"Dance or die!" Holly Dicker attends the biggest indoor hardcore rave in history to tell the story of Thunderdome and Holland's most significant youth culture movement.
Tonight we're not only celebrating history, we're making it. 40,000 people are about to descend upon the Jaarbeurs convention centre for the biggest indoor hardcore party ever attempted. It's still early. People are making final preparations behind closed doors, but I slip through and familiarise myself with the floorplan. The place is huge. So huge that event staff are riding around on bicycles.
I head to the main stage, the Thunderdome, through a maze of rooms separated by turnstiles. I pass an enormous clown with bulging eyes and a flame of hair. This is the Heroes Of Hardcore arena and the DJ booth is nestled beneath the clown's bared teeth and protruding white ruffle. It's where hardcore pioneers like Marc Acardipane (AKA The Mover) and "the Godfather" DJ Paul Elstak will perform. At the main stage, Gerard Zwijnenburg and his team are triple-checking the pyrotechnics. The empty room, which will be wall-to-wall later with 20,000 hardcore fans, is suddenly filled by a web of lime green laser beams. At the back of the hall, Thunderdome's iconic wizard logo, with its outstretched fists in emblematic defiance, glows neon red.
It's 9:59 PM, and the rave is about to start. I position myself at the front of the Industrial Dome stage, where Mindustries are opening. I watch the shutters lift and people pour in. It's quite a sight. Mindustries' Yuri van Vlijmen captures it on his phone while his partner, Nils van Lingen, drops one of the first tracks of Thunderdome 2017: their slugging remix of "The Wandering Mind" by The Outside Agency, who'll play after them. The area is teeming within minutes, but I'm not ready to let rip just yet.
I head back to the entrance, where people are already queueing to get their hands on the latest line of merch; those not decked out in Thunderdome attire are in the minority. The Thunderdome Museum has also drawn a crowd. It's been set up by João Dias, Wouter Agen and a Belgian mega collector called Sven Vercaigne, who's displaying some of his most cherished possessions. There's an assortment of caps, shirts, one-off bomber jackets (some exhumed from clothing collection bins), CDs, keychains and other knick-knacks, including Thunder-doms—yep, Thunderdome-branded condoms.
Victor Feenstra, the artist behind the striking Thunderdome sleeves that feature characters borrowed from science fiction, horror films and comics, has his own stall. His decades of work for Thunderdome has recently been compiled into a book. In the food hall there are enormous CD cases that he designed dangling from the ceiling.
Nearby, the tattooist Hollywood Mark is busy branding the next generation of Thunderdome Diehards with the Wizard; if you have one and register it then you're guaranteed free entry to Thunderdome for life. To date, there are around 1800 Wizard tattoos registered. I'm after something a little less permanent, so I pay Kevin Spencer a visit at the gabber kapper. Spencer is also a tattooist, but tonight he's purely on barbering business. He beams me a smile—a flash of gold behind a face full of ink—and asks, "So, what'll it be?" I take a seat as Spencer's colleague Jill readies the clippers. I get my undercut re-shaved. Half a head of hair lighter I feel liberated and ready to "Dance or die!"
1992 is for you
The first Thunderdome took place on October 3rd, 1992, at the Thialf ice skating arena in Friesland, a province in the northwest of Holland. "The ultimate mega house-party" was written on the flyer, and over 30,000 people showed up. DJs Dano, Gizmo, The Prophet and Buzz Fuzz all played, with Denis Doeland, AKA DJ Weirdo, on the warm-up. There had never been a rave of this magnitude at Thialf before. It featured a fairground ride called the Giant Octopus, a brightly coloured spinning monstrosity that is still wheeled out at events today.
"That first Thunderdome wasn't hardcore or gabber yet," says Duncan Stutterheim, speaking to the music journalist Gert van Veen in Release / Celebrate Life: The Story Of ID&T. "That came later. It was simply a good party, a rave. But at the time, there was already the divide between mellow (or clubhouse), and the harder music. The 'pump' was starting to take over. Music, bursting with energy."
In 1992 Stutterheim, together with Irfan van Ewijk and Theo Lelie, founded ID&T, the company that would become one of the biggest and most significant dance music enterprises in Holland. Thunderdome wasn't the first party they'd promoted—that was The Final Exam, held at the Jaarbeurs centre in Utrecht on June 20th, 1992, which pulled in 12,000 punters. Not bad for a first attempt, but for them, it wasn't big enough.
1992 was also the year Dano, Gizmo, The Prophet and Buzz Fuzz formed The Dreamteam, hardcore's first DJ team, and Thunderdome's flagship act. After the event at Thialf, DJ Weirdo, a school friend of Stutterheim's, became Thunderdome's resident DJ. As for Theo Lelie, the "T" in ID&T was asked to leave after The Final Exam for not showing enough commitment during the clean-up—it was all hands on deck back in those days, van Ewijk tells me: "The party finished at seven in the morning and we were still busy at 11 that same night." To save money, they decided to do all the cleaning themselves. Stutterheim and van Ewijk were barely 20 years old, inexperienced, and living at home.
The following year, 1993, the young ID&T accelerated towards their new calling. There was a flurry of Thunderdome events, which seriously took their toll on the group—from 1994 onwards they decided to throw just one big Thunderdome per year. ID&T invested in a record store, Bad Vibes in Alkmaar, and put Denis Doeland in charge. They set up a label, ID&T Music, to release Thunderdome's first compilation CD, featuring productions exclusively from The Dreamteam. It was the start of the commercial music empire that would ultimately fund Thunderdome (and ID&T) through its expansion during the '90s. "The CD sales saved our asses multiple times," van Ewijk says. They sold around 9000 copies of that first Dreamteam CD; sales of later editions would exceed three million worldwide.
Like so many of ID&T's endeavours, ID&T Music was fraught with complications. Before they had even released their first CD, the group was locked in a battle with Arcade, one of the biggest record labels in Holland at the time. Arcade had launched their own Thunderdome CD series, starting with F*ck Mellow, This Is Hardcore From Hell, without ID&T's consent. The name had been "stolen" from them, although ID&T did benefit from the free advertising. After months of butting heads and consulting lawyers, ID&T and Arcade agreed to collaborate, launching the joint venture Thunderdome Inc at the end of 1993. From Thunderdome V onwards, Doeland was responsible for curating all of Thunderdome's CDs, and several other ID&T Music series.
1993 was a huge year for ID&T, but by 1994 they were on the verge of bankruptcy. What happened? Mysteryland. The event was launched by Sander Groet and Brian Bout at TNT in the summer of '93. It was a pioneering dance music event in Holland, which brought multiple emerging music styles together for the first time in one place. It was a success, but financially disastrous, which is why ID&T were brought on as partners for the second edition. Mysteryland '94 was held at Maasvlakte, a manmade industrial site in Rotterdam jutting out into the North Sea. Thunderdome hosted a stage and hardcore featured heavily on the bill. "The crowd were clearly enjoying themselves, but for the promoters, Mysteryland '94 was hell," writes van Veen in Release / Celebrate Life. They had collectively spent over a million guilders (what would have been roughly 450,000 euros) on production, and they'd drawn less than half the amount of people expected. "All our capital was gone," Stutterheim tells van Veen.
The hardcore timeline begins in 1992, and the scene was divided between Amsterdam and Rotterdam from the off. The cities produced rival scenes, each with their own record labels, DJs, parties and promoters. Hardcore from Amsterdam sounded different to hardcore from Rotterdam. In Amsterdam it was more "experimental," while hardcore from Rotterdam tended to be cruder and "straight to the point," as Dennis Copier, AKA DJ Panic, explains. The leading hardcore labels during this period were Fred Berkhout's Mokum Records ("Mokum" being a slang reference to Amsterdam) and Paul Elstak's Rotterdam Records.
Even though they weren't all from Amsterdam, The Dreamteam (and ID&T) were connected to the Amsterdam scene. DJ Dano and The Prophet produced Mokum's first release under the group guise Vitamin. All four Dreamteam members played regularly at Multigroove, an illegal rave widely considered to be the crucible of hardcore in Amsterdam. Multigroove was based at Warehouse Elementenstraat, a squatted venue back in those days, which reopened as a club in 2012. The infamous Parkzicht club was Rotterdam's equivalent, with Rob Janssen, AK DJ Rob, driving the gabber craze—the emergent youth movement that was sweeping through the nation—on Friday nights. Rotterdam also had Pompeï, a 250-capacity youth centre in the south of the city. DJ Panic was a resident at Pompeï, which he tells me was "the only club in the city that played hardcore from the beginning to the end."
Rotterdam's real hardcore mecca was the Energiehal. Here larger raves like Nightmare were going off, regularly pulling crowds of up to 15,000. Nightmare was started by Rob Janssen and Paul Elstak in 1992. After the first edition at Parkzicht, Nightmare relocated to the Energiehal and expanded in parallel with the city's gabber explosion. Nightmare was Rotterdam's answer to Thunderdome, although these were still relatively small events in comparison.
Rotterdam and Amsterdam have been competitors for centuries, a rivalry that seeped into the hardcore scene. ID&T tried to distance themselves from it by hosting Thunderdome in "neutral" territories like Utrecht and Friesland. It guaranteed a balance of Amsterdam and Rotterdam DJs on the bill, and hardcore fans from all over the country would be encouraged to attend. How serious was the intercity hardcore rivalry, and where did it come from? It seems like Paul Elstak threw the first punch with Amsterdam Waar Lech Dat Dan? ("Amsterdam, Where's That?"), his first release on Rotterdam Records. The cover featured Rotterdam's iconic landmark, the Euromast, pissing on a map of Amsterdam.
"It was really a gimmick, and we were all quite young at the time," says Copier. "There was no rivalry between the artists and producers, not at all. It was more about football." Hardcore acts might have played up the feud but the football rivalry was no joke. To this day Ajax (Amsterdam) and Feyenoord (Rotterdam) supporters are bitter enemies, and gabber attracted football supporters in their droves. Fights did occur at hardcore events, and DJs with strong city affiliations—Elstak and Copier proudly wore their Rotterdam Records and Forze Records shirts to most gigs—were sometimes threatened when playing to a rival crowd. "It was not a cool period," Copier says. Violence would continue to plague the hardcore scene throughout the '90s and into the new millennium.
The promised land
The '90s gave rise to Holland's most significant youth culture movement. Gabber was a national phenomenon, to the extent that there were even gabber raves for kids, as Max Pearl, now an RA staff writer, detailed in a 2014 piece for Thump. Gabber was on the TV, on the radio and in the charts. Gabbers, as they were called, had their own distinctive look—the "uniform" of brightly coloured Australian brand shell suits, Nike Air Max trainers and shaved heads—for both the girls and the boys. They also had their own distinctive set of dance moves.
Being a gabber meant being extreme, but also having fun with your mates and being part of a community. The sports look was practical but also a reaction to the sleek aesthetics courted by the "mellow" house scene, which gabber was diametrically opposed to. Gabbers were instantly recognisable, which was part of the appeal in the beginning—one of the many points raised in a recent documentary on the subject, Uniform - The Dress Code Of Dutch Hardcore Culture.
Between 1995 and '97, hardcore was at its zenith and Thunderdome was in its prime. There were two editions of Mysteryland in 1997, each with a Thunderdome stage. Thunderdome went on a club tour throughout Europe and the Thunderdome CDs were earning ID&T millions. The rest of the world was envious, as van Veen writes: "Everyone wanted to meet the bunch of daredevils that had built a company worth millions on the waves of gabber music."
The press was naturally drawn to the gabber phenomenon, but was all too often captivated by the "excesses" of the gabber scene, as the music journalist Gerd Jan Vleugels puts it in Release / Celebrate Life. Reporters who knew nothing about hardcore were sent to cover the gabber scene, resulting in sensationalist stories that were skewed by an outsider perspective. This type of media coverage deemed the music "demonic," while the gabbers themselves were written off as drug-taking hooligans at best, "uneducated, inarticulate, violent, racist, homophobic and sexist" at worst, as journalist Jules Marshall wrote in his gabber expose titled Harder Than Hardcore, for iD magazine in 1993.
Gabber culture was endlessly stigmatised by the media; it seemed that newspaper and TV journalists simply didn't understand it. "Why isn't anyone writing about the camaraderie of gabbers?" said one frustrated reader in a letter to national newspaper De Volkskrant, in 1996. "I hope that for once you let an article be written by someone who really understands it. In other words: a real gabber!"
This type of coverage was happening within the hardcore scene, with journalists like Vleugels writing as a fan, for the fans. There was also Thunder Magazine, the most authoritative publication on hardcore at the time (which Vleugels wrote for). It was launched by ID&T in '96, and by '97 it had reached a circulation of 35,000, making it "by far the most popular music magazine in the Netherlands," writes van Veen.
As gabber's popularity grew, it transitioned into an exploitable commodity for advertisers wanting to cash in on the craze. Gabber culture was used to sell a range of products, from dip sauce to Kit Kats. Some of the music was in the process of selling out, too. In 1995, happy hardcore, which started in the UK, hit the Netherlands via Technohead and their anthemic "I Wanna Be A Hippy," which was number one in the Dutch charts for three consecutive weeks that summer. (It was released on Amsterdam's Mokum Records.)
Mokum's "rival," Rotterdam Records, experienced similar chart success a few years earlier with Rotterdam Termination Source's "Poing." The label would continue to churn out hits with its chief, Paul Elstak, releasing a slew of happy hardcore anthems. He explains why he turned to happy hardcore in Simon Reynolds' Generation Ecstasy: "By 1994, the music was too hard, too fast. Fewer girls were dancing, and we lost the party atmosphere. And kids were taking too many drugs to keep up with the speed."
Happy hardcore polarised the scene, but it was a money maker that ID&T couldn't ignore. They signed Critical Mass to ID&T Music, and the duo earned them a series of commercial successes. There was also DJ Waxweazle, real name Rob Fabrie, who used to perform with Elstak in the proto-gabber group Holy Noise. He had his own eponymous sub-label on ID&T, which released darker and more neurotic forms of happy hardcore.
Acts like Critical Mass and Technohead paved the way for other, more profitable outfits, like the manufactured gabber-pop act Party Animals—"one of the most successful Dutch Dance acts of all time," according to the group's Discogs page. From then on it was a race to the bottom for gabber, with parody acts like Hakkûhbar, Gabber Piet and De Mosselman making gabber tunes out of nursery rhymes and outright mocking the music and the culture.
By the end of the '90s, gabbers had become a national joke. Bobby Jacques, a gabber and collector from Rotterdam, recalls his experiences in the 2017 documentary Uniform: "People started to associate you with the parodies they saw on the television. The whole culture became a caricature. When I look back from my own perspective, I can remember that being a gabber meant something, you had a certain status as a gabber. But that all changed. People started to ridicule you."
During '98 and '99, an even bigger concern emerged in hardcore. I meet Boris Postma, a photographer and second generation gabber, to talk about the "Lonsdale Youth crisis" that almost brought gabber (and Thunderdome) to its knees. Postma first attended Thunderdome in 2002, the year of the infamous cages that came down from the ceiling at 1 AM and "trapped" ravers inside.
This was Thunderdome's ten-year anniversary, at Amsterdam's RAI, and by that point the "Lonsdale Youth" look—Lonsdale shirts, rolled up jeans and army boots—had replaced the casual sports uniform of the first generation gabbers. The media were quick to make and exacerbate a link that developed between Lonsdale clothing and right-wing extremism, as if the two were synonymous. "I was just 16 years old following the trend at the time," Postma remembers. "I wore Lonsdale clothing and there were first generation gabbers trying to beat me up because of the negative connotation of the brand—even though I have a Jewish background myself and was in no way politically active."
After an escalation in racially motivated incidents in Holland, police and the national security service, AIVD, launched an investigation into the so-called Lonsdale Youth crisis. They discovered that only a small proportion (five percent) of youths who wore the clothing brand actually held right-wing extremist beliefs, as De Volkskrant reported in July 2005. In their annual report five years later, AIVD declared the Lonsdale Youth subculture had all but disappeared.
It's important to note that the rise of right-wing extremism in Holland during this period, and the violence that came with it, did bleed into the hardcore scene. But only a small minority of gabbers followed the ideology. "There was a group that pursued right-wing ideals, and although they dressed the part and said certain things, they also did drugs and were more escapist than ideological," says Postma. "The real right-wing and neo-Nazi skinheads often did not accept these 'Gabber-Skins.' Within the gabber scene itself they were called 'Wazis'—wannabe Nazis."
Nevertheless, this period left a mark on the hardcore scene, one it's been pushing back against ever since. In June 2005, at the height of the media-inflamed Lonsdale Youth crisis, several hardcore promoters banded together to throw Hardcore United, a huge anti-racism event at Beursgebouw in Eindhoven, supported by DJs throughout the scene. All proceeds were donated to the National Bureau For Combating Racial Discrimination (LBR).
Hooliganism, racially motivated violence, drugs, negative media profiling, commercial exploitation, ridicule, parodies and extended overexposure on a massive scale all contributed to gabber's eventual demise. Going into the new millennium, the Dutch underground subculture that ID&T helped to expose through Thunderdome seemed like it was coming to an end.
For the first year since its inception, the 2000 edition of Thunderdome didn't happen. It was due to take place in Ghent, but van Veen writes that "influential neighbours had complained, and ID&T had to cancel the party." ID&T Music was also suffering from dwindling CD sales and a rapidly deteriorating relationship with Arcade, who had been sold off to Dutch newspaper publishers Wegener during the hardcore boom in '97. Thunder Mag was also finished, and the Thunderdome website was taken offline. "The hardcore scene had really collapsed, it was a mess," says van Ewijk in Release / Celebrate Life.
Thunderdome was only put on hold for a while—it returned in 2001—but something irreversible happened that prior year: ID&T lost its heart for hardcore. From 2000 onwards Stutterheim, van Ewijk and the team began investing heavily in trance. Sensation and Tiësto become ID&T's new flagships. And within hardcore, a separatist subgenre was breaking through. Some Thunderdome DJs, like The Prophet and Lady Dana, were involved in developing this new style, which drew from techno, trance and UK hard house, all set to an old-school or "early hardcore" tempo of 140 to 150 BPM. But it never crossed over into Thunderdome. Instead it was picked up by Wouter Tavecchio and Wildrik Timmerman at Q-Dance, and grown into one of Holland's biggest dance music exports: hardstyle.
Running against the rules
Between 2001 and 2012, Thunderdome had continual changes of leadership, each with a new vision. The sound of Thunderdome changed. For the first four years of the 2000s, Thunderdome was pushed in a new industrial direction by one of hardcore's revolutionary figures at the time, Sebastian Hoff, AKA DJ Promo. As hardcore was going pop, Hoff was taking it back to its dark, raw genesis with his productions—the hardcore techno of The Mover and PCP, which prefaced the Dutch gabber explosion. Hoff's hardcore was much slower, darker and moodier, which you can hear on his seminal series of EPs, the Promo Files, which were released through ID&T Music between '98 and '99.
After the Promo Files, Hoff was brought on to manage Thunderdome—the parties and CD series—with Martijn Mobron (DJ X-Ess), who was working at ID&T Music in A&R. Their first party together, at the Heineken Music Hall in Amsterdam, featured acts like Manu Le Malin from France and the UK's Simon Underground and The DJ Producer. "We just totally changed it," says Hoff. "We kicked out all the mainstream stuff to try and reinvent the look and direction of Thunderdome." It wasn't well attended, but it did set a precedent for a more adventurous phase in Thunderdome's bookings, which Andre van Zuijlen (an MC from the terror scene, MC Justice) and Gerard Zwijnenburg (who was managing ID&T's techno and trance event, Innercity) would continue from 2006 until 2012.
By the mid-'00s, hardcore had shattered into several subgenres. "What I wanted to do was put them all back together again, in one room," van Zuijlen tells me about his first Thunderdome event at the Jaarbeurs, in 2006. Like Hoff, he put together a challenging lineup for his first edition—giving peak-time slots to (then) relatively new names and mixing up the subgenres. For van Zuijlen, Thunderdome served as the ideal platform for introducing hardcore fans to different styles—"because, in my opinion it's all hardcore"—and breaking down the barriers between them.
In 2010 this idea came to life at the Breaking Barriers event at the Jaarbeurs. One big hall had a stage in the centre, which was divided into four "rooms" by soundproof curtains. The subgenres riskily included dubstep and crossbreed, a mix of hardcore and drum & bass "invented" by The Outside Agency. The other "rooms" featured the faster (200 to 250 BPM) Frenchcore and more popular mainstream and early hardcore styles, which were all kept separate until 1 AM. Then, an alarm went off and the curtains were raised to reveal the centre stage, and the party symbolically united.
In addition to working with Zwijnenburg on the lineups, van Zuijlen ran Thunderdome Radio from 2006 to 2013, along with another Thunderdome MC, Da Mouth Of Madness. ID&T had been involved in radio since the '90s, but van Zuijlen, who'd never worked in radio before, was charged with rebooting its hardcore transmission. Thunderdome Radio was streamed live every Wednesday night, from 8 PM until midnight, from the club Studio 80 to over 30,000 listeners. They'd have guest talents every week—"a lot of those talents are now some of the biggest artists in hardcore," says van Zuijlen—and conducted artist interviews. They also regularly prank-called acts; it was more like a "comedy show," van Zuijlen tells me. Thunderdome Radio's final transmission took place on December 18th, 2013, at the BEAT Club in Amsterdam, in front of 600 people.
Throughout the '90s, Thunderdome was the leading hardcore brand. But during hardcore's second evolution others rose up to supplant it, like Bass D and King Matthew's Masters Of Hardcore and Jan Lok's B2S in Rotterdam, among others. Huge hardcore meetups, which Thunderdome pioneered, became more commonplace. These days there's Decibel Outdoor festival, from B2S, which is one of the biggest hard dance music festivals in the Netherlands, and Q-Dance's Defqon.1, which was founded in 2003. Hardcore has rapidly professionalised during this time. It's big business and a booming industry, especially in Holland. Hardcore has its own industry conference at Amsterdam Dance Event, called Hard Dance Event, which was started by Q-Dance in 2010.
Thunderdome had its own panel at HDE 2017, hosted by the journalists Onno Schram and Pim Dijkgraaf. (The pair are currently writing a book on Thunderdome for Mary Go Wild, the same publishers behind Release / Celebrate Life.) Rather than discuss the history of the brand, the panel—featuring Frank Nitzinsky from The Outside Agency, Sebastian Hoff (DJ Promo), Sietse van Daalen (MC Da Mouth Of Madness) and the younger Sefa Vlaarkamp (Sefa)—offered a broader survey of hardcore and its evolution over the last 25 years. The takeout was that it has changed almost beyond recognition.
The scene has musically fragmented, and there is clear tension between the generations. "A lot of the elder DJs and producers feel threatened by the new kids, who are doing something that they sort of don't understand," Hoff explains to me after the panel. Not only have the subgenres multiplied, the divides between them have widened and calcified. But surely it's all hardcore in the end? The answer is a complicated yes and no. Hardcore is one of the rare cases in dance music where the BPM range is incredibly vast. It can sink well below the house music standard (the sludgy darkcore or doomcore) or be so fast (1000-plus BPM) that it starts to sound ambient. There's so much room for creativity, but also for contention—hardcore's blessing and its curse.
In 2012 ID&T threw what looked like being the last-ever Thunderdome. It was called The Final Exam, held at the RAI, and it was named after the party that launched ID&T two decades earlier. All the crucial Thunderdome acts, past and present, reunited for one final blowout. It even brought Lady Dana out of retirement. Dana van Dreven says she owes her career to Thunderdome, and she's had an incredible one. Next to The Dreamteam, Lady Dana has racked up the most Thunderdome appearances and she's one of the best-loved Thundergods, Thunderdome's veteran DJs. She started playing hardcore in the early '90s, at a time when there were very few women DJs in Holland. She played her first ID&T gig at Mysteryland in '96, when Thunderdome hosted a stage. She remained a fixture at the festival for the following 12 years, performing an unbelievable six times at her last Mysteryland, in 2008. By this point she'd become one of the highest-ranking women DJs in the hard dance scene, playing hardcore as Lady Dana and hardstyle as Dana.
In 2010 van Dreven was forced to retire for health reasons, but she wasn't going to miss the final Thunderdome. "I was wearing a sling," she recalls. "I had one arm, so I played with my good friend Peter, DJ Uzi." Uzi—usually an early hardcore DJ—and Dana weren't an ideal match, but they made it work, much to everybody's delight. "To look into the crowd and have everybody smiling to see me, that made it all worthwhile," she says. "I was really confused about my future at the time and ended up loving the event so much that it gave me energy to keep fighting."
The decision to stop Thunderdome in 2012 didn't come easily. It was during the rise of EDM in the US, where Stutterheim had relocated with his family, and where ID&T had set their sights. Like lots of people at the time, they wanted a "piece of the EDM pie," writes van Veen. They had entered into talks with Pasquale Rotella from Insomniac Events (Electric Daisy Carnival) and SFX Entertainment's Robert Sillerman about strengthening their position in the US. Hardcore didn't really fit with ID&T's new EDM alignment or vision for the future. The official announcement that Thunderdome 2012 would be its last was finally made during Dominator Festival in July, a mere five months before the final event at Amsterdam RAI. The following year, on October 21st, 2013, SFX Entertainment acquired 100% of ID&T.
The Final Exam was the end of an era for ID&T. But there was one person at the company who refused to let Thunderdome die. Francois Maas, AKA The Field Marshall, joined the company in 1999 as part of the promotions team and is one of the longest-serving employees at ID&T. He's the reason Thunderdome still exists today. "It's the brand I grew up with," he tells me, "and my best friend."
From 2013, Maas took it upon himself to "protect" the Thunderdome brand, in secret. In 2014 he organised a pop-up event at the Mary Go Wild bookstore in Amsterdam and created a new line of merch, including a new CD, Thunderdome - The Golden Series, which all happened without ID&T knowing. The Thunderdome Die Hard Days followed—daytime fan events, with music, artist Q&As, a collector's market, museum and, yes, the gabber kapper. For Maas, Thunderdome was always going to return in 2017—with or without the backing of ID&T.
See you in 2017
It's 2 AM at Thunderdome in 2017. From this point on, Thunderdome shifts a gear. All the punters are in and have settled into their chosen arenas. The main stage is completely full, people are being turned away and the turnstiles are proving essential. I've been watching people flood in from the safety of the artist's lounge, a raised viewing platform at the back of the hall overlooking the main stage. Everyone performing has been given a goodie bag that includes a Thunderdome scarf, hoodie and bomber jacket, all inscribed with their artist name.
DJ Promo has just finished his special "25 years of hardcore" set in a blitzkrieg of lasers, ending with The Outside Agency's controversial "Locker Room Talk," which was recently released on one of Hoff's sub-labels. It samples the Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape (among other things), and when the sample drops, the president's face appears on the giant LED screen behind the DJ booth. Trump is dubbed a "pussy grabber" as beats rain down like bullets. It's barbarous, satirical and one hell of a hardcore track. I'm sat next to Frank Nitzinsky, one half of The Outside Agency, as it happens. He's laughing.
Hoff spent an hour chronologically careening through the hardcore timeline, kicking off in 1992 with one of Ramon Roelofs' first hits (before The Hague DJ shot to fame as the infamous gabber act Charly Lownoise). Naturally, with so much to get through, tracks are chopped in and out at such a furious rate it's hard to keep up. But a voiceover announces the transitions from year to year, for those who are trying. Early on, people in white chemical suits and gasmasks storm the stage with flares during PCP's iconic "Slaves To The Rave"; they return later to blast the crowd with fire extinguishers during uptempo/terror artist Angernoizer's merciless "De Moeder" at the end. In between, the BPMs have escalated, and it's been a gruelling ride. Hoff, however, has been full of energy for the duration. He's clearly having the night of his life.
I make my way to the Thundergods stage on the other side of Jaarbeurs. I want to see The Prophet, the founder of The Dreamteam, Thunderdome's flagship DJ act. The DJ booth sits in a wall of old TVs flashing colourful graphics and the ceiling here is much lower. There's something fittingly crude about the setup and there's a proper party vibe unlike anywhere else in the building. Someone is waving around a giant inflatable banana, there are glow sticks. It's going off. My arrival is timed perfectly: Speedy J's epochal Rotterdam anthem (and Feyenoord football chant) "Pullover"—sped up, of course—rips through the crowd and everybody roars. "Hardcore Vibes" by Dune, another classic, gets a similar response. I love it here. The crowd is a little bit older and it feels more intimate, like a house party. This must be what those early Thunderdome raves felt like. I wish I could spend more time here, but I don't want to miss everything else that's going on.
Lenny Dee is on at 4 AM at the Uptempo Cage, the arena dedicated to hardcore's latest craze. Uptempo is fast (185 to 220 BPM), intense and unrefined. It's not for everybody (I personally don't like it) but it's hugely popular at the moment. It's challenging mainstream hardcore (the type of big-room hardcore that's being played on the Thunderdome mainstage tonight) as the dominant hardcore sound. Lenny Dee seems like a strange choice for the Uptempo Cage. He's not really an uptempo artist, he's more a chameleon hardcore act who has dabbled in all sorts throughout his lengthy career. He started as a house DJ in the '80s, and more recently he's been drawn to techno, producing and promoting it through his Hard Electronic label, a newer subsidiary of his pioneering Industrial Strength label, which pre-dates Mokum and Rotterdam Records.
"I fuse all the styles together," he tells me in the lead up to Thunderdome. "I'm more of an outsider compared to the Dutch guys, who will primarily keep to a single sound or subgenre." He's certainly an outsider tonight: the crowd don't seem to know how to react as the New York artist launches into his set. "I'm playing like fucking nuts at the moment," he says beforehand. "I think I'm playing more crazy now than I have in a very long time. I treat the records like bullets in a machine gun." It's a headfuck, but I'm into it. There's no flow, and it's disruptive—a bit like Promo's set from earlier, only more jagged and at breakneck pace. The crowd loosens up eventually.
Paul Elstak and Panic are due to start at the other end of Jaarbeurs, on the stage that's a giant clown head. The last time I saw Elstak perform was on home turf during Dutch Liberation Day in 2016. Thousands of people had gathered under the shadow of the city's most iconic landmark, the Euromast, to hear Rotterdam's greatest musical exports play all their favourite hits. Hits feature heavily once again in Elstak's back-to-back with Panic, his Forze DJ Team partner and former protégé, but it's nowhere near as commercial as Elstak's solo gig in the park. This was the Thunderdome set I was looking forward to the most but I can't get into it. I'm like a drop in the ocean, inconsequential, and unable to find a sweet spot on a dance floor this vast.
During Elstak and Panic's set my mind drifted back to Dennis Copier's performance at TodaysArt in The Hague. It was a real hardcore communion, and Copier went deep on the selections, playing lots of early and proto-gabber tracks and weaving it in with breakbeat. Copier is regarded as a "freestyle" DJ, which he considers a compliment. "Freestyle is all sorts of genres in one night," he says. "You can play hardcore, hardstyle, techno, whatever you want—it means you're diverse." He seems pigeonholed at Thunderdome and would prefer a setup that enabled a deeper connection with the audience. "There was too much distance from the crowd," Copier tells me afterwards. "I enjoyed playing but, personally, I like the smaller stages. You can feel the vibe of the party."
I agree. The smallest stage at Thunderdome is The Tunnel Of Terror. It's as the name implies: a long, dark, enclosed tunnel lined with speakers and slicked in blinding strobe lights. It's disabling and intimidating by design. A huge bloody ear with a nail driven through it looms over the entrance. It's comical and threatening, which also applies to the terror sound itself. Terror is one of the oldest hardcore subgenres—it's also one of the most aggressive. It's fast (190 to 300 BPM), bludgeoning and occasionally hilarious. It has a few notable jesters as well, like the goblin-masked Noisekick, who is playing the close. The Tunnel Of Terror, which was first set up at Mysteryland in 1993, is for extreme hardcore heads only. It's too much for me, but I definitely see its fun and therapeutic attraction.
We're now entering the final stages of Thunderdome. I return to my favourite arena, the Industrial Dome, where the chief of my favourite Rotterdam party and label is closing. PRSPCT's Thrasher is going back-to-back with Detest from Germany and Andre van Zuijlen (MC Justice) is hosting. PRSPCT is one of the smaller, more musically diverse hardcore brands in Holland. It began over 15 years ago by cross-pollinating hard drum & bass with hardcore (later, albeit skeptically, dubbed crossbreed), as well as pushing breakcore and jungle alongside more traditional forms of hardcore. It's closer to the sound of Bangface than anything else, and Thrasher certainly brings a PRSPCT party vibe to the final hours of Thunderdome.
I'm not quite ready to leave Jaarbeurs. Back at the artist's lounge there are a few stragglers. I thank and congratulate van Zuijlen, who has been MCing all night. I ask Lenny Dee for a photo, and I see someone who is stripping the artist lockers of Thunderdome stickers—a Diehard collector. In the halls, a group of bar staff are leaving and are all smiling. A German girl at the lockers has lost her stuff and her friends, and her bus is leaving soon. We can't really communicate with each other but I make it my mission to help her, because that's what gabbers do. An hour later, she's en route back to Germany with a hundred or so equally satisfied hardcore fans.
So what happens now? Is Thunderdome back for good? "I hope," says Francois Maas, not giving anything away. "It was a great party but I don't think you have to do this every year," says Copier. "If you do that, it'll be normal again." Copier believes that a comeback could be tricky for a brand as historic as Thunderdome. "In my opinion, Thunderdome is still an early rave party. As much as you want to include the hardcore from now, it's still a brand from back in the day, and that's difficult if you want to refresh and to renew with an old name."
Thunderdome has tried to keep up, splitting itself between the old and newer styles of hardcore that have evolved over the last 25 years. But not everybody is happy, chiefly van Zuijlen, who has been fighting hard to unite the different factions of hardcore since joining ID&T over ten years ago. "There are too many barriers again. We are back at the beginning," he tells me. His dream is that everyone who attends Thunderdome receives the full hardcore experience, rather than remaining blinkered to the single hardcore subgenre they're familiar with.
The biggest challenge Thunderdome faces now is staying relevant and interesting. To do that it needs to keep an eye on the smaller promoters and events, like PRSPCT, as well as the trends happening even further afield. As we outlined at the end of last year, 2017 felt particularly significant for hardcore because of all the activity happening outside of Thunderdome's orbit, in other parts of Europe such as France, Poland and Sweden. Last year crews like Casual Gabberz, WIXAPOL S.A., Drömfakulteten and Gabber Eleganza were all helping make hardcore more prominent and culturally valuable. Crucially, they were bringing hardcore to a wider and not strictly hardcore-orientated audience through alternative platforms like catwalk shows, magazine spreads, Tumblr archives, art exhibitions and experimental music festivals like Club To Club in Turin and CTM in Berlin.
At CTM, hardcore's old guard (Panic, The Darkraver and Marc Acardipane) played side by side with younger artists at a night dedicated to gabber past, present and future. Drömfakulteten's HAJ300 and Kablam and KUNQ affiliate Kilbourne were among the rising acts billed who are all pushing hardcore in new directions. Poland's post-internet crew WIXAPOL S.A. closed the CTM night at Berghain with the sort of humorous gestures they've become renowned for. It all highlighted that a kaleidoscopic hardcore audience exists, and the rewards are there for adventurous programmers.
Whether Thunderdome goes back into exile or picks up the mantel as the world's leading hardcore brand again, it has been immortalised. It has survived the collapse, rebirth and fragmentation of hardcore. It has even outlasted its ID&T forefathers. Duncan Stutterheim left the company in 2015, and Irfan van Ewijk is only involved in a consulting capacity nowadays, "a listening ear," as he calls it. Thunderdome has endured through dark times and sustained media profiling to become a cult icon—a symbol of hardcore, Dutch subculture and so much more, recognised and admired across the globe. It has been tattooed onto thousands of bodies and permanently etched into the hearts and minds of countless people.
Hardcore will never die, and neither will Thunderdome.