With a surrounding metropolitan area of 3.5 million, it's not massive, and yet both a bustling club life and a diehard underground scene are present in the city, with house and techno events of varying forms happening every night. The interest in dance music is stronger here than it has any right to be, and it's due to an almost organic growth process where local groups of do-it-yourself tastemakers have cultivated what Khutoretsky calls an "involved, passionate scene."
Passion is necessary to put up with some of the nightlife's local roadblocks. Not only are there meteorological hassles to consider (snow, ice and freezing temperatures have a grip on the city for five months every year), but there are cultural hangups as well: the populace is decidedly liberal, but the local government still has a toe in the Puritanical when it comes to lawmaking. Legal restrictions regarding areas of the city where dance clubs can operate, how long any establishment within the city limits can remain open and the terms related to the sale of alcohol reach back to the area's Protestant roots.
If you're downtown, you can find a drink and a dancefloor without a dinner table getting in the way, but take a bike ride just a couple of miles south on Hennepin Avenue to the Uptown area and the restricted ratios of food-to-beverage sales make it almost impossible to operate a functioning nightclub that doesn't also double as a restaurant. Now, let's make things a bit harder: Last call is set at a strict 2 AM, and the local police will attempt to shut down any parties that dare to go later.
Considering the difficulties, it might not seem as though Minneapolis has much of a foundation on which to build a club environment. Even the city's buttoned-down twin, St. Paul (situated so close that the metropolitan areas have become enmeshed in one another), is mostly content to shutter the blinds at 7 PM to all but those looking for a meal; clubs there are virtually non-existent. But Minneapolis is the rowdier sibling, and its reputation as the bad kid took hold in the late '80s, when Prince and his Revolution were ruling the roost at First Avenue and word-of-mouth art parties held at the likes of the now-defunct Cricket Theater were paving the way for area raves.
"At that time, dance events were happening wherever they could happen—in warehouses, in theaters, wherever," said Communique Records chief, techno purveyor and party promoter Woody McBride. "It was an older crowd at these gatherings, and they'd stack up 24 bass bins at the back of the stage and hold an event. There really was no club scene." By contrast, there are now a number of legitimate venues open to hosting nights centered on electronic music, but their limitations facilitate the existence of a 25 year old underground party scene, one that currently caters to a crowd raised on all-night events while attempting to sidestep the bureaucratic aspects of working within the context of a nightclub.
Woody McBride performing a live PA in 1996.
"Since the bars and clubs close at 2 AM, there will always be a need for afterparties in this city," argues DJ/producer/promoter Dustin Zahn, who set up shop in Minneapolis in 2003. "Those parties are thrown by people that are interested in making things happen, and not just content to take whatever the clubs are willing to give them. It's more proactive." Outside of the established clubs, the city's late-night scene is still healthy, though media attention and local law enforcement have each taken turns to try and squash anything that might be considered a "rave." Sadly, afterhours events fall into their description of an illicit party, and can be broken up if careful considerations are not taken.
But the warehouses and loft spaces are where Minneapolis' less-commercial sounds get a chance to shine, as there are no bar managers to appease, and no restrictions on what can be played. While he has a hand in running above-board events, Zahn is still involved with throwing all-night parties, where he says that Minneapolis' exceptional elements start to show themselves. "The promoters in this town had a chance to build things from the ground up, and to influence the tastes of everyone around them," Zahn said. "I can play as weird and as mental as I'd like to here, and people really get into it. The only other place that I can think of where I've been able to do that is someplace like Berlin."
Perhaps no one is more aware of the discrepancies between the club and afterparty audiences than Khutoretsky, who started his own downtown venue, Foundation, which focused solely on electronic music and became the only business of its kind in Minneapolis. However, the club closed before its second birthday, and Khutoretsky turned to music production and his brand of afterparties, titled Future:Classic. The homegrown devotion of the crowds that attend Future:Classic give the events a familial feeling, which, to Khutoretsky, has served as a kind of benchmark. "You don't get a lot of randoms at those shows. People are there because that's exactly where they want to be."
It's easy to see why. The premier afterparties in Minneapolis are built around interaction; there are no huge stages, and very little separation between the performers and the audience. The massive drawback is the necessary secrecy; the parties are much harder to find than a normal club, and if you don't know what you're looking for (or have at least a name to go on), they can be easy to miss. In order to cut down on drawing too much unwanted attention from police, party locations are often kept under wraps until the last minute, sometimes as late as an hour before doors open. Sometimes, the only way to keep up is to peruse subtle invites on Facebook, or to snap up a tiny flier with an address on it at a club-based show earlier in the night.
as I'd like to here." – Dustin Zahn
The methods for keeping the events low-profile are rooted in the map points and information lines that guided massive crowds to illegal raves in the mid-90's. During that decade, most legitimate venues in Minneapolis were too timid or unwilling to let dance music through their doors, with a couple of notable exceptions. When it comes to early clubs and their role in how the city's music scene was shaped, McBride notes that "First Avenue, The Saloon, and The Gay 90's have been holding it down since the beginning, playing the music that no other venue would play."
This trio of clubs (all three of which are still in operation today) is the long-standing exception rather than the rule. "Clubs have a short lifespan here, though I think that's something kind of universal," Zahn notes, "but, because in Minneapolis there aren't a lot of people to go around, venues aren't as willing to stick with you if you don't produce instant results." In an environment where club patronage drops in the cold winter months, this can leave promoters in a bind for licensed venues to do business with (another factor that fuels the need for afterhours events), as most clubs vie for popularity in order to avoid closure. For a smaller Midwest city, club owners and managers are far more cutthroat than expected.
Regardless of the downtown scene's highly competitive nature, however, the real institutions haven't faltered. Jack Trash, DJ and head of promotion titans Sound In Motion, reminisced that, "in the early days, the gay clubs like The Saloon and The Gay 90's were the only places you could go to hear beats. There used to be a big connection between the gay crowds and electronic music, and unfortunately, I don't think it's as large as it used to be, but it's certainly still there." Those two clubs share a history, some clientele and the tendency to pour absurdly strong drinks, but little else. The Saloon's overtly sexual nature (there's a by-the-hour hotel just upstairs) is slightly at odds with The 90's more laidback vibe, but both clubs were instrumental early on in moving house music out of the underground and into a club setting.
But even with the sizable contributions from those two venues, it's impossible to reference clubbing in Minneapolis without talking about First Avenue. "It's had such a huge hand in everything that's currently happening in this city…they've been supporting dance music for ages, and it's where a lot of the mainstays here got their start—including myself," says Trash. A former bus station turned local music mecca, First Ave has been at the forefront of the city's club scene for over three decades. Split into three distinct sections—the large and open Mainroom, more intimate 7th St. Entry and the darkened, DJ-centric Record Room (formerly known as the VIP Room)—the club has versatility in size and feel along with its status as a local landmark.
It's at First Avenue where you find the largest cross-section of clubgoers in Minneapolis, and that's due mostly to the number of individual club nights the venue is able to showcase. Woody McBride's Bassgasm events are among the largest in the city, but due to the size and amount of planning necessary to pull them together, only occur once every few months. McBride has said that he aims for the Bassgasm events to be "more than a rave in a club," and they're based around First Avenue as one huge space, utilizing every square foot for extra stages and sound.
Ravers in front of the speaker stacks at a Bassgasm event.
Aside from the talent that Bassgasm brings in (the most recent iteration hosted Krafty Kuts and Chris Liberator among 50 other local and national acts), the most impressive element remains the sheer size of the production. McBride stacks the bassbins up twelve feet high, and the resulting sound force led Reid Speed (a perennial rave favorite) to call the event "easily the loudest show I've ever played." Sweaty, loud and large, Bassgasm might be the closest that Minneapolis gets to a full-blown electronic music festival; sadly, as much as the city seems to love big outdoor concerts, they don't feature much in the way of house, techno or any other stripe of dance music, and most shows held in the open air showcase only rock or hip-hop.
If you're looking for events that occur on a more frequent basis, First Avenue's almost-hidden, second floor Record Room hosts Black, a weekly Saturday night collaboration shared between three promotion groups, trading off responsibilities weekly to keep the event fresh. Aaron Bliss and Jesse Jakob's Particle People are largely responsible for techno's foothold at the Record Room, while Nate Laurence and J. Matthews run HotDish, and focus primarily on house. Matt Veloce and Lil' Aaron's Loud+Clear splits the difference between the two, bringing in acts (Mike Huckaby, Soul Clap, and Paul Johnson among the more recent) that cater to fans of both house and techno sounds.
The Record Room is a dark, intimate space that seems tailor-made for focusing on the sounds from the speakers, with a single bar that remains choked with clubbers all night long. The crowd at Black is decidedly older than most of the other nights in town, certainly a magnet for so-called "old-school" fans and approximates the feel of the afterparty scene more closely than any other night (it helps that all three promotion groups have been responsible for their own afterhours events). For discerning club veterans in their late 20's and early 30's, Black proves to be one of the most comfortable nights in the city, focusing on artists and fans that are strictly there for the music.
and he didn't even want to—he just
wanted to listen to the local guys." – DVS1
Meanwhile, just outside the low-lit confines of the Record Room, Saturdays at First Avenue's much larger Mainroom is the scene for Too Much Love, a dance-by-way-of-indie-rock night that has made giant leaps in popularity over the past few years due to sets from high profile guests like Dam Funk, Hot Chip and James Murphy (of DFA Records and LCD Soundsystem) coupled with a low cover price. Students flock to Too Much Love every Saturday night, looking for a cheap release from studies and work duties. Jump from Black to TML on any given Saturday and the median age in the room drops by about seven years.
TML founder and resident Peter Lansky, AKA SovietPanda, said he "didn't have any idea about the current dance scene in Minneapolis when the night was started. It began as a much smaller thing, and just kind of took off." It's another example of an upstart's ingenuity in Minneapolis, building the scene around them by taking initiative. Recently, the event has gotten away from indie dance, moving towards more traditional house and techno but retaining the youthful flavor that has garnered attention all over the country. Lansky himself seems a little surprised at what the event has become. "At first I was just trying to do a new kind of dance night that I didn't see being done, and now it's become a regular touring stop for all kinds of artists," he said.
The knowledgeable vibe that accompanies Black and the afterparty scene is largely absent at Too Much Love, but the city's trademark enthusiasm remains. Lansky admits that he would "be a little embarrassed to say how many people I think are there strictly for the music…but the DJs that play here really want to come back to Minneapolis and Too Much Love, sometimes even taking a pay cut to do it. They want to come back to these crowds." While the weekly event didn't come about as an extension of the club history in Minneapolis, it's followed the same template of organic growth, and enjoys the overflowing energy of the city's clubbers as a result.
Keeping with the DIY spirit of the city, the success of Too Much Love can be felt by the resulting influx of indie-influenced dance nights, most of which began as strict dance-rock nights but now showcase a wider variety of sounds including classic Italo disco, synth pop and electro. Just north of the downtown zone, closer to the universities, The Kitty Cat Klub provides a venue for monthly events like Hotel and Menergy, both of which exist outside the more traditional confines of house and techno. Around the corner, the richly-appointed Varsity Theater just started its own dance-centric monthly, Recess, with a focus on twisted visuals and eclectic musical taste, the bombast running slightly contrary to the opulence of the venue.
A quick guide to Minneapolis
The downtown scene trends toward the posh, with scenic bars like Prohibition and Black Bamboo residing on the upper level of some of the city's high rises and tacking on a sizable portion of their rent onto every drink. On street level, smallish martini joints like The Imperial Room are easily accessible from just about any club you'd care to visit. If you're brave enough to venture into North Minneapolis, be sure to visit Psycho Suzie's, a popular throwback Polynesian lounge with strong tiki drinks galore and a campy, tongue-in-cheek vibe.
State neighbor Wisconsin has a number of excellent brews that make their way into Minnesota, but the in-house breweries in Minneapolis and St. Paul give them some serious competition. The Grain Belt Brewery in Minneapolis kicks out a light, easy-drinking lager, but check out St. Paul's Summit and Surly products for tasty, hops-heavy ales of nearly every body and color. Surly's Furious Ale has become a local favorite in just a short few years.
Haute Dish and The Red Stag Supper Club serve forward-thinking updates of Midwest comfort food, while Bar La Grassa and Amore Victoria offer impressive takes on Italian fare. Smaller Vietnamese restaurants are legion, and it's easier than you might think to get a quality banh mi. Try Quang's for hole-in-the-wall intimacy, or if you want some flair with your Asian cuisine, Tom Pham's Wonderous Azian Kitchen has you covered downtown.
During the spring and summer, every Minneapolis resident wants to be outside after being cooped up for the entire winter. Not only do patios of varying sizes start to appear on nearly every eatery in the city, but bike trails, parks and lakes are full of life, with the populace trying to soak up some elusive sunshine. If you're brave and here during the colder months, cross-country skiing, snowmobile races and winter festivals provide something to do for those with heavy coats. The creative community is active year-round, and events like summer's Uptown Arts festival and winter's Art Shanty shows (held on a frozen lake) are colorful and lively.
Be outgoing. The familial vibe of some of the area's events can be a little off-putting to visitors, but if you make an effort to meet a few regulars, they can open you up to the events that you might be missing. There's a term for the attitude here, Minnesota Nice, and it means that the people are outgoing and friendly, but if you don't converse for a little bit, those niceties can stay on the surface. Ask away at high-profile club events to get a bit more information on things that are going on under the radar. You might be surprised at what you find.
It's by filling niches like dubstep and indie dance that the Minneapolis scene continues to grow. Lansky/SovietPanda suggests that, "there's more crossover now between Black and TML than there used to be, and the dubstep scene seems more off on its own, but that's getting really popular too." Sharing DJs between events has brought about cross-pollination, an exposure to new and classic sounds due to the city's smaller size and commitment to community. Minneapolis events have piggybacked off of one another for years, and the result has been a vaulted scene, taller and stronger than the scenes of its peers.
"Where it used to be this underground thing that no venue in Minneapolis would touch, all kinds of dance music events are happening every night of the week now," Trash beams, full of pride for the environment that's been built. "You can go see anything you want, whenever you want." From chilled-out Miami style rooftop parties (Communion) and mainstream house nights (Get Banged at Envy) to shows that specialize in rapid BPMs (Hard Dance Nation) and special one-offs (and just about everything in between), Minneapolis can suit whatever your tastes might be, an embarrassment of riches for a town of its size. Whether you want to catch Tiesto or Ben Klock, it's not necessary to travel 8 hours to Chicago; the city's promoters are bringing them right here, and every show is bolstered by a roster of area talent that equals (and in some cases, surpasses) any other city in the country.
"I remember when we had Claude Young in town," Khutoretsky reminisced. "He played an incredible set and then we took him to an afterparty where he was supposed to play, and we watched Alexander East and Daniel Paul, two local DJs, play the best sets I've ever seen them play. Young was supposed to take over, and he didn't even want to—he just wanted to listen to these local guys. And he looks over at me, and he tells me that Minneapolis is the future, and I still believe him. This city has local talent that can rival international touring acts on almost every level."
It's thanks to the hardworking promoters and artists in Minneapolis that the myriad of events are able to occur and continue, but the zeal and energy in the area belongs to the crowds alone. The audience here may follow the lead of the promoter and the venue, but the growth of dance culture in Minneapolis belongs to both, and newcomers are eager to explore what the city has to offer. As the whisperings of Minneapolis' store of talent, dedication, and energy begin to get louder, the city's secret is closer than ever to becoming a well-known fact: There's something special happening, and if you want in, now you know exactly where to find it.