rave scene los angeles

The Wild West Coast

Words: Jonny Coleman
Photo above: Tristan Savatier/Getty Images

A DEEP DIVE INTO THE THE RAVE AND WAREHOUSE SCENES IN CALIFORNIA AND WHERE IT ALL STARTED. 

Two days before one of the earliest major warehouse dance parties in Los Angeles — decades before the EDM festivals took the business legitimate, taking over the world in the process — DJ Marques Wyatt had a big problem with his party venue.

It wasn’t vacant.

“It was like meatpacking, all these semi trucks loading in and loading out,” Wyatt told me recently. “And we were like ‘Oh my God, this is what happens at night down here.’ We’re talking trucks blocking the streets. That’s when their business happens down there. We thought, we can’t do this party here.”

Wyatt, through his legendary parties, would go on to be known as a godfather of house music in LA, but at the time he was just a DJ looking to throw a party. He explained his problem to a friend who was a dancer. The dancer was working on a movie called “Lambada,” that had just wrapped production inside a warehouse. With the help of the movie’s location manager, Wyatt checked out the space.

“I said to my [business] partner, ‘What if there was a cop car — like as a prop they left — in here?’ We walk in, and it’s this most amazing room,” recalled Wyatt. “We walk into the other room, and there’s actually a cop car in there that was a prop from the movie. We thought we were supposed to do this party.”

And they did. 

DJ Wyatt

DJ Wyatt on his first party: “We thought some magic has happened here.”

© Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

The party drew 2,000 people — uncharted territory. Wyatt and his partner shut down the party at 7:30 the following morning (long after they sold out of alcohol and just before a police car rolled onto the premises). They had never played so late before.

“Everyone’s clapping, which I had never really had happen like that. We thought some magic has happened here,” said Wyatt. “We got home. The lighting guy calls us a couple hours later and said, ‘You guys won’t believe it. The cop asked me what I was doing there. I told him I rented my lights and was just cleaning them up. And the cop said ‘Get ‘em out of here.’”

Wyatt added, “We said, we kind of like this underground thing here. This was 1989.”

“You have Björk with you”

California is, arguably, the North American capital of music festivals and dance music — and only in part because of the sunny weather. First wave party promoters in the late 1980s and early ‘90s were the first to exploit the Golden State’s diversity of experience: clubs, warehouses, beaches, mountains, ranches, shopping malls, water parks, theme parks, and even Native American reservations — basically any type of building or topographical formation. Anything was fair game for throwing wild, house-disco-techno parties and raves in those first few innocent (and illegal) years as acid house, rave, house, and techno all made their way westward.

Part of the fun of the party was finding the party.”

In many ways, Los Angeles was among the last cities to develop a rave scene, which had roots in London and moved westward via New York, Detroit, Chicago and then San Francisco.

“The first house club in San Francisco was in ‘87 — a place fully dedicated to house,” claimed the pioneering San Francisco DJ Doc Martin (aka Martin Medoza). “Then in ‘88, there was a club called Townsend, it was the first huge club dedicated to house music.”

Medoza described a scene that lured some of the biggest DJs of the time, such as Inner City (Detroit techno icon Kevin Saunderson and Paris Grey, a singer from Chicago), Liz Torres, Fast Eddie and even people like Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force. “Those parties were phenomenal because it was the first time we had a full-scale party in a warehouse.” 

rave scene los angeles

Original party flyer.

© Mark Farina

Feeling a bit restless, Medoza set his sights southbound. “You had another scene going on in LA in 1989,” he said. “We’d see all these events coming out in LA, from everywhere from Mr. Kool Aid to Randy to Gary Blitz, Sean Perry, to Truth. It was an amazing thing.”

When he came to LA, the first party Medoza played was Truth. Then Where the Wild Things Are. Now firmly established in the heart of the entertainment business, rave and dance music were getting mainstream attention.

“At that time, my roommate was dating Björk, the singer from the Sugarcubes,” recounted Medoza. “There was a lot of that going on. So I took Björk with me to the rave, and everyone was freaking out, and I couldn’t figure out why because I wasn’t completely familiar with the Sugarcubes, you know. Everyone was like, ‘You have Björk with you.’”

There were a lot of celebrities at the time, said Medoza, mingling around the LA underground from Charlie Sheen to Nicholas Cage. “Once I came home to find Milla Jovovich hanging out with my roommate on the couch. It was just craziness going on in LA, because LA had such a vast number of warehouses, and venues, and clubs. An extremely healthy thing.”

Part of the fun of the party —and a function of diverting the police — was finding the party, with map points and hotlines set up the day (or evening of). “One party that we were trying to get to and had to go to four different map points,” said DJ Dan (aka Dan Wherrett), who arrived in LA from San Francisco in 1991. “They kept changing the information and where they’d send you to. They would sell the ticket at a certain place. I remember one where they kept sending you to a different map point. And when you got there, you were escorted quickly, on the down-low, which obviously meant it was a break-in.”

“It was kind of like the unknown frontier where you could just do whatever as long as it was good.”

Much of the party information was word of mouth or delivered via voicemail on the day of the party, such as the Wicked Full Moon parties, according to DJ Mark Farina, mushroom jazz maestro. “Once they got to be more popular, I think they kept the information under wraps because too many people would come,” he said. “I didn’t have a computer or cellphone at all then. I’d get on the landline and call guys in the scene who knew.”

But the difficulty in finding the rave did not diminish attendance.

There was the Gilligan’s Island party in 1991. According to Farina, the party pulled in 12,000 ravers to Catalina Island. “It was Derrick Carter and myself’s first break-in to the scene in LA,” he said. “There were rooms with palm trees and that type of thing. It had a great LA representation like the Hardkiss guys, couple of the Wicked guys, an LA guy named Jon Williams who was big then.”  

Dan Wherrett

DJ Dan Wherrett on the mysterious party locations: “They kept sending you to a different map point. And when you got there, you were escorted quickly, which obviously meant it was a break-in.”

© Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

“We had to escape down railroad tracks with our records because we didn’t want to go to jail.”

There was Aphrodite’s Temple, set at this temple in Long Beach. “There must’ve been at least 2,000 people there,” said Wherrett. “All three floors of this place were packed. This was early ‘92. I just remember thinking that this is here to stay and this is about to be something really big … and then they did their second event, and they did it at The Casa, and they brought in Timothy Leary to promote and to be there. And they got Psychic TV to play. And then Timothy Leary did a bunch of promotion for the thing. He spoke at some swanky Beverly Hills hotel. They had me go in one day with him because he was speaking and doing a demo. He liked my music and asked me to come in to hang out that day.”

And there were the Paw Paw Ranch parties, thrown by Daven the Mad Hatter. “[H]e had rented out the Citadel [outlet mall] to throw an event,” recalled Wherrett fondly. “When you walked up to the party, there was a very, very large overweight naked man all painted in gold as Buddha, and people would walk past him. Everyone was freaking out that he had gotten the Citadel for this party. Barry Weaver and Medoza played that party. The reason they got that space — you had to be clever to get these spaces legitimately — they told them that it was a video shoot for Cyndi Lauper’s new video, and that’s why they had that many people. I think people quickly figured out that this was not a video shoot. That was the times of the growing pains of going legit.”  

The parties spread south to San Diego and even to Tijuana. Medoza found that San Diego had a very open, nascent vibe. “It was kind of like the unknown frontier where you could just do whatever as long as it was good,” he said. “That was always refreshing to me to be able to walk into a city where you can play whatever and have it go over really well.”

“This party’s over!”

But even while the party was going strong, it was also spinning out of control. There were no booking agents, no rules and no infrastructure. People were getting ripped off and there were overdoses. The LA Riots pitted cops versus civilians in a way that changed the complexion of LA forever. Something had to give.

dj doc martin

DJ Doc Martin on finding a home for parties in San Diego: “It was kind of like the unknown frontier where you could just do whatever as long as it was good.”

“There was a lot of negligence, people ODing,” said Wyatt, “so the cops are really coming down on them. This wasn’t all the raves. But when something big like that becomes this moneymaker, other novice promoters start promoting, and they don’t cover their bases. They start cutting corners. I think after a couple kids died at a rave, the task force just went crazy to where there were no raves anywhere.”

The promoters were getting scared off and so were the DJs. Farina had “even heard of some DJs getting their records taken [from cops]. It’s one thing to be the person throwing it — who should have some responsibility — you don’t want random DJ stuff to get taken. Especially when you had a crate of records back then, you couldn’t really escape very easily.”

Unless you’re Martin Medoza, who narrowly escaped a bust at The Casa, which was actually a legal venue. “It made no sense to me why they held the DJs, took our names, and said, ‘if we see any of you at these parties again, we’re gonna arrest you,’” said Martin. “So the following week, we’re all at a warehouse party, and literally the cops came busting through the door. We had to kick a hole into a metal wall in the back of the building and escape down these railroad tracks with our records because we didn’t want to go to jail.”

The harder the cops tried to crackdown, the more lawless and defiant some of the promoters became. “During the LA Riots,” said Medoza, “they put a curfew on the whole city. Basically you couldn’t be out in the city after 10 pm unless you were coming from or going to work. That was during the time of Flammable Liquid, and we decided to throw one anyway. So we’re out in the mountains by Malibu, and it was fine. At 6 in the morning about four or five police helicopters came swooping down on us with someone on the P.A. going, ‘This party’s over!’”

The party lives on

But even the police pressure didn’t completely destroy the spirit. As one form of party was dying, another was starting to form.

“The crackdown on raves kind of worked to my advantage,” Wyatt explained, “because me and some people got together and started throwing little house parties at these big houses in the [Hollywood] Hills, and at smaller clubs. And it just came back. This is getting ready to explode again. This was like ‘92. We’re getting like 600-800 people on a Monday night. There were a lot of good parties coming back at the time, post rave scene.”

Raves and warehouse parties rebounded, and the ebb and flow between clubs, warehouses, megaraves, and cop crackdowns is still a constant to this day.

Fast forward 25 years, and the underground and mainstream are as robust as ever in California dance culture. Mainstream America finally accepted house and techno via pop EDM, and the American festival industrial complex (the major players all based in California) has become an indomitable fixture. While dance music has gotten some much-needed exposure in recent years, it’s hard not to pine for a bygone era. You can never do it for the first time again, and it’s never as good as the first time. 

Get the best stories from The Red Bulletin 

>>>SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER!<<<
Read more
11 2015 RedBulletin.com

Next story