In the late 1980s, acid house had spread from the UK across the North Sea to the Netherlands. In the Dutch capital, house music was reserved for rich boys and show-offs. It was played in fashionable places and considered to be refined and elite. You had to wear expensive clothes to get into glamorous Amsterdam clubs. No sweatpants. “Gabber, you can’t come in here” is a quote by club bouncers known in Amsterdam circles.
Meanwhile, Rotterdam looked at all the rich party-goers with proletarian contempt and disgust. Rotterdam danced to hard Belgian records, where howling synthesisers were put together with an accelerated breakbeat, while the once calm house rhythm became heavier and evoked a military march. Soon local musicians began to produce their own records: first they imitated the Belgian ones (it took only half an hour to get to Antwerp by train), and later they found their own style.
When the Dutch DJ Kees Heus (DJ KC The Funkaholic) was asked about the Rotterdam music in 1992, he said, “They’re just a bunch of gabbers having fun.” The quote turned out to be fateful.
Rotterdam was seething with anger: not only was it always considered the second city in the country, but now its music and the people themselves were seen as second-rate. A young DJ and musician, Paul Elstak, helped them to find confidence. He fuelled Rotterdam hardcore as much as he could and etched the slogan “It’s not a disgrace to be a gabber!” on one of the records of his Euromasters project. Finally, he embellished the sleeve of the gabber hit Amsterdam, Where Is That? with a picture of a boy pissing on the capital.
The word gabber is older than three hundred years old. It was borrowed from Ashkenazi Jews and firmly sewn into the Dutch street slang by thieves and other criminals. Gabber is a dude, bro, buddy, pal.
In the early 1990s, Paul Elstak hosted gabber parties at the Parkzicht club, naturally, in Rotterdam. There was no strict dress code. The entrance was quite accessible. Very quickly a style developed that was convenient for quick body movements. 250 BPM makes you fully commit to the dance floor. It increases your body temperature, makes your sweat evaporate, and increases the overall humidity in the room (even in a large one). Sweaty jeans are uncomfortable. A loose tracksuit is better. It doesn’t restrict movement even when you sweat buckets.
An Australian tennis tracksuit made in Italy with a kangaroo on the label was the proper choice. Especially if you managed to find a unique one among all the colours and patterns, as well as defend it: a beautiful and bright tracksuit became a currency that could be taken away. Now old school Aussie track tops (this is how they call the brand and all Australians) cost 70 or 100 euros, even with a discount. Girls wear a track top with a sports bra; guys usually put it on either a T-shirt or a naked body.
The oath of allegiance to gabber music begins with shaving your head. It’s worth recalling that head-shaving was also popular among football hooligans, the basis of the proletarian youth, and a lot of them lived in both Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Naturally, the two cities had rivalling teams: Amsterdam’s Ajax, and Rotterdam’s Feyenoord, the two leading clubs of the country that alternated as the champions. However, Ajax had more titles, which always drove the Rotterdam fans mad. The fans recalled, “I was a football hooligan from Amsterdam, supporting Ajax. In the years 88—91 I was going to an illegal housepartys. So on friday and saturdays raving and on sunday to Ajax.”
A shaved head contributes to better heat regulation and it’s easier to dance without hair. Girls who like gabber music (they are called gabberins, and sometimes gabber bitches), try to emphasise their militancy, but also leave a hint of femininity: they trim their hair from the temples and/or the back of their head and make a single braid or a ponytail with the remaining hair. Only the bravest ones defy the social norms and fully shave their hair like men do.
The last element of the gabber look are shoes. Nike Air Max 90 sneakers are an undisputed and permanent favourite in the gabber wardrobe. An indestructible pair with thick soles is just what you need for hakkûh, a fast solo gabba dance. The dance floor is full of people, so dancers can’t spread their arms — they keep them very close to themselves. They have to dance with just their legs, fiercely tapping their toe to the thrashing rhythm.
Finally, if you want to jump in this culture, watch a film called Gabbers! But make sure all children and old ladies have left.