A sub-genre of hardcore techno
, very popular (in fact, more or less mainstream) in the Netherlands
during the early nineties, with milder success in the rest of Europe
. The music had a fanatical following, and started a youth movement as dedicated as the mods
in the ‘60s or the punks
in the ‘80s. The scene is still alive and kicking, indeed one of the most popular slogans amongst the Gabbbers at the moment is ‘hardcore will never die
’, although the very fact that this needs repeating so often would suggest a little insecurity on their part…
The following is based on personal experience of the Netherlands in the early Nineties. In order to see it in context, I should make it clear that I am not, and never have been, a gabber, although I did have friends who were, and attended several gabber raves, mostly out of curiosity.
Intensely hardcore techno. A typical track will be around 200 bpms (although sometimes more), with a very simple beat - strictly bass drum only, preferably. This is then embellished with very harsh synth stabs, and vocal samples. As meadows_p points out, there was a fashion at one point for samples from horror films (most of the dialogue from the Hellraiser films has been used at some point). Whatever the source, one thing was certain - the vocals had to be dark. I remember one track (on one of the Thunderdome CD's… not sure which...) in which the vocal line was simply 'Die, motherfucker, die' repeated endlessly. Not exactly soothing thoughts.
First there was disco. Well, really, ‘first there was Elvis, and before that there was nothing’, but if we skip to recent times, disco was when electronic dance music starts getting interesting. And, of course, this then developed into techno, and the music became increasingly abstracted from ‘real’ sounds. The popularity of sampling grew, as did the popularity of extremely repetitive melodies, stripped down to their most basic. Gabber can be viewed as the end point of this progression. It is entirely artificial and computer generated, and necessarily so (have you tried playing a violin at 280 bpm?), and all melodies and rhythms are stripped to their most basic.
Gabber’s origins are debatable, although in retrospect it seemed inevitable – music was getting faster, producers were trying to push their equipment to the limit, eventually someone was going to come up with it. There seems to be some disagreement as to whether it originated in the US or in the Netherlands, but as far as I am aware, it originated in Rotterdam, based around a few DJ’s, in 1991 or 1992. Of course, American hardcore was moving into similar areas at the same time, but the word ‘Gabber’ itself is Rotterdam slang for ‘buddy’, ‘mate’, ‘geezer’ or ‘friend’ (the music was given this name due to the small record store circles in which it originated, where everyone was everyone’s buddy).
One not so friendly fact about the origins of Gabber: when it began, it had some very serious Fascist and hooligan elements to it. As it became more popular, this element was (thankfully) removed, but there were still shades of it around. One of the first groups of DJ’s to come out of Rotterdam at the time were called ‘Rotterdam Nightmare Fascists’, and the fashion for shaved heads amongst the gabbers almost certainly borrows from the skinhead tradition.
Over the next few years, Gabber grew in popularity, and became much more mainstream. By 1994 the Dutch charts were full of gabber and hardcore songs. Admittedly, these were often toned down a little from the ‘real’ gabber, but the principle was there. The racist element disappeared, or at least greatly diminished, helped by the fact that some of the best Gabber DJ’s were black. Kind of ironic, but immensely satisfying, to see former teenage fascists now sticking posters of their black heroes on the walls…
While the racist element dwindled, the darkness of the original music continued. And this was clearly upsetting some people. This has led to the believable, though fairly extreme, suggestion that the Dutch government helped to fund the musical projects that would lead to Happy Hardcore, in an attempt to lighten the mood of the nations youth. Whether or not you believe that, it’s true that Happy Hardcore marked the beginning of the end for Gabber, since it was much more accessible and open to commercialisation. The scene had more or less died off by 1998, although there are still pockets of it going strong.
Outside of the Netherlands, Gabber met with some success, but on a much smaller scale. The only European city I know of where it became very popular is Glasgow, which is perhaps not that surprising. Like Rotterdam, it is a very industrial city, with areas of real urban decay. Exactly the right environment to listen to Gabber in…
All youth movements have their associated drugs, and Gabber was no exception (again, please note I’m making generalisations, and remember you don’t need to be a junkie to listen to the Velvet Underground, it just helps a bit). There were a couple of dilemmas to face though. For a start, the big Gabber events were huge (literally thousands of people), went on all night, and were exceedingly dark. This was no place to try acid for the first time. On the other hand, the point of the music was to build some form of community, to feel at one with a huge gathering of people. For this reason, Ecstasy was very popular (and also because at the time it was hitting the mainstream, and cheaper than ever). Ecstasy, however, can make you go a bit funny, and you don’t want to look like a wimp in front of your friends now do you? The solution? Speed. Lots of it. Line upon line of chalky amphetamine. Suddenly, 200 bpms didn’t seem fast enough…
There was always the weed, too, but since this was all happening in the Netherlands, that didn’t really count.
Fans of Gabber music were rather unoriginally known as ‘Gabbers’, and had a couple of distinctive features. In fact, of the musical genres I am familiar with, Gabber created the most uniform fan-base, since most of the point of listening to Gabber was to be a Gabber, and to fit in with a crowd of thousands.
Which led to some very distinctive fashions that were the Gabber's badge of honour. Firstly, for men, a shaved head was essential. A few grew a little hair, but to be a real gabber, you had to have it all shaved off, and then wear a baseball cap over the top. The women usually found this a bit too extreme (although I have met Gabber girls with shaved heads…), and so tended to grow their hair long, and just shave the sides, around the ears. Big, bright white trainers were also a must (preferably Nike Air Max), and shiny tracksuits. Black bomber jackets were also popular, often with a slipmat from your favourite Gabber record label sown onto the back.
A selection of record labels and artists to check out. If you just want a general introduction, I recommend the Thunderdome series of CD’s (there are about 14 by now), all of which give a good general picture of the scene.
The Thunderdome CD series.
Charlie Lownoise and Mental Theo
Rotterdam Terror Corps