Meet the Punk-Turned-Techno-Activist Revolutionizing Copenhagen’s Rave Scene
No racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia: Nikolaj Jakosen's punk rock ethos informed the underlying philosophy of the rave collective Fast Forward.
This article originally appeared on Noisey Denmark.
As soon as you walk into Fast Forward Productions’ big spring rave in KPH Volume, the 2,300 square foot, former Copenhagen railway roundhouse turned event space, the entire building feels like a giant spaceship about to land on you. Its naked concrete floor and arched ceilings are flooded with light from projectors dangling from the rafters like green and purple eyes maniacally scoping out the dancefloor while four prism-like crystals the size of fists break the rays of light into kaleidoscopic, colorful chaos.
Behind the soundboard—which is placed on a podium in the back of the hall and shrouded in army style camouflage—Copenhagen-based techno DJ Rune Bagge is mixing together a sensory overload of techno and dark ambient music. Massive speakers in each corner flood the hall with alien sounds so loud that I half-worry my head might literally explode.
This is Fast Forward's first major event of 2018 and the crew as well as the many volunteers have been hard at work on the production since early this morning.
Staging a rave on the scale for which Fast Forward has become known is a monumental effort. Here, guests can expect a unique experience in an inclusive, safe space environment where everyone is welcome regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and race, complete with a full bar, mind-blowing visuals, and of course a lineup boasting some of the most interesting producers and DJs the Danish techno scene has to offer. It's a scene which has experienced a renaissance in recent years with more and more producers garnering a reputation abroad. It is a creative blossoming which is, among other things, a result of the raves organized by Fast Forward, a collective that has been steadily sprouting out of Copenhagen’s underground in recent years.
The night is still young—the dancefloor won’t fill up until well past midnight—and standing in the middle of the warehouse, bathed in the light from the projectors above, is Nikolaj Jakobsen. Nikolaj founded Fast Forward with his partner Lukas Højlund, and today's he's taking in the spectacle that is the fruits of their labor. “We’re not going to pretend that we’re super underground at this point,” he yells, attempting to cut through the pounding bass hammering out of the speakers. “More than a thousand people showed up to our birthday party last year. That’s a lot of fucking people out for a night of techno.”
Two weeks earlier, I was surprised to turn on my TV to see Nikolaj live on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation—wearing a t-shirt and Adidas sweatpants, his head shaved and his arms covered in tattoos—where he was being interviewed by two slick, suit-clad TV journalists about the new wave of techno in Denmark. Nikolaj was accompanied by journalist Nikola Nedeljkovic Gøttsche, who recently documented the Copenhagen techno renaissance in the Danish daily Information. But to properly understand the scope of what is happening with the city's new techno scene, one has to go all the way back to the vibrant, anarchistic DIY-spirit of legendary Copenhagen squat, Ungdomshuset (“The Youth House”)—a hub of counterculture in Copenhagen for decades and which was demolished in 2007, sparking riots in the city for days afterwards in what has since been referred to as the largest youth uprising ever on Danish soil.
I've known Nikolaj for 15 years, and seeing him appear on national television is truly strange but not that surprising, all things considered. We haven’t seen much of each other in recent years—our last meeting was at a small bar in downtown Los Angeles, where Nikolaj was playing with his old sludge metal band Bottom Feeder—but I’ve kept up with his various projects over the years.
We first met at Ungdomshuset in the Copenhagen-neighborhood of Nørrebro. Back then only half of his head was shaved. The other half was covered in pink, spiked hair and his old leather jacket was ridden with in studs. I started both my first and second band with Nikolaj and have always been fascinated by his god-given musical talent and ability to make shows happen. He taught himself to play the guitar and founded the internationally-renowned punk band, Hjertestop. He practiced all night in the rehearsal space on the fifth floor of Ungdomshuset and became an outstanding drummer. Then he quit punk rock, started booking metal bands and became a driving force behind Copenhagen’s now defunct Heavy Days in Doomtown festival. Today, he produces techno under the alias Sugar (his debut is currently out on Euromantic Records). Throughout his career, his creative output—as well as the events he has organized—has had an exceptionally high standard due to his sense of perfectionism and musical idealism. For as long as I can remember, Nikolaj has been driven by an almost manic energy. He has a profound need to create art, evolve, and explore new opportunities. That drive has now manifested itself in a utopian vision of a new kind of rave culture: a party where everyone is invited to come and be exactly who they are.
It probably comes as no surprise that Nikolaj is an intense person to be around. I don’t think I’ve ever been as pissed off at another person as I've been at Nikolaj. His uncompromising nature and brutally honest criticism once made me walk out of a recording session seething with anger. Yet, some of the best times I've experienced have been with him, too—like when we were on night watch duty at Ungdomshuset (ready to alert everyone else at the sight of the first blue police lights on the street outside) or when we climbed up onto the roof in the summer with a boombox and a crate of beer and had a party high above the rest of the city. I’ve seen him sleep on the tour bus a couple of times—if I hadn’t, I’m not sure I'd believe that he ever stops to rest.
And that’s why suddenly seeing him on national TV being interviewed about a new cultural movement—a movement that he is in many ways the epicenter of—didn’t come as much of a surprise. It is actually a pretty Nikolaj thing to do.
“We obviously didn’t invent techno, but we're taking a different approach,” Nikolaj says when I meet him at his studio in Copenhagen’s Nordvest neighborhood, where he spends most of his waking hours, a couple of months prior to the KPH Volume rave. “It’s not all about escapism, drugs, and getting wrecked. Our mission, in addition to putting on great raves and presenting people with awesome techno, is to create a safe space where there’s room for gay people, trans people and people of different ethnicities. You can wear clothes or you can go naked. You can do whatever you want as long as you’re respectful of others.”
The first thing that greets you at a Fast Forward rave is a sign by the door reading: “No racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia allowed.” It is a creed that also used to hang above the door at Ungdomshuset concerts. According to Nikolaj, it is also what sets Fast Forward apart and allows them to create such a unique atmosphere at their events. The collective—which in addition to Nikolaj and Lukas also consists of co-organizer Anders Marc Jørgensen—organized their first rave in 2015 at the new Ungdomshuset in Nordvest, near the municipal outskirts of Copenhagen. About 400 people showed up for the inaugural bash.
“Both Lukas and I were influenced by the Ungdomshuset philosophy,” Nikolaj explains. “I mean, those are some pretty fucking basic rules of conduct. The trouble with club culture today is that there are a lot of places and events where, for instance, women can’t wear whatever they want for fear of harassment. Gay people can’t attend because they feel threatened by others just for kissing their boyfriends or girlfriends. Fast Forward has a zero tolerance policy with regard to discrimination. If people violate the rules of conduct, we kick them out immediately.”
In addition to the Ungdomshuset-inspired philosophy, Nikolaj and Lukas were also inspired by the DIY-ethos of the old squat in organizing Fast Forward as an activism-based grassroots organization. Artistically, Fast Forward works as a collective promoting and booking shows with a handful of artists with whom they are closely affiliated—artists such as Rune Bagge, Martin Schacke, Funeral Future, Nicki Istrefi, and Repro as well as labels like Ectotherm and Euromantic. “We’ve created a network of activists which roughly consists of 100 people. At raves we build everything up from scratch—from the soundsystem setup to the bar. We basically move in, build a club and disassemble it all again in the span of 24 hours,” he explains.
According to Nikolaj, Fast Forward (which also functions as a management agency for artists affiliated with the collective) occupies a space in the Danish techno scene where there was previously a void. “You see initiatives like ours abroad, but the whole concept with massive raves that go on all night and end the next day was relatively unheard of in Denmark,” he says.
“Our concept is based on the values we share and people who attend our raves have embraced that. There’s no gimmick, but there’s a very special atmosphere. We focus on the production as opposed to flashy design. We always use raw and bare bone-interiors, so we can build our own club from scratch. We wrap everything in camouflage, create visuals and focus on excellent sound. It’s a simple but fucking effective setup.”
As a producer, Nikolaj applies the same DIY mentality. He started DJing and producing techno in the wake of the initial success of the Fast Forward raves. “At first, it sounded like shit, but I just kept at it until I got better,” he says, laughing. Since starting out, he's performed at some of the raves and is today a resident DJ at the Copenhagen venue Et Andet Sted. “There’s only one way to master something: you just have to do it and keep at it. It's just like punk.”
The popularity of the Fast Forward raves has surprised Nikolaj. With each event more and more people show up and party all night, he tells me. Having broken through to a mainstream audience, rethinking the original concept has also become a pressing matter. When you have a thousand people show up at a rave in Copenhagen, it's difficult to maintain an illusion of your project being purely underground, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that either.
“Going forward we want to focus on fewer but larger events,” says Nikolaj. “Obviously we don’t want to expand the operation for the sake of expanding, but we don’t want the line outside the door to get any longer than it already is. We're trying to reeducate people and encourage ravers to party in a different way and therefore we need to be able to host more people. We don’t want to be a small, exclusive club.”
But turning an underground production into a large-scale event organizing operation is no easy feat, and Fast Forward is determined to maintain their founding ideology and mindset while deciding on what the future holds and how their raves will evolve. “I have no idea where this is going, but we are definitely going to maintain our focus on our community here in Copenhagen and our artists, and we also want to get better at promoting the latter abroad,” says Nikolaj.
“How do we manage PR and securing gigs for our artists?” he asks rhetorically. “We use the old punk rock DIY approach. We contact a bunch of organizers and producers and create new networks. It fucking works. We’re building it up from scratch, and we’re doing it together.”