Night Crawler

About four years ago I went to my last rave: Labor Day weekend at Mr. Floppy's Flophouse in Oakland -- three days of music, dancing, drinking, and drugging. The building was large enough to accommodate varying moods and psychological freakouts, the DJs and musicians were dynamite (I think), and even the security managed to enjoy themselves. For all intents and purposes it was perfect, but that ended raving for me. Somewhere along the road, raves became big business: When someone throws all-ages events at the Fashion Center, it's time to say good night.

For those of us addicted to really big parties, though, there were some bastions of hope. Bulletproof, a store on the Lower Haight that has championed new DJs and street fashion for almost four years, began throwing monthly boat parties that had that old-time flavor. Kept word-of-mouth and limited in size by the capacity of the seafaring vessels, the vibe has remained consistently positive throughout the years. A cruise last Sunday, for instance, found a diverse crowd grooving to the acid jazz and house sounds of DJs Aaron O., Julius Papp, David Harness, Jason, Miquel, and Terence Toy on the biggest yacht yet. But these get-togethers only happen once a month.

Later, I found "trick hop" ("The next level of trip hop," says co-founder Claire Rhodes) at the appropriately named Oddball Lounge. The Oddball doubles as a restaurant by day, housed on the ground floor of an old brick building that faces a car park. At night, it would go virtually unnoticed if not for a spinning red lantern winking in the darkness -- the only signal to the outside world that the Thursday night Black Diamond is going on.

The main room is womblike, illuminated only by flickering images of Chet Baker set off by burning candles. Suspended from the ceiling, a parachute glows with red and purple light like a giant fabric placenta. Films play in the background, the dialogue mingling with the slow, enticing music pumping through the speakers. Hallucinatory and hypnotic, it's almost a drug itself. Essentially dub, bass-heavy reggae, trick hop is summed up by co-partner and resident DJ Felix as "downbeat sex music."

The dance floor is full, but the undulating bodies are devoid of the frenetic energy common to club crowds. At times the languid break-beats seem to virtually disappear, but the dancers are receptive, slowing down to almost imperceptible gestures or drifting off the floor to the bar. The DJ looks untroubled if the floor clears for a moment or two. Slender women in halter tops and low-waisted jeans stand on the floor with their eyes closed, swaying to wave after wave of sound as men circle them like satellites caught in orbit.

"This place is female-driven," Felix says. "There's no room for testosterone here. A woman should be able to close her eyes and forget where she is, be caressed by the sound like it's a large pair of headphones. There's no need to be humbled or humiliated. No one's here to hit on anyone."

In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) the overtly sensual aspect of the music, conversation is animated and surprisingly alert. A large group gathers around the oak bar, which features 13 beers on tap. I comment on the relative lucidity of the crowd.

"Those of us who were doing a lot of drugs a few years ago aren't doing much anymore," Felix explains. "The heads that come down here are relatively mature. The music's stony, but you don't have to be high to get something out of it. People who come out for a ravey night usually don't stay."

A large, ruddy man standing next to me sucks at his draft. "It's the only place I come to now," he says. "You can just dance, feel the music, drink a beer. No machismo bullshit; here, you don't feel like you're competing for attention. If a woman wants to talk to you she just will."

Black Diamond, which plays host to out-of-town guest DJs, also encourages live bands to "come out and give it a go." "This is an experiment. The music's relatively new, and it needs an outlet," Rhodes says with conviction. A recent hit is local dub band Chapter Three: "It was only their third time playing anywhere, and they were really great."

Rhodes admits other bands have not succeeded so well: "We tried a punk band back here once. It didn't work at all. They just pounded."

"Ultimately everything's working out really well," Felix interjects. "I mean, I'm really quite humbled by it. ... The heads that have become regulars are brilliant. Wicked does our sound system -- they're the best in the city. We can't afford to pay them, but this is still their favorite gig. It's not about coin -- it's about a vibe."

For lovers of trip hop whose weekends never stop, the Monday eve Gardening Club at the Caribbean Zone offers a delicious ambient lounge, complete with waterfall and free vegan food (not to mention the wrecked fuselage of an airplane). The atmosphere is so sympathetic to the comedown, devotees are known to rest their comfortably numb heads on the dance floor itself. A vibe doesn't get much more downbeat than that.

By Silke Tudor

 
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