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Finding Joy: Charlotte's EDM scene thumps and dances its way to true community

Woman D-J-ing at a party in Charlotte.
Courtesy of Ariel (DOMii) Dominguez
Ariel Dominguez DJing at Girls Room at Broken Promises in Charlotte.

There’s a pulse thumping in Charlotte — it’s anywhere from 100 to 180 beats per minute, and it’s flourishing on dancefloors around the city. It’s Charlotte’s EDM scene. And with lines out the door, this music scene is growing, and growing more diverse, than ever before.

At about 10 p.m. on a cool Saturday night in Charlotte, people in bright neon attire and butterfly wings spill from cars and walk toward the entrance of the Rainbow Rave at Blackbox Theatre, near the edge of NoDa.

Two friends who only gave their first names, Savon and Calzada, say they came here from Winston-Salem to see one of their favorite DJs.

"I’m here to see Introspekt tonight. She’s a trans femme, Black trans femme DJ," Savon said.

"Bringing artists like this into our community broadens our community," adds Calzada.

They pass through a security check and enter the party. Inside, colorful lights flash and beam across the room. A DJ is mixing UK garage and dubstep in front of a small sea of partygoers.

On either side of the DJ, two artists are painting huge canvases as dancers spin and twirl with light-up batons.

Standing near the entrance is lead organizer David Bower. He says he created this event for North Carolina’s queer community.

"This event is a love letter to our community. It is a vision to enjoy what we love as a group," said Bower.

DJ playing in front of a rave
Courtesy David Bower
ONHELL, a DJ, playing at the Rainbow Rave at Blackbox Theater.

He’s one of a growing number of EDM producers bringing events to Charlotte, drawing on a fanbase that spans across ages, races and orientations. EDM events with names like House Vibrations, Black Cat Club and Afta Orbit shake and thump through old warehouses, restaurants and rooftops each weekend.

And ravers say the scene is more than just a party. It’s become a community.

To outsiders, Charlotte might seem like a buttoned-up banking town, more khakis and polos than glitter and butterfly wings. But Charlotteans have been boogieing to house and EDM, which DJs create by altering and mixing records with a more mechanical beat, since the 1990s.

Many of the original clubs from the ‘90s have closed, but new ones have opened.

Trio opened last year on South Mint Street. Owner Eric Gussin, 37, says he's been a "big-time" EDM fan since high school. He started as a barback at the original Trio in Charleston and opened Trio’s second location in Charlotte in part because the EDM fans here seemed hungry for more.

"A rising tides raise all ships. You know, we want the whole city to grow. We want the music scene to grow," he said.

Inside Trio, red strobe lights flash and music pounds as some of the first clubbers arrive for the night.

Carving out a place

Behind the DJ booth is a screen lit up with the name “DOMii.” She’s the young DJ opening for tonight’s show. DOMii is her stage name. The government knows her by another: Ariel Dominguez.

"Dominguez, yes, so the name comes from my last name. DOMii — I got that nickname playing sports," she said.

A child of Hispanic and European dance music, DOMii is a Charlotte-based DJ and music producer. She’s also opened for well-known EDM names and performed at festivals around the country.

She says when she started about a decade ago, the local EDM DJs and event producers in Charlotte looked a lot different.

"It was a lot of older, older guys, and they were really good DJs. It just, it kind of lacked in, um — I mean, DJs that looked like me," she said. "So that’s a hoop I had to jump through, kind of finding my place without there actually being a place for me. I just kind of have to carve it out basically."

That’s partly why she created two recurring events: Girls Room Charlotte, which is geared for a female crowd, and Housework Charlotte, geared for everyone.

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One final spot is a late Sunday afternoon destination in Plaza Midwood.

While you might associate EDM with dark clubs, this spot buzzes in the daylight on an outdoor patio — it’s Hazy Sunday at Petra’s Bar.

This biweekly event started six years ago as a way for friends to share vinyl records at a Sunday day party.

"But then from there, it just kinda grew legs, and people started coming, and now we’ve got a monster on our hands," said Will Gilreath, who DJs as Probably Will. He organizes Hazy Sunday with Ray Krowl.

Crowd of people dancing outside at a rave
Courtesy Steven Pilker
Hazy Sunday at Petra’s Bar.

Although EDM raves and festivals have a notorious association with recreational drug use, chemical enhancement isn’t required to enjoy the scene. At Hazy Sunday, it's more about the love of music that Gilreath says is at its core.

"It’s not really like a festival culture here at Hazy. It’s just more about the actual roots of the music," he said.

Hazy Sunday draws a crowded line down an alley. And if you’re not there by late afternoon, you’ll have to wait to get in.

Even on a rainy Sunday, when the weather doesn’t allow for dancing in the sunshine, fans are still on their way to the party — just now, indoors.

"For me, personally, it keeps me thinking about why I like to be alive. So, it’s part of living. It’s like a little mini-vacation," said Carl, who came here with his wife Serena. They didn’t give their last names.

"It’s almost like a family setting here, and then we’ll see people outside of Hazy and we all recognize each other as — OK, we’re connected, we get each other. ‘Cause we’re all happy when we come here and it kind of spreads out to other venues," said Serena.

"This is our equivalent of, like, Sunday dinner with family," said Carl.

They’ve been blazing the dancefloors in Charlotte for decades.

"Not to give away ages, we’ve been here long enough to remember some of the old clubs like Mythos and Pterodactyl and Park Elevator that were the genesis of EDM here in Charlotte and they all went away," he said.

But these two stayed, and are happy the city is enjoying an EDM renaissance.

"Now this resurgence that’s coming with, like, there’s a bunch of clubs ... that are popping up, and that cycle seems to be growing," Carl said. "And it's growing crowds, and it's growing (in) acceptance, and we’ll see where it goes. I hope it keeps going because we love the scene."

"Yeah, it kinda keeps us feeling younger," Serena laughs.

As they finish talking, Carl turns to Serena and they head back inside to the dancefloor, where Probably Will, the DJ is spinning.

Outside, it’s raining, but inside, as the music plays and friends embrace with hugs and smiles, no one seems to mind, and the beat goes on.

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A self-proclaimed Public Radio Nerd, Chris Jones began working as a Weekend Host here at WFAE in 2021.