Electronic Dance Music’s Love Affair With Ecstasy: A History

The drug and the music evolved together over years, making EDM a radically different culture today than it was when it started.
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(David McNew/Reuters)

We don’t know much about Meredith Hunter other than that he killed the American Hippie. We know that his friends called him Murdock, and that he was 18, and that there were three weeks until the last day of the 1960s. 300,000 people had gathered at the Altamont Raceway Park near San Francisco for Woodstock’s Pacific reincarnation, but of the increasingly violent masses, he was the only one who stormed the stage with a gun, and the only one who was stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel.

Today, we know Hunter mostly in the context of his death, but even there he’s just a metaphor. In the rise-and-fall narrative of hippie culture, he is simply the Altamont tragedy, and Altamont is known as the day the music died.

In his reflections on the recent anniversary of the September 11th attacks, John Cassidy discusses the human “saliency bias”—our habit of forming memories around jarring events rather than, say, a series of minor incidents whose impact nets about equal. This mechanism explains how and why history can link a generation’s implosion to one day at the end of the decade. For both sides of the culture, the tragedy’s gruesome rawness gave legitimacy to the concern that peace and love were quite literally killing the country.

Consider Olivia Rotondo, whose by-all-accounts-normal life suggests that her death could have happened to anyone. Four hours after tweeting her excitement about the Electric Zoo Festival on New York City’s Randall’s Island, she collapsed in front of a paramedic, saying the seven words that in the weeks since have become a macabre Exhibit A in the campaign against the drug that is said to have killed her.

“I just took six hits of Molly.”

She died that night. Jeffrey Russ, a 23-year old also believed to have taken MDMA (the drug’s proper name) had passed away 18 hours earlier. The following day—what would have been the grand finale to the three-day gyration of 100,000 neon-clad ravers—Randall’s Island was deserted and silent.

Since it first plugged in its equipment five summers ago, Electric Zoo has marked the end of the annual electronic festival season in the United States, the centerpiece each year of one of the country’s most mainstream and lucrative new artistic industries. In 2012, electronic dance music (EDM) spawned eleven platinum hits and increased the population of Miami by one quarter for one of the biggest American musical events since Woodstock. It has repackaged and commoditized the two-decade-old EDM mantra of “Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect” (usually abbreviated to “PLUR”) that apparently captures what this whole vision, with its bass drops and Day-Glo campiness, and a certain synthetic chemical stimulant, has always been about.

It’s too soon to tell how the Electric Zoo tragedies will influence the cachet of either the music or MDMA use in America, though many believe they go hand-in-hand, to such an extent that it’s hard to determine exactly which came first.

“If you look at electronic dance music culture, it seems to be more diverse, more accepting of the 'other', more welcoming of gay people—a counter-ethos of ‘we’re in it together,’” Dr. Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), told me. “There’s a spiritual aspect to it. For many, the drug serves that function. There’s something fundamentally wholesome about these communal dance parties.”

It’s not hard to understand why. “Rolling,” as the new ravers call the high, is a state of prolonged euphoria, intimacy, and kinesis: the conditions encouraged by a pulsing beat, a rococo of colored lights, and a setting that makes rubbing up against dozens of people tough to avoid. The drug makes the music better, and vice-versa. In spite of efforts to commercialize the scene, or perhaps because of them, this truism remains the genre’s core.

But what happens when an ethos built around a drug collapses, yet people keep getting high? Think about the Summer of Love of 1967, when the LSD utopia of San Francisco devolved into a haven for crime and drug abuse. Think about Altamont, where the chemicals that enabled a generation’s divine visions later inflamed the violence that left Meredith Hunter dead. We've felt the quakes of this same force in the mainstreaming of EDM in the last half-decade, where lyrics about the indestructibility of love, the clarity of the horizon, and the remedy of the bass have given way to Miley Cyrus’s braying electronic anthems about “dancing with Molly.” Themes of transcendent universal harmony have dissipated into bitter Tweets about how Olivia Rotondo and Jeffrey Russ ruined EZoo for everyone else. This force hasn't knocked the revolution off its axis, per se—it has simply made the axis illegible.

***

America is at its core a Puritan country, which almost certainly explains why the use of mind-altering substances has never caught on as a religious thing. In this regard, the country is an outlier of a 12-millennia-long tradition that confirms two truisms: People do drugs to get high; and people get high because, well, it’s enjoyable. The habit of shifting one’s mental state is surpassed in antiquity only by the supreme habit that first compelled it: Religion itself, in some form or another.

“When God saw that people, instead of turning to God, were turning to the medicine cabinet, God made himself available in the medicine cabinet,” Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a figurehead of the Jewish Renewal movement who dropped acid with Dr. Timothy Leary in the 1960s, once said.

The spiritual element of the EDM festival mentality can explain why MDMA use is at its core. The link between drugs and spirituality, Doblin said, comes from two fundamental human needs: the need for rituals that connect us with others, and the need to operate “with the full range of consciousness.”

Like most other drugs that come from labs rather than leaves, MDMA was first a Cold War thing. In the early 1950s, five centuries after German chemists patented and then briskly forgot about methylenedioxymethamphetamine, the United States military began researching psychotropic MDMA, LSD, and other drugs as means of puppeteering suspected enemies’ minds.

The real godfather of the drug, though, is a man named Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a quirky psychopharmacologist from Harvard who began synthesizing and self-testing MDMA in the backyard of his California home. He gave MDMA a ringing scientific endorsement, and a few years later, it started showing up in Dallas’s gay clubs—people were calling it “Adam.” This was the early '80s, and disk jockeys were beginning to understand the capacity of the synthesizer to electrify its audience.

The music and the powder traveled quickly and in tandem, going mainstream through the same channel that brought the first cases of HIV in heterosexuals: Seemingly straight men who would sneak out to gay clubs and then export certain elements back into their “regular” lives. Every notable place to dance soon became a place to roll. The Chicago nightclub Warehouse, a centerpiece of the city’s MDMA scene, birthed the term “house music.”

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P. Nash Jenkins is a Baltimore-based writer and holds a Louis Azrael Fellowship in Communications at Johns Hopkins University.

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