Anyone who's been to one of the corporate festivals typical of today's EDM industry making millions off of barely legal millennials might find it hard to imagine how these descended from the grubby warehouse raves of the 90s. Before pop culture started borrowing the neon-laced sentiments of raving and predating regular news of kids being hospitalized at big fests due to overdoses, there was a thriving underground rave subculture running through the veins of numerous major cities in North America. This movement was undeniably fueled by several substances, but most notably, pressed pills of ecstasy.
As I've been working on modern-day ecstasy stories, I've caught myself daydreaming about what it was like to be part of the scene back in the heyday of raving, and I ended up speaking with two sources who worked together as part of a major ecstasy ring in the United States during the 90s. They were there to witness the shift in rave culture as it began to evolve at the turn of the century.
Both sources were eventually caught for their involvement, served time, have not taken part in any related activity since, and have agreed to speak to VICE on the basis of anonymity. If you dropped ecstasy in the 90s in the United States, there's a chance you took a pill that came from the very ring they were part of.
VICE: How did you guys get into this in the first place?
Jonny: I was in college, and I hadn't really done any drugs up until that point. I started to get into them—I did acid, and then I did E the first time. We were at a major university in the US where E was just starting to pop up outside of the college scene—more in a subculture scene. I met some people who were hanging out around the college but weren't college students. One guy came up to me in the street outside of my apartment building and gave me a flier for a huge party at an arena.
I'd never been to a rave before, and I went to that first party, took E, acid, probably tweaked a little, and that was the beginning of my introduction to that scene. I was like, Holy shit, there is so much opportunity here. How am I going to be able to find my spot in that scene? And the wheels started to turn. The more raves I went to, the more my contacts and group of friends grew. I had to find E at that point to support just me and my friends and their consumption, and it started to grow from there.
How did you meet the right person to get you started in the ecstasy business in a very serious way?
Jonny: The initial goal in my early days was to sell as many singles as I could at a party, and that was working out pretty well. I wasn't afraid back then of getting caught or of the whole world knowing my name. I wanted everyone to know who I was and that you could get E from me. At some point, we developed customers who could buy a lot more than we could sell, and at that point, we had to branch out and search for who could supply that much.
At this point, we sort of already had the sources or knew how to get to them, but now, we had the money and the customers, so the sources kind of find you then. If you are a stand-up guy and not bringing heat, then people will want to work with you. I ran into people who ended up being connected to some of the major suppliers in the world.
Nick: By the time everything played out, it was one of the dominant rings. The major drop-off points in the States for ecstasy were LA, New York, and Miami. The reason for that was because those cities had thriving dance industries. In those kinds of cities, you had 30,000 people at parties on weekends taking one or two pills each—you could be talking about 40–50,000 pills on a weekly basis.
Jonny: We got our E from two main sources. From a non-mafia source, we were getting MDMA in powder form that was, at the time, some of the best E ever sold in the city. That was a market opener for us due to the quality.
How old were you guys during this time?
Nick: Early 20s. In the 90s, both Jonny and I were blowing up as far as our dealing was concerned.
Jonny: Yeah, I was about the same age.
What was it typically like when you had to go pick up from your source?
Nick: [laughs] Don't bring 20s, and don't bring 50s!
Jonny: The hard part was the money because we were collecting all this money in 20s most of the time. There were times when I would put $100,000 in cash together and give it out to five different people, then everybody would go to like three different banks all over the town and try to change 20s into 100s.
Nick: I hated that.
Jonny: After that, I'd put the money together, go to my guy's spot in a nice part of town, chill out, smoke weed, put money in the money counter, and walk out with a designer suitcase filled with tens of thousands of hits of ecstasy. Sometimes, I would go to a shittier apartment with a lot more international gangster-looking types, where I didn't know if I was going to buy E or get jacked.
Being a reasonably regular guy, how did you deal with people like that?
You had to have a certain type of personality to be accepted by these people. They had to get a good feeling about you; you had to be able to present yourself as a stable individual, not just some fucking drug addict who wanted pills. You had to have a place to move this shit, and you usually had to show up with cash and pay up front.
It was really a progression. I did not like to be fronted because I didn't want to deal with potential repercussions for being fronted. I used that money I saved up from those years of selling singles at raves until me and my partner could get $100,000 together, and it went from there.
When you were smuggling ecstasy to other cities, how would you do it?
Nick: You'd strap it to your legs and go on a plane... It was really weird the way I would do things. I wouldn't even tell anyone which flight I was on. I would call when I got there.
Jonny: No cell phones, pay phones only, one-way flights booked the day of the trip. We tried not to have a plan, so no one would know when the shipment was going to arrive. Our plan was to not have a plan, so we wouldn't get caught. I'd get a page from a pay phone, then I'd call that pay phone back.
How did the state of the rave scene at that time affect your business?
Nick: I'll be frank. Most of the raves had a serious affiliation with drug dealers—they would even use drugs in the promotion of their events on fliers. This was the beginning of the rave scene fueling the ecstasy distribution, and vice versa.
There were many people in the rave scene who were both promoters and drug dealers. If it wasn't your show, well, you knew the security guards there—you just had to throw them some cash. When you start to expand and everyone knows your stature, things are overlooked because everyone is getting a piece of the action. You're a security guard making what, $14 or $15 an hour tops? You're going to get between $500–$1,000 from me, and you're not going to get that anywhere else. If you look at the rise of the rave scene, it is very easy to see that it correlates to the rise of ecstasy. Not all the big club owners in the country were involved with it, but some were. I mean look at Limelight—that kind of thing wasn't just going on there, that was going on all around the country.
I think the last show I ever sold pills at, I walked out of there with slightly less than $50,000. There were weekends where I would go to one show, we'd go through the crowd, do a couple hundred or whatever, jump out, go to the next show. I did two or three shows a night. At the end of the night, you could end up with 200–600 pills sold at $20 each. That's up to $12,000 a night.
How much were you guys moving monthly?
If we're talking about us and our direct associates: 80,000-100,000 pills. That was average for us. We ended up in places that just didn't have access to it, and the price skyrocketed. At the time, the street price for a hit of ecstasy in one of the cities I went to was $35.
Of the pressed pills you came across during those years, which ones do you remember being the best ones?
The Mitsubishis and the Apples.
Jonny: The Apples put us on the map at one point. Selling singles at parties, I could sell out 100 single Apples at $20 in 15 minutes. They had by far the best high I had ever had. The only thing better than that was putting the powder MDMA that we got under your tongue, but the Apples were the closest thing to pure we ever saw. The Mitsubishis that came out, they were pretty good, but you could tell they had a little bit of heroin in them... but there were a lot of different versions of those.
There were people below us who wanted to make some money and get in the game, and they got fucked with. There were times I can't believe that these people above me were cool to me or that I walked out of a house because I know other people who had gone over to the same house and they just took their money and told them to go, and that's how it's gonna be. For some reason, I never got robbed, and I always had a good relationship with these people even though I was scared of them. I knew I had to do what I had to do, but for some reason, they just didn't fuck with me. I'm like the least intimidating guy there is, but I think they just liked me for some reason. It was a really weird vibe.
Did you ever have any pills that you weren't happy with the quality, but you still had to unload them?
Nick: [laughs] Green Triangles, Hardlines, Happy Faces, and Red Devils were all crappy pills that we sold one time or another but tried to stay away from because they gave you a bad reputation and were hard to sell once the word got out how bad they were. We actually tried to care about what we were selling. We had the quality stuff; people would buy off of me at a rave because they trusted me, and the last time they got from me it was fucking awesome. I'd get to a party, and people would tell me they had been waiting for me.
Dealing ecstasy at this level obviously sounds like fun in a way since you got to rave all the time, but when did you start to see it going south?
There were so many things coming into play that the scene. The vibe was getting dark at raves. More gangsters started showing up. People were getting busted, and it was in the news. There were so many things that were putting raves into the media spotlight, as well as ecstasy and the other drugs behind it.
Jonny: The rave scene developed into a different animal, more on the track of where it's at today. We went from guys who went to parties to serious dealers. I had to ask myself sometimes if I was willing to get involved with physical violence. The answer for me was always no, but I couldn't tell anyone that because I would get jacked. I started to realize at the end of this that I was going to get arrested and go to jail or I was going to die. All of the sudden I'm not selling pills to people to have a good time; it went from being fun and games to being a serious business.
The rave scene went from a place where you went to hang out with your friends to festivals where millions of dollars are being made. What used to be a couple different people bringing in hundreds or thousands of pills, now organized crime was involved. You had to have the attitude of: If it came down to you and me, it sure as fuck is not going to be me. I personally am lucky I came out of this without hurting anyone. I was in it for the money and the easy life.
Were you guys also partaking in doing ecstasy or just selling it?
In the beginning, I was still going out to parties to have fun and do drugs. Then as I started to make money, I would do fewer and fewer drugs. Especially with X, you can't get all X-ed out and sell the amount of drugs we were trying to sell, especially on acid, too. You'd get jacked by somebody or something stupid would happen. At a massive rave, we would sell all the pills we had as fast as possible, then I'd secure the cash either on me somehow where I knew it couldn't get lost or with my girlfriend or with someone I had brought for the purpose of carrying cash. I had people who would carry pills for me too. For a while, I would walk around with nothing. Someone would come up to me and ask for E, and I would be like, "Awesome, give $20 to that person, and go pick up the pill from that guy." Then I'd just walk to the next person.
If all the pills were gone and the money was secured, then sometimes, if it was a massive rave and there were good DJs, we'd pop some pills, do some K, and if it was an outdoor party, we'd candy flip. There's nothing more fun than making a fuckton of money in a night and fucking candy flipping, having a few beers, listening to a god DJ, and watching the sunrise. It doesn't get any better than that.
Nick: [laughs] You had to have a way with words to do this kind of thing. You had to be one of the top people socially to be able to do that—look and play the part.
Jonny: I knew Nick from the beginning of my rave days, and our relationship grew over the course of it. He was promoting and connected to DJs and guys who threw parties when I was just going to raves. Then I started to sell, and Nick became more of a resource at that point. As I got my operation built up and we had made a lot of money, Nick was another person who was moving a lot of this stuff back home.
Nick: At a certain point, Jonny stopped going out on the weekends. He was making so much money on the big deals that he didn't care. He just wanted to enjoy himself and faded out. I kept at it. I had runners. I would show up with 500 pills on me in my underwear, and had another 1,000 in a booth inside the party. I'd have all the gay boys and certain little clicks of the rave scene all out working for me.
Jonny: I didn't want to risk going to raves and getting caught at that point. I haven't been to a rave in I don't know how long, but I know it's not like it used to be. Now when kids take ecstasy, they might die. Back then, there was a level of purity to the scene; it was like a young movement where anyone and everyone could go to a rave and have an experience like some of your parents did at Woodstock. Just like the 60s and the 70s will never repeat themselves, the late 80s to the early 2000s will never happen again.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Names, places, and other details have been changed to protect anonymity.
Photo via Flickr user Tanjila Ahmed
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