On Friday December 2, a fire broke out at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, California and took the lives of 36 people. Bay Area journalist and Left Hand Path label co-founder Chris Zaldua reflects on the tragedy and asks why the mainstream media continues to misrepresent an underground community with roots going back decades.
These are just a few of the ways that the mainstream American news media has characterized the tragedy at the Oakland warehouse, where a horrific blaze left at least 36 people dead. Much national reporting has veered towards the sensational, the salacious, and the superficial, misunderstanding — or ignoring — the underlying structural causes that led to this tragedy.
One thing is clear: electronic music — and the ways in which communities experience it, perform it, and organize around it — is poorly understood in America. Commonplace conceptions of electronic music in the US, particularly in national news media, tend to focus on “EDM”, a multi-million dollar industry designed and engineered by marketers and publicists, where gimmickry takes the place of artistic integrity and vision. Underground electronic music — which was showcased at December 2’s event, and which has thrived beneath the surface in America since the 1980s — is rooted in the expression and artistry of marginalized communities.
For more than 50 years, the Bay Area has nurtured, supported, and elevated underground art, music, and culture. In the 1960s, the San Francisco Tape Music Center and its disciples (the late Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnick, Don Buchla, many more) played a critical role in broadening the very concept of “music” to include electronic sound. In the late ’70s and ’80s, punk, industrial, and experimental music thrived in San Francisco: Monte Cazazza; Survival Research Laboratories; Throbbing Gristle’s final performance; RE/Search Publications and beyond. In the early ’90s, Wicked brought acid house over from the UK, and with the help of Sunset Sound System they pioneered West Coast dance music culture — by throwing underground parties, naturally.
In recent years, as San Francisco has become increasingly expensive and inhospitable to the creatively-minded, Oakland, which sits across the Bay, has provided the space and resources necessary for this community to flourish, hosting fertile collisions between the realms of punk, noise, and techno. Many of the artists lost in the fire operated at the juncture of this axis.
Although the event at Ghost Ship was billed as a 100% Silk label showcase, it was primarily a showcase of Bay Area talent. Cherushii, aka Chelsea Faith Dolan, was a talent without compare who pulled inspiration from vintage rave and deep house, creating a sound that called back to the past while sounding quintessentially modern and idiosyncratic. Obsidian Blade, aka Joey Casio, was a techno-punk philosopher, a visionary who coaxed wizardry from his machines. Nackt, aka Johnny Igaz, was a life-long music lover who crafted beautiful acid techno and deep house, after a stint producing psychedelic hip-hop and funk. Visual Aids, aka Micah Danemeyer, was an experimental musician, visual artist, and community organizer. They are all no longer with us.
Thankfully, other performers survived: Russell E.L. Butler, a techno genius with a penchant for modular synthesizers; Radar, aka Jon Hrabko, who crafts experimental electronic music; and Piano Rain, aka Aja Archuleta, who crafts elegant atmospheric soundscapes (tragically, her sometime musical collaborator, the enormously talented and very young Cash Askew, of Them Are Us Too, did not). It must also be noted that many of the attendees and performers were queer, trans, and people of color. This event wasn’t a “rave” – it was a gathering of the like-minded who all embraced each others’ individuality, artistically and personally.
“Rave” is a contentious, loaded term. In the argot of electronic music aficionados, “rave” carries myriad, specific meanings. It’s a noun (“where’s the rave?”); a verb (“time to rave”); an adjective (“rave music”, a distinct breakbeat-heavy ‘90s sub-genre); and perhaps most importantly, a state of mind. But when in-group members use the word “rave”, it is with tongue placed firmly in cheek; it is used ironically, or with a particular sense of reclamation. All of us who are a part of this community know what “rave” means to out-group members (i.e., the national news media). It means to use, and, by corollary, to sell illegal drugs.
This assumption is even codified in law. In 2002, Congress, helped by then-Senator, now-Vice President Joe Biden, passed the RAVE Act, using a tacky backronym for the goal of “Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy”. Reducing our “vulnerability”, indeed, to a pharmaceutical now being tested by the US Food & Drug Administration as a first-order treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even disregarding that, the point is this: electronic music, specifically the type celebrated at underground events like the one at Ghost Ship, is categorically not about drug use. It is about building community and communal experiences; it is about creating a space where one is free to be oneself, whatever that may be. Techno and house were created by (and for) marginalized communities. And while the purview of these scenes and sounds has broadened considerably, their original spirit — of resistance, of safety, of freedom of expression — lives on.
I wish to make one final point: these events, like Friday’s, are not just “shows”. They are gatherings, communal experiences, reveries. At a foundational level, they are not intended to exalt those performing, but to create a transcendent shared experience for those in attendance. Joey Casio, aka Obsidian Blade, one of the performers and musicians lost in the fire, encapsulated this dichotomy in a Facebook post:
“Over the last few years many of my peers have started to shift their creative path from rock and noise into the realms of hardware-based “dance” music. Tekno. This delights me to no end; I feel like I’ve been waiting for this shift for most of my adult life. I get asked for technical troubleshooting advice at least once or twice a week… I don’t mind, I love nerding out and helping out. But to be honest, this is the best advice I have to offer:
“Stop trying to be a Performer and try to learn how to be a Facilitator. This is not rock ‘n roll… Let go of its mythology of Western individualism and accept that you are an active participant in something larger than yourself. Let’s do this.”