From Disco to the “Rave Inquisition,” a History of Madison’s DJ Scene

From Disco to the “Rave Inquisition,” a History of Madison’s DJ Scene

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In the heart of downtown right off University Avenue is MC AUDIO, a locally owned audio DJ equipment store with a deep-rooted history in Madison’s music scene.

Owner and longtime DJ Mike Carlson was kind enough to give me a one on one history lesson of the rave scene in Madison and how everything from the Bush administration to the University of Wisconsin had a hand in influencing it.

When I asked Mike about the definitive starting place for DJ’s in Madison he said, “It went from doing everything in fraternity houses because they had massive party rooms and could go forever. Plus the drinking age was 18.”

I was surprised with Mike’s response when I asked him about the demographic of these parties.

“In the 80’s these things were all underground when I played, and it was like a beautiful slice of culture where you could follow the numbers,” — meaning that the actual demographic of Madison was being represented, he said. “The general theme was that after bar close, everyone would go looking for these after-bar events. When I say where these events were at, I am loosely using the term for just people who rented out warehouses, and we would just call those frat parties or after-bars.”

Eventually we got onto the topic of what type of music was being played at these events.

“When I started, it was the beginning of the British new wave with darker stuff like Siouxsie and the Banshees or Human League. But it was also the beginning of house and the post disco movement. But there was also Gap Band, Rick James and this black funky good dance music vibe that was also going on. It was this really cool mash of music.”

Eventually after having more than a few events with 400 or more people in attendance, dancing until sunrise, it became difficult to keep them “underground.” With alumni, Madison police and the University all looking to crack down, and the drinking age being raised to 21 in 1986, a shift occurred as the underground house parties became full-fledged raves.

Nick Nice | publicity photo

By the mid 80’s two key players stepped into the scene and took advantage of the shifting landscape. Mike elaborated how after all these groups began cracking down on these parties it led to the perfect circumstance for “People like Nick Nice and DJ Amos to come in and start doing these underground raves. It was a college party type atmosphere, just adapted and marketed a bit cooler. You had to know someone already in the scene and get a flyer with the secret address with a pick-up location that would ferry you to the rave.”

How did the city of Madison influence these parties?

“Well Nick was a genius and took advantage of these central, closed locations that he would fill with speakers and lights. They made up for some awesome parties. Eventually Nick made an event called Alice and Raveyland 1&2 out of a bar that was rented out. Places like Scooters and Pearls on the eastside provided some more concrete venues that started to shift away from the earlier parties.”

By this time, it was the early 90’s and underground raves were picking up steam thanks to the popularity and success of people like Nick Nice and DJ Amos.

Sonically, the landscape was also evolving. Hip-hop samples gained in popularity, while drum and bass tracks increased in importance with a new variety of electronic dance music.

Were there any Madison musicians producing music for you to spin at these events?

“That was a really hard thing to do at that time,” Mike said. “People dreamed of having a vinyl press, so they could cut their own records. The first person to have a record come out was a Milwaukee artist named Anonymous. With the early 90’s things were really starting to break ground with some hardcore forms of drum and bass plus dub, but nobody was spinning hip hop alone. They would only do vocal samples and stuff like that.”

What were the notable events of Madison’s rave scene in the 90’s and who were their key players?

“Hopscotch, UFO, after-bars at the Cardinal that featured a continental breakfast, another party called Turned On 1-3,” Mike said. “There were some huge parties just outside of Madison called Further and Even a Little Further that were just bombs of parties which were awesome. Those events were largely successful thanks to Kurt Eckes and the Drop Bass crew. If you read rave history books they will all feature Kurt Eckes since those events were legendary. He was the first guy to bring Daft Punk, Tech Itch and Tommy Sunshine to the US.”

Mike recalled the transition out of the late 90s and into the 2000s as a time of government crackdown.

“The rave inquisition,” he called it. “Shortly after the Bush administration passed laws that dubbed any house as having so much as a joint as being drug houses. The result was a series of crackdowns at these rave events where anyone involved saw their equipment confiscated and hit with a ridiculous sentence. Be it the promoter of the event, their hosts and even the DJ, everyone was getting sentenced and treated like a drug dealer. Because raves were being busted and had these drug-related connotations to them, the response was for venues to bring in hip hop artists and start doing cutting routines, but still hip hop was very much a separate thing. And honestly, that was more of a bpm (beats per minute) oriented thing to keep the beat. It ended up being where every genre had its own night. With the mid 2000’s raves were dying, and people were now going to clubs. You had some great clubs pop up around State Street like Cardinal, Inferno, Blue Fin and Frida’s. But the two big clubs were the Cardinal and Inferno.”

With the fading of raves, Mike went on to explain Madison’s shifting nightlife.

“It was in the mid 2000’s that I first noticed the blurring of a club and just a place that would set up speakers and some sound. It was trending towards having a bar that happened to have a dance floor rather than the other way around. But there was a really fun spot before it was Hawk’s, where the bartender would light the bar on fire and knew a bunch of fun bar tricks.

Ultimately, Mike touched on the current day evolution of the rave scene.

“Well, right around 2007 I noticed a switch to a live band because the perception of a DJ at a party was that it made it into a drug party,” Mike said. “Now you see your festivals as being the next evolution. But the most authentic version of it now must be at Plan B’s Leather and Lace Party. To have people get dressed up, that’s the most thing like a rave I can see in my opinion with people wearing a bunch of crazy cool (stuff) and we play just banging underground music the whole night. But everything is cyclical, and I can say now the strong thing is everybody knows everyone. It used to be just a small group of people across Wisconsin working their best in these small groups to organize events. But now thanks to how well communicated we all are there are these niche DJ for every genre that are in touch.”

Before our discussion ended, Mike made sure to mention one of his upcoming events returning to the capital.

“Dane Garden,” he said. “We have a summer event by the capital where we bring a bunch of lights and massive speakers and you should for sure come.”

Written by Edgar Sanchez

Edgar Sanchez is a reporting intern with Madison365, a sociology major at UW-Madison and a working DJ.

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