ThE DaNcE ExPeRiEnCe
The Ecstasy of dance
The rave scene has been with us for eight years, but just how much of that culture has been shaped by the people and how much has been shaped by Ecstasy, Stuart Bortwick took time out from lecturing at the Media and Cultural Studies Department of Liverpool John Moores University where he's in the middle of a 5 year PhD research project on how television represents dance culture to investigate the truth for rage
It's an undeniable fact that, over the past 7 years, there has been a massive increase in drug consumption within youth culture, in particular the dance scene. Research has certainly shown a level of drug consumption that would shock most non-participants in dance culture. In particular, dance music is inextricably linked to the use of Ecstasy. But why is this, why has a chemical that has been around for eighty odd years become the drug of choice amongst British youth.
The answers to this question is, in many eyes, due to the repetition that lies at the heart of modern dance music, Ecstasy, and life in late 20th century Britain. The repetition in the music models the way Ecstasy effects your brains receptors. In short Ecstasy stimulates the 1b receptor in the brain, and encourages the user to do things over and over again without them necessarily being aware of the fact.. So if we take a repetitive 4:4 beat house track and add Ecstasy consumption, then you have a dance floor full of dancers who appear to have entirely synchronised their bodies to the music, and who are in for a long long night.
But it's not just the Ecstasy use that leads to the dancer's mind, as well as their body synchronising. Our minds and ears listen to a repetitive dance track, and search for variation. If there is none, then the brain makes it up. It is suggested that this phenomenon is exaggerated by Ecstasy use. And the evidence seems to back this up even more. Put your hands up if you've ever listened to a track the next day and thought 'what was I on when I danced to this rubbish'.
Because you have synchronised yourself to the rhythm, a sudden change to another rhythm is the last thing you want to hear and it's pretty much guaranteed to clear the dance floor instantly. This has led to the rise of DJs who are able to seamlessly switch from one record to another without the dance-floor being aware of it. This has, of course, not gone unnoticed by record producers, who will provide DJ remixes of a dance track that emphasise heavy rhythms, as well as enabling a seamless switch between records. In short, the effects of Ecstasy use have gone full circle. Record companies are now producing records for Ecstasy consumers. Rather than Ecstasy use facilitating dancing to music, music facilitates dancing on Ecstasy. This relationship is not merely a one-way relationship, with drug having an effect upon behaviour and mental state, but is a two-way relationship between culture and drug.
In a sense Ecstasy isn't the only drug within dance culture. Many are addicted to the beat itself. Many people don't need to take E to stay up all night. The adrenaline rush of just dancing so fast and for so long is enough to keep most people awake way past their normal bed time. The DJ-set and the 12 inch single are used by the dancer in the same way that they use Ecstasy, they are adapted to meet their social needs and desires. As much as the Tory government would like to suggest that the only reason drugs and dance music are in existence today is due to the financial rewards reaped by suppliers and distributors, this is simply not the case. Young people use specific cultural artefacts; the DJ set, the TV programme, the recreational drug, to give meaning to their lives. They also use these different artefacts in the same way; they choose specific artefacts, specific musical genres such as techno and house, specific TV programmes, and specific drugs such as Ecstasy because they have a similar structure, a structure that they see in their lives.
It is often assumed that Ecstasy is a new drug. It was, in fact, first patented in 1913 by the German firm Merck, but remained unused in this country until the mid-nineteen-eighties. Its current popularity in Britain is purely due to the relevance of its psychopharmacological effects to contemporary youth culture. The 'rush', feeling 'loved up' and all being in the same mind set, especially if you've all bought from the same dealer, and the constant references to I'm rushing etc in the records that go together with the Ecstasy scene. The position of Ecstasy within British youth culture can be contrasted with the American experience. Whereas in Britain Ecstasy is viewed as a dance drug, in America Ecstasy use is concentrated in the home. British youth culture uses drugs for its own purpose, rather than the drugs lending themselves to any particular use. But possibly a lot of this can be explained away by the obvious gaping differences between US and UK relationships to conventional drugs like Tobacco and Alcohol. In the US you're not allowed to drink till you're 21, and hence can't gain access to many bars and clubs. In the UK some people are bored of going to clubs by the time they hit 21.
As this view suggests, the essential relationship between dance music, dance culture and Ecstasy is one of repetition. Whilst techno and house is based upon repetition within the framework of the 4:4 time signature, the lifestyle of dance culture is also premised on repetition. Dance culture is often viewed as a culture of the 'weekender' (hence Baggy band Flowered Up's 1990's anthem to club culture). During the week we work, if work is available, and many of us work in what have been termed 'McJobs', boring, repetitive work, requiring little concentration. Nine to five, five days a week, with a week off at Christmas and a couple of weeks in the summer. All alternatives to this lifestyle have come under attack within the past 15 years, be they travellers, ravers, or voluntary unemployment. When it comes to the end of the week, thank Crunchie it's Friday, and we can live our lives once more.
However, the weekend club is both a release from the repetition of our jobs, and, paradoxically, a repetitive act in itself. Even the government have cottoned on to this, with their infamous legislation citing contemporary dance music as consisting of "sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats". Despite the fact that it is repetitive, or perhaps because of it, house and techno music provides both an explanation of, and a release from, the repetition in our lives. And some people suggest that this is furthered and deepened by the repetitive trance-like state caused by Ecstasy.
One recent development that appears to implicitly critique this view is the emergence of jungle, with its move away from the pounding kick drum found in most house and techno. Although it has its' origins in the hardcore rave scene of the early 1990s, jungle clubs seem to be relatively free of Ecstasy. One possible reason for this is that jungle simply does not mix with Ecstasy in that jungle percussion is too fast for the body to synchronise with, and that it's bass-line is too irregular, unlike the characteristic repetition of house and techno. The addictive relationship between drug and music has broken down. This breakdown has been caused by something as seemingly insignificant as the beat emphasis on a record. However it's equally possible that the change in the music could also be influenced by the use of a different drug on the dancefloor namely Crack and , which appeared in large quantities around the same time as Jungle started.
However, if we remove Ecstasy and replace it with an 'attitude' then much of this analysis can be applied to jungle culture. That there is a specific attitude surrounding jungle clubs and music is not in doubt. Indeed jungle has spawned its own adjective to describe itself and its cultural artefacts, namely 'junglist'. Jungle music's manic percussion is also widely considered to reflect the frantic speed of inner-city life, and this is made explicit in Goldie's recent single Inner City Life.
Perhaps it is this 'attitude' that provides us with the relationship between youth culture and music. The rallying cries of house and techno cultures, such as 'unity', 'peace', and 'togetherness' also appear to fit the bill. Jungle is different though. As Steve Shapiro, an academic at McGill University in Montreal suggests, jungle is "less about a utopian vision, less about escaping through the music, and more about an acknowledged temporary hiatus from the difficulties of real life. Nothing will have changed after a night out, but for a moment, a good time will be had". A striking difference from the culture of it's predecessor, which was that everything changed and that a new dawn and new beginnings would happen after a night of raving.
The period between autumn 1994 and the summer of 1995 has seen a rift developing within jungle culture, a rift that has since developed into a full scale schism between ragga jungle, with its emphasis on aggressive male vocals and harsh pounding beats, and drum and bass. Some have suggested that this split is determined by pharmacological reasons. As crack and cocaine make continuing inroads into jungle culture, the perceived aggressive effects of the drug have made themselves apparent in the musical characteristics of ragga jungle. On the other hand, and running parallel to this, is the current widespread availability of 'skunk' cannabis in Britain. The rise of skunk consumption has led to the increasing popularity of, amongst other things, ambient jungle. By taking 160 b.p.m. jungle, emphasising alternative beats, and regulating the often erratic jungle bass line, we arrive at a slow 80 b.p.m., and a musical form not dissimilar to dub, the chosen musical form of the cannabis connoisseur.
Some have suggested that the speed of these changes is allied to the speed that jungle always emphasised in the first place. Another suggestion is that this speed is also due to the fact that jungle is frequently produced by part-time musicians who are fully immersed within the culture themselves. One major phenomena of the early 1990s was the rise of the bedroom DJ, where ordinary working-class participants in dance culture produced their own DJ tapes to be circulated informally amongst their friends and to be sent to clubs in order to obtain DJ work. The phenomenon of the mid 1990s is the bedroom producer, who purchases cheap sampling and sequencing equipment, presses up maybe 500 copies 6rom a D.A.T. tape onto 12" vinyl and sells these records to record shops, friends and DJs. The split between producer and consumer has broken down so that the relationship described above between the production of music, the consumption of music, and recreational drug use is sped up. The widespread availability of skunk within British dance culture during the summer of 1995 has led to a whole new culture and musical subgenre come Autumn.
But where does dance culture go from here. That Ecstasy and other drugs are enjoyable is beyond argument. That they are ruining lives is also not in doubt. But that's not the point. Dance culture's avarice as far as drug consumption is concerned is not due to ignorance as to the detrimental effects of short and long term consumption. Most E heads are well aware that their weekend pills are knackering them come mid-week, but they're still out the next weekend. Possibly those addicted to techno and house should take a leaf out of the jungle book. Slow it down, take it easy, and look for that extra spice. Experiment by all means, but try experimenting with staying in and chilling out, rather than going out and losing it. The history of dance culture has always been about experimentation and deviance. When E becomes the routine, when consuming E becomes a repetitive act itself, then the whole radicalism of dance music is lost. Maybe the real deviants are those not taking Ecstasy, in that they are deviating from the drug-guzzling norm. If we are to resist the current attack upon dance culture from the Police and the Government then we must keep our mental faculties intact, or the culture which a great proportion of us know and love with dissolve into a chemical soup.
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