Founded four years ago in Berlin, the experimental club collective serves ear-splitting dance music with love, breaking the stigma around genres often associated with controversial subcultures
Gabber’s classic look is as militant as its music; bomber jackets, big earrings, jogging pants, shaved heads or fades, and camo prints. With the hardcore movement developing into numerous sub-genres like hardstyle, terrorcore, and happy hardcore, gabber described more of a subculture. Gabber fans would gather during massive festivals or loiter in public spaces and spend a vast amount of money on gabber tattoos and records. The Rotterdam-born music genre—derived from acid house and hardcore techno—became highly popular in the Netherlands in the ‘90s, where it eventually became part of the mainstream Dutch culture.
At the end of the ‘90s, controversies related to neo-nazi skinhead groups contributed to the bad reputation gabber received in the Netherlands, Italy, and the American Midwest, and the genre was relegated to a niche interest for many years. Gabber was also gaining a following within neo-fascist rave scenes. In the Netherlands, for example, bomber jackets decorated with the Dutch flag were worn to symbolize contempt for immigrants, while gabber tracks were sampled to add xenophobic lyrics. However, recent times have seen gabber rise above this stereotype and globalize further; it is currently having its moment in the mainstream and being played in front of big crowds by DJs like Nina Kraviz.
A different mood seems to account for gabber’s contemporary resonance. An avant-garde community has re-appropriated some of the symbolism previously associated with neo-fascism, and used the music as a tool to strive for inclusiveness. The new coming of gabber has seen DJs and producers from all over the world mix the hardcore subgenre with a wide range of styles. In Berlin, inclusive club nights are being organized by the collective Disgust, which focuses on experimental club music genres like hardcore and gabber. I sat down with Disgust co-organizer Niels van Loo to discuss hardcore and gabber’s sudden renaissance, his love for experimental club music, and creating space for artists who don’t fit the Berlin club scene stereotype.
Bo Hanna: When did you first encounter hardcore and gabber music?
Niels van Loo: I grew up in a Dutch province called Limburg, where different variants of hardcore electronic music like gabber used to be very popular. The gabber scene was commercial rather than underground during my teenage years; the only music festival around my hometown for example was a hardcore festival called Alcatrazz. There was another festival closeby, just over the German border, called Q-BASE—I remember it being held on abandoned American military bases. The area where I grew up was not the most exciting place to be, so I would often gather with other youngsters in something called De Keet, which translates to ‘The Shack.’ It was some self-organized bar where we could buy one-euro beers and listen to music. Many types of music were played, but when it got a little late, we would start playing gabber tracks on an old computer with this free DJ software called Virtual DJ. The gabber subculture was very present around me. You would recognize gabbers right away because they dressed in a very distinctive way. At that time, I didn’t want to be part of the gabber subculture though.
Niels: Unfortunately, gabber music had a bad reputation in the Netherlands because it was appropriated by intolerant groups like neo-fascists. Basically, the music was abused to bring aggressive messages filled with racism and homophobia across. However, it’s important to state that this is not how the music came into existence in the first place and that the majority of the listeners are amazing people without bad intentions. Only a very small part of the listeners actually sympathized with xenophobic groups. Despite this, the media and many parents, like mine and those of my friends, stigmatized gabbers for being lower class and uneducated outsiders that take a lot of amphetamines, waste their lives, and deal drugs. I would still go to the gabber parties, I just didn’t dress like them nor engage too much with the gabber community.
Bo: What fascinates you about hardcore music?
Niels: I’ve been fascinated by extreme forms of music my entire life. I would listen a lot to punk, metal, drum and bass, and hardcore as a teenager. I still feel nostalgic when I listen to hardcore tracks like Neophyte’s ‘Braincracking’ or Noize Suppressor’s ‘Nobody Likes.’ I like the fast rhythms, aggression, and outburst of energy that hardcore music has. I also appreciate the artwork, which often consists of demonic creatures, skeletons, gas masks, and skulls that create a sinister feel. Like the artwork, the music has a grim and militant character which fascinates me—you cannot just stay on the couch and listen to it. I like the fact that you really have to engage with the music; it’s go hard or go home!
“I have always dreamed of organizing events with a mega impact; a shock factor so to say. Dark vibes, heavy language, in-your-face performances, and artworks that you can’t get around without forming an opinion.”
Bo: How did you get involved with Disgust?
Niels: Disgust was initially founded by two friends of mine, Max Quecke and Darian Pirowhedayati, who started organizing industrial techno parties in Berlin four years ago. They have booked extremely hard industrial acts like Ayarcana, WarinD, Falhaber, D. Carbone, and Manni Dee. I met them during a party where DJ Skinhead, also known as The Horrorist, and Rotterdam Terror Corps played. The founders of Disgust wanted to go more experimental and beyond the techno spectrum, while still keeping hard electronic music as a basis for the concept. We sat down, had a brainstorm, and decided to book more producers and DJs that experimented with hardcore music. That is how things started to roll for me. A new team member, Cassandre Clerc, joined us recently. I have always dreamed of organizing events with a mega impact; a shock factor so to say. Dark vibes, heavy language, in-your-face performances, and artworks that you can’t get around without forming an opinion. I think extreme art forms challenge visitors to either participate or distantiate. It’s in your face, like gabber, you have to commit.
Bo: What are the Disgust events about?
Niels: We aim to organize unconventional events that challenge our visitors to step out of their comfort zone and look, feel, listen to something they haven’t really experienced before. [Eliciting] a strong reaction to the art has always been an extremely important pillar in organizing our events. Our main goal is to create something that adds something new to the wide variety of events in Berlin—something different from the puristic feel many electronic music events have nowadays.
Bo: What do you mean by ‘puristic’?
Niels: Many club nights are bound to one or two electronic music subgenres, with set boundaries, by expectations of both the bookers and the audience. There is nothing wrong with the commercial aspect of nightlife. However, there are many amazing artists and DJs that get less of a chance to perform, because it’s harder to place them within the house and techno spectrum. Also, there are artists that perfectly fit the spectrum but love to experiment with something different. We try to offer a stage for exactly these artists—that is what experimental club music is about. We have booked artists mixing a wide range of genres like metalcore, deathcore, hip hop, noize, goa, hard style, hardcore, and schranz. These music genres are most likely not to be heard at regular club nights. The sets during our nights are not about the perfect mixing or by the book build-ups. I can enjoy these ‘perfect’ sets as well, but this is not what we want to add to the current Berlin electronic music scene. In a nutshell; Disgust allows DJs to experiment and even make mistakes, because that does not mean the end of the night.
Bo: Has gabber been re-appropriated by a fresh crowd?
Niels: It is a personal matter of perception. The subculture of gabber definitely had a reputation as close-minded before. Surprisingly enough, hardcore and gabber music nowadays have re-appropriated some symbolism previously associated with neo-fascism; it’s being used now to strive for inclusiveness especially when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. Many producers that experiment with hardcore and gabber are members of the LGBTQ+ community, like Kilbourne, and come from a wide range of countries all over the world where the negative associations that hardcore music had did not exist. Many new-wave artists use the harshness of the music as a tool to voice themselves in a white male-dominated music industry. It is interesting to see how the aesthetic and music styles are interpreted as something totally different nowadays.
Our events are currently held in a club hidden by a 24-hour store next to the infamous swinger club KitKat. If our selectors approve you to come in, a fridge is shoved aside and a hole in the wall will serve as the entrance of the club. At Disgust we embrace openness, inclusivity, and sex positivity. We ask from our audience to be tolerant and respectful towards every visitor. The only thing we have a stance against is irresponsible drug use, and visitors are not allowed to film or take pictures during our events. We only attract people that resonate with our music vision, and we promote our events within social networks that are mostly free of intolerant people. Our target group is broad and niche at the same time; everybody is welcome, but you need to be open to the music which also filters out a lot of people. We attract people of different ages and backgrounds. Also, a lot of DJs have been requesting to play during our events because they liked our concept. Even though the music and the performances might be extreme, the vibe is always very loving during our events.
“It is not only aggression, it’s also an explosion of energy and euphoria that’s very hard to match with other types of music.”
Bo: Can you tell me more about your music vision?
Niels: We want to break the stigma around the music we love and the expectations the big crowds currently have within the club scene. Noize music, for example, has to cope with the same struggles as hardcore. However, we really like listening to some noize artists because with the stuff they create they represent a specific feeling. A track that perfectly explains this is Iron Sight’s ‘I’ll do anything for you.’ The track makes you feel uncomfortable, because it makes you hear pain in a very confronting way. DJs that we book could play this kind of music, and others would build up to an extreme sense of euphoria, which is a feeling that is enormously incorporated in western pop music, but also in K-Pop and trance music. Many major ‘hits’ have [such] a strong effect on people that playing them in a club would actually kill the vibe instead of enhance it. Experimental club music plays with elements of music types by giving it a new and unexpected twist. Like mixing Madonna’s track ‘Music’ or Backstreet Boys’ ‘Tell Me Why’ with electronic music. We book a lot of DJs who play with the cheesiness of euphoric pop hits [typically heard] at karaoke bars or at the end of wedding parties, and turn them into interesting tools to create a new music experience and feeling.
Bo: How do you explain hardcore and gabber’s sudden renaissance?
Niels: Actually, hardcore and gabber never disappeared. However, the fact that Nina Kraviz can play a Dr. Macabre track in front of thousands of people shows that the genre has earned itself some legitimacy from a new audience. I think there is definitely a new group of people embracing harcore and gabber, especially from the techno and house scene that has been very vibrant in the past years. Most artists experimenting with hardcore variants are mixing and sampling it. For example, there is a DJ called Rui Ho from China that we booked mixing hardcore with Chinese folklore.
As I mentioned earlier; the music itself has an aggressive and militant character, which lends itself to being used as a tool to make yourself heard. On the other hand, it is a music scene that is incredibly fun to play and experiment with. There are plenty of perfectly composed tracks, but it does not have to be rocket science to sound awesome. Take a sample you like and put a mega high energy beat under it, and you can make a room go wild. It is not only aggression, it’s also an explosion of energy and euphoria that’s very hard to match with other types of music. I guess these are the elements that resonate with a broader audience these days.
Bo: Where do you see Disgust in a few years?
Niels: We really would like to become a culture and art platform that can be expanded with for example art exhibitions, concerts, or even fashion. Most important is that we keep experimenting with creative practises that keep challenging our audiences with surprises, shocks, and conventionalities within the current club scene.