'Altered State' was one of the very first books on the history of dance music. Now, in 'Rave On', author Matthew Collin examines how the culture has changed - for better or worse - two decades later
When journalist and author Matthew Collin was approached by his publisher a few years ago and asked whether he wanted to write a 20th anniversary sequel to his 1997 history of UK acid house culture, Altered State, he had some serious reservations.
"Initially, I thought it would be a completely impossible task," he says in an email from Ukraine, where he’s based for a few weeks while working on another project. "Dance music culture is so huge and diverse these days. Scenes and genres have proliferated all around the world, and if you catalogued them all you'd end up with some huge bookcase of encyclopedias - which would be tedious to research and even more boring to read."
At the point when the sequel suggestion was made, Collin had written little about electronic music culture for well over a decade, having left I-D magazine - where he chronicled the birth of Detroit techno, the Balearic beat phenomenon, the "second summer of love" and dance music’s rapid rise in the UK - to pursue a career in news journalism. Although his love of electronic music and club culture never waned, Collin was more likely to be found scuttling around war-torn parts of Europe (especially the former Yugoslavia) in search of a story than dancing all night in a dimly lit basement club.
Nevertheless, after some soul-searching he decided to run with his publisher’s sequel idea, and turned his attention to how the world of dance music had changed in the two decades that had passed since he wrote Altered State.
"What I decided to do was illustrate the global development of the culture but show that, despite the fact that everything is interconnected because of the Internet and social media, there are still scenes and sounds that are shaped by their very specific socio-political environments which could not have developed anywhere else but in their own countries," Collin explains. "I also wanted to find out what dance music culture still meant to people and why they still believed in it."
We've come a long way, baby
The result is Rave On, a superb examination of global dance music culture in the 21st Century, based in part on Collin’s travels to noted electronic music hotspots. Beginning in Detroit and Berlin, Rave On sees Collin jet between Las Vegas, South Africa, Ibiza, Israel, Shanghai, Dubai and New York, mixing quotes from key local players with historical information and his own eyewitness accounts of notable parties, festivals and impromptu events.
"I wanted the book to be based on first-hand reportage: what I saw, how it looked and how it sounded. How it felt to be there," he says. "That’s what a journalist should do: go places, see what’s going on, talk to people, collect impressions and get a sense of how the experience affects people, as well as doing the background research."
Collin thought long and hard about which scenes and cities to focus on, balancing the need to chronicle the ongoing commercialisation of the culture in certain places - the chapter on EDM in the US being one of the most eye-opening - with a desire to reflect the transformative power of underground electronic music.
"The places that I chose each had to tell a story that added up to some kind of overview of the ideas and issues that are most important within this huge global culture," Collin says. "There were stories that needed to be told - about race, sexuality, commercialisation and so on - so I partly chose the destinations based on that, although I couldn’t ignore the importance of places like Berlin, Ibiza and New York to the development of the culture."
Some of the hardest-hitting chapters are those that shine a light on little-known outposts of rave’s original outlaw ethos, such as the French free party circuit and a swathe of small, obscure festivals that take place in remote parts of Eastern Europe.
"What I was heartened to find was that the DIY philosophy of acid house continues to be a vital means of creative expression," Collin enthuses. "The young producers I spoke to who are making this raw, tranced-out style of dance music called ‘gqom’ in the townships of South Africa were one example – they started out cutting tracks using cracked software on cheap computers, distributed them on low-bitrate MP3s via Blackberry Messenger, and publicised them by getting minibus-taxi drivers to play them to their passengers as they drove around. It was a real example of using whatever means you can get your hands on, in a situation where you have little money and no ‘connections’, to realise that desire to express yourself in a highly imaginative way."
The transformative power of electronic music and dance culture is one of the central themes of the book, alongside the way promoters in countries with little prior dance music culture - China and the UAE, to name two examples - have cottoned onto the moneymaking power of clubs and dance festivals. Collin is also highlights another growing, and arguably more worrying, trend.
"One of the central themes that emerged was how the culture is so much about the search for free space - space to develop creative ideas, space to create temporary havens for free expression, space to let loose and go wild – and for some people, space to celebrate social resistance," he says. "What also became clear was that unlike in the late 80s and the 90s, dance culture was no longer just under threat from officialdom and law enforcement, but now from gentrification too."
Despite the huge changes in the size and shape of club culture in the last three decades, Collin is adamant that some things remain the same.
"Something that was familiar from the early years was the constant struggle between idealism and pragmatism and between art and commerce," he says. "This is an eternal debate within popular culture in general of course, but I was amazed at the intensity of the disputes about it within dance music. I suppose it just shows how much people continue to genuinely believe in it and see it as something that is truly their own."
Words: Matt Anniss
Rave On is available now, published by Serpent's Tail