A debriefing on the history of Promise, Toronto’s best-kept party series, as its founders reflect on the success of their 12-year-strong underground rave revival.
I often think and talk about music—or, more specifically, its power—as a sacrosanct experience that brings people together in an effort to love more than hate. It was a good weekend for music, wasn’t it? But not for the obvious. Coachella Volume 1 and Tupac holograms aside, those who stayed home were privy to a milestone celebration of Toronto’s best-kept party series: Promise. The landmark? Its 12-year anniversary.
11:26 p.m. There are velvet lights coming through glass windows facing Dundas West. From three different corners of the city, you can see paths merging and colliding at the Centre of Gravity on Sterling Road—a circus-training studio sandwiched indiscriminately in the Junction Triangle near the Nestle chocolate factory. The 6,000-sq-ft space with 40-ft ceilings is true to Promise’s character: a basic space that you pack with your own fundamentals. Inside, it’s Jetsons-era: a makeshift maze made out of what looks like panels of aluminum foil car sunshades…or something. There’s a dome climber jungle gym under which a group of girls is camped out playing cards. Couches—comfy as fuck—are spread across the space. The interior is a weird blend of that dying rec-room minimalism with the set of a Halloween party in a ’90s sitcom. Just add loft.
Founded by David Macleod and Irving Shaw, the first Promise jam sprung up in the spring of 2000 at the former dance studio-turned-loft space-turned-condo-fuckery at 48 Abell Street, just south of Queen across from The Drake Hotel. It grew out of the rise-and-fall of Toronto’s mid-90s rave explosion, where venues packed in thousands until the scene began to suffer under its own weight, falling apart amid reports of rampant drug use, mismanagement, flakey headliners, etc. “People started going more for the wrong reasons,” says Macleod. “Toronto rave culture became a suburban phenomenon.” Basically: raving was the cool thing to do. It was a commodity, bought and sold with music as its currency, until, as with any booming economy, outside influences began to pollute it. “It became a consumer party, and part of that is consumption. Lots of people actually camped in the middle of the dance floor chilling out and doing nothing. It was weird. The events were advertised as being life-changing, but they were a bit empty and destined for an inevitable collapse.”
And so a “promise” had to be made to Toronto’s devout followers of electronic music—and Macleod and Shaw wanted to make good on it. “We got into the scene because we loved all the awesome surprises coming out of electronic music at the turn of the millennium: drum and bass, old-school hardcore; so many different styles and splinter genres of house, techno and trance,” they wrote to me before Saturday’s party. “It was an exciting time to be going out and hearing something brand new every night. We also liked how the music affected how people behave around each other when they’re out. It was a much more social scene than the concert scene and you could meet a network of interesting people very easily.”(I like to think of that time as BC—before crap.) The problem came when the metrics didn’t line up: there would be a terrible DJ, but great sound. Or a fantastic venue, but no DJs. It was never the right combination. That was the void the Promise boys sought to fill.
In a novel, still-untapped approach to party promotion, Macleod and Shaw started collecting e-mail addresses (mostly Hotmail, amirite?) from the congregations that remained during the last days of rave, amassing a humble mailing list that served as the main vehicle to spread the word about their first attempt at doing something. “We began to flyer very discreetly in a few spots, and began to selectively flyer actual people we saw at parties who seemed like had something to offer and were there to enjoy the sound—like a personal pitch about what we were trying to do.” And that’s also how the name Promise came to be, because there were a lot of empty ones. “We kept it low-key, and didn’t promote [using] any lasers or massive bells and whistles.” Promise then became about standing behind something, about people and music and being part of it.
12:19 a.m. Saturday’s anniversary party was announced a mere 10 days earlier. There’s a fluorescent glow to everything on everyone: crowns, tube tops, nylon dresses, bracelets. It’s like everyone raided the Comfort Zone’s lost-and-found bin. There’s a chick in Kabuki face paint. One suit I can see. Another guy with a face full of piercings. Pants of every colour. The brilliance: Outside by the smoking area, there are three portable toilets, all brought in specifically for tonight. (“It’s always the unsexy stuff that will break a party,” says Macleod. “So we think ahead.”) It’s estimated that about 500 people will pass through this evening.
There are people here who have followed Promise through the ages, a testament to its strength and worth. “[The older crowd] misses a certain type of event. There are some things you really latch [onto] and make you feel really awesome, and the rave scene benefited from people’s boredom at concerts. You’re stuffed in like sardines and you can’t meet anyone,” says Macleod. “It’s like you saw your favourite band, but you didn’t have any fun. At a rave, you’re all excited to be there for unknown reasons. Now it’s 10 years down the road and no one does this anymore, so you go out once every four weeks or five weeks and you want it to be quality, or your brand of quality.”
1:15 a.m. I put my drink down and it vibrates halfway across the end table. Tonight’s headliner is Frankie Bones, the “Godfather of American Rave Culture” responsible for importing the concept to Brooklyn via the UK. In his honour—I imagine—there’s an Empire State Building replica behind the booth that shoots out its own ray of light into the crowd.
Over the last 12 years, Macleod and Shaw have polished and perfected an audience and an underground barometer that has remained virtually unparalleled, in the face of a mutated Entertainment District and a vastly different global musical landscape. It’s still a very grassroots effort, but you definitely can tell it isn’t run, as they say, by a “bunch of guys in a boardroom.”
“It’s part of our lifestyle, and we put that back into our work. The core of it is that excitement and energy of dancing late at night with other fun people.” From that one loft party, they began using different venues for each party, and from there a series was born: Promise Cherry Beach Sundays (a singular institution in its own right), the Harvest Festival, a Halloween and New Year’s Eve party, a boat cruise, and even DJ Skate Nights every winter Saturday at Harbourfront. And it’s that “love what you do, do what you love” thing that’s kept them successful and in touch: “Promise makes people proud of liking electronic music, and celebrating an artist. It’s not just a bunch of strangers trying to steal the party; they give the party to each other.”
The next morning, I wake with a ring on my finger that emits some sort of D.I.Y. laser light show. (It isn’t mine.) Macleod and Shaw are on their way to a few music festivals, including a stop in Detroit to scout for talent for their upcoming summer shows. Promise me I’ll never be too old for this.
Promise picks up again the first weekend of June at Cherry Beach. Or, if a stellar name and a great space become available, you might just hear about something in three weeks. That’s the spirit.