Not knowing how to shuffle, muzz, hakk or gabber, I’m unsure how to dance to the music at Reignite – a hands-in-the-air, happy hardcore stomp fest at Sydney’s Metro Theatre. But there’s no judgement from anyone there.
Here at the heart of Sydney’s over-policed hardcore community – a traditionally male-dominated arena – is a space where goofiness is accepted and where gender stereotypes mutate. I’ll admit: it’s not exactly where I expected to find the camaraderie of the rave utopia. But underneath the esh-core fashion, and reputation for drug-fuelled hedonism, Australia’s resurgent happy hardcore community contains some of the more welcoming, weird, fun crowds the city’s shrinking nightlife can offer.
At Reignite, people jump up and down on their toes like kangaroos fleeing gunfire. A non-binary punter next to me spins and waltzes, occasionally sucking in a passer-by to join them.
Lauren – a Defqon graduate and warehouse party tragic – tells me that people come here to practise their dance moves, not show them off. Guys take off their shirts, but not to impress anyone – dancing this fast just makes you hot. It’s either that or the MDMA sweats. Women – regardless of their size and body shape – rock crop tops, skirts, lingerie and fishnet stockings. Others choose to wear activewear, foregoing any makeup. People genuinely come here to exercise, and it’s a victory for body positivity. No one suffers from a cool complex.
The attire at Reignite – “more eccentric”, Lauren says – is a far cry from local raves, clubs and warehouse parties.
In fact, Lauren tells me that she feels less anxiety around her own body at Reignite than at a warehouse party. “I could see women’s curves – all different body types from the slim to the big booties and wide hips… I didn’t feel judged for being curvy in that environment. I felt comfortable in my skin.”
There’s no side eye and no looks over your shoulder. This culture is all about dropping caps in a circle with the same bottle of water before you go in. It’s about checking in on your mates.
But these practices are a necessity – a safety response to a long history of over policing.
At the final Defqon1 festival in 2018, there were more than 180 police officers on duty. This was a greater saturation of cops than at Splendour in the Grass in the same year, despite the latter’s longer duration and far bigger crowd. Add into the mix the “work hard, play hard” mentality of Australian hardcore’s LG/LB (little girl/little boy) cohort, as well as a craving for release among first-gen immigrant kids, and you can quickly spot the danger.
It was also in 2018 that a spate of drug overdoses and deaths at festivals caused then-NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to shut Defqon down. “I never want to see this event held in Sydney or New South Wales ever again”, she told national television.
There’s probably no other music community in Australia that police and governments have so specifically targeted. As a macho culture, centred on gut-punching kicks, hardcore has always had a bad rep.
In mid 90s Australia, hard dance became the sound of Sydney’s western suburbs, mirroring the Dutch subculture’s working-class origins.
Masses flocked to gabber parties in basketball stadiums and fields in deep suburbia, where learning to hakk and gabber was a rite of passage and a badge of honour. In the 00s, you progressed from iD Festival to over-18 hardstyle events once you were old enough – or got yourself a fake ID.
While some followed hardcore’s dark musical thread, others traded the relentless drive of techno for radio-friendly drops, cheesy samples and nursery-rhyme treble. A breakbeat-infused, UK-influenced style called happy hardcore was exploding and vying for attention.
“By 2001 and 2002, I was regularly organising events with 1500 people,” Dave Psi, a Sydney happy hardcore producer, told VICE. “It was a full-on era”.
Despite its apolitical stance, happy hardcore preached the gospel of love. Directly adjacent to the mainstream hardcore community, a freaky queer hardcore scene flourished under the radar.
Alex*, a non-binary breakcore producer, told VICE that happy hardcore events were central to their personal development. They pinpoint Neko Nation parties – part gaming conventions, part raves – as an example.
Neko Nation catered to anime geeks, gaming enthusiasts, cosplay addicts and weebos. Official “cat girls” and “cat boys” roamed the floors with platters of sushi, lollies and glow sticks, which rattled to the beat of hardcore. There were TVs and consoles, and usually a room where you could sit and make kandi bracelets. J fashion was everywhere.
“It was a total culture shock”, Alex said. “Most of these people would have seen themselves as ‘other’ to normal society. Suddenly, you’re in this space where being nerdy or cringe or weeby was the mainstream.”
Gender lines blurred. Alex wore a dress, make up and wig to their first Neko Nation. “There was no judgement whatsoever”, they say, describing Neko Nation as a “trailblazer” in “pronoun respect” – one which preceded explicit safe space culture.
The first Sydney editions of Neko Nation were held in an unlicensed, BYO warehouse in Marrickville in 2012. It quickly outgrew the space and shifted to the Imperial Hotel – a renowned queer bar – in 2013. Next came a series of inner west venues including the Marrickville Bowlo and the University of Sydney’s Manning Bar. Finally: Max Watts in the Entertainment Quarter. From its humble beginnings, hidden within Sydney’s urban ruins, to 1000 punters losing their minds at Max Watt’s. Mapping out the historical geography of Neko Nation reads like a coming of age story.
In a bid to find new audiences and reinvigorate happy hardcore, which had declined by the late 00s, Dave Psi then turned to alternative communities. Some were not even music-related.
“Gaming conventions, Pokemon days, cosplay events, World of Warcraft tournaments, anything that I could find,” he told VICE. “I went to them with flyers and talked about the party.”
As Dave Psi began organising events again in 2012 under the brands Rocket Science and Sugoi AF, the Neko Nation community flocked. Through these events, artists like Krystal Ravegirl S3RL, TeddyLoid and Dave Psi maintained the speed of hardcore, but they bent and twisted its ragged edges, remoulding the music into a bouncy, upbeat nerd-fest of anime samples, video game references and helium gas treble. It was a deranged soundtrack, designed to turn you into a human pogo stick.
“There were always some more traditional, hardcore, Defqon-type people in their TNs who would go to Neko Nation, Sugoi AF and Rocket Science”, Alex explains. “It was never a problem. They were entering our space, so they were the minority. But they weren’t judged in any way. They were accepted as well.”
Those same diverse crowds were obvious at Reignite.
Lads, cybergoths, LGs, LBs, e-girls, middle-aged former ravers in active wear. There was a strong kandi raver aesthetic – phat pants galore, fluffies, glow-in-the-dark sunnies, rainbow-coloured bracelets and butterfly wings.
“Happy hardcore is so obnoxiously happy sometimes. It’s all ‘happy happy’ culture’ Alex said. “There’s sometimes a darker root to that, but not in a negative way”.
These events attract people dealing with personal issues, like gender dysphoria or dysfunctional families, Alex speculates. “It’s a way for them to relate to other people and own these things that have made them what they are”.
Of course, mainstream hardcore events are by no means gender utopias. Far from it. At the recent Lil Texas edition of the hardcore club night Masif, for instance, the MC repeatedly yelled at the crowd to “get their tits out” and encouraged women to get on stage and flash the crowd, all while audience members filmed on their phones.
But at Reignite – like many happy hardcore raves – there’s little ogling. People are not there for the music so much as each other.
Ironically, state oppression has exacerbated risky drug taking. But it has also bred a culture of togetherness within hardcore communities.
There are no stretchers at Reignite, no emergency sirens and no noticeable cultural clashes.
In our local happy hardcore scene, grassroots community care appears to be the order of the day.