Love Letter to the Minneapolis Underground

Autonomous culture and community in basements, warehouses, and off-grid clubs

Three beams of red light over a crowd on a dark dance floor, and a white fan raised above the crowd.
1Photo: Sharolyn Hagen.

In the mid- to late 1990s, the cat came out of the bag. Raves were popularized on channels like MTV, and moral panic quickly escalated around them as a result of fearsome network news broadcasts. Prior to this, locals were none the wiser and had few reasons to be overly suspicious about thousands of kids descending on a hockey arena in the middle of the night. Soon after, Midwestern raves moved into big-room venues where hiring an off-duty police officer was a common practice, which allowed raves to continue under the radar until their semi-dormancy in the years following 9/11. The culture lives on today in new and varied forms, and Minneapolis is home to a thriving underground music scene.

What I have to say about the Minneapolis underground I learned from the last decade I’ve spent regularly attending underground music events—predominantly techno and punk shows—in musty basements, innocuous warehouses, and off-grid clubs. What I share here has also arisen out of conversations with local promoters, musicians, and a world-renowned DJ—all people whose ties to the Minneapolis underground go back decades. In order to preserve the integrity of these spaces and events, and out of respect for the risks taken by the artists and promoters involved, I have chosen to keep my sources anonymous. In preparation for this project we discussed their involvement in the local underground music scene, as well as their motivations and higher ideals, in order to elucidate the artistic and social value of illegal art and the self-governing communities which coalesce around it. I define “the underground” in this context spatially, contextually, and socially. The underground includes the decentralized locations where artists live, create, and/or perform. It is defined by the conditions under which these spaces operate (i.e., “after hours,” outside of policies defined by leases, licenses, or zoning.) I’m also describing a social group, a gestalt phenomenon, and a counter-cultural collective that characterizes “the underground.”

As contemporary ways of life become increasingly “on the grid,” online, and under surveillance, the idea of thousands of young people descending upon a hockey arena after hours seems all the more preposterous. With the closure of legal venues like the Triple Rock, certain kinds of music have few legitimate places to go. The growing presence of high-rise apartments and city-wide noise ordinances mean that even events like Communion—held at the Pourhouse downtown—butt up against rules and regulations that threaten their existence. But subcultures have always been resilient. All that is left, then, is to go underground.

Blue light from a bank of TV screens, with silhouettes of two people.
Photo: Sharolyn Hagen.

Existing underground is a double-edged sword. On one hand, underground events are exciting and alluring in all their forbiddenness. On the other hand, operating outside of rules and regulations poses risks for those bold enough to run underground venues, as well as for the attendees. One well-respected party promoter has attempted to change legislation to allow for after-hours events in the city (like our neighbors in Iowa allow) or allow legal clubs to stay open later into the night (as they are in cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, or DC, to name a few.) The way he sees it, Minneapolis legislators are comfortable with where the city is. Unlike smaller metros, lawmakers aren’t motivated to draw people into the city through nightlife. Making a case for the underground runs the risk of exposing these spaces and the people who inhabit them. Beyond mitigating the risks of arrest, search and seizure, fines, and ultimately the loss of these spaces, changes which would bring the underground closer to legality would also make events safer. Since a fatal fire in an Oakland warehouse in 2018 drew widespread attention to the life-threatening risks presented by some underground spaces, the concern for health and safety has grown in underground music communities.

Still, the underground holds a unique magnetism for those who come into its fold.

Nothing compares to the moment I emerge onto a crowded dance floor where neon lights illuminate every molecule of smoke and pure rhythm embraces me in a sonic, spectral glow. 
I get a special adrenaline rush from walking through a maze of groups in conversation, bathed in cigarette smoke and laughter, to pass a $5 bill to a familiar face and be consumed by the chaos and melody of a band’s set in progress.

These vignettes are the ethereal, intangible meaning of it all—why people in the underground work so hard for this, if only for another late night spent in the good company of music and like-minded others. They are also why the community will not give up on these spaces without a fight.

Erotics aside, the voluntary associations formed by denizens of the underground are equally meaningful to the experience. The voluntary social, creative, financial, and emotional energy poured into these places binds us together as we move against the cultural grain. Those drawn to the underground have a unique dedication and loyalty to the spaces where we find ourselves. Unlike large metropolitan areas—such as Berlin, where techno is commonplace—venues for late-night music in Minneapolis are a hard-won and precious resource. A recent crowdfunding campaign for an underground venue, sparked by entering another year of financial instability wrought by COVID-19, reached its fundraising goal of $20,000 in under 48 hours. The Minneapolis underground consists of a dedicated group who will rally to support the existence of these spaces in hard times, or simply turn up for an unforgettable night. The touring artist who runs this space exemplifies this sentiment when he told me that he maintains the venue in order to stay connected to the city and contribute to the legacy of the underground culture he was brought up in.

Beams of blue light shine into a dark dance floor, with a wall lit in red.
Photo: Sharolyn Hagen.

The underground music scene has an anarchist character. The underground insists upon creating autonomous culture outside the purview of the law and market. Networks in the underground are born out of spontaneous associations and mutually beneficial cooperation between a vast array of people, whose roles are often blurred: artists, musicians, event promoters, squatters, renters, and party-goers. One artist said it best when he described it as “a playground.” The community is predicated upon art, creative expression, freedom, enjoyment, and is largely not-for-profit. In many cases, event organizers aim to pay their performers, at the very least, and break even on their own investments at most. Because the culture operates underground, there is no red tape preventing anyone from pitching in, whether loading gear and moving speakers, working the door, starting a production company, or becoming a performer themselves. There are no managers to review your resume, nor wage you will receive. The voluntary associations formed around art and music cultivate a sense of ownership and belonging unique to Minneapolis’s underground music communities.

Underground spaces hold special energy in the diverse ways they are used and occupied. In some cases, they are rarely used or never-before-seen locations which make these infrequent events special and vibrant. In other cases, they are multi-use spaces occupied 24/7, where live-in and work-in artists define the form, feel, and function of the space. These are the places to be any night of the week. Multi-purpose underground spaces can serve as recording studios, textile, printmaking, and wood shops, and perhaps living quarters. The humans who inhabit the spaces leave aesthetic marks, forever burning them into your memory—like the chandelier made from clear plastic take-out boxes at a now-defunct punk warehouse in Seward. One musician who runs an underground venue in Minneapolis routinely rearranges and redecorates the space, in order to keep it feeling fresh and interesting for the attendants of his thrice-yearly party. His space is home to an elite sound system and rare, European-imported lighting which define the aesthetic experience of this space. Someone you’ve shared the mosh pit or dance floor with almost certainly makes the event flyers, too, and contributes their own taste to the flavor of a scene, event, or venue.

All the heart and soul that goes into creating underground space is not lost on the attendants who establish relationships, creative passions, and self-esteem in the underground. One promoter’s M.O. is to create a sanctuary-like space for marginalized people of all stripes to feel free to be who they are—an homage to the old school rave ethos of “PLUR.” You can have a wide spectrum of experiences in the Minneapolis underground: from a posh, European-inspired dance floor; to a weekend-long, no-holds-barred festival romp with an old-school rave flair; or stage-diving, beer-drinking, rock-n-roll chaos five nights a week. But no matter where you find yourself in the Minneapolis underground, the motto remains the same: let your freak flag fly.

The Underground Warehouse Starter Kit

1. Understand the risks involved. Do it anyway. Don’t ask for permission now, ask for forgiveness later. Feign ignorance if you must. Read people well and be on the lookout for viable industrial spaces, landlords, and business owners. Have a fence. Keep your activities separate from prying neighbors and the tulip beds they don’t want trampled.

2. Know thy neighbor. Don’t contribute to gentrification. Your neighbors belong to your community just as much as your friends do. Don’t upset the wrong people. Know who might be likely to call the cops or cause trouble for you, in any way, shape, or form. Remember that they have their own values, their own lives, and their own needs. Pay for their hotel room for the night. Mow their lawn in return for having a rowdy night.

3. Value art above all else. The underground is a temple for creativity. Hold space for artists to create and perform. Book bands and touring artists. Fill the space with local artwork. Keep the rent cheap. Host donation-based events and pay the artists as well as you possibly can. The underground is an artistic collective, not a business.