House-Raising

In a decade-old scene, Bay Area house musicians are peering out from the underground, and finally committing their work to vinyl

DJ and party promoter Dan Ghenacia recently put out a mix CD called Sun Frenchies, featuring tracks by local house music producers, and music at his monthly "Golden Gate" party is provided solely by San Francisco DJs. Of course, there's nothing particularly noteworthy about that -- the San Francisco house sound has inspired countless homespun mixes and parties over the past eight years. But Ghenacia lives in and operates out of Paris. He flies San Francisco DJs across the Atlantic to spin records at "Golden Gate," and the records he used for Sun Frenchies were purchased during the year he spent here, soaking up as much of the distinctive dub-heavy house groove as he could.

House -- as differentiated from its electronic cousins like techno, trance, breakbeat, jungle, and myriad others -- is the sound that put San Francisco on the short-list of the world's most vibrant and influential dance music scenes. An umbrella term for various flavors of dance music being produced across the globe, local DJ and producer Garth calls it "a continuation of disco really, constantly being updated with new studio techniques." Founded in Chicago during the early '80s, house comes in a variety of flavors. The "S.F. House Sound" tag line has been used to market mix tapes, raves, and club nights across the country and internationally for at least seven years, and while electronic music fans may not have been able to describe the sound precisely, the weight of those words was universally understood: Images of renegade outdoor parties thrown by DJ crews with mobile sound systems and a taste for funky psychedelic beats came to mind.

The name of a San Francisco producer or recording company, however, did not. For years, house didn't come out of San Francisco; it was simply reconfigured here by DJs and presented in innovative ways by rave organizers. Today, though, there's a fresh interest in the S.F. sound, especially in Europe, where house communities are watching the developments of the Bay Area scene intently -- "waiting on every note," according to Garth.

At the Haight's Tweekin Records, a house specialty store, the entire top row of the domestic singles rack is filled with San Francisco-produced records. Owner Darren Davis expects local product to make up 50 percent of the wall in six months. "Two years ago, maybe two records were from this area," he says. "Everything was coming out of Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Today, people are saying San Francisco's scene is healthier than all of those other places."

The Wicked crew, comprised of DJs Garth, Jëno, Markie, and Thomas, exemplifies the local transformation. Garth arrived in San Francisco in 1990 from London and was amazed to find that the music that was exploding in his hometown was only offered at a few gay clubs like the Endup and the occasional warehouse party. He convinced his DJ friends to move out from London, and by March of 1991, Wicked had thrown its first "Full Moon" party, a monthly outdoor affair, acknowledged as an inspiration for local rave promoters.

"They pretty much -- not took the scene -- but immediately gave it a higher status," recalls Kevon Banks, local promoter with the second-generation rave organization Funky Tekno Tribe. "They really nailed home DJ culture here. They were like pied pipers, and everyone was following them."

Wicked didn't plot some sort of British Invasion or methodical house music infiltration of San Francisco. "To be honest, I didn't come out here to become a DJ or to create my own scene," Garth says. "I was just really feeling the lack of the music I wanted to hear. When Markie, Thomas, and Jëno came over, we decided there was no reason not to do it ourselves."

The Bay Area proved to have an insatiable appetite for house culture, and the Wicked DJs found their tripped-out approach to house in demand at more than seven parties a week. For the next five years, they threw their own parties, played at others, and amassed an enormous collection of house records. "San Francisco was just on fire," Banks says. "You could not believe the energy. Everyone was your bro or your sister. You went out Monday night to Monday night."

But the media and the authorities eventually took notice, and a backlash began. "It got to the point where the cops knew each of our names, and they were definitely on the lookout for us," Jëno says. By 1993, the city began enforcing the cabaret law prohibiting minors from being in clubs after 2 a.m., thus cutting into a scene that had a history of catering to ravers of all ages. Each gathering took more effort; after doing the "Full Moon" parties rain or shine for five years, "it became the law of diminishing returns for us," Jëno says. "It started off so amazing it could only really go one way."

Gradually, they put more time and money into building their own production studios. "It made sense because we had years of experience of understanding music and what works in a club," Garth says. "Since we had a certain unique flavor that we'd refined over the years on the decks, it was time to make our own records."

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