Music and drugs. Two separate industries that consistently go hand in hand. The Cultural Revolution, which began in the 1960s, brought recreational drug use into the public spotlight, culminating with the pivotal 1969 Woodstock music festival held in upstate New York. Rock continued to gain incredible popularity well into the '70s and beyond, alongside the rise of disco, funk and punk. Each music scene is synonymous with a drug culture, albeit at varying degrees.
Two drug-related fatalities and about four ICU hospitalizations occurring during the Electric Zoo music festival in New York City, as well as the death of a college student at the Zedd concert at the House Of Blues in Boston over Labor Day weekend, were said to involve the drug MDMA (referred to as “molly” by its users). Now, drug usage tied with dance music culture has more national media attention than ever. But the world is no stranger to electronic dance music, more commonly known now as EDM.
The new millennium saw a revival in dance music culture, and with it came the resurgence of recreational drug use associated with dance music. But there is a crucial difference.
Back in the '90s the go-to rave drug was ecstasy. According to an article in The University of East Anglia’s student newspaper, the drug is even credited with the development of the “drop” in EDM, which is when the heaviest beat of the track comes in after progressive buildup. Supposedly, this was developed to mirror the experience of taking the drug. The development of this component in EDM snowballed into the creation of numerous styles of dance music. Now we don’t just have house and techno, but deep house, trapstyle, dubstep, drum & bass, trance, Euro-trance, progressive house, electro and many more. I’m sure there’s someone, somewhere in their college dorm creating a new genre or “sound” on their turntables as I am writing this article.
But the point is that the rapid increase in EDM styles now cater to a larger audience and have in turn popularized dance music. Dance music is already popular in Europe, and with the US quickly catching pace in the late 2000s, EDM has officially become a global phenomenon. Naturally, ecstasy became in-vogue with this revamping of EDM culture. But early pioneers of this movement decided that ecstasy needed to be revamped as well, and this is where MDMA or “molly” comes into the picture. MDMA is in the most colloquial terms known as the “pure form of ecstasy.” It was developed in Germany in the early 1900s and gained some popularity in the '70s. In 1985 the US government listed MDMA under the Schedule I of prohibited substances. Ecstasy tablets contained MDMA but practically always contained other substances pressed into the pill. So today’s generation of party people singled out that key substance, nicknamed it “molly,” and thus began the second most popular recreational drug trend in the world (the first being marijuana).
Today, and especially after this weekend, almost every household has found out about MDMA, and how and where people choose to use it. It has been marked as the drug of choice within the dance music culture and as a threat to society. Molly has become a serial killer, and the media is sticking to that verdict without any testimony.
Seeing as EDM is probably the genre of music I listen to most, and that I was at this year’s Electric Zoo, I have developed a strong opinion on this issue. So I’ll start with this: Yes, there are people who take drugs to enjoy or enhance the enjoyment of dance music. This is just a plain and simple fact. But that does not mean that all people who enjoy dance music and attend music festivals do so. I’m not going to chastise those who chose to take molly and I’m not glorifying those who veer away from it. The point is that so long as we live in a free society, there will always be drugs. Hate to break it to you, Reagan, but your “War on Drugs” was a complete failure, especially with the recent marijuana legalization successes in Washington and Colorado.
What I’m most upset about is the negative media attention that EDM is getting as a result of these incidents. Even though molly is known as the purest form of ecstasy, there is absolutely no such thing as a drug being 100% pure when it is not street legal. Unless you are in the lab with the chemists as they concoct the substance and get it directly from them, you are going to get drugs that are cut with something other than the desired product. Most drug dealers use harmless additives that have little to no effects, while others choose less-than-safe substances like methylone. MDMA use itself does not seem to be a direct cause of death, as stated on the popular EDM-focused website “Dancing Astronaut." However, low-grade methamphetamine and other lethal chemicals which MDMA is cut with do cause death. And the overwhelming, out-of-control environment of a music festival only expands the chances of experiencing negative side effects, should one choose to take the drug.
When I woke up on Sunday to hear via Facebook that the final day of EZOO was cancelled, I was livid to say the least. At that point I thought event promoters cancelled the show because of looming thunderstorm threats. But when I found out that this cancellation had been “recommended” by New York City in light of the two deaths and multiple hospitalizations, all with links to MDMA overdoses, I was devastated. Never had such a large-scale event, which attracted over 100,000 concert goers last year, been cancelled because of such circumstances in recent history. And unfortunately, these two deaths were not the end of the bad news. News media soon began to highlight a similar incident that happened over the same weekend in Boston, the death of the 19-year-old college student at the House of Blues.
After that it was like a tidal wave of news features and articles and even a highlighted "Today Show" segment, which lifted the cover of “molly” and informed the general public on the dangers of the drug and its link to music festivals and dance culture. Not since the death of a 15-year-old girl at EDC in Los Angeles in 2010 has the media paid so much attention to this issue. And it truly is an issue. However, I don’t believe it is an issue where only the drug and the dance music culture are to blame. It is a lack of education issue.
People are not going to stop doing drugs just like that, even with news of the most recent tragedies. What causes incidents such as the EZOO fatalities is the lack of education that these people have before introducing their bodies to these substances. At the end of the day there is no such thing as taking drugs safely -- there is always a risk involved. But there is the possibility of taking them more responsibly. Websites such as erowid.org and rollsafe.org exist so people who choose to take drugs at any venue are able to better recognize what they are about to ingest and know how to take the drugs as safely as possible. Unfortunately, people are not smart about their decisions and often feel pressured to try drugs without having the proper knowledge to make such a serious choice..
I am not going to say that dance music culture is not to blame at all, because the truth of the matter is that ecstasy and MDMA will always be synonymous with the scene. DJs definitely do not advocate for everyone who listens to their music to try molly, but when the popular Trinidad James hook “pop a molly I’m sweatin’” is so commonly incorporated into their sets, how can the drug not be linked to the music? I can’t tell you how many times I heard that hook over this past weekend at EZOO, both this year and last year’s Electric Daisy Carnival NY festivals, as well as last year’s EZOO. That and the numerous neon-clad attendees embossed with phrases such as “Where’s Molly?” or “Molly is my home girl.”
With all this, questions arise among naive concertgoers: What’s molly? What does it look like? Where can I find some? Dealers take advantage and sell whatever version of the drug they have and those eager to see what all of the fuss is about start popping pills without the slightest thought of what they are actually taking. There are people who know how to take drugs and enjoy the effects as safely as they possibly can. But when people don’t know what they’re doing, especially at an all-day music festival, unfortunate things happen and lives are lost. And in this case, the fun of thousands is cut short.
There are so many fingers being pointed in this situation; at the victims, at the promoters of the events, the security, the DJs and the EDM scene itself. There is no reason to say that dance music is dangerous just because a few people who chose to take drugs at EDM events died. I won’t allow it. This music brings so much joy to people all across the globe, and it is now slowly becoming labeled as deadly. At the end of the day EDM is about the music. Drugs just happen to go along with this, as they do with any genre of music.
But the difference between life and death is real and honest discourse about drugs associated with dance music. Maybe if this happens, the future of music festivals, the dance music culture and the lives of prospective concertgoers can be saved. If not, EDM is at risk of disappearing again, just as it did in the 1990s.