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Peace, love, unity and the Science Centre: a brief history of the Toronto rave scene

Editorial Staff

Written by Chris Dart

For most of the 20th century, Toronto had the fairly justifiable reputation as a city that wasn’t very good at nightlife. An early last call meant that any evening revelry had to be wrapped up by 1 a.m., which was just around the time the party got started in places like New York and Montreal.

In the 1990s, though, that started to change. But it wasn’t because of a change in the laws — it was because of raves. By the mid-’90s, Toronto had one of the biggest rave scenes on the continent. On any given Saturday night, promotion companies like Dose, Destiny, Syrous, Better Days, Pleasure Force and Atlantis were giving party animals three or four parties to choose from, ranging from underground events in warehouses and parking garages to more mainstream events in venues like the Canadian National Exhibition’s Better Living Centre and the Ontario Science Centre. There were parties that focused on specific genres, like happy hardcore or drum and bass, and bigger events that had multiple rooms, each playing a different genre.

But before any of that could happen, a young Scottish immigrant named Mark Oliver had to go clubbing on a visit back to his homeland in the late '80s.

Early days (1987-90)

"When I was 18, I was back in Scotland for a while and you know what it’s like when you’re 18, you start hitting the bars and the clubs and stuff," Oliver says, over the phone. "[There were] some nights that were starting to play some Chicago house. It wasn’t quite a full-on rave yet, but some of the music was starting to filter through."

When he returned to Toronto, Oliver started bartending at a bar called the Tazmanian Ballroom on Jarvis Street, and studying music at York University. On his nights off, he would go to the Twilight Zone, Toronto’s main house music outlet.

"They would bring DJs up from New York and Chicago, and it was a pretty niche market then," he says. "It kind of stemmed from the Chicago [scene] — Frankie Knuckles and the Warehouse ... it leaned more towards a black gay scene, I guess, but everyone was welcome."

Eventually, after constantly passing records to the DJ at the Tazmanian Ballroom, Oliver was given the position himself.

"The original DJ was basically managing the club then and he didn’t want to DJ anymore," says Oliver. "He asked if I could step in. I kind of just fell into the whole DJing thing. I didn’t know how to mix."

In the summer of 1988, buoyed by the tale of the Second Summer of Love happening in his homeland, Oliver threw what was possibly Toronto’s first rave at the Tazmanian Ballroom.

"Back then, we never called it 'rave' but it was an acid house party, which later became known as a rave," he says.

It wasn’t a huge success.

"No one was really into it," he admits. "The second one I threw, there were 10 cops that showed up and I think there was 20 people total…. They obviously got a fax from Interpol warning them of the evils of ecstasy and ravers and stuff, so they came looking but there was really nothing there to find so. At that point I thought, 'Well, it’s maybe not gonna happen here.' You know, it exploded in the U.K., and there was 50,000 kids raving in a field and it had taken over Britain….

"That’s what I was trying to get going here but it just wasn’t happening."

Success at last (1991-94)

Undeterred, Oliver kept throwing parties, slowly building an audience and waiting for things to click. In 1991, he and two other Scottish-born DJs, John Angus and Anthony Donnelly, formed a promotion company called Exodus. Exodus took over programming at 23 Hop, an all-ages, all-night venue located in a former warehouse near the corner of Richmond and Spadina. At the time, it specialized mostly in hip-hop and dancehall reggae, and was plagued by poor turnout. The owners were looking to try something different.

"I went in and started playing techno and acid house, and ... there were these kids that came in from Brampton, there were maybe 10 of them the first night, and they were going crazy," Oliver says. "They had been to the U.K. on their summer holidays and had been raving and were looking to get it going here, and there was nothing going on here.... We actually rented that space out 'cause the club was closing down, so we asked the owner if we could rent it."

Shortly after Oliver and the Exodus crew started turning unlicensed 23 Hop into the coolest club in the city, one of the club’s regular attendees was about to bring a new level of showmanship to the scene.

Don Berns, in some ways, was an unlikely early rave acolyte. For one thing, he was already in his early 40s, making him roughly twice as old as the average partygoer. For another, as a DJ and eventual program director for radio station CFNY, he was already part of the music industry, something most early rave proponents had little time for. On the other hand, he was always on the lookout for new music, and was already a fan of other electronic sounds, like synth-pop and industrial.

Editor's note: (Berns died on March 1, 2015, just a few days after being interviewed for this article.)

"I liked the music," Berns says. "The people were amazing.... The whole thing really appealed to me."

In 1992, Berns took a business trip to L.A. and asked some record label contacts if there were any raves happening in the city that night. Getting to the party turned out to be an adventure in itself.

"All I had was an address," he says. "It was, it turned out to be a costume shop in West Hollywood and I couldn't hear any music and I thought there couldn't be a rave here but there's this big, burly security guard standing out front. I went inside and they found my name on the guest list, and they gave me a wristband and a slip of paper with a phone number on it... I called the number and there was a message giving me the address of what turned out to be a parking lot in downtown Los Angeles. I go down there and I show the wristband to this guy in a limousine. And he hands me further directions to drive another couple miles to the actual venue."

What he saw there blew his mind.

"By the time I got there, I thought to myself, 'Jesus this better be good after, as we Jews say, all this mishegoss trying to find this party," Berns says.

"I walked into this party and it was like so many other people who went to raves back then, it changed my life. Immediately I was hit with smiling people ... the whole atmosphere was just so up and positive and happy. Nobody looked twice at me because I was twice as old as anybody else in the room. I walk in and there's this room with just everybody just got off at once on the dance floor. The lighting was primarily lasers. On the first floor, you could get water, or information from ACT UP. On the second floor you could get water and nitrous oxide in balloons and you could go sit in these mind-machine chairs. They put these glasses on your face that strobed lights in your eyes with your eyes closed and it created all kinds of great images."

After returning from L.A., Berns was asked to DJ his first rave by a company called Nitrous, who wanted to get Toronto-area radio DJs — including Berns, Chris Sheppard and Denise Benson — to play raves. Berns's first event with Nitrous would be his debut as both a rave DJ — working under the name Dr. Trance — and a promoter: Nitrous's parties would incorporate all the lights and sound and chairs Berns had experienced in L.A. Later, he would help found two more promotions, Atlantis and Effective.

For Jason Bunsie, who would later become a drum and bass DJ under the name Capital J, the rave scene wasn’t just a place to party when he was a teenager; it gave him a sense of community.

"I was orphaned at a very young age, and I was diagnosed with ADHD and other learning disabilities," Bunsie says. "I was considered a write-off, and when I went into this underground scene, it was like an underground society in the '90s. You just had that link with them, you had that bond with other people and when you got into knowing these people you find that they're going through the same struggles that you're going through, too. This music was to help you get through the days."

Raving goes mainstream (1995-98)

By the midpoint of the decade, raving was starting to cross over into the mainstream. Where once out-of-town acts wouldn’t bother coming to town, playing shows in Toronto became a major springboard for DJs from overseas.

"You had [Destiny promoter] Ryan Kruger going over to England and finding DJs that nobody ever heard of over here and making them stars, like John the Dentist and John '00' Fleming," says Berns. "Then they would go back to their homes and say wow, there's a really cool scene happening in Toronto. So it was a springboard effect … [promoters and DJs] Sniper and Mystical Influence spent a lot of time working with jungle DJs from the U.K. ... the guys from Dose were cultivating DJs from all over, especially from the western U.S., people like Hipp-E and DJ Dan… We brought in Bad Boy Bill for the first time and he became a huge star here … so all of a sudden, Toronto became a haven for a lot of these DJs, who weren't known before, and made stars here by the fact that they would come in and they would headline these shows and people would love them."

For certain genres, like jungle and its sleeker cousin drum and bass, Toronto was one of the biggest destinations in the world. The city was referred to as both genres' "second home" — after London, England, the city where it was invented — and "the largest jungle scene in North America." Stephen Aaron Grey, who spent the '90s DJing under the name Freaky Flow, says that DJs would often play to stadium rock-sized crowds.

"Of all the countries and cities I was playing in back then, Toronto consistently had the largest [drum and bass] following, for sure," he says. "It wasn't uncommon to see several shows a year drawing 10,000 or more, with maybe 3,000 or 4,000 people strictly hanging out in the drum and bass area."

The venues were also changing. While Berns's Atlantis and Nitrous promotions were among the first to take raves out of disused warehouses, by 1997 parties were frequently taking place at venues like the Opera House and the Masonic Temple. The idea of venues that previously wouldn't have considered hosting a rave, now welcoming the parties, intrigued Dean Perrin.

A British expat, Perrin started raving in his mid-teens during the Second Summer of Love. At 18, he immigrated to Canada, moving in with an aunt. Seeing that the rave scene was still in its infancy in the country, he used his student loan money to buy a set of turntables and taught himself how to mix, using the name DJ Citrus. He started out playing Exodus parties before starting his own promotion company, also called Citrus.

Perrin wanted to bring raving back to the Ontario Science Centre. Berns’s Atlantis party had thrown one at the centre four years earlier — they also threw a party at the CN Tower — but that was a virtual lifetime in a scene where new partygoers came in every week.

While Berns's 1993 event had been a hit with partygoers, it wasn’t so great for the promoters themselves after Science Centre management put additional security demands on the promoters at the last minute.

"It ended up costing us money," says Berns. "The security director at Science Centre got paranoid and thought all these stoned kids were going to come in and ruin her building … of course she was entirely wrong. The only thing that was broken during the entire night was the glass on a billboard sign in the hallway leading in ... I think somebody fell against that or something."

For the 1997 party, Perrin was hoping officials at the Science Centre wouldn’t be quite so apprehensive.

"The Science Centre was looking for a new revenue stream," says Perrin. "A lot of people had lost interest in the Science Centre ... it’s regained a lot of popularity over the last decade, but at that point in time, I don’t think it was really on the radar of a lot of people."

Raving may have been popular, but it still wasn’t big enough that banks were going to support it, so Perrin had to find his financing elsewhere.

"I ended up getting approached by a bunch of gentlemen that owned a sound company out in Pickering," he says. "They’d provided PA systems and such for me … so I turned to these guys for investors, and they were certainly the type of people that if you didn’t pay them back, you’re going to be limping a bit. I joke around like I borrowed money from the mafia, but it wasn’t too far off. These were people that didn’t mess around, especially when they’re investing hundreds of thousands of dollars with some kid with bright orange hair ... I was out of my league for sure.”

Luckily, Perrin avoided being kneecapped. The event was so successful, he did two more Science Centre raves in 1998 and '99. The success of the parties ended up getting him interviewed on Entertainment Tonight.

"The first part of that show was about the movie Titanic," says Perrin. "Then the next thing was a whole expo on the Toronto rave scene, followed by a Tom Cruise movie. I was in the middle of that, which was incredible."

The decline (1999-2000)

As the '90s drew to a close, the rave scene was at its commercial apex, but it was also starting to fall victim to its own success. While the death of Ryerson student Allen Ho — which took place at a party held in an underground parking garage — is sometimes cited as the thing that ended the party, the people involved say it was actually a much more complex series of problems. Those problems included not only increased attention from law enforcement but also an escalating cost of doing business, an increasingly fractured scene and clientele that was getting both younger and higher.

According to Perrin, he could see the scene starting to lose its magic when Toronto partiers stopped being as concerned with local talent.

"I think the turning point for me, where the scene had become too big, was that people were coming out to see all these big-name DJs but not really appreciating all the local DJs, who were just as talented, if not more talented," he says. "I think there was a lot of hype associated with it. I started losing my love of the rave scene, when the local guys were sort of put on the back burner. It was sort of the precursor to EDM music coming out."

For Bunsie, he says that, as more and more promotions sprung up, the scene became more and more fractured, which made it feel less like a big love-in and more like a series of insular cliques.

"I mean it was great to have all the hardcore heads there, but you were missing the new kid factor," he says. "People that are [raving] for their first time, or people that don't go to drum and bass parties, but wandered over from the other room while you were playing and were just completely blown away … you kind of lost that vibe for a while, because all you had was all these other people that just hovered over you and tried to look at all the records you were playing … it was a lot of arms folded and things like that. It just felt kind of intimidating playing for these guys. Everybody considered themselves an expert."

Oliver says that unsafe venues and an ever-younger crowd started to drive away many of the scene's original partiers into more traditional clubs.

"It was disturbing seeing a 12- or a 13-year-old out, whether they were doing drugs or not, after midnight on a Saturday. It was like, 'Whoa, what’s this kid doing without a chaperone?' You know? … And some of the spaces were not safe. [I] remember being at one in Liberty Village. There were two rooms ... but there was only a small doorway so they started kicking the wall in just to get into the next room."

For Berns, it was a mixture of all of the above factors, as well as an acknowledgement that, as the scene got more commercial, some people used the parties as an "an excuse to do drugs." He also adds one more threat: grandstanding public officials, who would often talk about clubs and illegal booze cans as "raves," tarring them all with the same brush.

"Right after he was named police chief in Toronto, Julian Fantino went on TV with this huge array of guns and knives and what have you that he said were found at raves and club," he says. "And not a single one of those weapons was found or confiscated at a rave … except for the drug angle, there were never any problems at raves. No fights, no knives, no violence. That was just completely antithetical to the rave scene."

Still, with the scene firmly in the sights of the police chief, as well as city councillors, the end was near. While an outright ban on raves was ultimately unsuccessful, new and stricter regulations made the parties even more expensive to throw, and venue owners could be held responsible for any drug use on their property — a risk few wanted to take. Eventually, parties were pushed into traditional 19-plus nightclubs, changing the face of the scene.

"The whole idea behind raves is to get out of clubs, get into other spaces that could be used," says Berns.

Still, as much as the scene’s decline may have been harsh and swift, for the people involved, they still look back on it as a magical time.

"At these parties and even if you came alone you left with like 200 or 300 friends," says Bunsie. "You didn't know whether you were gonna see these people again. You’d exchange phone numbers, but there wasn't, Facebook and Twitter and all this stuff back then. Then when you went to the next party you met a whole another group of people and had the time of your lives again."

Regular ravers speak

We spoke to the movers and shakers of Toronto’s rave scene for this story, but what do the regular partygoers remember? How did raving shape who they are today? We asked a few — all of whom are now totally respectable adults in their 30s — how their dayglo youth made them the people they are today.

Tobias Wang, photographer

"At my first rave, I brought my uncle’s film SLR with a couple of lenses, which sat in the pockets of my baggy jeans, and a couple rolls of film so I could take some photos…. If it wasn’t for raving, my life would be entirely different from the one I live today. Raving directly began my passion and career in photography. Because of it I travelled the world, collaborated with some of the world’s biggest musical acts. It has influenced almost every aspect of my adult life. Most importantly, the music allowed me to keep an open mind to all walks to life."

Lyndsay Kirkham, professor of English, Humber College

"Raving as a teenager gave me a golden ticket into an awareness that suburban life hadn't afforded me. I suddenly knew that the parts of me dubbed 'weird' and 'odd' in mainstream interactions were actually a part of a magical spectrum. Through raving, I was able to embrace my personality in ways that even my parents weren't able to show me. As an adult, it's been in owning my 'weirdness' and 'off-beat' nature that has given me the confidence to tackle projects and relationships I would have otherwise eschewed."

Sunny Fong, furniture designer

"Without raving, I would not have been so internet-savvy and connected through Tribe, Toronto Jungle and some of the other rave boards. I would not have met some of my best friends and realized that I — as a gay, Asian, short, artsy, foul-mouthed little shit disturber — could belong to something in Toronto. It made me truly realize what inclusiveness meant. The rave scene honestly taught me how to hug. I was not into physical affection because I always found it awkward and insincere. Well, as a raver, you better learn to hug because you have no choice. I hug people hello and goodbye even today. Totally because of the rave scene."

Nicolle Weeks, producer, CBC Music

"I didn't fit in when I was in high school. I hung out with the kids with the green hair and listened to different music than everyone else. I went to a rave as an experiment. It was the most inclusive place I'd ever been. People walked up to me and talked to me and we had long, involved conversations. Everyone was nice. Kids I didn't know gave me hugs and bracelets. A rave was the first place I ever saw two gay people kiss where it wasn't a spectacle or a big deal, it was just a normal thing like two straight people kissing. Everyone was welcome ... the biggest phrase I can remember about that subculture was PLUR, which stands for peace, love, unity, respect. Sure, it might sound trite or idealistic, but I remember really needing something that wasn't cynical to believe in back then. Adults thought raving was about drugs and sex, but for us, it was our Woodstock, and it was about inclusiveness and positivity."

(A special thanks to The Communic8r for all the images.)