Ravin' and Puttin' 

A DJ's-eye-view of Nor-Cal's all-ages dance music scene -- anyone for miniature golf?

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."

He parks, and one of the party organizers meets him at the entrance, overseen by two police officers and a few security guards. Sperling follows his guide past the security guards after they search his pockets and record crate. A Latino kid standing in front of the golf course arcade smiles and calls out, "Dy-loot!" Two teenage girls turn and see him, clap their hands excitedly, and then dart past the video games and out to the dance area where he'll be spinning.

Sperling gets to the turntables -- set up on a patio among the golf course's various castles and bridges -- at almost exactly 11. He stretches his headphones over his mane of multicolored dreadlocks and drops the needle on his first record, a melodic trance tune: his signature sound. Deviating from the genre's boilerplate 4/4 kick-drum throb, the percussion pounds out a wobbly electro breakbeat. The three dozen or so kids on the outdoor dance floor respond by adding a few extra steps to the tried-and-true two-step raver hop.

Of the eighty or so attendees, no one looks over nineteen, and a tiny blond girl watching Sperling intently from just in front of the turntables easily could be fourteen. Furthermore, the crowd doesn't look so stereotypically "rave." Only two girls are wearing the obligatory bunny ears, and only one sports the even-more-standard butterfly wings. There is also a surprising dearth of glow sticks -- one boy is swirling a pair in front of his friend's eyes, but that's it.

As Sperling glides through a series of darkish, no-frills trance songs and more dancers wander over from the arcade, it's clear as well that this isn't an Ecstasy-charged crowd, either. The telltale black-hole pupils are absent, and the dancing is much slower than amphetamine pace. A light-skinned black kid named Robbie grumbles that he wouldn't have driven from Mountain View if he had known security would've been this tight. "But really, drugs aren't such a big thing at parties anymore," he says. When asked if he's a Dyloot fan, he replies, "Oh yeah," and then adds casually, "And I've talked to him a few times."

While Sperling continues to cue up records and chain-smoke cigarettes, admirers and scenester acquaintances approach to shake hands and exchange smiles with him. The crowd feels like the sort that keeps in contact through an Internet discussion group: Everyone knows everyone else, and they all seem aware that he is playing later that night in Oakland. It's a small crowd -- by the time his final record is spinning out at midnight, there are maybe a hundred kids there -- but the vibe, as Sperling states afterward, is good, and the focus seems to be more on community than passive consumerism.

After Sperling's one-hour set (for which he played ten records), Treasure Island's promoter gives him a hug, chats with him for a few minutes, and then pays him $350 in cash. Sperling counts the money out of sight of the dancefloor and then turns to his line of well-wishers: two high-school-age girls bubbling with compliments on his playing and his dreadlocks. He gives them his e-mail address, in case they want information about upcoming parties.

Back in the 4Runner, Sperling explains that the promoter intentionally kept the event small to reassure the venue owner there wouldn't be any problems at a larger party he's planning to throw there in the future. "But even with more kids there, he'll probably just break even," he says. "I know all the promoters in the Bay Area, and no one's making any money right now."

Sperling says that his production company is one of maybe six party promoters in the country that still puts on events of ten thousand attendees or more (Electro-Techno-Disco-POPSICLE, its Halloween party, has reached that number in previous years). But he is starting to burn out. "I wouldn't do the events if I didn't feel I needed to -- not financially, but to keep the scene going," he says. "I don't like doing them. I like what happens from doing them, but the headache is unbelievable, to have all that money on your shoulders. The cost of putting on one of our parties is around a quarter of a million dollars. What if there's an earthquake the day before the event? I'd be bankrupt."

DJing, though, is still as thrilling for him as it ever was, and he says he feels the same magic waiting for new records to arrive that he did collecting baseball cards as a kid. "I guess you get to a certain age when you can't do it anymore," he muses. "But I'm young and I feel like I still have a lot of energy. Obviously I need to pay my bills, and if things worked out where I couldn't anymore, I'd get a job, but I'd keep DJing. I wouldn't miss the promoting, though."

As he pulls into his driveway to pick up his girlfriend for the second party, he gets a call from Slyk: the rave, a nonpermitted warehouse party, has been broken up by the Oakland police. Sperling is disappointed, as his partner had described a hopping party with four hundred kids. He still gets his $350, though: Because his record store sells tickets to these events, he always has some of the promoter's money and, as a result, never gets burned.

"I wanted to play again tonight, but it's cool," Sperling says with some relief. "As I get older, I can't go to bed when the sun comes up like I used to."

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