Local Current Blog

Dance vortex: How house and techno music have thrived in the Twin Cities

Steve 'Centrific' Seuling at Communion, Solera, Minneapolis, 2009. Below: Bassgasm 3, First Avenue, 2011. (Courtesy Anna Gulbrandsen)

On an especially windy and barren Minnesota weekend this past winter, late-night traffic puttered along the frosty intersections. Even in the densely populated neighborhoods of Minneapolis, there was a shuttered expression to the residential avenues. The bars seemed sparsely patronized for a Friday, and foot traffic was limited to the occasional shadow shuffling across plowed snowbanks. 

But if you stood outside a certain house or industrial lot, you may have heard the faint thud of rhythmic bass, the muted cheer of an enthused crowd responding to a clever transition between tracks. Flashing, multi-colored lights escaped through curtained windows. 

These would have been the first indications you’d stumbled across one of the multiple DIY electronic dance shows that took place within the Twin Cities any given weekend. When social distancing restrictions ease up, they’ll surely come back.

One specific show last winter was staged in someone’s home: a shrugging mid-modern which trembled every time the subwoofers rumble. You’d walk up to the main door like you would any other house: there was a “bouncer” at the door, presumably one of the people who lived upstairs, who monitored a home security camera. You’d pay the seven-dollar cover fee and enter an apartment space that was entirely dedicated to putting on the show. 

The DJ stage sat where one might put a television and a sofa; the dance floor was where you might have a dining room table. Huge speakers were stacked on each other, and others were daisy-chained to the ceiling.

In the corner of the “living room” ceiling was a three-foot-tall, papier-mâché torso with a moth-wing pattern. Red cloth tapestry and bubble wrap — which, in the neon lights, looked like snakeskin — emerged from the torso’s neck. 

If you followed its serpentine path one way, you’d find the bar/kitchen area. (The bar offered three options: Hamm’s, rail liquor, and generic-brand water bottles.) Follow it another way, and you’d end up in the two areas with any actual furniture — couches scavenged from resale stores and dusty tables to set your drink on.

At 1 a.m., the party had only just started to pick up. Guests ranging from teens to middle-agers stewed about the cramped corridors. Outside, several people smoked cigarettes, huddling together to block the wind. 

Ultimately, you’d be drawn towards the DJ. Every few minutes, the pitter-patter of the synths transformed, shapeshifting from one melody to the next, all while the duh-duh-duh of the kick drum brought you closer to the dance floor.

Even though the Twin Cities aren’t as well-known for techno and house music as they are for alt-rock or indie hip-hop, they have a proud tradition of cultivating DJs, electronic producers, and dance events. Much like its counterparts to the East in Chicago and Detroit, the dance culture of the Twin Cities began to take shape three decades ago. 

House and techno have unique, Midwestern origins. House, which is characterized by its four-on-the-floor rhythms, saturated percussion, and heavy bass lines, was pioneered by in the ’80s by queer black artists like Frankie Knuckles and Farley “Jackmaster,” gaining a strong following in Chicago.

Techno, which was conceived entirely in Detroit, developed its rhythm-over-melody philosophy and industrial textures thanks to producers such as Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May. You can find these artists’ influence in modern-day producers like deadmau5, Skrillex, Diplo, and rappers like Kanye West and Travis Scott. 

Steve Seuling, also known as Centrific when he’s behind the DJ deck, has been attending, performing, and curating dance events since the mid-’90s. Seuling, 45, credits the DJ and promoter Thomas Spiegel as the godfather of the Minneapolis dance scene. “He was the first one in Minneapolis to stack speakers real big, which is an ongoing theme up until now,” he explained.

Spiegel and his fellow DJ Kevin Cole were among the first people to bring house music (which he often referred to simply as “The Music”) to the Minneapolis scene, by way of his Thursday night residency at the 7th St Entry. The residency was called “House Nation Under a Groove,” and it served as a jumping-off point for local acts; a place for national acts to try out new sounds; and a place for international acts to introduce themselves to an American audience. 

Seuling was introduced to the underground nature of the scene through another important player from the early days of dance, Woody McBride. Even back then, McBride was an internationally renowned “acid” DJ from Bismarck, North Dakota, who put on some of the first techno warehouse shows in the city. “This was before the cops and the parents knew what was going on. [McBride] would go into these big industrial warehouse spaces and say, ‘Oh, we’re shooting a video here,’ and nobody would know what they were really up to,” Seuling said.

McBride was instrumental in cementing the Midwest as a hotspot for dance parties and techno shows. The DIY festival Even Furthur, which he curated with Milwaukee’s Drop Bass Network, was one of the first purely dance-centered camping festivals in the U.S. Located just outside the Twin Cities in rural Wisconsin, the first iteration of Even Furthur would be headlined by Aphex Twin in 1994. In 1996, the festival would make history as the first venue in the U.S. to host a then-little-known electro-funk duo from France: Daft Punk. 

Seuling describes this period as a golden age for house and techno shows.  There were legal events at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul and illegal gatherings in a limestone cave along the Mississippi. British-Canadian DJ and producer Richie Hawtin made his return to the States — after being banned from the U.S. for two years — and McBride put on a massive show to celebrate Hawtin’s triumph. People came from all over the country. “I’m guessing like maybe 3500 people or some ridiculous number at a house in St. Paul,” Seuling said. 

There was only one problem: “It was a warehouse next to a rehab center, and they were waking up the patients. So, the cops came at like 11 o’clock and made them turn down to a whisper. It was the biggest, hugest sound system you’d ever seen.”    

But just as quickly as the scene emerged as a subcultural force in the Twin Cities, the ability to cultivate long-term spaces diminished. By the late ’90s, the Minneapolis Police Department cracked down on unlicensed venues. “The cops made it more difficult to do mid-sized warehouse events,” explained Seuling. “The only way to do things was either a loft party or the clubs, and the clubs didn’t want techno. They wanted a little house, but nothing too off the wall. It was still a rock town, as far as they were concerned […] The whole dynamic changed.”

One dilemma is that part of the scene’s appeal is its secretive nature. It’s exciting to need to actively seek out and explore the post-industrial scenery of these hidden events. Further, promoters of legal venues are often wary of hosting rave-type events, and a 2 a.m. shutdown can feel like a buzzkill if you’re used to dancing ’til sunrise.

The Twin Cities have seen various attempts at starting legal spaces dedicated exclusively to house and techno music, notably by stalwart producer and crate-digger DVS1, aka Zak Khutoretsky. Khutoretsky, who’s played everywhere from living parties in St. Paul to the infamous Berghain nightclub in Berlin, opened the club Foundation in the Lumber Exchange Building during the early 2000s, but it only lasted about 18 months. However, much like Seuling, Khutoretsky remains dedicated to building a meaningful base in the Twin Cities — his roving party set and Sueling’s curated Intellephunk show continue to be two of the most accessible platforms dedicated to house and techno in Minnesota.

After years of being kept underground, the Twin Cities house and techno scene is starting to resurface. Sarvesh Ramprakash, aka Icarus Redux, a local DJ and curator, said the subculture has really blossomed over the past decade. He had an epiphany at Intellephunk’s 20-year anniversary party in 2018: “Not only were younger people and older people coming together for a party, but it was of such exceedingly high quality that it sets a new bar for the Twin Cities. It was a one-off warehouse show. It was huge. And there was such a well-designed sound system, and it was just a phenomenal party.” 

This development of, as Ramprakash calls them, “old heads” and “new heads” coming together has helped create a community that thrives on both modern and vintage sounds. “We’re seeing a lot of live, modular, analog techno. There’s a lot of people who have modular gear here in the scene, and because of that, they’re making some really interesting music that you can’t really recreate using normal synthesizers,” Ramprakash said.    

Socially, however, the community still needs to work on inclusivity. “[Venues] are trying to look good by including people, but they’re not, really. They’re still really behind on things when it comes to equity. They’re including people, but they’re not creating equity,” explained Madre T. Rosa. 

Rosa, 33, is a DJ, organizer, and youth worker who has worked to provide safe and equitable spaces for people of color and/or LGBTQ+ folks to DJ and dance. Rosa, who got their start performing at the underground art and dance space Madame, responded to this issue by creating a DJ school — a nonprofit for LGBTQ+ black and indigenous youth called DJ-U.

“The whole concept of our program is that it’s a reparations program. It is a program that is doing its part to try to redirect some of the money and resources to the folks that are most marginalized in our communities and the people who created this stuff,” Rosa said of their small, grant-funded program. “All of our classes are free to POC and queer people. Our DJs get paid, and we offer free equipment and mentorship and things like that.”  

Despite coming from different parts of the community and holding various degrees of contentment with the scene, all three DJs spoke about seeking to create a spiritual experience with their sets. Rosa said, “I just love creating what I call a dance vortex, where the music comes together so well with the energy of the crowd that it becomes like a transcendent thing. And that is why I DJ dance music and why I’m so passionate about this. Because it can just create such beautiful moments for people that they will never forget for the rest of their life.” 

Back in that cramped apartment, the dancefloor held just that. There were fleeting moments of oneness, where the pains of work, the uncertainty of the future, and the anxieties of day-to-day life pool and evaporated like perspiration. Even in the impromptu club, where the searing red light hid the contours of attendees’ faces, there was a collective unburdening: a brief moment of human singularity that felt both poignantly temporary and utterly endless.

Top two photos courtesy Anna Gulbrandsen, bottom photo courtesy DJ-U