In the face their country's legal hurdles, the progressive crew behind Horizon99 are helping to reignite country's appetite for experimental dance music.
For as long as I can remember, everyone told me it was impossible to throw a rave in Singapore. The island country was too small, said the local DJs and promoters I’d talk to during my annual trips back home from the States. The cops would inevitably bust you, and—because there is little precedent for this sort of law-breaking—you’d probably end up in jail. Or even sentenced to death for trafficking drugs. Not knowing any better, I accepted this rationale as fact. After all, Singapore is known as one of the most orderly countries in the world, with strict laws governing everything from flushing toilets to chewing gum. While its DIY music scene has long thrived in smaller clubs and bars, perhaps an all-night rave in some dirty warehouse was, like my friends said, impossible.
Last month, I was back in Singapore for a family visit, and was poking around Resident Advisor’s event listings looking for something to do when I came across a mysterious party called Horizon99. Its event page read more like a cross between an academic text and political manifesto than typical party promo: “Attn: The scheduled precarious race has been disrupted by alien tempos,” declared its opening salvo. “The future is here and it can be redistributed.” I immediately marked it in my calendar. I had never heard of the DJs, who had names like GOTHHOBBIT and A(;D—but there was no way I was missing out.
That night, I found myself lost in Singapore’s red-light district, trying to find my way around a seemingly deserted industrial building. Following the stink of cigarettes up a stairwell, I walked straight into a room stacked with shelves of blinking machines that turned out to be a bitcoin mining farm. Turns out the rave was next door. Stepping over a crew of self-declared skinheads squatting in the corridor, I pushed open a heavy door and found myself in a dark windowless room vibrating with metallic clangs and the brutal 4/4 punches of techno. Red strobes briefly illuminated a pair of DJs leaning over a table strewn with tangled cables, mics, grooveboxes, and other live gear. A circle of anonymous bodies were silently writhing to the bleepy stutters of Errorsmith's abstract techno track, "Lightspeed.” I was alone in a strange place, but it felt like coming home.
The sets for the rest of the night screeched between industrial techno, stomach-churning gabber, and jungle-tinged 90s hardcore. Sometimes, an errant K-pop melody, reggaeton rhythm, or classic Baltimore club “ha!” would get thrown into the mix, but the music remained a sludge of abrasive sounds culled from labels like Shanghai’s Genome 6.66 Mbp, Mexico City’s NAAFI, and Paris’ Casual Gabberz. These kinds of cyber-rave sounds are most at home on SoundCloud, and you’d probably never hear it in an established Singaporean club—which is why hearing it out of precariously stacked speakers in a dingy hole-in-the-wall venue was so exciting: a new rave scene was fermenting out of the simple desire to thrash around to music you could usually only hear on the internet.
A few nights later, I had dinner with two of the founders of Horizon99—a pair of DJs and graphic designers named Sant Ruengjaruwatana and Chantal Tan (AKA “ROT FRONT” and “A(;D)” respectively). Over buckets of takeout Thai food, they told me about the techno-socialist ideology behind their six-month-old party, its connections to the local punk and metal scenes, and why the assumption that you can’t throw raves in Singapore is just plain wrong.
Since they constantly finished each other’s sentences, and later elaborated over email, their responses are credited below as a joint unit. Also, check out their “Saturday, 2AM, Geylang” mix above, which begins with recorded audio from one of their raves, and focuses on rising producers in Singapore (Night Dives, nitro, Laek1yo, Wanglian-C11, xexexe/halfpet, George Chua), Malaysia (rEmPiT g0dDe$$), Hong Kong (Kelvin T), and elsewhere in the region.
Noisey: How long have you two been throwing raves?
Sant Ruengjaruwatana and Chantal Tan: Since we were young, mostly just between our friends. We bought a battery-powered boombox, and would just go into the jungle and rave until the morning. A few times the turnout was a few hundred people. It always stems from the same frustration: we felt the clubs didn’t represent us, so might as well take things in your own hands and do something different.
We’re very into techno-socialism, and in the political texts we read, terms like “crowd,” “party,” and “organization” appear all the time. Those terms are so similar to the vocabulary we use in raves. To us, they’re like guidelines. You don’t have to protest in the streets or Hong Lim Park to get political. Why not do it while you’re dancing?
Why do you only want to promote local acts?
In Singapore, partying can be a pointlessly expensive exercise. The constant self-imposed pressure by local clubs and promoters to anchor parties to [international] celebrity names has created a toxic environment where only the very privileged can have the most fun. Whenever we go to these parties that brand themselves like “ooh, this week [German techno DJ] Marcel Dettmann is coming!”, we never felt that sense of community. We weren’t allowed to negotiate a stake in what was being addressed—issues like gentrification and precarities around work. A party needs context to make it more than just a nihilistic night out. It has to be a space where people can channel their frustrations. And those who have been and will be here for a long time—locals—can understand these stakes in a very visceral way.
It is exactly these non-aligned, under-represented, alien outsider voices that Horizon99 wants to represent. We are incredibly excited by the prospects of unlocking untapped potentials. Is there a new club sound to be found? Could there be a unique new scene developing? If we don’t try, we won’t ever know, but so far, we are very happy and encouraged by what we have seen and heard.
I’ve always been told that you can’t throw crazy raves in Singapore because the police are gonna get you, or there isn’t enough demand. Are those restrictions real?
This is how censorship works: you try to self-censor thinking something bad will happen to you, so you end up not doing anything. To counter it is to understand the restrictions and work around them. We don’t like when people call Horizon99 “underground” because our venue was [legal], so we’re not hiding from anyone. We want people to find us, because those who feel the same frustrations as we do should be able to access us.
How did you find that crazy space? It’s not everyday that you go to a punk venue next to a bitcoin mine.
Venues are a huge problem in Singapore. A lot of old punk venues have closed down because of rental issues and problems with cops. But recently, new punk spaces are coming back around the cheaper parts of Singapore. Friends in bands who played in that venue came to our first party at [local art space] soft/WALL/studs, and told us about it. We are very respectful of the Singapore metal scene’s ability to remain authentic and locally-focused. Due to the music’s uncompromisingly grating nature, the scene curates itself. Casuals do not last long. These are all characters that we want to emulate at Horizon99.
Industrial and heavy metal also seemed to seep into the sets you both played. Do you feel like those genres are increasingly cross-pollinating with techno?
There’s always been a strong connection between industrial metal and techno. Like Godflesh, Swans, even Einstürzende Neubauten or Nitzer Ebb—they were metal bands using electronic equipment in their music. When you bring the term “techno” up, it’s always a 4/4 sound. But the definition of what techno is basically “music of the future.” Any music that uses technology to queer up whatever binary is in place within what it’s doing is “techno” in that sense.
As one of the most futuristic cities in the world, what kind of role do you think technology plays in Singapore’s cultural identity?
We talk about technology not as computers or whatever, but more as an attitude towards change. Technology is change. As a trade hub since before colonial times, Singapore’s connection to the world has always been global. We were never bogged down by the weight of history, and are able to freely express this very global, non-aligned, outward-looking attitude. People always say Singapore has a confused cultural identity because of its constantly shifting character, but isn’t that a kind of identity in itself? And that constantly shifting character has strong ties to technology.
Maybe that’s why we, as Singaporeans, find so much comfort in techno as a definition: techno is meant to break out of geographical, nation-state level. When you read what Jeff Mills says, techno has always meant to be global and faceless. It could be adopted by anybody. It doesn’t have the weight of history to it either. So in a way, we don’t really have to represent anything. We don’t have to be afraid that we don’t have something to box ourselves in.
“Saturday, 2AM, Geylang” Mix Tracklist:
Night Dives - Crib Points
Wa?ste & Ptwiggs - Moth
Kelvin T - Cry from Hell
Gem Tree - Drak Web
rEmPiT g0dDe$$ - LORD MACHINE
EVIL GRIMACE x VON BIKRÄV - R.A.G.E
ILLNURSE - Ein Zwei Polizei (ILLNURSE Live Edit)
Sammi Cheng (鄭秀文) - Mei Fei Se Wu (眉飛色舞)
nitro - consensus reality
DJ Caesar - Bass Planet
Laek1yo - Win Oreddy (KMaster Extended)
Balasa - Brishti
网恋C11 (Wanglian-C11) - ltherael Tributeband v10000
xexexe/halfpet - Air for One
Wa?ste - Last Forever
George Chua - 独孤九剑 (Nine Sword Techniques of Dugu)
Horizon99's next party goes down February 17. If you happen to be in Singapore it's probably worth dropping everything else you're doing to go.
Michelle Lhooq is a journalist in LA covering weed, music, and sex. Follow her on Twitter.