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While some observers are obviously tempted to suggest that Ecstasy was planted in the black community specifically to make people revert to violence, more likely the reason people are freaking out is that they're taking whatever-the-fuck and thinking it's Ecstasy. But Jordan was definitely right about one thing: The culture of Ecstasy is changing dramatically as the drug transitions from white and Asian rave scenes to black hip-hop clubs.
Smuggling drugs into San Francisco's 1015 Folsom club isn't extremely difficult, but it's still nerve-racking. Like most large venues in the Bay Area, 1015 installs two bouncers at the door; one for patdowns and bag searches, the other to check ID. But no amount of fortressing is enough to discourage Javier, who follows a strict personal rule of never popping pills until after he gets inside the club. "I've had too many experiences of standing in line high out of my mind, and then crashing at 3 a.m.," he explains.
On a Saturday night in early January, Javier goes to 1015 to catch a show featuring the German DJ Talla 2XLC. He brings a large entourage: several cohorts from the trance scene, plus a few hip-hop heads -- including an emcee named Pablo -- lured to 1015 by the promise of really good Ecstasy and anorexic white girls. Musical tastes are still a bone of contention: Driving across the Bay Bridge, Javier and a friend sit in front bumping propulsive, atonal trance music, while a hip-hop head in the back issues threats of launching a "hyphy jihad." None of this fazes Javier, who steps in the club at the witching hour, ready for the night to begin. "I always wait until midnight to take my first hit," he says.
Once everyone passes the security check and enters the dizzying never-never land that is 1015 Folsom -- three floors of strobe lights, junk-your-trunk beats, and gyrating bodies -- all conflicts evaporate. Even some of the hip-hop heads concede that after watching DJ Talla perform, they are ready to lock horns with anyone who denigrates trance music: Look, try this shit on designer drugs, man. Talla's set is an incredible swirl of sensations. Laser projections and video streams turn the walls into a giant matrix of amoeba swirls and splashy comic-book colors. Slinky women in Catholic-school skirts and fishnet tops dance on either side of the stage. People in the audience bob their heads in intense concentration, flashing glow sticks and gazing at the DJ with giant doe-in-the-headlights pupils. And Talla is the centerpiece.
The DJ's job doesn't look that labor-intensive, but nonetheless, he has the entire audience in thrall. "Talla's sets build on each other," explains Javier -- an assessment that makes sense to someone under the influence of Ecstasy. The sounds come in layers, with each new beat crosshatched onto the one before. Every time Talla makes a slight modulation in the tone or rhythm of his music -- in trance lingo, a "break" -- he points an admonishing finger at the audience, as though preparing everyone for something really momentous. And when the break comes, the crowd heaves a collective sigh of deliverance.
Trance is an intensely visceral form of music; its low, throbbing beats and tweaky, repetitive tones are designed to amplify your Ecstasy high. The effect is both sedative and euphoric, causing people to dodder around smiling and hugging each other. Le Sheng Liu of DanceSafe -- an organization that promotes drug awareness in the rave community -- says he first gravitated to the scene because it exuded so much tenderness and sensitivity. "I grew up listening to hip-hop -- and when I say hip-hop, I mean Top 40 radio music," he says. "The rave scene seemed radically different. It wasn't about looking sexy, trying to show off your money, or being better than the next person."
Michelle, who started taking Ecstasy at raves and eventually migrated to the hip-hop scene, remembers how her old raver buddies would dress up to express their personal credos: The most flamboyant accessories were angel wings, pacifiers, and charm bracelets that read "I love you" or "I love E." The night she popped her first pill, Michelle found a California ID on the dance floor and spent hours looking for its owner. "I finally found her in a crowd of three hundred," she chuckles. "That was a little too generous of me. I could have just given it to the front desk."
Those kinds of parties still exist, but they're much harder to find these days. Javier expected to see a lot of people at a Terra Gallery trance event featuring DJs from Germany, Holland, and Britain, and was disappointed when virtually no one showed up. The scene at a recent weekend-long Love Parade benefit at San Francisco's SomArts Gallery reflected the current demographics of the rave community. Friday night's kickoff party reeled in a crowd of teens and young adults who looked like ravers of ten years ago: They wore button-up Adidas pants, had shocking pink hair, and spent a lot of time hanging out in the parking lot, huffing from aerosol cans. But the following night's show -- which featured the darker, artier trance music subgenre "psi-trance" -- attracted a much older crowd of Burning Man types and SOMA loft yuppies sporting new tweed coats or text messaging into their T-Mobile Sidekicks.
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