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Forward Festival and the Rise of Baltimore/DC’s New Dance Generation

With a new generation of mid-Atlantic club kids on the rise, it's prime time to look back at Baltimore and DC's past—and assess their future together.
May 15, 2015, 9:40pm

Only 40 miles separate Baltimore from Washington, DC, but the two cities have long been worlds apart—the blue-collar, Natty Boh-swilling port city in Maryland couldn't be more different from the powerbrokers and lobbyists making dirty deals in the nation's capital.

For dance music aficionados, that gulf isn't so wide. The stretch of I-95 between them functions as a rave superhighway shuttling partygoers from DC club nights to Baltimore warehouses and vice versa. "We're sister cities in a way," says house diva Ultra Naté, co-founder of Deep Sugar, a party at The Paradox, Baltimore's legendary late-night club. "Baltimore is more raw and DC is more polished, but the underground scene has a fraternity that was created a long time ago."

Forward 2014 Bass Showcase featuring Kowton (Photo via Bryan Johns/Flickr)

Today, the main thread connecting these two intertwined cities is DC's Forward Fest—a five-day parade of electronic shows, workshops, and art installations sprinkled throughout venues across the city from nouveau clubs to the biggest of public stages, the National Mall. Organized by local promoter 88, the lineup this year ranges from footwork originator RP Boo to techno mainstay Objekt, dub scientist Brendon Moeller to dancehall/grime producer Murlo. Fittingly, the festival's pre-party was thrown at Deep Sugar. With a new generation of mid-Atlantic club kids on the rise, it's prime time to look back at Baltimore and DC's past—and assess their future together.

Circus Time

As a Maryland native, this story is a personal one. My older siblings and cousins told me wild tales about DC's Buzz and Baltimore's Fever, two parties that put mid-Atlantic dance music on the map in the early 90s. Gearing up for a night out, my sister used to say, "It's time to go to the circus."

"The DC/Baltimore rave scene was probably the healthiest, strongest, and biggest on the East Coast," says Scott Herman, who made his career in DC's nightlife industry as Buzz's event manager.

Helmed by Baltimore-born DJs Charles Feelgood and Scott Henry, Fever and Buzz were some of the only places to hear underground house and techno. The two DJs cut their teeth with acid house and industrial in the late 80s. Henry rented a Baltimore loft to host Warehouse Rave 1 in December 1990, and brought in partners Feelgood and Tony Japzon to continue the warehouse vibe at the Orbit parties, which began in early 1991. When Japzon dropped out, the party was rechristened Fever.

For most of their lifespans, Fever held court at The Paradox while Buzz, founded in 1993, set up at The Capital Ballroom, later Nation. Thanks to early headliners like Moby, Frankie Bones, Josh Wink, and Little Louie Vega, coupled with "best nightclub" awards from national publications like Urb and BPM, Buzz became one of the biggest dance parties on the East Coast.

The 'Dox is a concrete warehouse under an overpass in a desolate stretch of Baltimore. Nation, meanwhile, was in an iffy part of Southeast along with gay club Tracks. Going out then could be a risky proposition. My brother made the hour-long trek from college to Buzz, only to have his car window smashed and textbooks stolen. But inside the club, it was nothing but love. My sister first went to Fever as a high school freshman, barely 15. She panicked when the bouncer told her to smile, thinking it was a trap to reveal her braces—an underage giveaway. Not so. He repeated the request more emphatically, adding, "You're here now!"

"It was a cohesive, family scene," Herman says, "You'd see the same people on Thursday at Fever, Friday at Buzz, and Saturday wherever." But the same people didn't mean similar people. Baltimore's DJ LoveGrove, a regular at both parties who will also play Forward's outdoor showcase on the National Mall, recalls, "Originally there were just enough people to support one night, so you'd have drag queens next to kids in baggy pants."

Fever and Buzz were both multi-room affairs, but each city had its idiosyncrasies. "Harder trance stuff [was] never played in Baltimore, which has always had a funkier edge to it," says LoveGrove, who also worked at a record store at the time. "The records that sold the most were breaks and house. A Paul Oakenfold release did nothing in Baltimore whereas in DC it was probably flying off the shelves."

Feds Crash the Party

In February 1997, my cousin had just taken ecstasy when the DEA raided The Paradox during Sunday Mass, a monthly daytime party. She remembers walking past baggies and pill bottles littering the floor into the harsh afternoon daylight. Thus began an era when Baltimore and DC dance music nightlife was down on its heels.

Both Fever and Buzz were caught up in the late-90s anti-rave backlash. Two years after The 'Dox was raided, local TV news broadcasted a sensationalist "undercover investigation" using hidden camera footage supposedly showing drug use at the party. Scott Henry and partners sued and settled out of court.

But the crackdown was far from over. In 2002, the US military banned servicemen from attending Buzz, following an investigation into the irresponsible off-duty activities of their personnel. Working together, the military and DC's police department shared resources and intel targeting Buzz and Nation.

A bulldozer where the front room of Nation used to be during the club's demolition (Photo via Travis Payne/Flickr)

But Buzz persevered, spearheading a 10,000-signature petition to defeat the R.A.V.E Act, a controversial piece of legislation that critics say is used to shut down nightclubs. The party moved to Baltimore's Redwood Trust for a year to weather out the storm, before returning to the Nation in 2003 under the name Cubik. But Nation eventually succumbed to gentrification, shutting down in 2006 to make way for the construction of a new Navy Yard, with the Nationals Park in the center. An office building now sits in the lot where the club used to be.

"After Nation closed, it felt like a noticeable decline," Herman says. Hip-hop was in, dance music was out. Bottle service and dress codes changed the vibe in the few clubs left. "The hip-hop crowd and rave kids didn't mesh all that well."

Fever petered out in 2001, although it has held several reunions in the years since. "When Fever stopped, Baltimore changed," LoveGrove says. There were fewer promoters, and the ones that remained, like Ultraworld, focused on booking big names over rave scene staples. Starscape, an annual outdoor festival Ultraworld produced in June along Baltimore's waterfront, remained a place to nurture the local scene but couldn't keep pace with its 90s attendance figures.

To Infinity and Beyond

Today, the success of Forward Fest—now onto its eighth year—is just one of the signs of DC's dance scene's comeback. The explosion of EDM has brought new crowds to DJ-owned nightclubs like the U Street Music Hall, where Disclosure, Rudimental, Hudson Mohawke and Joy Orbison have made their DC debuts in recent years. The club is also the birthplace of Moombahton Massive, a monthly party dedicated to the genre invented in greater DC by Dave Nada, with residents Nadastrom and Sabo.

One of the key players behind DC's new wave is David Fogel, the mastermind behind Forward Fest. Fogel is also involved with Camp 88, a local Burning Man theme camp; 88 DC, a series of one-off events; and a Berlin-esque coffee shop and record store called Bump 'n Grind. Fogel traces his roots back to DC's early rave days. "Yeah, I remember going out to Buzz and Tracks back in 1994. Those were my first forays into club culture," he recalls.

The crowd at a Flosstradamus show at 9:30 Club

Forward Fest stays true to DC by bringing in local talents. Last night's opening celebration paired go-go band Rare Essence, purveyors of DC's native instrumental funk, with digital experimentalist Jeremy Ellis. Similarly, this weekend's event at the National Mall will see DJ LoveGrove resurrecting his Cloudwatch ambient techno party, and a showcase from Jim Thompson's Electric Cowbell label.

Still, DC producers aren't getting ahead of themselves. "DC is a work-centric/career-focused town: not an ideal haven to house and techno," points out Jackson Ryland of the local Silence in Metropolis imprint. Nevertheless, DC has nurtured a small cadre of talent that made it big, including Deep Dish, Thievery Corporation, Fort Knox Five, and Beautiful Swimmers.

Forward Fest

Unlike DC's transformation, Baltimore has largely stayed the course. The Paradox still stands, thanks to Wayne Davis, the godfather of Baltimore's house music scene, who had a vision for the club as a DJ-owned space long before U Hall was a glimpse in a record nerd's eye. Its sound system, lighting, fixtures, and dance floor were upgraded over the years by revenue streaming into the club.

With more of a focus on deep and soulful house, Deep Sugar, the party Ultra Naté founded along with DJ Lisa Moody in 2003, isn't quite the successor to omnivorous Fever. But once it landed at The Paradox in 2008, it quickly began filling a vacuum. That Forward Fest would kick off its week of electronic music high jinks at Deep Sugar with a headline set from Soul Clap, meanwhile, is proof according to Fogel that "the cross-pollination between Baltimore and DC is real."

And nothing is realer than a Saturday night rager at The Paradox, where the Forward crew took over the courtyard last weekend. The sound system inside may be better, but there is no better omen for Forward 2015 than that surreal moment late in the murky Baltimore night when the freight train inevitably chugs by with a long, low blast of the whistle while the DJ is deep in the mix.

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