‘Hardcore has never died’Written by Meike Jentjens
It’s an unmistakable trend in European electronic music: the sound is hard, harder, hardest. DJ’s like Ki/Ki sell out one event after another with pure hard trance, Reinier Zonneveld is popping up as a true guru among young people on TikTok, techno DJ Cynthia Spiering is playing special gabber sets, and ticket sales for hardcore events are moving fast.
The kicks you used to only hear in hardcore music have now made their way into mainstream EDM, and if you want to, you can lose yourself at one of the many hardcore events in Berlin, London, and Amsterdam each weekend. Various media have been reporting that gabber has risen from the dead. But did it ever really die? No, is what scene queen Eileen Meree, and heavyweight DJs Mad Dog and Drokz argue. ‘Absolutely not.’ But it has seen some changes.
Hardcore’s presumed revival has been described in many places. Mixmag has reported that ‘gabber is having a renaissance’, and The Guardian has named it ‘the return of dance music’s gloriously tasteless subgenre, which is finally having its moment in the mainstream’. For some, it’s a trend. For others, it’s their lifestyle.
And the latter is exactly what it is for 27-year-old Eileen Meree, who has been attending early hardcore raves for over a decade. She’s about to make her big screen debut in Dutch filmmaker Jim Taihuttu’s new feature film, Hardcore Never Dies. Through enormous events such as Defqon, Decibel, Thunderdome, and Dominator, she once ended up at a rave where everything seemed as if it were the 90s all over again. Those raves are called early hardcore raves, and ever since Meree’s first edition of Pandemonium in 2014, it’s all she wants. ‘The generation of gabbers now entering the scene have the same love for the music as the generation of when the genre started.’
Effenaar had its own taste of that magic: Rotterdam Terror Corps celebrated its thirtieth birthday by bringing that nostalgic, Rotterdam roughness to Eindhoven, posse included. Last year was a good year for hardcore overall. The legendary large-scale party Thunderdome returned to its home base in Utrecht, where more than sixty thousand fans of the genre gathered for the thirtieth edition of the world-famous ‘dance or die’ rave. In March of last year, Masters of Harcore invited friends of the brand to the Dutch Brabanthallen, where their twenty-fifth anniversary was celebrated, also worth mentioning in terms of duration, size, and numbers.
Originators of the scene like Angerfist, Paul Elstak, and Promo were present, just like Mad Dog and heavy hitter Drokz, whose real name is Richard Koek and who is lovingly nicknamed ‘Grandpa Hardcore’. Besides being incredibly likeable, extremely honest and upfront, he’s got a lot to say.
Drokz doesn’t deny that after the rise of gabber in the mid-90s, the scene did have a setback, but he doesn’t want to call that the death of hardcore. ‘After the worldwide success of gabber, we transitioned into happy hardcore. That made the music and scene uncool, and people didn’t want to be seen as gabbers anymore. So, the response was to toughen up the looks, which attracted far-right people. But people don’t know that the scene banned them all themself, because we didn’t want those folks either. Another misconception is that hardcore disappeared altogether after the millennium. It’s been busier ever since.’ He explains how he’s only been getting more bookings since 2000. Still, that nasty aftertaste of not being taken seriously never went away.
Bring it on
‘Look, The Netherlands’ biggest festival, Lowlands, gathers around 60.000 people and gets national and international media coverage. Defqon pulls in around 80.000 each year, and besides stupid meme-footage on the internet, gets nothing at all. Editions of Dominator have been sold out ever since the festival started. I don’t know any other European subculture that brings that many people together. Bring it on if you do. That fact will irk me for the rest of my days.’
Drokz is talking about media coverage, or better, the lack thereof. He thinks it’s no coincidence that foreign, major investors like Superstruct show interest in the organisations ID&T (Thunderdome) and Feestfabriek (Zwarte Cross). ‘Those companies don’t look at festival reviews in newspapers and blogs, or at labels such as gabber or techno-heads; they look at absolute numbers like visitors and turnovers. That makes gabber way ahead of mainstream festivals we do see covered in the media.’
The DJ wants to make this clear, once and for all. Just like the prejudice surrounding gabber: ‘After thirty years, I think it’s fair to say that the image that we’re all wearing tracksuits, are not educated, and sport bald heads, is done for, right? The public still sees the stereotype gabber as how people looked like in the 90s. I challenge people who label our music as simple to come up with one of Angerfist’s tracks.’
We have gabber
And even though the 51-year-old Drokz is touching on some serious and sensitive topics, he hasn’t stopped smiling during the conversation. He loves talking about hardcore, it almost seems like he can’t stop. ‘The States have got hip-hop, we have gabber! We should be way more proud of that in Europe.’ It’s one of the reasons why he’s so happy seeing the scale of today’s rave scene. ‘The music that’s currently popular is a mix of old school hardcore and techno. It’s becoming something like a melting pot, which suits the needs of many ravers. You don’t have to dress up in gabber eleganza anymore, ladies can dress up as though they were hitting the town for a night out, and it’s not weird at all.’ Drokz also gives a shoutout to prominent DJs such as Korsakoff, who was also asked to be a part of this piece, and Lady Dana, who always look ‘majorly classy’ while tearing dancefloors to shreds. ‘Although I do also like the movement that pays homage to the gabbers of the 90s. You know, gabber isn’t about the uniform. It’s the attitude.’
The movement he’s referring to is precisely the movement Eileen Meere is part of. Just like ‘Grandpa Hardcore’, she says ‘gabber can’t be bought, but is on the inside.’ The charming Meere lives in The Hague, where the scene was enormous back in the day, has a half-shaved head, two nose rings, and a serious job in the financial sector. She describes a thriving, young, and close scene where she is undoubtedly in the in-crowd, but where everybody is welcome. She feels as though she’s part of a family, a safe one. Where do those stereotypes come from, then? Well, it’s because of the generation gap, she believes. ‘The older generation doesn't quite understand hardcore because it’s a youth subculture. Just like with punk or any other subculture, it can seem a bit shocking to older people who only look at it from the outside.’
Another weekend, another city
‘You have tight scenes of gabbers in The Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany, of which the core remains the same. But hardcore gets more global now, and way looser’, says Drokz. An excellent example is the Italian DJ Mad Dog, who lives in Amsterdam and travels to at least a few shows in different countries every weekend, where he plays gigantic venues. He has stopped thinking of music in genres for quite some time now and shows that on his latest album DOWNTEMPO, which he released on February, 1st.
He’s 42 years old, has been in the game for decades just like Drokz, and started spinning records when there was only one harder styles record shop in all of Rome, called Remix. ‘Back in ‘93, the only popular styles were hard techno and extremely commercial music like Gigi D’Agostino. I met other ravers at Remix and learned more about hardcore, which was the only place where I could do so. We didn’t have the internet yet, so searching for new music was hard. That’s way different now. Hardcore has become a global movement; it’s easier to find new music because of Instagram and blogs.’ The internet and social media are just as much a curse to him as they are a blessing. Although connecting is easy, he also notices that a specific ‘flex’ he is opposed to scores online. And that’s not authentic in his eyes.
Eileen Meere shares his stand. ‘Because of immensely popular channels such as TikTok, hardcore suddenly is about showing off, too. I see the phones rising up in the air at raves, and people being filmed even though they don’t consent to it. I don’t think that’s very helpful for the vibe. It takes away the ultimate freedom of raving.’ This development reminds us of hardcore’s first meltdown, where the scene attacked itself by becoming gimmicky.
Don’t take TikTok to a rave
That’s why Meere thinks it’s better to try and capture the feeling people had in the 90s, because there were no phones back then, let alone at raves. ‘People throw footage of others coming out of raves online without thinking about what that does to our scene and its reputation. I mean, do what you want, but just don’t take TikTok to a rave’, she decides with a smile. ‘Gabber is way more visible now because of the internet, but I much prefer smaller, intimate parties.’
Mad Dog, whose real name is Filippo Calcagni, started out small: ‘I started spinning records on the turntable I got from my grandparents, where I would repeat the same song over and over. Eventually, I bought another turntable, and I could start DJing. That was always the main goal: becoming a DJ. I was a promoter besides that. We hosted hardcore raves in Rome where 5.000 people would attend.’
Dog eat dog
The DJ and his friends were the only ones doing so in the area, thus creating the hardcore scene in the Italian capital single-handedly. ‘Our biggest event to date flopped immensely because of the world-famous Gigi D’Agistino hosting an all-nighter in the venue next door. As a result, we didn’t sell that many tickets that night.’ So, Mad Dog moved to The Netherlands, where hardcore was thriving. Ever since Thunderdome started, he was there, raving the night away. Now he’s on the line-up.
That hardcore has grown so much since the early ‘00s, means there are some downsides to the current movement too. ‘Because of how massive the scene is now, it attracts people who are in it for other things than just the music.’ He means aspects like money and fame, and the life people envision DJs living. ‘I see many new producers making gimmick-tracks because they want instant internet fame, which is also fine, but it’s not how hardcore used to be. Sure, I’ve contributed to that as well, but I feel like it’s my responsibility to tell people that hardcore can be artistic, too. You want to express yourself without consequences.’
He does so on his new record, which has noticeably fewer BPMs than his previous work. But it’s not about tempo with Mad Dog, or pigeonholing it and saying his music is hardcore or techno. ‘I didn’t think about whether people would like my new music or not. If they don’t, eventually, I’ll have to find another job, but that’s not the case just yet.’
Italian cuisine must wait
His experience has given him the privilege of experimenting, for which the producer is grateful. ‘I’m in the studio for nine hours a day, which is a lot. I don’t have time for other things, besides performing. So, when I work on music, I want to have fun.’ Even his favourite restaurants in Amsterdam, Italian, of course, have to wait for the producer to visit. Mad Dog speaks with a burning passion and is 100% focused. This is a guy who means it. ‘I want to pass along that there is, in fact, space to experiment as a young producer. If your track doesn’t reach a million streams immediately after the release, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed.’
He’s all about passing his lessons on to the next generation. Switching to live-sets instead of only mixing digitally is one of the other examples of how he shows that hardcore musicians are serious musicians, too. In the future, he would also love to use his label Dogfight Records for this purpose. ‘Hardcore is about more than just doing the trick and performing. I had role models like Promo, Ruffneck, and the PCP label, who just made music for themselves without thinking they would create a revolution. That’s the example I want to set.’
Not giving a shit
So, what’s going to happen with hardcore, according to Drokz? Are the sounds increasingly becoming harder still, is gabber developing and mixing, or will hardcore hibernate once again? ‘Dance music is always looking for new shapes and forms, specifically because it stems from youth culture. DJs can cook up sick tracks, but there will always be this kid at home who thinks he can do better. And then he does so and is the next big thing’, he laughs out loud. ‘I think that’s so cool. Young people just don’t give a shit and play everything they want to. If we had to listen to XTC Love for another hundred years, we would have gotten nowhere. In the end, it’s about one thing we share: after a week of hard work, we have to unwind. That’s never changed and never will.’