It's 9:30 on Saturday night, and Jason Sperling is shaking off a late-evening doze and rushing to get ready for work. Running late, a bit disheveled, and still spacey from his disco nap, he says to his roommate words one might imagine Paris Hilton speaking at the exact same moment, wherever she might be: "Hey, I have to be at two parties tonight, and I can't find something. Can I borrow your" -- here's where his and the heiress' lines would divert -- "headphone adapter?"
The item secured, professional party personality Sperling (known to his fans as Dyloot) picks up his flight case of records and leaves his Oakland home. Tonight he's scheduled to spin trance at two raves: Treasure Island in Sacramento (where he'll be headlining) and Puff Puff Pass, a party in Oakland celebrating 4/20, the marijuana smoker's Independence Day. He has to be in Sacramento at 11, so he loads his crate into his luxury 4Runner and barrels briskly toward the 580 onramp. "I hope this party in Sac turns out," he says. "The promoter didn't put many fliers out, so I wonder if anyone will show up."
Frankly, one might wonder if anyone shows up to raves at all anymore. Raves (and dance music in general) haven't been the Next Big Thing for five years or so. Even veteran Bay Area clubbers who first experienced techno at warehouse parties in the early '90s and then followed the music as it migrated to 21-and-over venues consider the all-ages rave hopelessly passé. Most of-age dance music fans seem unaware (or unconcerned) that these parties still exist. Last year, URB magazine -- a publication that for years crammed its pages with photos of nubile, drugged-looking seventeen-year-olds sucking on pacifiers -- ran a lengthy article titled "Rave Is Dead."
But copies of that issue were sold at Skills, the trance-oriented record shop Sperling and his partner Tom Slyk own on Telegraph. And within reach of the magazine rack is a table piled high with fluorescent fliers advertising raves all over the Bay Area. Sperling reports that he spins at raves every weekend, and the annual Halloween event his Skills production company puts on at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium drew seven thousand attendees last year. It seems odd that Sperling could earn his living entirely by DJing, selling records, and promoting parties in a scene that allegedly exists only in the archaeological record.
So what gives? How can a scene both flourish and flounder at the same time? Maybe raves are like venereal disease: You only think about them when you have the bug. Once a raver clears it up -- that is, she turns 21 and can get into clubs -- she tries to forget her embarrassing past as soon as possible.
Sperling agreed to let the Express ride along on one of his working nights to show what it's like to service this increasingly invisible subculture. As he juggles driving and giving directions on his cell phone to Slyk and other DJ friends who will also be playing at tonight's parties, he offers his own assessment. "It's definitely not like it used to be," he sighs. "It's downsized, and the venues we have to choose from are very limited. We're fighting to keep it going."
Sperling went to his first party in 1994 in Los Angeles, when raves in California were starting to spill out of unsanctioned warehouses and onto the nightly news. He moved north a year later to attend San Francisco State, where he learned to DJ and had a hand in jump-starting the city's burgeoning trance scene. For the last three years or so, Dyloot's name has been at the top of nearly every local rave flier, filling the vacuum left when house stalwarts such as Jëno and Garth graduated to the club scene. He says that now, at 27, he wouldn't be going to raves if he wasn't DJing at them: "I'm getting older -- everyone's staying the same age." At this point, some of the kids are almost half his age: mostly 15 to 23, with a handful even younger.
Sperling attributes the shrinking of the all-ages party circuit partly to its high turnover rate. "As people grow out of raves -- and you can see this with magazines like URB, too -- they don't respect them anymore," he says. "What I don't like is that once they move on, they get jaded and suddenly they're too cool for school. When they did it they thought it was great, but once they get over it they look down on it."
He pauses and then adds, "Maybe my outlook would be different if I wasn't doing this for a living."
Even though raves are no longer aimed at his demographic, Sperling feels obliged to re-create the experience for the next generation. "Some countries have gone all to clubs, which is a shame because that means people can't listen to this music who aren't 21," he says. "It'd be a huge loss if that happened here, because it's such a beautiful thing to go to a rave ..." -- here he stops again -- "I try to stay away from that word because it has such a bad name right now. So we'll say 'dance concert' or 'electronic music event' instead. But these dance concerts have such a fresh energy and openness you don't get in clubs, and kids should be able to experience that."
As he exits the freeway and drives past Sacramento's State Fairgrounds, he spots a few palm trees wrapped in lights and announces, "That must be it." He pulls into the parking lot of a miniature golf course, and a guy slipping fliers under the windshield wipers of the forty or so cars parked there turns and greets him. After a minute spent catching up, Sperling tells him, "I'm on in two minutes. Let's talk after I'm done."
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