Inside, the curtain opens to whoops and howls. The opening credits feature QBert -- a seminal hip-hop DJ, hailed for his elevation of turntablism as an art form -- collecting his luggage from the local airport carousel. Like most of the passengers on his flight, he's on his way to a Mardi Gras party, namely Zoolu, a rave at the State Palace Theatre. As the film plays on, a host of international DJs appear, including marquee names such as Josh Wink, Nigel Richards and Derrick Carter.
But none of these performers is the star of the film.
That honor is reserved for event promoter James D. Estopinal Jr., aka Disco Donnie, who first appears dressed in an orange vinyl tracksuit and a Wagner's Meat T-shirt, gold sunglasses and a bottle opener on a gold rope around his neck. "We're going to a party," he says to start the film, flashing both rows of stark-white teeth in a wide grin. "Twenty-five hundred or 3,000 of my closest friends."
Estopinal's wildly popular parties at the State Palace Theatre became the stuff of rave legend by early 2000. Yet it wasn't just innovative productions and financial success that landed him in Time, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. The parties -- along with their venue and promoter -- won their fame thanks to a national controversy that would eventually grow to include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), both houses of Congress and the entire entertainment industry.
GROWING UP ON THE WEST BANK
James D. Estopinal Jr. got his first taste of nightlife via his father. A hardworking attorney, James Estopinal Sr. gave up his practice in 1979 after he separated from 8-year-old Donnie's mother. Known as "Disco Jim," the elder Estopinal took a job as a DJ at a bar called Scratches on Behrman Highway. Sometimes on weekends, Donnie's mother would let him go there with his father. "I would sleep on the floor, go through records, play video games, help stock beers, stuff like that," the younger Estopinal recalls.
When he wasn't spinning records, Disco Jim lived in a motor home parked in a field near the bar. "I thought it was awesome that he lived in a motor home," says Disco Donnie. "I saw all kinds of stuff kids aren't supposed to see."
Most of the time, though, Estopinal lived with his mother, Betty Estopinal, a CPA who now runs her own accounting firm in Metairie. The most striking thing in her office is a massive portrait of "Disco Donnie" dancing in a leisure suit, constructed entirely of Mardi Gras beads. "That's my son!" she says proudly.
As a student at Arden Cahill Academy in Gretna, Disco Donnie loved sports and social success. "Everyone would call him to see what he was doing. He was always the one that planned things, that made things happen," Betty Estopinal says. When he wasn't in school, he traveled with his mother, often in an old Datsun with no air conditioning, on trips to places such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and Winter Park Resort.
Disco Donnie entered Louisiana State University
in 1990, planning to follow in his mother's footsteps and become an accountant.
In college, he threw small parties in bars, mostly for his fraternity, which
he led as president. When he returned to New Orleans after graduating in 1994,
he briefly worked for his mother and took a job waiting tables at night. One
night, a few gay men he worked with invited him to a dance party at Cafe Istanbul,
a now-defunct club on Frenchmen Street. "I felt misplaced when I first came
back here," he recalls as he twists the sideburns of his 1970s haircut into
little curls. "Until I found this. I was totally floored."
Estopinal's first dance events were intimate affairs for a close-knit group of college-aged clubbers. He booked local DJs at Cafe Istanbul, the Audubon Hotel on St. Charles Avenue and the previous incarnation of the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District. Working with partners including Dan Millstein, aka DJ Stryfe, Estinopal organized the parties under a series of "company" monikers such as Moon Patrol, a precursor to his current entities, Disco Productions and the Freebass Society.
When the parties outgrew small clubs, Estopinal and his cohorts found larger, less legitimate venues. They posed as a sound equipment company to gain access to a stinky fish warehouse on Erato Street for a regular Friday night event. "No liquor license, no insurance, no security," he recalls. "Totally, like, stupid. Five hundred people started showing up to these things, and it got really risky. It's a six-story place, someone throws a two-by-four out the window, and it hits someone in the head. Stuff like that started happening. We knew that if we wanted to get bigger, we had to go legal."
THROUGHOUT THE GOLDEN AGE OF GRUNGE, the State Palace Theatre had featured acts such as Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam and had hosted the New Orleans premiere of the Dave Matthews Band in 1995. A family business owned and operated by brothers Robert and Brian Brunet and their father Rene Brunet, it had a security staff, proper insurance policies and ticket sales through Ticketmaster. It was also tailor-made for raves. With its ornate opera-house architecture and multiple performance rooms, the State Palace could accommodate dozens of DJs and live acts and throngs of electronic music fans.
The first few State Palace raves, held in 1995, drew crowds in the hundreds, and the first Freebass Society Mardi Gras party at the State Palace, Zoolu 2, held in February 1996, netted about $12,000. State Palace co-owner Robert Brunet learned quickly that there was money to be made from raves: "I said to Donnie and Dan, 'Hey, I don't know shit about the music you promote, and y'all don't know shit about putting on a show.' So, I proposed that we partner up. Donnie and Dan were peeing in their pants they were so excited. Donnie's not a dumb guy." Estopinal insists that he was the one to put a deal on the table with Brunet and that he wasn't altogether clueless about putting on shows. But he also admits that the bottom line was never his primary concern.
Donnie was always about the music," says Brunet. "He was always all, 'I'm concerned about how other promoters are going to feel about this,' or, 'I'm concerned about this not being the right thing for the kids.' I was like, f--k the other promoters."
Eventually, Estopinal's success meant he began receiving investment opportunities: a clothing line, a record label, a bagel shop. "I was so busy goofing off, I was like, whatever," he says. "I was spontaneously successful and I knew that it would be hard to duplicate that. I had seen enough VH1 Behind the Music to know that. I was resigned to the fact that one day, it would end, or slow down, or change."
"YOU EVER SEEN A BUILDING'S WALLS SWEAT?" asks local raver and Web archivist Bruce Burge, referring to the height of the State Palace rave scene, from 1996 to 2000.
Estopinal's parties became nationally known for bizarre themes and attractions. There was a dance contest MC-ed by Fred Berry (the now-deceased actor who played Rerun on the television sitcom What's Happening!!), a surprise set by 2 Live Crew, a puppet show by local novelty act Quintron and a traditional Mardi Gras second line by ReBirth Brass Band. At one party, the San Diego group Crash Worship led a drum-pounding processional that included a naked woman drenched in wine. Another time, Estopinal turned on all the house lights at 3 a.m. and had a choir sing "Amazing Grace" into the cavernous theater.
Some parties had cryptic titles like "Onslaught," and "Fire," and others took on more twisted themes like "Psychedelic Pimp-Daddyland," "Caffeine Sex Fiend," and "Supaphat Hong Kong Phooey." Later, Estopinal reincarnated successful parties with "brand" names such as, "Supaphat Hong Kong Phooey Twooey," "Phuture Phat Hong Kong Phooey," "Caffeine Mean Joe Greens," and "Caffeine Mr. Green Jeans."
Freebass Society parties also featured top-tier electronic music talent such as the Crystal Method, Paul Oakenfold and Thievery Corporation. In 2001, Scott Kirkland of the Crystal Method told the online magazine New Orleans Electronica Digest, "[Donnie] is always willing to do something for New Orleans that no other person in the country is willing to do, to make a connection to the people that go out and pay $20 and $30 a night to get into an event."
Talking to Freebass Society devotees, it's clear that they hold a near-eerie allegiance to Estopinal and the scene he created. Mostly in their early 20s, these ravers are visibly cautious when asked about their leader's antics, offering responses like, "Donnie would kill me," or, "I have a story, but it's X-rated." To some attendees, Estopinal held celebrity status. "People wanted to meet him, hang out with him or just touch him," says local DJ and upstart promoter Swede White. "They wanted to shake his hand and say thanks for the great time."
DISCO DONNIE WAS AT HOME, trying on outfits and styling his hair when agents from the DEA's New Orleans field office entered the State Palace Theatre on Aug. 26, 2000, just before "Phuture Phat Hong Kong Phooey" was set to begin. When Estopinal finally arrived, he found police cars, lights flashing, scattered around the venue's one-block perimeter. The police had sealed off the theater's entrance before its doors opened to patrons, leaving thousands of ravers spilling onto Canal Street.
From 9 p.m. until 1 a.m., DEA agents scoured the premises, seizing files, computers, party favors and as much bottled water as they could haul away. The agents found virtually no illegal drugs inside the theater -- and no proof that Estopinal and the Brunets were involved in any type of drug dealing. The following Monday morning, the promoters discovered that that wasn't the issue at hand.
At a meeting with their attorneys, Estopinal and the Brunets learned that they were being indicted under grand jury charges of violation of the so-called "crack house statute" and ongoing criminal enterprise, a charge that carried a possible sentence of 20 years to life. It was the first time that the federal government used the 1986 law to indict venue managers and event promoters for drug dealing and consumption at their events, rather than charging the pushers and consumers themselves. "I was in shock," Estopinal recalls.
For the next several months, life was bizarre for Disco Donnie. "It was crazy," he says. "Every conversation had to be outside. I had to hide everything." His daily duties went from waking up past noon and planning parties with hip DJs, to waking up for early morning meetings with his attorney and then driving to his mother's house to have an outdoor conversation for fear the phones were tapped.
"You feel funny when somebody's watching you for months and you don't know it," he says. "You start getting paranoid. You start thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm just going to turn myself in.' I was thinking of every bad thing I'd ever done, like that time in kindergarten when I cheated on that test. If they followed Mother Teresa around for eight months, they could put her in jail."
"At the time, we thought we were doing our best," Brunet says of security measures at State Palace raves. "We thought, 'We don't want people doing drugs in here, but it's not necessarily our job to be the police.' I wouldn't say it was a foolish opinion, considering that's how every other venue in town saw it." Reflecting on the roller-coaster ride that his partnership with Estopinal became, he seems half-regretful, half-amused. "Someday, I swear," he says, "I'm going to write a book about this. It has all the makings: music, sex, drugs, cops, attorneys, courts."
It also has a tragic death. In August of 1998, 17-year-old Jillian Kirkland of Mobile, Ala., was rushed to Charity Hospital after suffering convulsions from drug complications at a State Palace Theatre rave. She died after lying in a coma for several days. The incident marked a low point for Estopinal, whose father had passed away just a few weeks before the incident.
"I felt terrible that that had happened at one of my events," he says. "At some point, I was like, well f--k it, I don't want to do this anymore. It hurt. But I had a lot of friends around and they convinced me to keep going."
About one month after Kirkland's death, Estopinal says, three DEA agents visited his apartment on Bourbon Street in the Faubourg Marigny, unannounced, at seven o'clock on a random morning. He says the agents questioned him about drug dealers at the State Palace Theatre raves, telling him that they were certain he knew who they were. After he insisted he did not know, the agents asked him what his yearly income was. They told him they could "take care of him" if he agreed to identify the drug dealers. Again, Estopinal denied having the information. "They told me what a horrible person I was," Estopinal recalls, "and that I was destroying people's lives."
Richard Woodfork, public information officer for the New Orleans division of the DEA, would not verify or deny Estopinal's story or provide any specific information about the investigation.
Estopinal had already suspected that DEA agents were at large at his parties. By the late '90s, the DEA had made its "Club Drug Campaign" public, and mainstream media was rife with coverage of raves as drug-fueled death traps. "Every time we did a party at the State Palace," he says, "somebody said it was going to be raided." He was well aware that the DEA had launched a national investigation of raves and the club drugs associated with them. He wasn't aware, however, that he and the owners of the State Palace Theatre were subjects.
For eight months, beginning in January of 2000, Estopinal and the State Palace Theatre were under investigation by the DEA. "I should have known," says Estopinal. "It was on the Internet. They were calling me on the phone, pretending they were promoters from out of town, asking me about throwing raves, trying to get me to say stuff about drugs. I'd tell them security keeps them out of there."
Agent Michael Templeton and his task force officers were collecting evidence for an application for the search warrant that they needed to raid the theater. Templeton's affidavit for a search warrant states that he and other agents, acting undercover, observed rampant consumption and sales of Ecstasy and LSD that "neither the security guards nor the management of the State Palace Theatre did anything to curtail." It said that the venue sold glow sticks, bottled water, pacifiers and other "drug paraphernalia" at their events. Templeton also stated that at "Zoolu 6," on March 4, 2000, one undercover agent made "a total of 25 purchases of controlled substances, particularly MDMA, averaging one every four minutes."
Previous congressional testimony by New Orleans Field Division Special Agent in Charge George Cazenavette (now retired) revealed the division's belief that DJs were involved in the distribution of drugs in the venue and that drugs were stored inside sound equipment and distributed to the crowd by "runners" with VIP badges.
ELECTRONIC MUSIC HAS SPAWNED DOZENS OF SUBGENRES-- house, trance, techno, drum'n'bass -- and its enthusiasts often travel hundreds of miles to go to a rave. "We'd sell tickets in 20 states," says Estopinal. "People were coming from everywhere because they had to see a certain DJ, so they could cross him off their list." Most ravers say the idea that people only come to raves to do drugs is ludicrous. It's for the music, they say. Yet few deny that there are other factors involved.
Some say it's about "PLUR." Known as "the core of the scene," PLUR stands for "Peace, Love, Unity, Respect," a philosophy that sets up a utopian social atmosphere at raves. Some say the positive vibes at raves are contagious, that the experience can be life-changing, with or without drugs. "It's a life we've all chosen to lead," says DJ Tommie Sunshine, who was dragged to his first rave after a Grateful Dead show in the early '90s.
Sensory stimulation -- frenetic music, laser light shows, video projection, thousands of partygoers in one building -- is another draw. Eye candy is provided by patrons, who consider themselves part of the show. There are few fashion parameters -- especially at New Orleans parties such as Zoolu. Looks range from multi-colored wigs and hair extensions, feathers, and bra tops spangled with glitter to homemade cut-up skirts, Mohawks, piercings, and all shapes and colors of eyewear. At a recent State Palace rave, a man with a multicolored, checkerboard haircut carried a stuffed monkey painted with blue glitter.
Like its fashions, rave dancing varies from region to region and depends on the style of music being played, but the basic moves consist of curving motions interspersed with sharp poses. The physical manifestation of the culture, rave dancing combines the fluidity of psychedelia and the angular "futuristic" aesthetic as it melds together in the bliss of the dance floor.
If raves are all about sound, lights, fashion, dancing and feeling good, then drugs can only help to kick the party up a notch -- or at least that's what some ravers say. The drug most commonly associated with raves is Ecstasy, or MDMA, which causes body temperature to rise, possibly leading to dehydration -- especially in combination with hours of vigorous dancing. Fainting, seizures and, in severe cases, death can result. Although research is inconclusive, some have also linked Ecstasy to mood fluctuations, memory loss and a number of other long-term risks. Nonetheless, it remains the drug of choice for some ravers.
Jim (who agreed to be interviewed but not identified) is a 25-year-old rave enthusiast who lives in Baton Rouge and works for the State of Louisiana. "You can have raves without drugs," he says, "but you would lose what makes a rave so great, the freedom to dance, to get high, to live. A rave without drugs would be like a bar without alcohol."
"That's so not true," says raver Bruce Burge. "Drugs aren't the draw to these parties; the music is." Burge, now 24, admits that drugs are what brought him to the rave scene when he was younger. "But once I was in it," he says, "I started meeting people that were different than everything I knew. There were no racists, no homophobes. Everyone was judged for who they were as a person, and that changed my ideas about my life and where it was going." Burge, now sober, says he doesn't feel out of place in the scene because he doesn't do drugs.
Throughout Rise, in an MTV-style "confessional," director Julie Drazen asks every interview subject if they are rolling (a slang term for being high on Ecstasy). Most say yes, many who say no are accused of lying, and one can't stop chewing gum long enough to speak, indicating the compulsive jaw-clenching effect of Ecstasy.
THE UNPRECEDENTED APPLICATION OF THE CRACK HOUSE STATUTE to raves at the State Palace Theatre baffled the attorneys involved. Estopinal's original attorney, Milton Masinter, advised him to plead guilty and serve one year in a minimum-security prison. "He had a picture of the jail," Estopinal recalls. "He said, 'See, you can't cross the street, but there's some grass where you can walk around and a basketball court.' I'm thinking, 'Oh, that's not so bad.'"
But Estopinal believed he was innocent. Shutting down raves and rave promoters, he thought, would do little to protect children from the dangers of street drugs. Eventually, he decided that he would neither plead guilty nor accept any plea agreement he was offered. With a new attorney (Patrick Fanning) and the help of the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Policy Litigation Project director Graham Boyd, he decided to fight the federal government.
Members of the electronic music industry organized EM:DEF (Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund) to raise money for Estopinal's defense. "I'm not going to pretend to be all deep or whatever," he says, "but I have a lot of friends that I made all these years, and they had a lot riding on me. I was like, 'Well, screw this, I'm not pleading guilty. I'm going to take the chance. I'm a gambling man. If you want to put me away for 20 years, good.' That's how I started feeling."
In March of 2001, then-U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan dropped the charges. A second case charged Barbecue of New Orleans Inc., the local corporation owned by the Brunets doing business as the State Palace Theatre, with conspiracy to violate the crack house statute. Judge Thomas Porteous accepted a guilty plea, and the corporation paid a fine of $100,000 (less than the court costs would have been had the case gone to trial). Owners of the State Palace also agreed to ban all "drug paraphernalia" such as pacifiers, glow sticks and Vicks inhalers, all said to enhance the sensory effects of Ecstasy.
On June 18, 2001, the RAVE (Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy) Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate. Sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the RAVE Act aimed to expand the crack house statute to target music promoters, venue managers and landowners. The bill carried a civil liability of $250,000 or twice the gross profits of the event in question, in addition to its criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. On the Senate floor, Biden said that the legislation was necessary because promoters "profit from exploiting and endangering young lives," citing the New Orleans case as an example.
The ACLU, the International Association of Assembly Managers and EM:DEF all attacked the bill as anti-First Amendment. Two of the bill's original sponsors, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, withdrew their support. A retooled RAVE Act resurfaced the following year. Now called the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, the bill applied to any type of concert or entertainment event. Its writers had also removed its controversial "findings" section, which had attempted to codify an inextricable relationship between raves and club drugs. A conference committee tacked the new, broad-based act onto the Amber Alert Bill -- a popular piece of legislation that deals with child abduction and sexual exploitation of children -- which passed in April. Leahy issued a press release recognizing objections to the bill and its inclusion in the "hastily assembled" conference package.
It might be too early to tell what kind of impact this law and others like it will have on the entertainment industry. Some promoters, such as the entertainment conglomerate Clear Channel, are not threatened by it. "Clear Channel Entertainment finds the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act and the amendment to the Amber Alert to be positive legislation for the facilities management industry," reads the company's official statement on the matter.
More concerned is the New Orleans-based music promoter Superfly Productions. Organizers of the annual Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn., the independent company regularly promotes concerts by acts associated with the "jamband" scene spawned by the Grateful Dead -- a band often associated with illegal drug use. Superfly principle Jonathan Mayers is wary of the law's possible applications, but also confident that concert promotion is a legitimate business and a cultural necessity. "People are always going to want to gather and be entertained," he says. "I'm not going to let a law that was meant to attack something else stop me from doing what I do. If someone wants to interpret that law to an extreme degree, then there are going to be problems about everything we do and how we live."
Biden and the DEA both say that the language of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act protects venues from being prosecuted for incidental drug use by their patrons and that a venue that does not promote the use of drugs has nothing to worry about. "Where there is a major concern about the consumption of drugs, we have to get involved," says the DEA's Woodfork, "but we would never shut down a legitimate place where there are concerts and music." Harry William, an attorney with the ACLU, is not so sure. "The real history of this is that Biden slipped this language in the Amber Alert bill without any debate because they'd lost the debate before, when various groups were adamantly opposed to it on First Amendment grounds," he says.
Gary Blitz, national coordinator of EM:DEF, says that for independent producers, just the threat of a lawsuit can be chilling. "Let's say you set up a tour or event that costs several million dollars to produce," he says. "Then the venue manager gets wind of the RAVE Act and voluntarily pulls the plug on your event. Then you don't even get a day in court." Even if you did, argue some detractors, an independent promoter might not have the resources and finances to defend itself.
This scenario has already occurred. Just one month after the legislation passed, a NORML rally to benefit the campaign for medical marijuana was shut down in Billings, Mont., when a DEA agent informed the venue owners that they could be prosecuted for drug use by their patrons under the new federal law. Biden and the DEA both called this instance a misinterpretation of the law, but not before the event was canceled.
More recently, the owner of Element, a nightclub in Austin, Texas, was allegedly advised by local police to cancel an Oct. 26 performance by drum'n'bass DJ LTJ Bukem, a show promoted by Estopinal's company, Disco Productions. Co-promoter Damon Williams says that the club's owner, who could not be reached for comment, was convinced that the show would bring too much attention from police because of Estopinal's association with raves. The Austin Police Department denied the allegations, and the show was moved to a club in Dallas.
"It's definitely making it harder to get venues," says Estopinal. Earlier this year, he helped Swede White move a pair of events from Twiropa to the State Palace and Ampersand when an investor pulled support. "My investor and his attorney came across the RAVE Act and were aware of the State Palace's troubles," says White. "When the new act passed and took effect immediately, it was time for them to get out." White did not reveal the name of his investor. "I would love to fight the law personally," he adds, "but I do not have millions to spend on attorneys."
Cutting-edge DJs still spin in almost every city in the United States, but there's a sense, at least in the local rave community, that things just aren't what they used to be. Many people from the State Palace scene complain that today's parties are less fun -- and attendance has dropped drastically. New York-based journalist Bill Werde has written about raves for The New York Times, The Village Voice and Urb, a California-based electronic music and culture magazine. He penned an article in the February 2003 issue of Urb titled "Rave Is Dead" and thinks that the rave scene was bound to cycle down, or change, regardless of legal trouble. "This was a scene that couldn't possibly last," he says. "You just got the sense that it was a matter of time before it ended. It's a shame because there was this utopian vision that really worked when things were good."
ESTOPINAL HOPSCOTCHES ACROSS THE PATIO behind the Tulane Avenue dance club Ampersand, kicks a sandal off of one foot and offers a hand to shake. "My hand is clean," he says, "but my socks didn't come back from the laundry."
It's 4 p.m. and the after-party to the previous night's rave at the State Palace is as lively as it's going to get on this sultry July afternoon. A DJ mixes from his table at the front of the patio, his deep pulsating beats blaring into the open air.
Between sips of Budweiser, Estopinal says that the new law does not change the way he does business. "I still don't deal with security," he says. "My job is to book talent." Now living in Columbus, Ohio, with his girlfriend and their 2-year-old child, he still promotes electronic music events at cities around the country, including New Orleans. He books talent at festivals such as the local Halloween weekend Voodoo Music Festival, which features a rave tent. He also books DJs at local clubs, including the weekly House of Blues S.I.N. (Service Industry Night) dance party. And he still throws regular parties at the State Palace Theatre, with Zoolu 10 coming up Feb. 21.
Disco Donnie offers a sincere hug to everyone at the party, even strangers, before he leaves to drive to Metairie. "I want to go see my mom," he says. "She's worried about me. I didn't come home last night."