‘Not yet ausgespielt’: Nicole Grootveld reflects on 31 years of raving in Amsterdam

In club De School, I see Nicole standing in front of the DJ booth in the basement, dancing like it’s her last evening. She’s 50 years old, but nonetheless the person who’s raving the hardest. Having experienced Amsterdam’s electronic music scene for 31 years, there are many stories to be told. We sit together to talk about her life, raving in the eighties, the community she brought together, about inclusiveness and diversity in Amsterdam’s nightlife.

Nicole, for most people at the age of 50, reality is a nine to five job and two kids. You’re a private chef, personal assistant for multiple clients all the while going out nearly every other weekend. How do you combine all that? Can you tell me your secret?

I don’t really know better, I’ve always worked and partied a lot. In the past I even worked on the weekends as well. When I would finish my shift at the restaurant I’d go clubbing again. Now I’m better at balancing priorities, by minimalizing appointments throughout the week and going to bed early, I have all the energy I need to party on the weekends. What probably also helps is that I don’t use drugs. I do often get the question: ‘Nicole, when are you going into party retirement?’

What do you tell them?

Well, ‘no’ of course, it’s a primal thing for me, it’s something I need to do. I do it less nowadays, but comparing to my friends in their twenties I still go out as much.

So what do we say when people tell us: ‘You’re going through a phase, you’ll stop raving when you’re older’? 

‘It’s a lifestyle!’ I truly believe it is. For me it’s my social life; it’s where I met my partner, where I met and still meet my best friends. It’s where I found a place with like-minded people. 

However, for some it can most certainly be a phase, depending on what moves them. Nightlife can act as an escape for people. Situations can occur where people need to get away from the routine of daily life, situations where people don’t want to deal with their emotions. Perhaps a few years later when there are improvements and they won’t feel that need anymore for an escape, they’ll stop going out. Some stop going out once they get into relationships. These are all circumstances that drive people away from nightlife at a certain point.

Have you ever felt that it was a phase for you?

From the very beginning I felt it was going to be a part of me for the rest of my life. Going out in the Hague on my 18th I had two options: to go out with the wrong types of people or with the posh ones. If you were something in between, you were already labelled alternative.

In the late 80’s I went to Ibiza, where acid music had just found its way to the island. Electronic music hit the streets and the forests, where a flourishing queer scene with drag queens, transsexual men and women, gays, lesbians and everything in between danced all day and night. I thought: ‘This is me.’ 

Later on, someone told me about club RoXY in Amsterdam, apparently they were playing the same music. In 1988 I went out to the club for the very first time, it gave me a feeling of coming home. The club gave queer people and women a safe space. It was a place where everyone accepted each other regardless of sexual orientation, that was very special at that moment in time. It was the start of a new community.

Outside of club RoXY there was also a lot happening at that time. People were squatting buildings and throwing illegal raves all over Amsterdam in an explosive rate. I can imagine this new form of music and discovering all of these places brings a communal feeling with it just like the one in club RoXY. How did you experience that?

It definitely brought a communal feeling with it, the drugs were new, the music was new. Detroit techno, house from Chicago and acid took over Amsterdam and the raves where it was played at were very underground. You had to know people to know about the raves, otherwise you’d have no clue they even existed which is a very big contrast contrast to nowadays, where raves are usually announced through Facebook. At that time it was completely new and we didn’t have any social media to find out about them, we were discovering them together. There was an intense and exciting atmosphere in Amsterdam at that time.

Arriving at club RoXY, someone put a piece of paper in your hand. In tiny numbers, a telephone number was written on it. We didn’t have mobile telephones yet, so you had to go home or use a landline to call. ‘Follow the guy in the orange shirt on the ferry to the other side at 10 AM upcoming Saturday.’ A ferry filled with people by bike followed the guy with the orange shirt. Eventually you ended up at a warehouse in the middle of nowhere. 

Other times you had to go to a store and talk to the cashier who revealed the rave took place in a warehouse in east. Upon arrival, you had to climb down a ladder, enter a crack in the wall only to see 200 people dancing to the Prodigy who were performing. It was insane. This one time I was sent to an open space where a lot of cars were driving. I thought, this must be the rave. It was a place where all kinds of women and transsexual women in big fur coats were hustling. Behind them was a building where the rave took place. The whole scene, the setting, it was like being in an American movie. They were places you would normally never visit.

There was such a nice community at the raves but especially at club RoXY. It made me realize what I find so exhilarating about the night. People from all layers of society come together, whether it’s a hooker, a lawyer, a doctor or a student. In the night, that doesn’t matter anymore, everyone’s equal. 

Five years ago, you set up your own group – called the ‘ON-group’ – an online and offline community where you bring people together from the electronic music scene in Amsterdam. Were you inspired to set up this group because of the experiences you had in club RoXY and the community that came with it?

In a way it has. Before I set up the group it was a situation where I knew a lot of people from the scene, but many of them didn’t know each other. Very often when I introduced people to each other I wondered how it was possible that they had not yet met. There’s a whole queer scene in the electronic music scene that I wanted to come together as well, but they were all very scattered. There was no fixed place where we would meet on a regular basis. Perhaps a rave or a party every now and then – but not a club or a place where this scene, this group of people would come together. 

It came to this point where I thought: there are so much interesting, intelligent and creative people. We could help and support each other, whether that is through organizing raves together, attending each other’s parties, talking about mental health, sexuality, supporting each other’s art, making new connections and life-long friendships, or just to enjoy the night together, uniting over our shared love for electronic music, being an open-minded family. That’s when I decided: I’m going to set up a group where these people can come together and do all of those things. 

It all started with the ON-nights at club Trouw, the predecessor of club De School. You helped Trouw in creating ONtrouw nights, which was a night focussed on inclusivity, diversity and bringing people together. Can you tell me more about that?

In ways, nightlife lacked diversity. The party scene present was and still is quite heteronormative and white. Mostly, people dressed up in jeans and a t-shirt, but I also knew a lot of people that wanted to dress up. There have been clubs where people could dress up, but those places have closed due to gentrification. If I would have worn what I would normally wear at queer parties, to other clubs in Amsterdam, someone would ask me what I’m doing in my carnival costume, or I would get grabbed by my ass. Together with the owners of club Trouw we talked about organizing a more open-minded sexier night called ONtrouw. Where it doesn’t matter what you wear, and to bring together the queer people.

After the first ONtrouw party, I got tons of messages and people coming to me telling me they wish they could go out like this every week in Amsterdam. They asked me: ‘Why isn’t there a club like this in our city?’ I then thought: ‘I’m not that old hag from the times of RoXY who wants that community feeling to return, there’s appeal to it, other people want this as well. We don’t need to stay underground.’ I then created the ON-group in 2014 to bring together all of those people. We wanted a place that was sexier, we wanted a place where we could be ourselves, where we could express ourselves, where we’re valued and not judged.

That’s when club De School came along. 

When Trouw closed and De School came, the owners and I sat together again. We felt that there was a big gap in Amsterdam. We didn’t just want a few nights a year at a club, like with de Trouw, no, we wanted a club where we could be ourselves all year round. The owners knew about the community I was bringing together and asked me if I could bring together those people at De School. Being the raver-catcher with my flute and hat, I thought let’s do this, and it worked.

I believe a party is a good party because of the right mixture of people. With the right mix you can even create a killer party at McDonalds. It doesn’t matter, if we’re together, it’s always going to be an interesting evening. This is why I’m pro door policies focussed on attracting the right crowd with the right energy. You always have those people leaving bad reviews because they weren’t let in, but there has to be some sort of exclusivity.

Selecting the right crowd has always been a difficult situation. It’s balancing on a thin line. There’s an open-minded community, but at the same time it’s something that needs to be protected.

If everyone is allowed inside, there will be no community anymore. All the other people already have all clubs in Amsterdam. We only have one club and a few parties where we can be ourselves or dress the way we want to without being judged. Can we also have our own space? It’s not that we want to exclude people, in fact, I believe our scene is more inclusive than any other. But in order to maintain safe spaces for queer people, there needs to be clarity. This is what De School does through its (door) policies.

I truly believe that the club is one that Amsterdam hasn’t had in 20 years. De School is the only place since the times of RoXY where there’s a certain atmosphere. I would say it’s sexy but more importantly, one that is open-minded and has a diverse crowd. Others realized that as well. We were all going out to the club together and we finally found a space where we could really be ourselves and where many of us became family.

It’s an enormous contribution to the cultural capital of the city to have these initiatives of De School, you and many other organizations like Spielraum, Is Burning and so on, to have invested in bringing together a queer scene in Amsterdam and creating inclusive parties.

It’s beautiful but also so important to see new and upcoming initiatives, each with their own character, breathing life into the electronic music scene and really contributing to the inclusiveness in Amsterdam’s nightlife. First Carlos Valdes and Sandrien started Is Burning and now look at Spielraum, it started only two years ago and now it has just exploded. This shows the need we have for parties like these.

This summer there have been more raves than any other year before. They attract a very diverse and inclusive crowd as well who party like a family. That actually makes me cry on the dancefloor sometimes, when I experience this feeling of togetherness. What I really like about this generation is the fact that people are getting better. In fact, I think this generation of (party)people is the best one since twenty years. People are open-minded, smart, aware of what’s going on in the world. We’re living in exciting times for the music scene, but also the city itself is insanely exciting.

I feel the electronic music scene in Amsterdam changes at such a rapid pace.

We go through a lot of phases in a really short time. This is what makes it alive and interesting. Sometimes it’s less interesting, but this makes space for other things to come in again.

Just like the music that’s played. After my first Spielraum one and a half year ago I remember sending a track to my dad [Final Fantasy – Original Remastered by Extreme Trax], a classical from Bonzai records that KI/KI had played. I told him how excited I was getting about techno trance. He listened to it and then sent me a message back that to him it was quite commercial and nothing special. Which I can understand, because he grew up with it, but I didn’t. It was this time were trance slowly died, and now it has made its comeback. My dad then sent me a track of – I believe – Drumcode, which he found special, but I in return, thought it was commercial and nothing special. It’s funny to see how the time we grow up in changes our view on music. As you have been partying since ’88, you must have experienced so many changes and revivals throughout the years. How was it for you to experience all those different genres of music?

In general we’ve had an immense amount of revivals in the world and in Amsterdam when talking about electronic music. We’ve had the revival of house, the revival of techno, now it’s the revival of rave and euro-trance music. In some ways I agree with your dad, it’s nothing new for me, but it’s amazing to see that everyone’s going so crazy to it and to see the energy coming from it. It’s important that things change, to breathe new life into music or nightlife. It makes people open their minds and that in return makes people less inclined to get bored on a musical aspect.

What do you think will be the next revival?

I think we’ll go back to something more minimal. Music always comes back but with a different touch to it. I’m also very curious to how advanced technology is going to change music and clubbing experiences. Of course with this, new types of designer drugs will rise. You can also really see different types of drugs that are tied with a certain music period. When you look at the times of disco music, coke was the most popular drug. With house, it was XTC. 

The electronic music scene is bound to keep on renewing itself. Maybe that’s what’s so appealing about it. It’s always the question of what’s next? But it’s also important to look at what’s going on right now. What do you think Amsterdam could improve on when reflecting on Amsterdam’s club culture?

I think our night mayor Shamiro van der Geld and his initiatives like ‘Nacht voor de Nacht’ and ‘Hold the night tight’ are amazing. It’s important for people to see how important nightlife is to a city. There’s always something we need to fight for. Right now, I think we need more people from different ethnical backgrounds in clubs. I think we have a very diverse scene, but I think it could be more diverse. It’s a very white scene. Over the years this has changed more and more, but still it’s very white. That’s what I like about the ON-group. There are so many people with different (ethnical) backgrounds. It allows you to learn from each other’s cultures. 

Getting back to the ON-group. In just a few years time the group grew from 30 people to 700. Your mission of bringing together an inclusive and diverse community worked out. Did you expect it to become such a big group in such a short time?

Never.

For your 50th birthday in De School we all danced in the light tunnel from Children of the Light. How was it for you to experience such a big group of people that you have brought together, now all celebrating your birthday?

I was in shock, I stood in the office for 15 minutes, overwhelmed by emotions. It still makes me cry. It’s insane and beautiful. It’s a privilege to have so much beautiful people around me, who did this for me, and all I can really say is: I wish a 50th birthday like that for anyone! I’m also really thankful I get to experience another generation of party people.

‘Another generation’, but you’re also aiming to experience the next generation, right?

I definitely do, I’m not going into party-retirement. I’ve already ordered my disco-walker to support me. I’m not yet ausgespielt! The community that we have in Amsterdam, but also the parties and clubs like De School and all those raves, are the best since twenty years. How could I ever stop now? I’m too excited.