Creative Cacophony

In one Lower Haight studio space, techno, R&B, and hip hop artistry as well as a bit of radical history collide nightly

It's nearly midnight in an overheated recording studio, and Robbie Hardkiss is mad as hell.

He's just lost his perfect beat on the mixing board -- what he calls his "disco poke." "You're too farty!" he yells to a blinking Macintosh, frantically trying to re-create the missing beat from one of three stacked synthesizers. "Oh, we're getting there. C'mon baby, c'mon ...." After the 17th attempt to expunge the "alien fart" twinge, the perfect "zwing" manifests itself. He flips a few switches on the mastering board and takes a deep breath; his disco house track is almost complete.

Here, inside the newly installed Hardkiss Recordings control room -- an unevenly painted sky-blue production studio haphazardly stuffed with an eclectic assortment of high-end and retro equipment -- Robbie and his two "brothers," Gavin and Scott Hardkiss, will complete their individual debut releases for Columbia/Sony later this year. The behemoth-sized label, which finally wised up to the commercial possibilities of electronic music, signed the three DJs two years ago -- a break that enabled the crew to invest in this modestly decorated, yet lavishly stocked, engineering facility in the Lower Haight.

Meanwhile, down the hall in Bayview Studios, three members of Cellski -- a young hip-hop crew from the Lakeview District -- are languidly stretched over a nappy couch, yawning and flipping through magazines while the Enhancer works silently to tweak out the perfect breakbeat thump. "That's it -- almost," he mutters, adjusting a multitude of knobs on the mastering board. The owner of this hip-hop recording and production facility, the Enhancer, along with his partner, TC, has produced some of the Bay Area's most successful hip-hop names: N2Deep, Rappin' Forte, the R.B.L. Posse, and TC's own Totally Insane.

The Hardkiss and Bayview studios are only part of the musical creativity emerging from the building. Just beyond a set of wrought-iron gates and dysfunctional doorbells, a cacophony of electronic beats pumps at full volume seven days a week. In addition to the Hardkiss and Bayview studios, the Victorian flat includes building owner Jim Larkin's own R&B Frisco Studios and Sunburn Recordings -- a dance music label founded by the Hardkiss brothers in 1994.

Although each rhythm-based enterprise functions as a separate entity, there's a lot of creative overlap. The Enhancer helped Charlotte the Baroness of Sunburn master her first mix tape a few years back, and later this month, he and TC will apply their hip-hop skills to a number of remixing projects for the label. Sydney Wilson, the in-house technical guru, provides around-the-clock assistance to vexed producers, and also functions as Larkin's full-time engineer and partner in Frisco Studios.

"It's a very supportive environment," explains Gavin Hardkiss. "Everyone hooks each other up with whatever you need. The Enhancer is a wealth of knowledge on production and engineering techniques and gear. You can ask that man anything and he'll always have the answer."

Niven Bonar, who took over the Sunburn label after the Hardkiss' Columbia/Sony deal, is equally pleased. "The fact of the matter is, none of us have any hang-ups," he says. "We all just want to be stuck in here making music, and to provide the best possible environment for our artists to record in. Because we're all here together, we realize that we can only achieve things as a unit. So although there are four distinct groups housed inside this building, it's a definite force."

Establishing the tone of the cooperative milieu, however, is Larkin. A long-time social activist, performing arts instructor, and martial arts sensei, the 63-year-old Larkin began teaching karate and meditation techniques to Western Addition youths in 1965 from the old Belvedere Gym in the Haight-Ashbury. "There were a lot of young black kids in the neighborhood who didn't have a lot of discipline," he explains. "So I came in to teach them through the zazen concept -- a meditative and spiritual, mind-over-body kind of situation."

The reputation of Larkin's martial arts expertise spread to local revolutionaries. "Eventually the Panthers started coming to the class, as did a group of hell-raising students from San Francisco State called Students for a Democratic Society," he says. "I had this strange cross-section of political people and teenagers."

In 1966 Larkin founded the Black Light Explosion Company, one of the city's first black-run community centers. Inside a 44,000-square-foot building on Grove Street, Larkin and a host of volunteers provided voice, dance, theatrical, and martial arts training to children and young adults, including Danny Glover, Sheila Escovedo, and Mario Van Peebles. "It was a mecca for the black artistic and performing arts community," says Larkin. Although the center closed after only three years, Larkin went on to head the Bayview Opera House on Third Street and Palou Avenue, a community center in Hunters Point.

In the late '70s, Larkin purchased his Lower Haight flat, where he installed a karate dojo and Frisco Studios, catering almost exclusively to R&B clients. Though he now spends less time inside the studio, he continues to teach martial arts and to help budding performing artists. Some of his most noted proteges in the past 20 years include Cindy Herron of En Vogue and Grady Wilkins of the Whispers.

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