Saturday night, I strapped on my hardiest sneakers and headed for the Shrine Auditorium, a nearly-century-old theatre in downtown LA that saw the first HARD parties back in the day. The cops were onto me before I even got through the gates. In case you haven't heard, the LAPD are notorious dickholes, and their presence outside the festival was more intimidating than I'd ever seen for any music event. I was sweating, and I wasn't even on molly.
"You are going to get arrested", two of them leered after I crossed the street on a red light. "Are you crazy?" Maybe I was. Not for jaywalking, but because hardstyle has a bit of a bad rep. Like gabber, and its other frenetic, hard-hitting cousins, hardstyle suffers from the stereotype of "scary drug music". Basically, it sounds like the kind of music that would make your grandparents - nay, some of your friends, even - shake their heads and wonder what's gone wrong with humanity. And it had been a long time since I'd hung out with gas-mask-wearing teenagers, who looked like they could stomp my face in with their neon platforms.
Once inside, I slouched against a wall and scribbled in my notebook, feeling like a total loser. Aside from a few accidental kicks from wild-eyed gurners who were shuffling like insane horses, I was largely ignored. Then, Wildstylez took to the stage, and everyone lost their shit. Wildstylez caused a bit of a tizzy last month when he battled with Deadmau5 over the Internet (sigh) over his track 'Straightforward', which the 'mau5 claimed blatantly ripped off his own 'Some Chords'. Some "Go fuck yourself!"'s ensued on Twitter, and Wildstylez's track was eventually removed from YouTube. DJ rivalries: so exciting.
So, naturally, Wildstylez opened his set with 'Straightforward' as perhaps a "Fuck you right back" to his mouse-headed rival. A trio of babes in booty shorts and Q-Dance tank tops took pity in my solitude, and decided to pull me into their dance circle. "What's your Instagram?!" they demanded, while snatching my phone to input their own info.
The girls eventually ditched me for some shaggy-haired and shirtless dudes, and I was swept into the crowd. There were probably three to four thousand people in the auditorium at this point; a pretty even mix of USC bros, decked-out kandi kids, all-Asian crews, and a smattering of incongruous Europeans. Everyone erupted into a massive sing-along - the first of many that night - when Wildstylez dropped 'Lose My Mind', a hit that crossed over into the larger EDM world when it was released in 2011. The track is something like the "Friday" of the hardstyle world; the lyrics are literally about telling some unnamed authorities to "back off" so you can lose your mind with your "dumb friends." It also wins the dubious honour of being the first song I've ever heard to turn MDMA into an adjective.
While everyone else was busy becoming "MDMA-able," I decided to take advantage of my press pass and check out the backstage area. I immediately ran into Lady Faith, the Persian-American DJ who likes to call herself the "Queen Bitch of the Universe." Beaming, she showed me her full arm of kandi bracelets that had been tossed up on stage by her fans. They were a hell of a lot better looking than sweaty bras.
From my position slightly behind the stage, I noticed the impish-looking MC Villain prancing in front of the DJ booth. Gesticulating wildly, he alternated between imploring the crowd to get wild, and spewing meaningful quotes like, "Hardstyle makes you feel invincible. Doesn't matter if you're black, white, yellow or purple". Turns out, he's the ubiquitous host of all Q-Dance events - the Ryan Seacrest of hardstyle, so to speak.
It was time for a breather. I made a beeline for the exit, but was blindsided by a group of ravers who looked like they had stepped out of a Miyazaki movie. They invited me outside to have a smoke with them, and I accepted, stepping over massive cuddle puddles of "tired" ravers who'd congregated in the cool evening air.
The ravers introduced themselves to me by their rave names. Amazing monikers like Gvokx and Moonchild Von Roqq and Saturn and Huggy Bear - and I don't think I ever called any of them by anything else for the rest of the night. They invited me to stick with them for the rest of the evening; an invitation I gratefully accepted, like a new kid latching on to the cool crew at rave school. I quickly went from outcast loner to being friends with everyone. We couldn't walk for more than five minutes without stopping to talk to other patches of humans covered head-to-toe in neon beads.
Back inside, the final act of the night, the Dutch hardstyle veteran The Prophet, was already on stage. A robotic demon voice boomed over the speakers in a dramatic movie voice, saying something like, "As we go into the last hour, INCREASING BPM." Each drum kick felt like it was punching my sleep-deprived brain. I was wide-awake, riding on this sonic Adderall, and suddenly, something snapped. I stopped being the po-faced underground music head smirking at the earnest cheesiness around me. Now I was dancing harder than I've danced in a really fucking long time.
Look, I used to be a raver, and then I grew up. I remember thinking my "rave family" was everything, and now I don't know if half of them are even alive. My nights spent thrashing around deserted spaces became dinner party stories. My kandi collected dust. Until recently, I was okay with all that stuff being a "phase", remembered with a mix of fondness and embarrassment. But in a flurry of confetti and lasers and plastic baggies of unidentifiable substances, this night was bringing it all back.
After what felt like mere minutes the show was over, and my newfound friends were heading to an after-party a 30-minute drive away. After less than a second of deliberation, I decided my flight the next morning could go fuck itself, and climbed into the car with them. On the way, we blasted a happy hardcore mix - music I haven't listened to in years - before arriving at our destination: a deserted apartment complex in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, my happy-go-lucky friends had gotten the address from some random kid who was probably too fried to get his facts right.
Turning right around, we sped back to my hotel room, where we spent the next three hours giving each other light shows and bonding with the kind of uninhibited largesse you feel with strangers you'll probably never see again in your life. With each unsolicited massage, I felt the cynicism I'd developed in the years since I put down my glowsticks gently eroding. For one night, these affable kandi kids were my new BFFs. For one night, I didn't need to know about their addictions, their flaws, or their day jobs. For one night, I felt a deep sense of human connection that restored my belief that raving can be more than just... doing a shit ton of drugs and partying. For one night, I touched the rave utopian ideal - and it touched me right back.
Also, I got some pretty sweet new kandi cuffs.
Michelle Lhooq is a born-again raver: @MichelleLHOOQ