Dance Music in Pill Form

Now let’s talk about drugs. Specifically, let’s think about methylenedioxymethamphetamine, more commonly known as MDMA, a psychoactive drug synthesized from sassafras oil.  While not yet invented to have played a role in New York’s disco scene, MDMA was (and perhaps still is) undoubtedly one of the most important factors in explaining the popularity of modern dance music.  In Class of ’88, Wayne Anthony, one of the early organizers of the British Rave Scene, described his first experience with MDMA or “molly”:

My jawbone was shaking rapidly, making my teeth clatter as the noise vibrated throughout my body. This powerful effect was unlike anything I’d experienced before. My whole body felt tender and my mind felt intensely stimulated. The ill feeling soon passed, and in no time I was wandering around the club smiling at everyone. You could tell the people who were on E because they’d come up and give you a hug. The other punters just looked at us as if we were mad, or gay. But no one gave a shite what anyone else thought, or if it put a black mark against their credibility (Kindle Locations 537-541).

The link between MDMA and modern dance culture has been noted by nearly every student of dance culture including Luis-Manuel Garcia who, in his dissertation, describes the importance of MDMA’s affect on our sensory perception, facilitating platonic touching which “can also provide a conduit between sound and intimacy, between moments of musical intensity and the affective experience of closeness (110).”  When Sarah Thorton took the drug as part of her work in researching Club Cultures, some academics may have been shocked, but many regular “punters” or clubbers likely viewed this as nothing more than a rite of passage. Just two weeks ago, Good Morning America ran a segment concerning the steady increase in overall MDMA usage, paying particular attention to the twenty percent jump in usage of “this generation’s cocaine” amongst teens over the past year, a fact not exactly advertised on official US government websites.  So what makes MDMA different than the many other drugs identified with musical subcultures? Besides its lack of popularity outside of the club, the story of MDMA’s ebbs and flows easily parallels with the various trends in American Dance Music.

If you’ve been following my progress you may remember that in a couple of my previous posts I mentioned some “pre-MDMA” DJ’s such as Frankie Knuckles, of the Warehouse—the origins of that “house” music—in Chicago, and Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage in New York, and Juan Atkins in Detroit.  As disco decreased in popularity across the states, these two artists, amongst some others, were still drawing large crowds with their inventive new style of spinning–mixing a bass line from one song with an acapella from another, using equalizers to cut frequencies, essentially treating vinyl not as a finished product but simply sound that could be shaped live.  This practice of stripping down disco songs, foreshadowing the modern “mash-up” as well as composing original music using cheap synthesizers and drum machines continued through much of the 80s, developing into Chicago house, and Detroit techno.  While having similar roots, Chicago house music tended to emphasize soulful vocals, reverbed pianos and often disco-influenced bass lines whereas Detroit techno often focused on unique electronic sounds, aiming for a “spaced out vibe”, experimentation which likely eventually led to the development of Acid House (Silcott 27).

A clearly DIY video for one of the early popular tracks of Chicago House.

In 1986 a group of Midwest producers unknowingly changed the direction of dance music while playing around with a Roland TB-303, eventually creating “Acid Trax,” which would spawn an entire genre of music.

Phuture’s Acid “Trax”

While the term, Acid, as in “Acid Trax” and eventually Acid House, may sound like it has something to do with LSD, MDMA was still the drug of choice amongst adherents of the UK’s Acid House.   Nearly following the geographic story of modern dance music, in the early 80’s MDMA was being sold legally at Dallas area gay clubs (just south of the Midwestern roots of house) to serve as a stimulant for losing inhibitions, as well as being prescribed by psychiatrists to treat a variety of psychiatric disorders (this research is actually now ongoing especially amongst those studying PTSD).  Eventually a jet-setting American party crowd, who became familiar with the drug in some American clubs, brought Ecstasy, as MDMA was now being called, to the Spanish island of Ibiza where a group of British DJ’s, including the now famous Paul Oakenfold were spinning.  After witnessing the drug’s effects on dancing crowds, the club drug eventually was brought back to the UK, before it was re-exported along with rave culture to America in the early 90s (Silcott 30-32).

With the introduction of MDMA and American house and techno music, a subculture gradually began to develop in England at a time when, “No unifying sound brought different races of people together under the equal banner of hope. Each group had their own preferences and stuck to them like glue (Wayne 229-230).”  In a country that contained somewhat stringent laws concerning club closing times, a group of entrepeneurs eventually realized the potential market value of the crowds, many of whom were on MDMA, and would spill into the street at 2:00 AM with no where to go.  Although there were after-hours clubs, young party goers such as Wayne Anthony came up with the idea to simply throw a party that lasted all night, with few rules and no closing time.  This marked the start of the Second Summer of Love which continued to the chagrin of the authorities essentially until more mainstream venues were allowed more operating leeway.

Paul Oakenfold Still Rocking Ibiza

Carl Cox spinning at an early rave

Eventually, this model for MDMA crazed clubbing would make it to the states, where it all began with disco, in New York City.  At the time an experienced club owner named Peter GAtien, who had opened successful clubs in Orlando, Miami, Atlanta and New York was looking for someone to fill the Friday or Saturday night slots of his flagship club, the limelight.  In came Lord Michael, an American from Staten Island who recently had been exposed to the post-rave culture of the UK, one still heavily dependent on MDMA. Lord Michael started throwing UK inspired parties, soon after returning, though rather than attracting a hip crowd, they were dominated by a bridge and tunnel group, something unlikely to garner much hype.  Eventually a partnership formed between  Gatien, Lord Michael, and  party promoter Michael Alig, one of the leaders of the Club Kids movement in NYC, who were known for their outrageous dress and behavior constantly appearing in the tabloids and talk shows.  This partnership, fitting into Gatiens so called 20% rule, that you need 20% of everybody to make a successful party lasted until the 21st century when Gatien’s empire, once pulliing in an estimated 30 million dollars a year collapsed after constant pressure from the Giuliani investigation

The Limelight in the early 90’s.


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