California Raves In The Late 90’s

California Raves Insomniac Festival Nocturnal Wonderland Saturday Feb 10th 1996


This is a guest post by Robert Download JR. If you have a story to tell, contact us.

February 1996 Southern California

Over the years I’ve promoted events, been a DJ, and partygoer. These stories about raves in the 1990’s are told in my own words and to the best of my recollection.

I had been listening to “rave” music for a couple of years. Essentially, electronic dance music.. before it was called electronic dance music.

I was living in the High Desert area of Southern California (about 1 hour 30 mins from Los Angeles) and had gone to many local warehouse events where DJs played a mix of oldschool, breakbeat, techno, trance, and deep house. A few of my friends DJ’ed and promoted small local events, though at this point I had never been to a “real L.A rave.”

My friends took me to my first rave called “Nocturnal Wonderland”. The flyer was “half sheet” in size and decorated with Alice in Wonderlandimages. (Nocturnal Wonderland recently celebrated it’s 20th anniversary and has since become one of the largest events in Southern California.)

We made our drive to L.A and arrived shortly before 11:00pm. Parked in a back lot of a tall building right in the middle of a busy and brightly lit Hollywood, CA. A long line of colorful partygoers stretched down the back alley wearing huge fuzzy pants, visors, pacifiers and lots and lots of beaded necklaces and bracelets.

The back of the building had this ‘Long Dark Tunnel’ with flashing strobe lights. At the end of the tunnel was numerous “Alice in Wonderland” costumed characters who greeted us. Some of them were handing out free cupcakes with the words “Eat Me” written in frosting.

Most big events back then were one night only and usually a $20 entry fee. I don’t remember presale tickets really becoming a regular thing until 1997.

I entered the venue and walked into a sort of ‘office/hotel lobby’ area with staircases that went up to a couple of rooms and a winding staircase that took you down into a huge basement type area, used as the “Mainstage.”

California Raves In The Late 90's

I made my way upstairs to a large ballroom with high ceilings. In the middle of the room was a giant weather balloon that was showing about a dozen different film loops of cartoons, weird clips from movies, and other oddities.

L.A legendary DJ: Ron D Core was playing “PacMan” by Powerpill (one of Aphex Twin’s many aliases) A huge crowd of people were smashed against giant walls of speakers going nuts. Chanting in unison “Hard-Core!, Hard-Core” on the 3rd and 4th count of the beat.

It was amazing. I had never seen anything like it.

By the time I made my way to the mainstage it was close to 1am. Back then you could just jump on the stage, or even the speakers and dance. My friends and I joined about a dozen other people and more were taking it all in. The sounds, the crowd, the visuals ,the vibes, when all of a sudden the lights came on.

The music played for about 5 minutes before it was clear: the event was busted by the Police/Firemarshalls. Raves were underground and often held in unpermitted venues.

I don’t exactly know why the event was busted. I would go on to learn that events were busted or “broken up” all the time. It became a normal thing. If you went to a rave then you took the gamble on it lasting all night, or just a few hours, with the exception of Massives (nowdays called ‘festivals’) which were held at large permitted venues like the NOS (National Orange Show grounds) in San Bernardino CA.

I remember one night in 1996, Frankie Bones was flown out from New York. The event was busted by the cops while he was spinning. Maybe this is where Spinnin Records came from? He got on the mic and said “Yo!..They’re saying if I play one more song I’ll be arrested!”

The crowd egged him on and begged him to keep playing in protest.. but he didn’t. Can’t blame him though.

It was close to 1am when we were all ushered out of the venue. Hundreds of ravers pushed onto the streets, trying to find friends and figure out what to do with the rest of their night. We had no cell phones back then so if you lost your friends at an event it could often take hours to regroup.

The 2 hours I spent at Nocturnal Wonderland were life changing and I wanted more.

Desert Raves

My second and third events were closer to my hometown of Apple Valle. “Dune” & “Cybercom”, both outdoor events taking place in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. Popular TV show “Hard Copy” had been doing a report on these underground electronic music events and was at both of these parties. When the show aired, they labeled it: “Deadly teenage orgies of sex and booze called desert raves.”

Hardcopy Desert Rave Report


I won’t try to sugar coat things, my friends did drugs at events. A lot of people did. At Cybercom I had a balloon of N20 (Nitrous Oxide.) I remember them being2 balloons for $5.00.All I knew is that N20 was known as “Laughing Gas” and used by dentists. I figured it was safe enough (I had also learned that people put it in cars to make them go faster… but, you tend to do dumb shit when you’re young..)

I grew up a hypochondriac and was afraid to take Acid or Ecstasy. I heard that if you dropped acid and had a bad trip you could end up “Permafried” and if you took “E” (called Molly today) and your body had an allergic reaction then your throat could close and you could die. So, I went sober, aside from that one time with the N20 and honestly it was great. Raves never had “Beer Gardens for 21+” and I didn’t drink anyways. For me it was about the experience. The music, the lights, the crowd and the energy.


Early Internet, No Digital Music or Streaming

In 1996 all underground rave music was on cassette. MP3s were unheard of to us.

Let that sink in for a second. No MP3s.. everything was on hard copy. Vinyl, Cassette or CD. No Youtube, No iTunes, No Soundcloud. etc.

CDs had been out for years and there WERE plenty of Techno and Deep House compilations out there on CD, available at large music retailers like “SamGoody” and “The Warehouse” but when local L.A DJ so&so put out a new mix,it was on cassette.

DJs would record their mixes onto what was called a DAT tape and usually printed them through company called like, Media Tape International or something like that. Or “Smitty’s tape duplication”.

BUT, if you were broke kids like us, you would record your mix on a blank tape you bought from Target and made copies at home, the old fashioned way.

A nice man named Ken ran a mixtape company called “Pure Acid Mixtapes” which fueled our cravings for new underground music.

Pure Acid would setup booths at events and hand out catalogs. We would have to order tapes by filling out a paper order form and MAILING THEM OUT. Then we had to WAIT for the tapes to arrive in the mail.

To my knowledge, the Internet was really about a solid year+ old and AOL was the main way to connect. We had to use our house phones to connect with a 14k modem. (Look this up if you are not familiar with internet speeds.)

AOL Chat rooms were a good way to meet ravers from across the country and trade tapes with them (also by mail)Ravers would create a .txt file with a list of their cassette tapes.Companies who provided the sound system for events would often record the DJs sets (sometimes unbeknownst to the DJ) and this made for rare”bootleg” gems that you would otherwise never get to hear (remember, no Soundcloud.)

We used AOL to find out about new events (Promoters also invested heavily in paper flyers)We also found out about events via a voicemail hotline called “Underground Source” that would leave pre-recorded information about upcoming parties.

Promoters would almost NEVER advertise the location of the event as raves were generally in unpermitted venues. Underground Source would give a separate voice mail number for the specific event, in which you would call and “wait for directions” to either the venue itself or a map point location.

Imagine planning on going to an event that was going to happen “SOMEWHERE”in Southern California and not finding out until the night of the event,or having to purchase a map first to then find out the location. This was common and it didn’t matter to us or the thousands of other ravers who were doing the exact thing weekend after weekend.


Event Competition

I went to about 30 events in 1996 alone, held in mostly warehouses, a couple at the Orange Show, San Bernardino Sports Arena (Later renamed as the Masterdome), The Deserts and some of the most dangerous gang infested areas of Los Angeles.

I kept a log of them on my computer. I read (and almost studied in a way) underground rave magazines like URB, Fix, Lotus, XLR8R and more.

There were so many events happening that eventually promoters would check with each other months in advance to avoid scheduling issues. Some times, promoters would go heads up, big event vs big event and the would often take shots at one another (more on this covered in 1997.)

It was a passion of mine to know what cities were doing what, who the best DJs were in other parts of the country etc. I daydreamed about promoting events, I collected and traded flyers with other ravers and used them as wallpaper.

It wasn’t about going out and getting F’ed up, it was honestly our way of life. I was a part of this massive secret culture that promoted music and positivity and it really took over who I was.


Aside from Insomniac, There were a handful of other well known promoters in L.A. CPU101 had been known to be THEE promotion company for New Years Eve events. I had never been to one of their parties before. I think GO VENTURES (Promoters of the Monster Massive Halloween events) was the main promoter behind ‘In Seventh Heaven’, I remember the flyer saying Circa 97 on it somewhere, but recently I read a story about this event not officially being associated with “Circa” ? (Confusing)

The event took place at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Downtown L.A.

I had heard Drum and Bass before at many events, but this night was the first time I was really getting into it. The venue was packed around 10pm, we were already inside and there were thousands upon thousands outside waiting in a humongous line that wrapped around the event grounds. Between 10pm – 11pm many ambulances started arriving on the scene.
Kids were being taken out on stretchers. Something unusual was happening.

Shortly after 11pm the gates closed and no more people were allowed inside. Chatter began to spread about the party being shut down. People stuck outside were getting anxious and then rowdy. Many of them crashed the gates and all hell broke loose. Thousands of people were now rushing inside the venue like a mad herd.

Then, the music stopped. All of the outdoor stages went quiet. The party is over. People were outraged. This was new years and a permitted venue, what is happening?! Everybody stayed where they were. The countdown would be happening soon and nobody was going anywhere. Thousands of people started chanting “Rave! Til! Dawn! Rave! Til! Dawn! Rave! Til! Dawn! Rave Til! Dawn!”

Security started escorting the massive crowd out onto the streets of downtown L.A, but still.. nobody was going anywhere.

My friend and I were separated from our group with no way to immediately locate them (Remember, no cell phones) We were sitting outside a closed Burger King near 18th street with about 100 other people when all of a sudden a long line of LAPD SWAT officers started lining up across the street from us. These guys were in full riot gear, helmets, shields, batons etc. They marched in unison and then stopped, turned, faced us and started crossing the street in our

Dozens of flashing cameras went off at once, people started shouting at them and started throwing bottles and anything else they could find.

Holy shit. we gotta go.

I grabbed my friends hand and started running away, towards the parking garage 2 streets north. When we turned the corner we were met by another herd of hundreds of kids running away from SWAT officers coming towards them. Tear gas was fired at us, so we ran in another direction to again.. be met by hundreds of kids running.

We finally made it to the parking garage and would have been trampled by a crowd if I hadn’t jumped off the sidewalk and into some bushes with my friend.

The power to the garage seemed to have been cut. The lights were off. We ran up to the 4th floor and waited by our friend’s car. From our vantage point, we could see the entire block. It was chaos. People were vandalizing cop cars and trying to overturn a nearby bus. Bottles and trash rained down from the parking garage floors above us. Everyone was shouting. The streets were filled with tear gas and people literally running rampant. The sounds of police boots walking up the stairs was pretty scary to a 16 year old kid who wore plastic bead necklaces and took stuffed animals to raves.

After an hour or so our ride showed up, We were on our way home but had to stop by a nearby hospital to check on one of their friends who had been admitted for taking some liquid herbal ecstasy thing that some vendor was giving away inside the party. (There’s articles about this online)

When we got back to our hometown we turned on the TV and seen that the riot was being covered on national TV by CNN. Here I had told my parents I was at an event at the National Orange Show and now had some explaining to do.

To be continued with part 2: 1997

*Nocturnal Wonderland flyer credit: (DJ) James Edwin.

Dope links to check out: L.A Rave History

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2 thoughts on “California Raves In The Late 90’s

  1. Wow thank you for bringing back those memories from the LA rave scene. I was at some of those parties iand I remember hearing about the New Year’s incident. I really appreciate the attention to the small details (pure acid mix tapes, no cell phones, busted parties) around that very unique time and place. I would not have remembered a lot of that stuff – thank you!

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