There are many founding histories around the emergence of electronic dance music and the rave scene, but they often overlook the stories of the LGBTQ and Black pioneers. This feature takes you back a decade before the Second Summer of Love to celebrate these movers, shakers and ravers.
The fundamental roots of electronic dance music have always been grounded in LGBTQ spaces communities and culture. These queer origin stories can be traced back to the early 70s with the birth of Disco as an underground scene in private members only parties in Manhattan. David Mancuso’s parties at The Loft are often viewed as one of the places where Disco history begins; these legendary events hosted a mixed crowd of diverse sexualities, fluid gender expressions and folks of different ethnic and social backgrounds.
Clubbers (1980s) by Adam FriedmanMuseum of Youth Culture
The early Disco underground parties were not a far cry from the New York Ballroom circuit at the time where black and Latino queer and transgender folks also found a safe space to be themselves and a community to thrive in. Both scenes were an escapist haven of inclusivity for those who were rejected and marginalised by mainstream society; they were places where LGBTQ folks could truly celebrate their identities and their sexuality.
One of the most famous queer pioneers of electronic dance music is the DJ Frankie Knuckles, also known as “The Godfather of House”. As a teenager Knuckles was a regular at The Loft as well as being part of the Ballroom scene where he met fellow House legend DJ Larry Levan, Levan encouraged Knuckles to start DJ-ing and both played at iconic New York gay clubs such as the Continental Baths and Levan’s own Paradise Garage
The birth of House
In 1977 Knuckles relocated to Chicago to become a resident DJ at the newly established club The Warehouse (this is where the name ‘House’ music comes from). The Warehouse was the only venue on the South Side of Chicago that catered to black queer kids with no other places for them to go in the area apart from a couple of gay bars, any other discos in the city were on the North Side and were predominantly white and unwelcoming spaces
After the commercial success of Disco peaked in the late 70s record sales plummeted, it was through homophobia and racism from white-hetero mainstream America that Disco got driven back underground and was only heard in spaces such as The Warehouse.
The popular slogan of the time ‘Disco Sucks’ was a homophobic slur (referencing cock sucking) aimed at Disco and its fans, by then Knuckles Levan and other DJs had held rank and created a harder style of Disco known Hi-NRG which would later develop into early House music.
By the late 70s British subculture was moving away from the streets and gig venues and into club culture with the emergence of the New Romantic scene; these pioneering Clubs Kids channelled many of the same aspirations as New York Ballroom culture creating spaces for gender fluid expression and sexual experimentation. Their androgynous high camp aesthetic and decadent debauched partying sought to push the boundaries of mainstream society even further and create a world that was truly their own.
“The New Romantic image was kinda a backlash to Punk really. It was all about dressing up rather than dressing down, beautifying yourself in quite an extreme way” Princess Julia
Doris and her friends, New Romantics, ready for a night out, 1980s (1980/1989) by Doris HolderMuseum of Youth Culture
The infamous Blitz Kids were the pinnacle of New Romantic decadence, the original Club Kids they got their name from being regulars at the Tuesday night parties at Covent Garden club Blitz which were thrown by Steve Strange and Rusty Egan of Synth-pop band Visage. The Blitz Kids included artists and performers such as Boy George, Princess Julia, Michael Clark, Little Nell and Marylin, the term ‘Peacock Theory’ was often used to describe their outrageous outfits and ultra-performative style.
It was through reading about Blitz and the New Romantics in magazines that iconic Club Kid Leigh Bowery made the move from Melbourne to London to become part of the scene, in 1985 Bowery created the legendary club Taboo at Maximus in Leicester Square. Taboo hosted some of the most extreme and decadent parties the New Romantic Club Kids had ever experienced, and, like other queer spaces in London at the time, Taboo’s DJs were spinning the sounds of Hi-NRG and Italo House
“It was very HI-NRG and Italo, but what made it beautiful were Jeffery Hinton’s mix tapes. They were completely druggy and amazing. It was definitely the first place in London where there was mass ecstasy taking.” Mark Moore remembering Taboo
Clubber (1990s) by Adam FriedmanMuseum of Youth Culture
In the years leading up to the Acid House craze it was London and Manchester LGBTQ night spots that were setting the foundations for UK rave culture to thrive. During the height of the rave phenomenon London queer parties included ‘Daisy Chain’ at The Fridge, ‘Troll’ at The Soundshaft, ‘Pyramid’ at Heaven and ‘Queer Nation’ at the Gardening Club.
“Pre acid house/rave culture, you’d hear house music in many gay clubs in London. The DJ at the Prince Of Wales in Brixton would play house tracks like 'House Nation' ” Luke Howard
Ruby Venusvela Mid show costume change (1990s) by Adam FriedmanMuseum of Youth Culture
“I’d run the first soulful house and garage club in the UK, High On Hope at Dingwalls. Queer Nation was just the mutated gay version. For the authentic black heritage of house (the music that sees no colour), there’s no comparison or competition for QN. We came straight from the founding fathers.” Patrick Lilley
The birth of Manchester’s queer rave scene came from the civil unrest in 1988 responding to Thatcher’s government enforcing Section 28, the first anti-gay legislation in over 100 years. Manchester saw one of the biggest demonstrations with around 20,000 LGBTQ people and allies taking to the streets, it was through this collective effort that queer folks came together in such a large scale and maintained their community by creating inclusive spaces to celebrate their identities and sexuality.
“It forced gays and lesbians to unite in protest. As a result of this political fight, queer people partied together in the same spaces, which was historic and this change is still tangible in Manchester’s alternative queer raving scene.” Isaac Wilson
The Hacienda main dancefloor (1989) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture
Madchester's queer side
By the 90s Manchester’s queer rave scene was thriving with club nights such as ‘Flesh’ at the legendary Haçienda and ‘Homoelectric’ at the Gay Village as well as newly created clubs Manto and Number 1 Club.
Two clubbers, Kinky Gerlinky (1990/1990) by Adam FriedmanMuseum of Youth Culture
‘Flesh’ at The Haçienda hosted the alternative beauty pageant ‘Miss Flesh’ for lesbians femmes transwomen and drag queens as well as creating space for vibrant queer crowds with the slogan “thank you for not being heterosexual”. The phrase “Gaychester” was often interchanged with “Madchester”, a term popularised by predominantly white-hetero Acid House ravers. .
The dawn of the 90s also saw the phenomenon of UK rave culture spreading internationally and electronic dance music coming full circle back to NYC, by this time many iconic queer DJs were playing an integral role in the new global craze of rave. Tony De Vit and (Blitz Kid) Princess Julia were pioneering queer raving in the UK, De Vit founded gay club Trade and Princess Julia was a regular at the ‘Daisy Chain’ and ‘Queer Nation’. In NYC Junior Vasquez was a resident at legendary rave spots Tunnel and Sound Factory, while Danny Tenaglia spun the decks at iconic Techno clubs Twilo and Vinyl.
New York Ballroom culture transitioned into popular culture in the early 90s through the an ever growing craze for vogue dancing; voguing had been developed in the Ballroom circuit by black and Latino transgender folks butch queens and drag queens who all lusted to walk a Ballroom floor. It was a form of competitive dancing similar to the Hip Hop dance battles of the 70s in which opponents cut each other up through throwing shapes instead of slashing with knives .
The Ballroom community was made up of different Houses that acted as surrogate homes for LGBTQ folks who had been rejected and abandoned by their families, Willi Ninja (from the House of Ninja) along with José and Louis Xtravaganza (from the House of Xtravaganza) took vogue dancing’s fame to new heights through their work with Malcolm Mclaren and Madonna. Willi Ninja recorded the single ‘Deep In Vogue’ with Mclaren whilst José and Louis Xtravaganza choreographed Madonna’s infinitely famous music video for her single ‘Vogue’. This craze also found its way into rave culture through the dancing styles and shapes thrown by ravers, though this in this form it was more about losing yourself in the rhythm rather than battling it out on the dancefloor.
Ravers grooving the morning after at Fantazia NYE Party 1992/93
This craze for vouguing also found its way into rave culture through the dancing styles and shapes thrown by ravers, though in this form it was more about losing yourself in the rhythm and the euphoria of the rave rather than battling it out on the dancefloor.
Before the rave scene exploded in NYC Club Kid culture had emerged taking inspiration from London’s decadent night life and maverick innovators such as Leigh Bowery.
... to New York
The now infamous New York Club Kids were first established by Michael Alig, James St. James, RuPaul, Julie Jewels, DJ Keoki and Ernie Glam in the late 80s, and throughout the 90s would grow to include Amanda Lepore, Waltpaper and Sophia Lamar.
Alig and his clique frequented many of major clubs that played host to the NYC rave scene including venues such as The Shelter, Tunnel and Limelight. The Shelter (also known as Club Shelter) was home to promoter and DJ collective N.A.S.A. (Nocturnal Audio + Sensory Awakening), the legendary non-alcoholic N.A.S.A. parties created an inclusive space for people of all ages with teenagers and even pre-teens making up the crowd
The New York Club Kids took the extravagance and excess of the London scene to a whole new outrageously debauched level; Michael Alig and Ernie Glam threw ragers such as the ‘Disco 2000’ parties at Limelight whilst transgender Club Kids Amanda Lepore and Sophia Lamar co-hosted exotic parties at The Roxy .
These Club Kids continued in the Ballroom and London tradition of fluid gender expression and experimentation pushing boundaries even further with their clubbing outfits, their Cyberpunk and Cybergoth styles took inspiration from the growing trend in 90s futurism which came from the development of virtual reality technology and the popular concept of online utopias in cyber space.
“The Club Kids reinvented the do-it-yourself spirit of punk rock and incorporated sci-fi and the circus to create a new and exciting scene” Ernie Glam
Early morning after a full non-stop party at Slimelight Nightclub (1997/1997) by Olmo RossiMuseum of Youth Culture
It wasn’t long before the epic reputation of the NYC rave scene and the Club Kid futurism aesthetic began to take hold in popular culture. The 1995 films Kids and Hackers epitomised this transition with a scene from Kids recreating one of the legendary N.A.S.A. parties and the styling for Hackers emulating the Cyberpunk and Cybergoth looks of Club Kid ravers.
The opening credits of Hackers featured the famous Trance track ‘Halcyon’ by DJ duo Orbital who were regulars at the N.A.S.A. along with Moby and (Club Kid) DJ Keoki
This 90s futurism went hand in hand with the emergence of Trance and Psytrance which sought to create utopian sounds taking the euphoria of House and Techno to another level. A dream of utopian spaces and euphoric experiences where is everyone accepted for who they are is yet another version of the inclusive ideals created by the LGBTQ originators of electronic dance music.
The legacy of electronic dance music owes so much to Club Kids and queer pioneers who laid the foundations of rave culture and who carved out their own spaces by celebrating their communities and keeping the dream alive.
“Trance music is a kind of dance music which thousands of young people across Germany and throughout Europe are quite passionate about. It’s a musical movement which is gaining strength, this is the future” Mark Reeder (Head of MFS Records) speaking in 1993
People on the dance floor with green lasers at a rave (1995) by Tristan O'NeillMuseum of Youth Culture