Incendiary and uncompromising, hardcore music and gabber culture offer an unflinching and relentless form of genuine self-expression. Sitting down with archivist, DJ, producer and co-founder of Never Sleep, Gabber Eleganza, END. discuss hardcore's cultural heritage, the importance of community and the legacy of the Nike Air Max BW.
Combining saturated kick drums, screeching synths and distorted vocal samples, to the uninitiated, hardcore's cacophony of sound is as uncompromising as it is aggressive. Cultivating a distinctive aesthetic world of sound centring around extremes, hardcore has an expansive global heritage - a testament to the very human desire for tangiable emotional release in a repressive world.
Emerging in the late '80s and early '90s with roots in industrial music, techno and EBM, hardcore encapsulated a discontent and a desire for escapism from the trials and tribulations of modern life, with the hardcore dancefloor offering a sacrosanct way to channel that frustration. Cutting his teeth on the dance floors of the Number One Disco just outside Bergamo, Italy, Alberto Guerrini - known by his moniker Gabber Eleganza - has grown up with hardcore running through his veins. A dedicated convert from an early age, the archivist, DJ, producer and Never Sleep co-founder found himself enveloped by the world of hardcore dance music and gabber culture in the Northern Italian scene. Enamoured by the ferocity of the music, the communities and the unique fashion codes of the culture, Guerrini’s relationship with the music led him to establish his archival blog ten years ago. A catalogue of hardcore and gabber culture throughout Europe and beyond, “Gabber Eleganza” offered an insight into the often-misrepresented musical subculture – changing perceptions of rave culture and offering a remedy to misinformation and negative attitudes towards a form of expression that presented a reprieve from daily life to many.
Transforming his archival blog into a live act in 2016 for a project with Presto!? Records’ Lorenzo Senni, Gabber Eleganza mutated into a multi-disciplinary undertaking – a creative endeavour that seeks to celebrate hardcore and gabber, its legacy and its undeniable influence on modern electronic music. Renowned for "The Hakke Show", an audio-visual club experience that offers a snapshot of classic hardcore and gabber music - complete with its own gabber hakke crew - Guerrini finds himself at the vanguard of hardcore in the modern age.
With his latest project, "Hardcore Continuum", debuting in London next month, END. sit down with Gabber Eleganza to discuss the genre's cultural legacy, its overarching impact and why the Nike Air Max BW was the gabber shoe of choice.
Gabber and hardcore music champions itself on extremes – with uncompromising audio aesthetics and a seemingly aggressive attitude to the uninitiated – what was it about this form of dance music that originally appealed to you?
In the mid ‘90s, when I was only 10 or 11, was when I came across hardcore music. Its aggression and its fastness, that was what really appealed to me about hardcore. In Italy, there was a huge scene for this sort of music. As we’re a very Catholic nation, every village and city has annual celebrations for their patron saint. To celebrate this, a luna park would visit Bergamo, and they’d bring huge soundsystems that would play loud music to attract clients to go on the rides – a few of them would play hardcore. Hearing that music for the first time, it seemed so alien because it wasn’t about melody, like other types of electronic music such as eurodance or trance. The soundsystems would go from playing Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” to a 200 BPM track that was just repeating the word “MOTHERFUCKER” with a huge kick drum, which just blew my mind. I remember thinking “what is this kind of music?! It sounds like it's from another planet”. As someone from the countryside, where the most radical thing to do was to drive around on your bike, that really appealed to me. Step by step, I started to discover that lots of kids from around my area were listening to this kind of music too. My cousin gave me a tape from a club close to us, Number One Disco, which was one of these huge old Italian discotheques. In their second room they were really pushing hardcore – complete with moshpits that were more like moshpits at punk shows. I was initially attracted to hardcore’s fast tempo, and the aggressive attitude started to appeal to me later on. I’m still obsessed with how a hardcore track can be aggressive and emotional at the same time – it’s actually how I rooted my own project. The type of hardcore I like is ultimately balanced between these two contrasting elements.
I bought my first tape from the food market that came to town every Wednesday, where I used to hang out with my grandmother throughout the summer. One of the stalls was selling bootleg hardcore tapes and Iron Maiden t-shirts for the metalheads. In the same moment, you could have metalheads, hardcore warriors and young kids all interacting because, for us, it was like our local record store. It was somewhere for us to hang out. It was helpful, too, because CDs were expensive and bootlegs were all on tape at that point – I was only allowed to buy the bootlegs because they were much more affordable. If someone bought a CD, they’d end up making tape copies for everyone else. It was this sort of network, in a classic underground sort of way, that introduced me to hardcore.
With gabber and hardcore music, community was central to the scenes across the globe - why did this form of music promote community to such a degree?
I think that when I was younger, and first becoming a part of the hardcore community, I was naïve. Everything was very new and it mostly attracted young people, especially men, often from working class backgrounds and culturally deprived places. This kind of cultural deprivation and a desire for escapism was remedied by hardcore for a lot of people. Ultimately, it was music from people to people – we can say that it was promoting a community in this way.
At this point in time, we have to remember, hardcore was still an enigma and a taboo genre for the media, because they continually tried to relate it to drugs, gangs, proto-fascism and anti-social behaviour. All over the world, hardcore attracted similar people, because similar people have similar needs. This is what is fascinating – I come from that similar background, but I’m not a criminal, I’m not a drug dealer, I’m not a fascist. So those are just the elements, like with every type of subculture, that the media and the upper classes use because they are afraid and they can’t understand what is happening. When that happens, they just want to immediately target whatever that may be – it’s not just with hardcore and gabber. In that moment it was definitely a tribe. If you were part of that, you had this feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood. You were an outsider. You wanted to look a specific way and you wanted to be recognised on the street as being a part of that culture, even if other people didn’t understand it. The term “Gabber” came from the Dutch slang for “mate”, which came from the Yiddish word “khaver” – but in Holland, it wasn’t a term of endearment, it was a derogatory term, a way to describe people from the countryside or poor people. They started to use the term “Gabber House”, which was house music that “Gabber” people danced to. As with many derogatory terms, “Gabber” started to be used in a proud way. It’s a classic example of how being put in the corner often results in the growth and blooming of new cultures. It’s the same feeling that can be felt in any culture that is considered “low”, they need to embrace themselves and make strong bonds because otherwise they’ll become crazy. But they didn’t want to find that common ground to fight someone, they wanted to find the common ground and have fun, because it's music - it's meant to be fun.
"As long as people want to show their frustration with the world through music, hardcore will never die."
Gabber’s current resurgence has seen the genre move further into the dance-music limelight recently, but as I’m sure you’ll agree, the genre has never gone away in the underground. Do you think that with this resurgence there has been a newfound respect for the past hardcore scenes?
Of course! In Holland, it's part of popular culture now, while in Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and the UK, there are huge scenes around this kind of music. The discussion around hardcore music in general, not just gabber – which is more of a lifestyle, a subculture and a fashion style – has been changing over the last year or so. The topic has shifted from pre-conceived ideas about what the subculture is doing in terms of behaviour, and now people have started to realise after 25 years that there is something more there. It is one of the the last subcultures before the internet with a graphic and visual heritage. There is a vast musical heritage and there are roots for a lot of other things that are happening now.
Of course It's not just me, but I think that I am one of the reasons why people have started to revaluate the genre - I’m a part of a group of people that have changed the narrative, suggesting that this is not just fast music, but showing the folklore behind it. The global political system over the past 5/6 years has changed so much, with so much turmoil, that I think a lot of younger generations are divided and need a release – they need something that offers a form of escapism again. Kids nowadays, especially after 30 years of rave culture, are somewhat turned off by the idea that they would go out and see someone who is the same age as your mother. I remember when I first started going to raves, someone who was 25 years old seemed so much older. It’s changed now – kids just need something different, which they find through online communities. This is how the new gabber revival started, it seemed like something edgy and radical with a strong fashion identity – which was very attractive and contemporary considering the modern obsession with the ‘90s. Later, the music arrived. Now we’re in an interesting moment, seeing how it can evolve.
How do you see hardcore and gabber culture evolving?
Musically, there will never be one specific evolution because hardcore music is just an approach, they call it hardcore because they want to separate it from techno. It’s difficult to explain how it will evolve – even in the past there was a huge spectrum of subgenre under the same umbrella of “hardcore” – in the last year, more techno DJs have evolved their sets and are playing and producing music that sounds a lot harder - this is the "hardcore continuum" that I'm looking at with the new Never Sleep event. With everyone’s different heritage, that ends up changing the music as you find people who are not really into hardcore, who are coming from a different background, finding these sounds and putting their own spin on it – this is already an evolution in the simplest sense.
In terms of fashion, I think that it’ll fade away soon because this is the classic circle of fashion trends – they have a big moment and then disappear again. Somewhere, someone will always want to wear the clothes like a proper Gabber. Maybe it won’t remain trendy for the fully fledged fashion world because they need to change every season to keep things edgy and radical. It's the classic story that we all know. In terms of evolution, the musical side is certainly the most interesting to me. Of course, we’ll start to see some elements of hardcore appearing in pop music, diluting into that world. Recently, even Lady Gaga did a remix EP full of these sort of sounds. It’s already a part of our wider culture. Like everything in the Spotify era, it’s difficult to understand it, to make sense of it and to predict it. One day an unknown artist can release a music video with hardcore sounds and become viral and everyone will say “hardcore has come back”. As long as people want to show their frustration with the world through music, hardcore will never die.
Stylistically, gabber has always been forward-thinking, esoteric, and bold. Why was the gabber aesthetic important to the subculture?
When I first got into hardcore and gabber, it was during the second wave of gabber in the late nineties, which was influenced by UK skinhead aesthetics, which centred around Fred Perry, Lonsdale etc. That wasn’t really my aesthetic – I didn’t really like it. Around the same time, there was also an interest in tracksuits made by Nike, and more technical sportswear clothing, instead of the style of the tracksuits in the early ‘90s, which were more colourful with all-over print graphics influenced by what was happening in Holland. But again that wasn’t really my taste. I started digging more, looking at VHS tapes of mid-90s raves in Holland and Switzerland, and could see people wearing Australian brand tracksuits – an Italian tennis brand - which was particularly important. They were very graphic, with a lot of texture and crazy colours, and they were notably super expensive. The Gabbers wanted to be comfortable, but in a fancy club they were always the outsiders because they’d been wearing cheap clothes. At this point in time, they wanted to show that they could wear expensive clothes without sacrificing their aesthetic, it was almost like the importance of clothing and jewellery in hip-hop music. Now, these tracksuits have become collectors’ items, alongside records and record label merchandise. You can easily find a longsleeve for 300-500 euros because they’ve become incredibly rare and super collectable. It’s still a huge part of the culture – a part that we could maybe compare with the metal scene, as an attitude. And of course, shoes were always incredibly important. Hardcore music needed to be danced to in a specific way that was fast and hard. You can’t dance with a shitty shoe, or with leather shoes because they'll destroy your feet. For me, to rave was the same as doing sport. It’s still like that, burning calories and dancing all night, not caring about flirting. Because of that, Nike Air Max BW was the perfect match.
It was the moment when Air Max sneakers were first appearing in Italy and every year there was a new, fresh version. Not all the Air Max were suited to “hakke” in – the type of dancing that goes with gabber, which translates as “cut” – so I tried different shoes. I first tried TNs – we called them the “Shark” in Italy – but they were too fragile, so they’d be completely destroyed after raving every weekend for six months. I moved onto the Air Max 97, but they were too low and you could roll over onto your ankle when doing the hakke. That’s when I found Nike Air Max BW – which we called the Classic. It was already a massively popular shoe, but I had never had the chance to try them because they weren't easy to find in the early 2000s and there were so many other Air Max sneakers. Eventually we started to find them back on the market, and we were amazed because it was insane how the shape of the shoe was so comfortable on your feet with the Air Max just on the heel. That was really important because when you are doing the hakke you are mostly dancing on the heel, so that part had to be really cushioned. It was perfect for the style of dancing because they didn't break easily, but also looked good with our tracksuits.
Were Nike Air Max BW always a part of wider Gabber culture?
Gabbers had always embraced the Air Max BW, but as I was coming from the countryside, it wasn’t easy to find them. It wasn’t even available in the closest store that stocked Nike for a while. Step by step, I met older Gabbers who pointed me in the right direction and told me where I needed to go to get them. Nowadays, Gabbers have started to collect them – they have become as iconic as TNs or Air Max 95s.
The first time that I found a pair of Air Max, I cried. I was only 17, and it meant so much because they were a deadstock pair and couldn’t be found anywhere else. They were so difficult to find – I was so proud of them. There was a moment in 2003 when Shox came out and everyone else was wearing them, but I was wearing my Air Max and all of my schoolmates were asking me if I was wearing my father’s shoes. But I didn't care and was so proud because I was unique and stood out. Even if you are a part of tribe you are looking for something unique. Even if you identified with being a Gabber, you were being original to yourself and your own style. I even customised them, colouring them in red, white and blue like the Dutch flag, and writing a huge NL across both shoes. It was so horrible but it felt right at the time.
Why does the Air Max BW still resonate with hardcore and gabber culture now?
For me, it is about maintaining that connection to your adolescence. It’s the best moment of our lives – the moment where our souls have been shaped. Even now I’m 35, I’m thinking “I would love to buy that scooter I was riding when I was 16”, because now I can afford to. Or maybe I’d buy three pairs of BWs instead of one. We are stuck in this nostalgia - it's not on superficial things, it's what the object represents: the idea that we still have that naïve freedom to discover new worlds. That kind of emotion keeps us stuck to these things. It’s a ghost that is always a part of us. You don’t want to leave it behind because if you leave it, you become an adult and then you’re not happy anymore. Of course, it’s a psychological reflection of ourselves. The biggest part of my work and my creative approach is based on nostalgia, how nostalgia shapes our future rather than feeling good being stuck in the past. There are different levels of how we can speak about nostalgia. It’s something that can’t be solved – I need to dig in more, to dig in further to open the door where I can finally work on something that is shaped more for the future. Using elements from the past to understand our present. I never see myself as a futuristic mind – I prefer to be more emotional, talking about the future and the past.
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