Inside the World of the Kandi Kids, Dance Music's Most Colorful Subculture

Inside the World of the Kandi Kids, Dance Music’s Most Colorful Subculture

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A kandi kid at HTID (Hardcore Til I Die) USA, an EDM festival held in Phoenix in 2015
A kandi kid at HTID (Hardcore Til I Die) USA, an EDM festival held in Phoenix in 2015

Staring down at their hands, two ravers touch their fingertips together to form a double peace sign. “Peace,” they say in unison. “Love,” they whisper next as their hands form into the shape of a single heart. They intertwine their fingers as they laugh and declare “Unity.” And now with their hands still together, they assert “Respect,” then slide bracelets of plastic beads, called “kandi,” from one's wrist to the other's.

These ravers, known as kandi kids, have just performed a ritual endemic to Southern California’s rave culture, the PLUR handshake.

“Kandi” generally comes in the form of bracelets made of multicolor plastic beads, often with words and phrases strung into the bracelet’s pattern. But since its first unassuming appearance at raves in the early 1990s, kandi has become increasingly elaborate. Entire wrist cuffs, face masks, hats, necklaces, tops and various other objects now are regularly made of kandi. As the kandi designs have grown more elaborate, so too has the kandi’s meaning to its wearers.

“Each kandi trade represents a memory of the person who traded it to you. In a sense, when a raver wears kandi on their arm, they are wearing their past memories and experiences with their fellow ravers,” says Andreas George, aka Injekt, a DJ based in the San Fernando Valley.

Kandi kids mostly make their magic at home by themselves, at tables at a rave, or sometimes together at kandi parties. More elaborate cuff designs can take hours to assemble, and particularly complex pieces can take days. "My biggest cuff took a total of 18 hours and cost about $40 in materials," says Ryan Paynne, 30, from Long Beach, whose day job is at a marketing firm in Irvine.

Kandi making has gotten so complex that private businesses, such as KandiGear.com, now even sell premade kandi, though true aficionados take a dim view of such conveniences. "It ruins the experience when you find out that cuff you spent hours on went to someone who just bought theirs." says Brian Coffin, a 27-year-old from Northridge, who has been making kandi for more than five years, since he began raving.

CabZ's collection of kandi
CabZ's collection of kandi

Brandon Caballero (known to his raver friends as “CabZ”) from Long Beach was 23 when he decided to go to his first rave. He fondly remembers his first piece of kandi and first PLUR handshake. Having just grown a bushy handlebar mustache, he decided to visit Electric Daisy Carnival 2013. Out of nowhere, “Some guy came running up to me. He told me he had a piece of kandi that he had been carrying for years waiting for the 'right' person to give it to.” The stranger then presented CabZ with kandi with a mustache on it. “I told him I didn't have anything to trade and that it was my first piece of kandi, and he was floored!”

The stranger instructed him on the PLUR handshake, gave him the mustached kandi, and then explained the foundations of PLUR. “It is an awesome memory I will never forget, and I still have [the kandi] to this day," says CabZ. "I’ll never trade that piece.”

The major undercurrent to kandi culture is the concept of PLUR, an acronym for peace, love, unity and respect. The creation of the term is commonly attributed to New York techno DJ Frankie Bones. On July 24, 1993, at a rave in the Bronx, a fight broke out and spilled onto the DJ decks Bones was playing on. He angrily grabbed the microphone and yelled, “You better start showing some peace, love and unity or I will break your fucking faces!” The story spread like wildfire through the early rave scene, as a humorous example of the early scene’s growing pains, contradictions and ironies.

Bones was, in fact, referring to an actual movement he was trying desperately to instill in his Brooklyn neighborhood. (In its initial stages, PLUR was known as PLUM — the M stood for "movement.") After DJing at the early raves of London, “I witnessed all types of people coming together in the U.K. rave scene," Bones recalls. "so I started talking about it as a peace movement back home in New York.”

One of Bones’ first steps was to open Groove Records in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst on April 21, 1990, as a base of operations. “It was by word-of-mouth, mixtapes and records. … Whenever we threw a party, we had to instill that message to everyone.”

Decades later, he offers this definition of PLUR via email:

“Peace: The calmness you find with those around you and inside of yourself.

"Love: The caring you feel for friends, for strangers, for those in need, and the caring you show to yourself.

"Unity: This means we all share a lot of common things, regardless of our age, gender, race or orientation. We are all human beings. We all need other people, and we’re all in this for the happiness experienced being around others. Though we may have differences, we all arise from the same source.

"Respect: This may mean respect for others, their ideas, their music and their lives. It’s also respect for one’s self: one’s body and the needs that it has.”

But kandi doesn’t mean PLUR to everyone. “The first time I wore a bunch of kandi, people kept asking me if I had any drugs to sell them,” said Chris Haydel, aka Devo, the promoter of one of America’s longest-running raves, Chicago’s Barnyard Boogie. "I didn’t know what was going on and thought it was weird. A lot of people thought kandi was a sign you were selling drugs.”

Kandi kids at HTID USA
Kandi kids at HTID USA

The origin myth that kandi began as a drug-dealing signal often gets bandied about but seems to have only tangential basis in fact or history. Shana Steiner, an old-school raver from the early ’90s, offers what seems like a more plausible origin: friendship bracelets. "They were more out of clay beads and wooden beads then, more hippie-like," she says of the earliest bracelets traded at raves. "The original 'kandi' was just us hippies giving out friendship bracelets." The friendship-bracelet theory would be in keeping with the rave scene’s traditional and ongoing interest in childhood cartoons, memories and activities, as well as recognizing the Deadhead scene's overlap with early rave culture.

Still, the stigma some attach to kandi has persisted, and even caused two large event companies, Hard and Mad Decent, to ban the wearing of kandi at their events.

“I think it’s ridiculous to say kandi is somehow identified with drug culture and ban it from concerts," says Haydel. "Meanwhile, they still play Jimi Hendrix’s 'Purple Haze' on the radio constantly, which was about mescaline, or The Doors' 'Roadhouse Blues,' which glorifies alcoholism, and no one even cares. I think the rave scene is targeted unfairly to draw attention away from the real problems in our culture.”

The nation’s largest rave company, Insomniac, has embraced kandi, and regularly sets up free kandi-making tables for its attendees. Pasquale Rotella, Insomniac’s CEO and a kandi collector himself, has seen the kandi craze grow slowly from its earliest days. "Kandi started out as a West Coast thing, and I think it became popular for the same reason it’s popular today — it’s a way for people to express themselves creatively but also make a statement about something they’re passionate about," he says. "It could be for a cause they support, a memory they made at a show, or something as simple as making matching pieces for their crew. The dance music community is all about spreading good vibes, so you'll see a lot of kandi with positive affirmations or funny slogans.”

Pasquale Rotella's kandi collection
Pasquale Rotella's kandi collection

The different attitudes toward kandi among the larger event companies might say something about their embrace of rave culture as a whole. Whereas Hard and Mad Decent have focused on a more concertlike experience, Insomniac has tried to maintain as much of the original rave format as possible — down to referring to attendees as "headliners," a callback to the days when the separation between performer and audience at most raves was practically nonexistent.

Even now, with EDM going mainstream, many elements of rave culture such as kandi persist, often growing and spreading among fans and out of view of the DJs and promoters. Many dance music industry professionals interviewed for this article expressed surprise at how elaborate kandi culture had become right under their noses. One of L.A.’s best-known happy hardcore DJs, Flap Jack, said of the PLUR handshake, "I had literally never, ever encountered it for years and people who had been raving for years and traveled had not either. … It literally just manifested itself one day.”

Kandi’s popularity, like the rave scene, has waxed and waned over the decades, getting stronger with each comeback. But as Ryan Paynne explains, the down times can be a little rough for the hardcore kandi kid. “I have searched for people to trade with at times. Some parties don’t have as many kandi kids. and when you spend countless hours making kandi with the intention to trade and there aren’t many people around with the same idea … it used to get somewhat frustrating.”

Whatever kandi’s current popularity is in the EDM mainstream, its fullest expression seems to be in the “happy hardcore” subgenre of the rave scene. Happy hardcore is noted for its fast tempos, big kick drums, major ("happy") keys and anthemic vocals. DJ S3rl, a globally popular happy hardcore DJ from Australia, notes, "The kandi scene in Australia seemed to be directly linked with happy hardcore. The rise and fall of happy hardcore's popularity was in direct correlation with the rise and fall of its kandi scene.”

Danny Baldwin, aka DJ Lostboy, is Los Angeles’ most recognized veteran happy hardcore DJ and one of the primary organizers of numerous events, such as HTID (Hardcore Til I Die) USA and Hard Rush, that focus on the style. ”You definitely see more crazy kandi in higher concentration at a happy hardcore event," he says. "Some of the things people come up with leave you scratching your head, like, how did they even do that?”

Kandi kid at HTID USA
Spacekitt3n

Brian Coffin sees kandi as a sort of guiding light to the rave scene's best aspects, ”I feel kandi kids are sort of the guardians of the culture. Because of our creations, we are always approached by new people getting into the scene … so we often have the most important job, to bring new people in right."

The father of PLUR, Frankie Bones, adds, “The rave culture adores and embraces all the colors of the rainbow. The reasons for this can range from the simplicity of them being beautiful to the esoteric symbolism that each color corresponds to a specific chakra. Whatever the reasons, ravers embrace all the colors of the rainbow and express them in what they wear."

Kandi wearers at HTID USA 2
Kandi wearers at HTID USA 2

DJ Injekt provided this glossary of kandi terms for L.A. Weekly readers:

Pony bead — the type of bead that is used to make bracelets and cuffs; it is toroidal in shape to allow for threading.
Perler — a kandi ornament made of beads that are arranged in a pattern on a pegboard so they fuse together. “Perler” is a brand name of bead.
Peyote stitch — a flat bead stitching pattern that is used to make kandi cuffs, bags or other kandi pieces.
Cuff — a large kandi piece that is worn on the wrist that consists of multiple rows of beads.
Single — a single-row kandi bracelet that is worn on the wrist, the most commonly traded type of kandi.
3-D cuff — a type of cuff made out of pony beads that features an ornate, raised pattern consisting of interconnected, raised strands of pony beads.
Epic — a term used to describe a particularly large or intricate kandi cuff. It often features attached stuffed animals, adornments or Perlers.
Trades — pieces of kandi that were received through a trade from another raver. It is customary not to give away or trade pieces that were received in a trade.

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