Last weekend, Thunderdome made history: 50,000 ravers massed at a convention centre in Utrecht for the biggest indoor hardcore dance event ever staged, breaking its own record set two years ago when it pulled off the mother of all comebacks, and reclaimed its crown as the world’s greatest living hardcore rave.
The site is mapped out like a theme park, with six areas of music ranging from the slower early rave sound of the “Thundergods” to the 200+ beats per minute blasting from the Tunnel of Terror. Tonight we’re paying homage to the most significant youth culture movement in the Netherlands, gabber, which is why there’s also a gabber museum, displaying limited-edition Nikes and multicoloured Australian-brand jackets – the gabber uniform – plus a tattoo station inking diehards with Thunderdome’s iconic Wizard logo, and a gabber barber serving up undercuts.
Hardcore is one of the most liberated and liberating genres in dance music, encompassing a vast range of speeds, styles, and emotions. It creates euphoria from the extremities and isn’t for everybody – which is why those that are in it, are in all the way.
In the 1990s, Thunderdome brought this sound to the masses. It launched the careers of hundreds of DJs and soundtracked the youth of millions worldwide; it is one of the few living relics from the heyday of rave, charged with the difficult task of staying grounded in the present while simultaneously preserving the past.
The first Thunderdome event was held in an ice-skating arena in October 1992. It featured four relatively unknown DJs on the bill (who would go on to become superstars) and a colossal octopus fairground ride the team feared might crash through the ice rink. The promoters were two plucky 20-year-old schoolfriends from a village outside Amsterdam, and this was only the second major event they had ever attempted. Their first, The Final Exam, ended with the pair of them, brooms in hand, sweeping up the venue themselves afterwards. “The party finished at seven in the morning and we were still busy at 11 that night,” recalls Irfan van Ewijk.
Now both approaching 50, van Ewijk and Duncan Stutterheim are retired dance music moguls, and have walked away from the multinational events company they built together from Thunderdome – not that it was an easy journey.
The story of ID&T has been chronicled in a 700-page tome by the Dutch newspaper journalist Gert van Veen, and it reads like a soap opera. Within the first year the company locked horns with major label Arcade Records over the rights to the Thunderdome CD series. “When we had the meeting I was celebrating my birthday, so I came in with a cake as if the deal was already done, which pissed them off so hard,” says van Ewijk with a laugh.
The CDs, which ID&T ended up producing with Arcade, were instrumental in seeding the sound of Thunderdome to the world, and are still rolled out today. This year’s triple edition features 72 tracks of new music and edits, including the official Thunderdome 2019 anthem by Dither, who performs beneath an enormous neon Wizard on the main stage to a sea of 25,000 bodies and glinting phone screens. The scene’s current torchbearers, including Angerfist and Miss K8, play amid a spectacle of lasers and fire, ending in a sweaty closing set from “Grandpa” Drokz as pillars of flame shoot skywards from the front of the stage.
Meanwhile, a more intimate experience plays out at the Thundergods area. Residents Dano, Buzz Fuzz and Gizmo – also known as the Dreamteam with fourth member the Prophet – DJ together with the wild charisma and selections that made them the most famous hardcore group in the 90s. The set was crammed with hits from their own vault, plus fun hardcore versions of pop songs such as Message In a Bottle by the Police and Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild.
“I remember when I put on my first record, my hand was shaking like a little child,” says Dano, about playing to over 30,000 people at the very first ice-rink Thunderdome. This year he ends his set mounting the DJ booth, arms raised, to the sound of his own cult classic, 120-9000BPM, from one of the earliest CDs, exclusively produced by the Dreamteam.
“What happened in Holland, the whole world wanted in a finger snap,” says Dano, who describes his launch to fame like a catapult. In the 90s, gabber exploded in the Netherlands until overexposure and commercial exploitation caused the scene to crash and go back underground. The media played its part in the demise. Press sensationalised the excesses of gabber culture with stories focused on drugs, football-related hooliganism, and incidents of racially motivated violence connected to the the rise of right-wing extremism in the Netherlands towards the end of the decade.
The legacy of prolonged negative profiling from “outsiders” has left the hardcore scene scarred, although the work of contemporary scholars, researchers and visual artists about gabber history, alongside a wider interest in the music, is going some way to remove the stigma. The darker hardcore sound that emerged after the gabber crash and some of the artists that helped rekindle the scene – like DJ Promo, who programmed Thunderdome in the early 00s – are paid tribute to this year as the Heroes of Hardcore in the second largest area, with a capacity twice the size of Fabric in London.
Thunderdome was wound up by ID&T in 2012, but someone at the company was unwilling to let it die. Francois Maas, an employee since 1999, decided to keep the brand going “in secret”. After Thunderdome’s “final” party in December 2012, Maas organised a series of fan days and meetups over the following years with the help of a young intern, Nick Hoppezak, who joined the event’s radio team at the tender age of 11. Hoppezak, now in his 20s, opens one of the smaller areas with a hardcore-indebted techno set to a crowd of cheering friends and other artists – his Thunderdome family.
Thunderdome’s return was announced by aerial stunt in the summer of 2016 when a plane was spotted in the sky with the message: “25 Years of Thunderdome – see you in 2017!” Maas says the event sold out in 30 minutes, and was only intended to be a one-off. But how could they not revive the most crucial and best-loved hardcore event in the world?
Today the cult of Thunderdome is as strong as ever, thriving outside of the rave on fan sites and in the homes of super collectors who live among their treasured memorabilia. It is branded on the skin of thousands and burns in the hearts of many more, and it’s the diehard community behind the music that will keep it alive forever, whether there’s another event or not. “In the beginning it was one big happy family,” says van Ewijk, and in many respects Thunderdome still is – only bigger still.
Five classic Thunderdome tracks, by the Dreamteam’s DJ Dano
DJ Dano – Welcome to the Thunderdome
I made this track not knowing it would become an anthem – I just made it because I thought the party was great. There was this crazy movie, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, with Mel Gibson and Tina Turner [who is sampled at the start of the track]. I was watching the film and said to myself, I have my track for the first Thunderdome. I’m happy that Al Pacino was never with a shotgun at my door because I sampled so much from him, too.
DJ Hooligan – B.O.T.T.R.O.P.
Everybody was like, what the fuck is B.O.T.T.R.O.P.? It was his about his little town in Germany where he lived, called Bottrop.
Diss Reaction – Jiiieehaaaa
The track was already great, but when this “Jiiieehaaaa!” sample came in the whole Thunderdome went completely crazy. And they still do. It was one of the major tracks in the beginning.
The Prophet – Alright Now Here We Go!
A massive track. People still make remixes of this. But all the Dreamteam tracks were a huge success!
3 Steps Ahead – Drop It
This became a cult hit, though unfortunately he [Peter-Paul Pigmans] died in 2003. All five of these tracks I still play a lot.