Somewhere in the night, you find yourself plunged into a cavernous space. The black veil is pierced by mobs of bright beams, somewhere between police searchlights and futuristic lasers. But all that’s really noticeable is the sound. A questionable music comprised of pummeling beats firing off at a thousand miles per hour, and packing enough punch to rattle skulls.
The response is a zombie-like mob dancing with erratic abandon that lies somewhere between electrocution and religious trance. Their eyes as wide as saucers, their brains on fire, they dart about maniacally with the facial gestures of malfunctioning androids. And yet, through this entire view of fearful pandemonium, you feel alive with a sense of passion and community that you never could have imagined. This is the wild and legion-like sensation of the hardcore and gabber scenes.
As often is the case in cultures, the complicated and conflicting history of these sounds can yield a narrative that stays together like oil and vinegar. But one place you simply couldn’t start without is the Dutch city of Rotterdam. Electronic dance music had been a part of that city’s world since the '80s, but as the '90s approached, a unique series of events began to bubble up.
First was the increasingly hard edge of Detroit techno crews such as Underground Resistance. Add to that, a fascination with industrial and electronic body music such as Throbbing Gristle, later Cabaret Voltaire, and Front 242. Also toss in a healthy dose of the growing Acid House movement.
But the main factor in prime moving the early hardcore scene was the encroachment of the Amsterdam influence into Dutch territory. Partygoers were tired of clubs where the music, which they viewed as increasingly bland, took a backseat to social politics of fashion and popularity. The Dutch wanted to create an alternative to, what was in their eyes, a shallow and elitist nightlife. And so, with a working class banner, an anti-fashion uniform, and a purposefully overwhelming sound, Rotterdam became the place to escape the mainstream.
The rest of the world looked on them with light hearted and less-than-serious eyes. The word “gabber” itself is a slang term (derived from the Yiddish word “chaver”) meaning “buddy,” or “pal.” The story goes that when asked about the burgeoning movement, Amsterdam DJ KC the Funkaholic replied that it was merely, “a bunch of gabbers having fun”. It would only be a short time until that bunch of gabbers turned into a legion whose numbers were in the thousands.
As for the sound itself, it’s most notable feature is a powerful kick, and wasp-buzzing synth stabs (not to mention BPM ranges that went from the 130s all the way into the 200s and beyond). The first was usually derived from taking a 909 and overdriving it until the kick had a character which was equally loud, distorted, and melodic. The second mainstay of the equation typically came from modulating a Roland Alpha Juno until it attained the infamous “hoover” sound quality used in countless track of the time, all the way up to the present day.
As per where these sounds initially reared their heads, it is argued that “We Have Arrived” by Mescalinum United was the first shot heard round the hardcore world. And though a far cry from the staple sounds these genres would later build, the foundations can clearly be heard. Other notable hits of the period include heavy sluggers such as Euromasters’ “Amsterdam, Waar Lech Dat Dan?” and Rexanthony’s “For You Marlene.”
Labels such as Planet Core Productions, Rotterdam Records, Mokum, Masters of Hardcore and even New York’s Industrial Strength Records began filing the clubs with releases by artists such as The Viper, Paul Elstak, Miro, Neophyte, Deta 9, DJ Buzz Fuzz, and The Speed Freak. And as the output of music grew to feed the increasing numbers of the scene, so grew the parties, in both size and frequency.
In 1992 an enormous rave in the Dutch capital of Utrecht called, “The Final Exam,” was so successful it would lead to the creation of the label ID&T. And though known for many things (including the founding of the bigger-than-ever Mysteryland festival), in that same year they would change the status of hardcore and gabber forever with the birth of Thunderdome. For many of the early scene this was the end of their underground haven, but for hordes of newcomers, Thunderdome was only the beginning.
True to its name, this new event was as massive in scope as it was in spectacle. Not only was Thunderdome large enough to host thousands of fans of extreme dance music in one place, but also enough to hold everything from a veritable mall of merchandise to full-scale carnival rides. And to keep up the conversion rate, ID&T quickly began to proselytize through a vey lucrative series of Thunderdome compilations. Each year they went onward gabber soldiers adding numbers of converted fans as quickly as the rise of beats per minute and intensity of the music itself.
Though the rise in popularity began to equally widen and distort the original foundation, early gabber and hardcore had a fairly rigid fashion (or lack thereof). Rooted in working class sentiments and communities, the first outfits were a hybrid of skinhead, sports, and street attire. Shaved heads, possibly a tightly braided ponytail, or the variation of long hair on top with shaved sides (the “Rotterdam” look), brightly colored track suits, elaborately patterned wind breakers (or straight up bomber jackets), athletic sports bras, and of course, Nike Air Max sneakers worn together to form the mandatory wardrobe.
Many gabbers donned jeans that were slightly baggy and sagged at the break, in similar style to the fit of the windbreakers and tracksuits. The dogmatic simplicity was a strike against the opulence they viewed in the “mellow” house scene, and the styles’ loose and flowing attire was perfect for raving till the break of dawn. This was the fountain of youth designer Raf Simons drank from in creating his Spring/Summer 2000 "Summa Cum Laude" collection, pairing voluminous high-waisted trousers with oversized MA-1 bomber jackets emblazoned with the pyramid logo of the Rotterdam Terror Corps.
Many factors led to the inevitable decline of the first wave of hardcore and gabber. Beyond the customary outfits, drugs were also an understood norm of the scene. Pills, both basement and designer, were the standard. Their rabid consumption held the promise of transcending not only through the sonic fury of the music but also beyond the physical imitations of the body. And as any raver of the day could tell you, it didn’t long before prolonged use began to take its toll. Early and frequent users quickly burnt out—or worse.
Beyond that, the surging popularity of these styles, thanks to brands such as ID&T’s Thunderdome, pushed the bubble’s thinning walls with faster and faster momentum. Gabber gave way to the often maligned genre of Happy Hardcore, commercialization began to form the scene into the very image it was created to resist, and things became so mainstream that in 1997, there was even a small run of gabber raves for children. All of this combined to move hardcore and gabber towards what many would see as the same quiet death much of DJ culture hit in the late '90s and early '00s.
And yet, as soon as it was “over,” this frantic underbelly of dance music began to rise again. Sipping from the same well that fed other revivals of the time, the new sounds were sharper, harder, and more massive. New stars such as the modern legend, Angerfist, began to help still active groups like Rotterdam Terror Corps find new riotous crowds. The fashion moved along a slightly more contemporary hip-hop influenced style (baggy hoodies took the place of baggy windbreakers), but here and there glimpses of the old world could still be found.
Since the re-birth in the early to mid 2000s, the gabber and hardcore scene has seen a steady incline in popularity. New artists are popping up everyday, and, as festivals begin to merge more and more sounds, the gabbers find themselves playing alongside the DJ megastars of the main stage.
What’s most striking, however, is to see how popular fashion of today feels eerily similar to that of the early days of the gabber and hardcore outfits, be it the tracksuits, the overall colors and patterns, the sports apparel, or even the hairstyles. And, of course, who can forget the Nike Air Max? In many places though, the scene never died, and never will.
They have always been dancing with erratic abandon that lies somewhere between electrocution and religious trance. Their eyes as wide as saucers, their brains on fire, they dart about maniacally with the facial gestures of malfunctioning androids. It’s how they truly feel alive. Every day, more and more find solace in this place. Never forget: Gabber zijn is geen schande!