As the Saturday morning sun blazes down on 5,000 ravers crammed into Exit Festival’s No Sleep Novi Sad stage in the moat of Serbia’s Petrovaradin Fortress, Sheffield’s Dax J is playing the closing set of what has been a long night of heavy techno.
Under a hazy cloud of dust thrown up from more than 10 hours of dancing, a bare-chested man with long hair whirls a red T-shirt around his head with little regard for those around him, seemingly only conscious of the jarring bleeps and booming kick of Sergy Casttle’s ‘Arpeggiator’.
Further back in the crowd a muscular teenager with bleached blonde hair and black horseshoe moustache slowly raises both forefingers to the air before embracing the person next to him, a grizzled-looking man in his late 40s who continues to nod his head and fist-pump the air. Next to them a dark-haired young Serbian girl with a blue bandana over her nose and mouth winds her waist gracefully to the thudding beat.
Backstage, Belgrade-based promoter and No Sleep mastermind Sagor Mešković is looking out over a crowd that stretches hundreds of metres back through the dry moat to the castle’s giant stone walls. “This is a real rave. This is what it’s all about,” he says, grinning with satisfaction. Just over the wall an even bigger spectacle is taking place as Hot Creations label owner Jamie Jones rattles the scaffolding staircases of the 25,000-capacity Dance Arena, a stage with a giant soundsystem nestled in a 200’ high amphitheatre made up of grassy terraces in the castle’s fortifications.
Since emerging from the student protest movement that toppled the dictator Slobodan Milošević in 2000, Exit has morphed into an ever-expanding international festival juggernaut. With 19 stages, it’s attracted in excess of 20 million festival-goers over its 17-year history, and is now firmly positioned as the country’s biggest cultural export.
Since its inception Exit has annually showcased a mish-mash of genres from indie to reggae to heavy metal – but at the heart of the festival there has always been a thudding techno kick-drum. This year alone the festival hosted a swathe of heavy-hitting techno artists including established names like Jeff Mills, Nina Kraviz and Ellen Allien, as well as underground innovators like the Icelandic renegade Bjarki, Israel’s Moscoman and Belgium’s Charlotte De Witte.
Serbia’s love affair with electronic music started in the early 90s, during the Yugoslav wars, when stations like Studio B and B92 started to play hardcore underground techno from Detroit and Western Europe on daytime radio. Soon Studio B and B92 were throwing parties in warehouses, and in 1994 the techno club Industrija opened in a basement under a bookshop in Belgrade. The venue quickly became a hub for the country’s techno scene and laid the foundation for the party-hard culture that still exists in Serbia today.
“It was a very intense time,” says Serbian academic and former Industrija raver Bogomir Doringer. “During the Kosovo War schools were shut in Belgrade and when the air raid sirens went off we didn’t go running for the bomb shelters, we went straight to the club. The bombs were uranium-tipped and designed to penetrate really deep. So we thought, if we are going to die we’d rather die dancing.”
For many ravers of that era underground electronic music was inseparable from politics. As well as organising raves, Studio B and B92 also promoted demonstrations against the government and broadcast uncensored, independent news programmes.
“Partying was our protest. It was our fire,” says Tijana T, a veteran of Serbia’s techno scene who broke out internationally in 2013 and has since played DJ sets around the world including at Space in Ibiza and at Berghain in Berlin. “Imagine you’re living in Serbia in the 90s. The country is locked. Nothing goes in. Nothing goes out. And you have the guts to decide you want to be a DJ, which means you have to smuggle records from other countries. It was punk. The DJs at Industrija were like rebel leaders for us.” For many of Serbia’s older techno-heads, despite its hardships, it was a golden era for Serbian raving – and the tunes from this period, like Dave Clarke’s 1994 classic ‘Wisdom To The Wise’, evoke the most intense response during Tijana T’s Monday-morning set in the Dance Arena, sparking shouting and hoots from the pit in front of the stage.
After Milosevic’s departure in 2000, Exit Festival provided Serbians with the opportunity to see DJs and bands from other countries that had previously been unable to enter the country due to international sanctions. “The first time I played Exit it was 2002 and it blew my mind,” says Lancashire-born, Berlin-based master of noise-techno Paula Temple. “It was one of the best DJ experiences I have had. It felt like it meant so much to the people who came to party. People were going out of their minds. There was a real hunger for new cultural experiences.”
These days Serbia remains stable compared to the turmoil of the 90s, but it still struggles with significant political and social challenges – and sadly, much of the optimism from the early days of Exit seems to have disappeared. Over the last 10 years government corruption has undermined the country’s democratic processes, and freedom of speech has been curtailed. In April this year thousands of students took to the streets of Belgrade and Novi Sad protesting against the government and the election of Aleksandar Vučić as President – a former Minister of Information under Milošević who closely controls Serbian media outlets. Due to Vucic’s tight grip on Serbia’s newspapers and broadcasters the large number of demonstrators that attended these protests was not reported by domestic news outlets. Compounding Serbia’s problems, the country’s economy has stagnated for the last decade, leaving it with one of the lowest average wages in Europe.
The combination of low wages, the disappointing erosion of democracy and the persistence of government corruption in the post-Milošević era has created a new generation of politically disillusioned ravers who don’t have the same regime-changing ambitions as those who partied in the 1990s. “The whole system is so screwed up. There’s nothing you can do to change it, so you may as well forget about it and just have a good time,” says Ana Veliki, a 25-year-old promoter from Belgrade. “For us techno isn’t political. It’s purely about music, partying and making money.”
But while the younger generation of clubbers is, on the whole, less political, its infatuation with electronic music remains just as intense. Solomun and Dixon, repeat visitors to Exit, are given a rapturous response when they go back-to-back at the Dance Arena on Saturday morning, ushering in the sunrise with soaring vocals and thumping bass. Glasgow’s Denis Sulta sends shockwaves through the festival during his 2am set on Thursday, his own tracks, including 2017 release ‘Nein Fortiate’, prompting a feverish reaction from a crowd packed into the castle’s moat. And local DJs like Battric, MIVU and Mischo Kerkez demonstrate the strength of the domestic Serbian scene, keeping the dancefloor packed at the smaller Urban Bug stage, which played non-stop for 13 hours every night of the festival and showcased more than 100 local DJs.
Standing backstage at the No Sleep Novi Sad stage in the increasingly hot Sunday morning sunshine after a long night of rushing around and solving logistical problems, Sagor Mešković can’t stop grinning and stopping people to show them videos of various sets on his mobile phone.
“Dance music is exploding right now in Serbia,” he says, tapping his finger on the screen of his mobile to hammer home his point. “A whole new generation is coming through, going to parties and listening to electronic music. They’re bringing with them a new attitude and a new energy. This is just the beginning.”
Even if dance music is no longer a country-changing force in Serbia, Exit is certainly something of which the whole country can be proud.
This feature is from the September 2017 issue of Mixmag
Wil Crisp is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter