Living on the Edge

Around 35 years ago, straight edge was coined by hardcore punk band Minor Threat. Now, Kent hones in on the culture.

Words by Neville Hardman | Photo by Samantha Karam

Sipping from a mug of Earl Grey tea, a blonde wades through the crowds. Even though Rayne Blakeman hasn’t swallowed alcohol since she was 13 years old because the rum tasted like nail polish remover, she ends up at a party. People see holes and patches on her black jeans and think she does drugs. They see her septum piercing and think she’s one of them, despite her hand never reaching for a bottle.

“Do you know what year it is?” a man shouts at her teasingly, spotting her beverage that would better suit an evening with Netflix than a room of buzzed college students.

She doesn’t mind, though. She couldn’t imagine putting herself in this situation if she did because the anxiety would eat away at her. While others might believe she’s out of her element, immersed in the objects she’s chosen to ignore, she’s just being herself.

Blakeman, a second-year studying political science, doesn’t experience college in the way classic comedies such as “Animal House” or “Old School” often portray it. Her parents will never worry about her sneaking alcohol from the liquor cabinet even though she has access. Her friends won’t ever see her boot crush the butt of a cigarette into the ground. She couldn’t because smoke bothers her, making her throat close up or causing hives to form around her eyes if she’s near it. (Her asthma contributes to this.) She won’t wake up to a stranger because she’s been dating the same person since she was 14, the year she officially became “straight edge.”

Coined by the hardcore punk band Minor Threat, straight edge simply means she follows a stricter lifestyle than others, choosing not to drink, smoke or experiment with drugs. Most of all, it translates to safe living, shying away from the self-destructive behavior and physical altercations that often follow addictive substance.

Rayne Blakeman and Scotty McMaster discuss the use of prescription medicine as a straight edge couple

‘We’re just a minor threat’

It began when frontman Ian MacKaye and drummer Jeff Nelson collected members Brian Baker and Lyle Preslar to fill the hole left by the breakup of their last band, Teen Idles. The songs were short, direct and fed on a desire for sobriety.

In December 1980, those four men performed in Washington, D.C., opening for Bad Brains, The Untouchables, Black Market Baby and S.O.A. At the time, the area was transforming into a stomping ground for hardcore punk, opening the door for the youth crew era, which gave birth to straight edge bands such as Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits. During this time, straight edge culture thrived.

By June 1981, the band released its first self-titled EP, which included the song “Straight Edge.” In less than a minute, Minor Threat accentuated the advantages of staying sober with quick, vehement lyrics, contrasting the punk movement with intentions of promoting clean living.

Those 45 seconds challenged the hedonism of punk rock, which oozed with drug experimentation, objectifying women and proclamations of fighting authority. It became an anthem for the way people started living.

Later, the band released a second EP dubbed “In My Eyes” in the same year and eventually took to a full-length album. While Minor Threat disbanded in 1983, its influence stretched for years to come. To this day, hardcore culture still exists in Washington, D.C.

Straight edge or hate edge?

Blakeman stands observing the scene in front of her. People toss back alcohol and talk in groups, but she’s comfortable watching or else she would have left. A man approaches, offering her a drink after noticing she has nothing in her hands.

“Oh, no,” she politely declines. “I’m straight edge.”

“Are you straight edge or hate edge?” the stranger asks.

At first, Blakeman was confused. What did he mean by “hate edge?” How could he even offer that alternative when she’d already identified as straight edge?

When the straight edge lifestyle emerged, a smaller subculture broke out called hardline, or hate edge. Those people were viewed as extremists, following straight edge values but implementing sexism and racism as well as using violence to express their views. Smacking beer cans out of a person’s hand or jumping someone for smoking a cigarette on the street was accepted to force others to conform.

Even though she’s never been asked if she associated with hardline before that interaction, she knew it was a backhanded question. To Blakeman, no one who believes in hardline values actually admits it because of how outdated its concepts are during a time where progressive spaces continue to pop up.

At least in Kent, Blakeman hopes, hardline doesn’t exist.

There are people, however, who adhere to more rules. Some don’t drink coffee or take prescription medicine, but she does. Others don’t have promiscuous sex. She doesn’t eat meat, and it’s only because of a deal she made with her long-term partner, Scotty McMaster. But the standards she lives by aren’t rules. She could break them if she wanted to, but she never has. The idea of vomiting or getting mouth cancer is too much to fathom. It would go against her personal revolution.

For McMaster, it’s simply ignoring that he doesn’t always fit in with the people he’s around and moving forward.

“The only goal [breaking edge] would really help me achieve is winning the acceptance of certain people, and I don’t really want to have that mindset,” McMaster says.

Blakeman and McMaster say straight edge is like a club

Blakeman would never march up to someone eating a hamburger and berate them on why they shouldn’t eat meat. In fact, policing people is a concept she can’t stand because the way she lives isn’t based on telling people what they should do or that they’re wrong. It’s about making sure people are safe.

One of the biggest misconceptions people mistake about her lifestyle is that she’s offended if someone has a drink in their hand. They think she’ll judge them, but what they don’t know is she doesn’t care if they don’t follow the same values as she does or that she’s even in favor of legalizing marijuana.

“It’s all about the intention for me,” Blakeman says. “Am I doing something good for myself or am I just hurting myself?”

Welcome to The Workshoppe

At 2:30 p.m. on a Saturday, people gather in the basement of 140 E. Williams St. in Kent.

Entering means agreeing to its terms, which are spelled out in graffiti on the walls and on hanging pieces of paper. The Workshoppe is a safe space, an area forbidding drugs and alcohol so all ages can attend shows. Additionally, there’s no racism, sexism or homophobia allowed, either and anyone caught using slurs will be asked to leave. The space embodies “do it yourself,” or DIY, an ethic that MacKaye set out to create.

This event in particular is organized differently from the shows normally hosted at The Workshoppe. It’s meant to resemble a hardcore matinee show, such as the ones at ABC No Rio in New York in the 1980s.

At the urge of McMaster, who has put together this event, people begin to form a half-circle in front of the equipment set up where bands will play later. The Industrial Workers of the World present themselves, speaking of labor unions and sharing personal stories. Mostly, it’s about how much they hate their boss. Despite all the distractions—the graffiti covered walls, the twinkling Christmas lights behind the drum kit, the half-eaten vegan food—it’s hard not to be compelled by their persistence to fight the power.

After a short intermission, members of SAP, an anarcho punk band, prepare for their set. Garet Greitzer, owner of The Workshoppe, belongs to this act along with Blakeman, McMaster and drummer Peter Kratcoski. While there’s no actual stage, McMaster encourages everyone to come close. The light tapping of the drums propels the band into motion.

The tapping acts as a backdrop for his words, complementing his pacing and gradually picking up as Greitzer joins in on bass.“Oppression is violence in all forms,” McMaster speaks. “To aggressively control is a violent action. War is violence. Racism is violence. Sexism is violence. Homophobia is violence.”

“Resistance is peace,” he continues as the audience joins his chant. “Resistance is peace. Resistance is peace.”

Blakeman throws her head back and closes her eyes as she chants, taking over vocals once the band launches into the second song. Despite her thin, 5-foot-4 inch frame, the screech she directs into the microphone is enough to throw the most skeptical person in the room into a trance.

“I will make you pay!” she wails. “I will make you pay! I will make you pay!”

The scream that rips from her throat allows every emotion to rush to the surface. The judgment she receives from society. The distrust she feels from her stepfather who doesn’t truly believe she’s straight edge. The annoyance of not always fitting in. The love she has for McMaster, who plays right beside her. It all rings in the ears of the people watching, who salute her cries by bouncing into each other and flailing their arms in the center of the room. Kratcoski rises from his seat and towers over his kit while continuing to hit the sticks, smacking sections until it all knocks over. In this moment, she mimics her heroes, such as MacKaye. In this moment, she wears straight edge on her sleeve.