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The Dwindling Tribe of Dance

Fans fight for electronic dance music's survival.


It's Saturday night. DJ Filipo, a native Sicilian, is responsible for setting the mood for horny twentysomethings, but the first floor of Traffic is barren, save for a couple sitting against the wall. In New York, their seats would require the purchase of a $300 bottle of Stoli. In Cleveland, they're free.

Emanating from the speakers of this West Sixth Street club is the foundation of most house and techno, the 4/4 beat. The bass echoes through the hollow club like a car horn in a tunnel.

The couple sits with a blank stare. It's 10:45. They're married, their kid is with grandma, and they've come to bump, grind, and shake their asses. Helps keep the marriage spicy. But they're just not doing it right now. They're waiting for the bouncers to remove the velvet rope leading to the second floor, where hip-hop will fill the room with revelers in the next hour.

"I'm into the upstairs," says Kevin Jackson.

He doesn't mind the music Filipo is rocking, a thumping blend of house and trance. He started listening to electronic dance music (EDM) a decade ago, when he moved out to L.A. He's just not into it enough at this moment to move from his perch.

His wife, Ashlee -- a hair stylist -- doesn't like it at all. "Techno sucks," she says.

Minutes later, a rush of striped-shirt-wearing men walk in, girls in extra-tight jeans in tow. They've arrived on the party bus that shuttles kids from Akron who want to revel in the big city.

One of the striped shirts begins to mock the beat, dancing Night at the Roxbury-style. Half the pack files out within 10 minutes. They don't want this to be the soundtrack for their night of debauchery.

"Some people love it; some people don't," Filipo says of his music. "I'm different. I don't play hip-hop."

Kevin is not surprised by the exodus. "Cleveland is definitely a grind and hip-hop kind of town," he says. "It's total ghetto." We'd rather walk it out and finger-snap to crunk while Lil Jon screams "OK." That's what fills the clubs these days. EDM, by contrast, is like hi-top fades on black men -- unfashionable to the party crowd. But its fans don't plan to let it fade out, like Kid 'N Play, without a fight.

There once was a time in the mid-'90s that EDM was on an upswing in Cleveland. DJs from Detroit, where techno was born, were spinning at venues like the Agora and the now-dead U41A club, on Berea Road.

The pulsating beats and harsh sounds were new, exciting, and completely undecipherable to adults, which made them perfect for teens. High-schoolers like Brian Conti were getting their first taste.

Conti spent a lot of time hanging at the Agora. At first it was mostly for the rock shows. Then he got into industrial, with its mixture of rock and electronic styles, and listened to bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy.

As a teen, there weren't many options for places to party, so whatever played the Agora was worth checking out. Better than hanging at the mall, eating Cinnabon and pumping quarters into Mortal Kombat.

So when techno DJs started spinning, Conti was open to listening -- though the music had almost no vocals beyond hooks like "James Brown is dead," repeated over a monotonous beat.

Then came the raves. The all-night dance parties catering to the under-21 crowd grew the ranks of EDM fans. Most couldn't name a single song blaring through the speakers, but that didn't matter. Dancing while twiddling with glow sticks was just plain fun.

In the same way drunken frat boys still sing "Don't Stop Believing" along with the jukebox, EDM became associated with happy times. The rapid beats and adrenaline helped. So did the drugs.

"It's spiritual," says Maven Mosad, a 33-year-old Clevelander who's been listening to the music since the '80s. "I think it's the [beats per minute]. It does something to the frequency of the mind. It opens your mind to a greater awareness."

And it became the flag that bound teens together.

"Dance-music people are more friendly," says Domenic Buccilla, a 31-year-old electronica fan and bartender from Columbus. "They're out to have a good time."

Conti learned how to deejay and began promoting raves in Cleveland. But as the scene grew, so did its reputation for drug-fueled weirdness. Ecstasy-related deaths started popping up on the 11 o'clock news. Cops began cracking down.

"It made it very expensive to do an event," Conti says, "because you had to have a certain amount of security. You had to follow all these rules, and it became very costly."

By 2001, raves fizzled out in Cleveland and elsewhere, leaving only a handful of cities like Pittsburgh to soldier on. EDM was in trouble. FM stations were switching up formats, and the few stations that played it were pulling it from their rotations.

Meanwhile, hip-hop was continuing its ascent, and rappers like 50 Cent were becoming accessible to the suburban-white-girl demographic, thanks to producers like Timbaland -- who ironically took his inspiration from drum & bass.

The music industry was putting EDM on the curb. For the cult of kids who grew up on it, the quest to find it became an obsession.

The boom from the speakers begins around 7 p.m. Only a handful of people are on the outdoor patio at Cyrus Waterfront in the Flats, but they're happy. They're about to hear the music they love, among the people they call their own.

The main attraction is John Digweed, a Brit recognized as one of the world's top progressive house and trance DJs. Advanced tickets go for $25. Around 400 were sold, says promoter Mike Mellon, with sales coming from as far away as Toronto and Chicago.

The show is a tossed salad of various tribes. There are gay men and girls wearing Prada sunglasses who are accompanied by hetero men in $80 T-shirts, their hair frozen by gel. They are black, white, Asian, and Hispanic, and they share an unspoken bond -- one that usually develops through some shared experience, like the death of your favorite music.

Since Eminem declared, "Nobody listens to techno," they've watched their ranks dwindle as their music was pushed farther from the mainstream. Outside of this place, many hide their passion, afraid to be mocked. Dance music? Nobody listens to techno.

When they're not here, they gather in small numbers on techno nights elsewhere or to hear electro sets in dingy clubs, the scenes divided into a slew of subgenres like dubstep, microhouse, and minimal techno.

But here they find strength in numbers. This is their version of a tent revival, where the cult of dance lives on.

Dan Peterson's pilgrimage began just a few hours before. He bought tickets and planned to drive up from Columbus with a friend. The friend bailed, but Peterson wouldn't miss a Digweed show. So he jumped in his car, blasted his XM Radio -- set to channel 81, the dance station -- and headed up I-71. Though he gets more than 100 stations for his $12.95 a month, the channel on his radio almost never changes.

"I grew up in suburban America, where most of the people listened to hip-hop," Peterson says, kicking back a Corona. A friend of his deejayed at raves and turned him on to dance. But just as he got into the music, the rave scene was dying, cutting off fans from the music they'd grown to love.

Moving on meant making road trips to hear his favorite DJs spin live. It's how he gets his fix.

"Everybody I've met who's into it are cool people," Peterson says. "It's cool and laid back, and there's acceptance. There's a wide array of people and no problems."

He'd like to stay in Ohio, but if DJs like Digweed stop coming, he's going to have to move. "My goal within the year is to move to Chicago or out of the country," he says. "There, they have acceptance of dance music."

Outside, the sun has dipped, and more people have arrived. Detroit DJ Anthony Attalla is warming up the crowd. The glow sticks have been busted out. Heads are bobbing. The gathering in front of the stage grows.

After hours of waiting, Digweed finally situates himself behind the decks. People rush the stage. Fists pump as the first tracks play. Nearly 400 people have filled the patio.

"The people are what make dance music unique," Peterson says. And to them, it's not the size of the tribe that matters. It's the passion.

When Tino Roncone took over Cloud 9 on West Ninth, he had a vision for his new club. He'd been doing marketing for bars from California to Orlando and watched the nightlife scene evolve. The spots with the A-list clientele weren't the hip-hop clubs. They were at places playing house and serving martinis. He wanted to bring that vibe to Cleveland.

So he brought in DJs who played lots of "house and techno stuff," Roncone says. The music did bring in A-listers -- the nicely dressed men and women who were "10s." But he was drawing Monday-size crowds on Saturday nights.

"Cleveland has a lot of people who want it to be like Chicago and New York," Roncone says. "But there's not enough of them. We weren't making a lot of money at the register with the house and techno."

The club changed its name to Anatomy within a month. A few months after that, Roncone brought in new DJs to spin Top 40 and hip-hop. EDM was limited to once a month. "The only way to please everybody is to have the mainstream stuff," Roncone says.

Other clubs have learned this lesson as well. "You can't just have a club in Cleveland anymore with straight electronic music," says Attalla, who spins regularly in other cities as well as at Synergy on West Sixth. "Cleveland is just a really conservative, blue-collar football town. The city doesn't expose its residents to more worldly shit. My friends and I joke that Cleveland always gets the hottest things two years after everyone else gets it. The type of Clevelanders who'd be open to electronica aren't sticking around the city. It seems like your really adventurous types are moving out of Cleveland. They don't want to stay in a conservative place. Electronic music is very emotional. It's deeper. It's different than anything else. It's not easily accessible. You have to go get it. You have to go find it. You can't turn it on your radio."

That, and the people who were exposed through raves are getting older. They now work real jobs and are getting married, while the club scene skews younger. People in their 30s don't regularly fill a house.

Scott Gallik, 36, watched the Digweed show for free by standing just outside the patio fence at Cyrus. He goes out to see the big names like Paul Oakenfold, but that's about the only time he's willing to go out. Instead of drinking Red Bull and vodka till 2 a.m., he gets his fix listening to satellite radio during his morning commute to work.

The problems haven't all been external. Within the scene, there's been division. These days, Conti still deejays, but rarely spins dance tracks. At Touch in Ohio City, he plays rock on Thursday nights, but rarely listens to EDM anymore.

"The music is very commercial-sounding," he says. He's referring to artists like Paul Van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold, and Tiësto, who have reached superstar status by specializing in trance. It's more melodic and incorporates more vocals than techno or drum & bass. In other words, it's more accessible for people who didn't come up through the raves. But it pisses off those who did.

Where raves once united dance-music fans with its populist vibe and festival-like atmosphere, their demise meant the only place to find the music was at clubs where mixed drinks ran $10. And bars built on exclusivity ran counter to the rave spirit.

"Having Paul Oakenfold at Metropolis is not a rave," Conti says. "That's how dance music changed. It became a one-act show instead of a festival. It got too trendy and mainstream, and too big."

And the new fans were dominating the scene, Conti says. "The West Sixth Street cocaine crowd moved into it and ruined it."

Doug Burkhart, a DJ who owns Grand Poo-bas Record Shoppe in Lakewood, saw the same thing.

"I liked trance in the late '90s," he says. "Then all the cheese balls got into it. The attitude turned you off to that music all the way around. I hated it because of all the people associated with it . . . It changed [the scene] dramatically. The lack of diversity drove people out of it . . . Creative people aren't paying $7 for a beer.

"I think that the blame is more on promoters than on DJs," Burkhart says. To him, dance music has always been about diversity, and promoting one style -- trance -- was limiting the genre.

"Instead of reaching people with different tastes in dance music -- like house, breaks, drum & bass, or techno -- promoters only stuck with what they knew, which ended up being trance. They segregated the scene because they didn't look beyond their own tastes, and this isn't limited to just Cleveland," he says.

Attalla, however, believes the departed are the true scene-killers.

"I hate the elitist assholes," he says. "You're not doing shit for the scene. The scene is bigger than you. Why don't you try to support it and make it grow? Mike Mellon does these amazing electronic events. He puts 10, 20 grand of his own money to do these amazing electronic sets. He's trying to do something. Don't bitch because he's bringing in a trance DJ. Get over yourself. I'm all about Gandhi, dude. I'm all about peace and supporting one another. If a Tiësto show had a bigger audience, don't you think Mike would do a techno show? The rave scene is dead. There's not raves anywhere anymore . . . Here's a news flash: All the rave kids are grown up and don't want to prance around wearing neon. They're probably regular members of society now. They don't want to be the 28-year-old dude at the rave, who looks like a child molester hanging out with 18-year-olds."

It's Saturday night at Anatomy. Roncone's edict to switch to hip-hop came about a month earlier. But this is one of those rare electronica nights.

The club is about a quarter full at around 11 p.m. and will stay that way for most of the night. On the dance floor are a few couples whose wrinkles indicate they probably weren't carded on the way in.

They listen and gyrate to the synthesizer-heavy music, which, to the average person, would sound like pots falling down a staircase. They don't care. It's what they came to hear, even if the club is largely empty.

As Roncone walks through the room, an attractive young woman with a wedding ring walks up to him. She has a request. She's been listening to the DJ spin dance all night.

"I think this DJ needs to change it up," she says. Roncone smiles and agrees.

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