The motivation to throw the first Chemistry rave had come from the discovery of two scenes on my arrival in Toronto – the warehouse scene which was an older, glammed up crowd, and Exodus at 23 Hop. The need to find a source of income in my new found city was also a motivation, and throwing parties was what I knew best.
I’d been in Toronto less than a month when I decided to throw that first rave. The name came from a rave of mine which never happened – the very first Chemistry which I’d been organizing in the Summer of ’89 in England, but which never happened due to unwelcome attention from the mob.
In July of ’89 in England I’d gone to a meeting with what I thought were some East of London ticket agents / promoters, but it quickly became clear they were not all they seemed. They were looking to forcibly take over my event. They wanted to take over my security, the DJ’s, all the promotion and ticket sales, and when I politely declined their gracious offer, I was told I didn’t have a choice. Ultimately I backed out of the event after nearly 3 months of organizing. My car had been vandalized and people I knew were getting threatening phone calls.
Fortunately no such issues would ever present themselves in Toronto, although promoters in Montreal weren’t quite so lucky…
The only issues I had to deal with for that first party were to find a venue, come up with a flyer, and start promoting the hell out of it. I set about this with enthusiasm and, er.. gusto.
One of the ideas for the original Chemistry in England had been two huge bubbling test tubes suspended above the entrance. I remembered a sketch I’d made of this, and this became the inspiration for the flyer for the rave in Toronto. I decided to print the flyer and hand it out inside a test tube.
The test tubes I got my hands on, weren’t quite big enough to take the flyer, so every cork stopper had to be shortened with an exacto knife. Each flyer was rolled on a split-stick and a piece of ribbon tied around the flyer before sealing it in the test tube. It took fucking ages to do them all and I still have the muscle memory for rolling test tube flyers now. Er – a really handy skill in everyday life..
Being low on funds and having apparently zero fear, I organized the party entirely on credit – begging, borrowing and cajoling all the various suppliers (sound, lighting, test tube retailers) into getting paid after the event.
This was risky business and relied on the party being a success, or at least breaking even. So confident was I that the test tube flyer would attract stampedes of people, I planned a production that was obscene in retrospect. It would not have looked out of place in the mid 90’s – full colour laser, intelligent lighting, dry ice, massive sound system, bouncy castle, it was all there.
On the DJ front I had Malik X, Mark Oliver, myself as promoter / DJ, and Dr No, who was quickly becoming a close friend and confidente.
On the promoting side I was out there in both scenes doing hand to hand promotion. I’d learned in London that the best way to do this is yourself, and rather than just hand out flyers to random people.. stop, engage, have conversations with people, and take the time to explain what it is you’re trying to do and build.
I was always selective in who I gave flyers to. This was a necessity to build a new scene, in effect to cherry pick from other scenes, but it also helped to ensure a good party. I looked for people that were obviously open-minded, funky, not too tied to a particular fashion (had their own perhaps), not jaded.
The test tubes were a hit and there was a big buzz building over the event. With the money I was spending on production I needed 800 people to break even. I was thinking I could attract 1000, 1500, 2000 people. Really I had no idea.
It was Neil (Dr No) who broke the news to me a couple of days before the event that Malik was dropping out of DJ’ing. This was a huge blow because the last thing I wanted was a no-show reputation. He was top billing on the flyer, and a large part of the creative plans.
Malik, who was a very spiritual person had decided he didn’t want to be part of a burgeoning rave scene. We’d gotten along well in the short time we’d known each other, I’d been to his house, met his wife and family, and had some particularly deep conversations. But he came to the conclusion that it was time to hang up his slipmats, and not be a part of mine or anyone else’s plans. He disappeared, not to be seen again.
Consciously or not, it was Malik departing from the scene that had the effect of clearing the way for Neil to move front and centre into the spotlight as Toronto’s premier MC and DJ.
The night for the party rolled around… Friday the 13th December 1991. If I’d been superstitious I might have avoided the date. Really I should simply have avoided a Friday…
In London I was used to Friday being a big night out. Saturdays tended to be a more cheesy affair and to be avoided by the cool kids. My decision to host the party on a Friday was driven mainly by a desire not to go into direct competition with other promoters, and in that sense it worked. I didn’t have any problem getting the DJ’s I needed, and the other promoters were, superficially at least, supportive.
What I didn’t expect was the huge reluctance from people to pay a $10 cover charge. At the time there was very much a $5 cover charge mentality in Toronto, it was a recession, and it would prove especially challenging to change this view. The economics of large productions would of course demand higher cover charges in time, and considering that raves in England cost $100 or more, this was going to be a problem. What I didn’t expect was that people would come half way across town in a taxi, and then turn away at the cost – but they did.
The location (17 River St) was also a problem. To me (on a map) it seemed close enough to downtown, and while the 23 Hop crowd didn’t care – they were coming in from the suburbs, the party-district-minded Warehouse crowd had a psychological barrier erected on Church St.
The building itself was a barn of a warehouse, unbelievably tall, and tucked in behind the Toronto Humane Society. It was going to take a lot of people and party to fill.
It was a chilly night and inside the warehouse you could see people’s breath. Slowly a steady mix of curious party-goers started arriving, in ones and twos and taxis. Inside the music was rocking and the venue pulsating with smoke, lighting and UV lighting. I’d always wanted to hire a dry-ice machine for a party, this is heavier-than-air smoke that stays in a blanket near the ground, and it was a huge hit. Most people have never experienced dry ice before, and it’s a lot of fun. For a Promoter it’s messy to deal with and you need tons of frozen blocks of the stuff, stored at -80 degrees. It’s a lot of work.
All the dry ice in the world and large volumes of partygoers’ frozen breath were not enough to hide the fact that there weren’t enough people in the venue for me to get out with my shirt.
At the height of the party there was maybe 200-300 people, perhaps 500 over the whole night. The steadily building stress and creeping realization of impending financial doom – that event promoters know all too well – was a downer for me, but it turns out, a blessing in disguise.
The next day I remember lying in my friend’s apartment at College/Clinton as the phone rung off the hook. I wasn’t answering. I was depressed, figuring out how the hell I would pay people back, and contemplating a return to England.
It was the persistence of Neil (Dr No), who got through to me on the phone, that would ultimately lead to me sticking around. It was Saturday evening, so Exodus at 23 Hop was due to be in session, and he told me “I had to come out”. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but Neil was very persuasive, and he convinced me to come out and talk to people.
The message I got in return was huge. People were coming up to me and telling me what an awesome night they’d had. They were effusive and sincere in their appreciation, and I remember two young guys in particular who said simply… “We know you must have lost a lot of money last night, but you’ve got to do another party!”. Others told me how it was the kind of event they’d been waiting for…
I went home that night re-energized and motivated to stay in Toronto… and make a go of it!