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House-Raising 

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

Wednesday, Jul 14 1999
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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."

Garth launched his Grayhound label in 1996, which so far has only released records by San Francisco artists. He still DJs regularly, but at a reduced level, which allows full-time studio work and label promotion. Grayhound now stands with Imperial DUB, Red Melon, Tweekin (an offshoot of the store), Hardkiss, and the new Zebra imprint as the leading outlets for San Francisco house.

In San Francisco house music, "the emphasis is on music with depth," according to Corey Black, producer and co-owner of the Imperial DUB label. "There's a whole spectrum of producers here, but I'd say for the most part they're into deep melodic stuff with a lot of work on the bass line. It tends to be more funky and psychedelic than the house from New York, and there's more of a willingness to experiment with sounds." That particular approach to studio experimentation, as many local observers point out, has a close affinity to the pioneering techniques of early dub reggae producers like Lee "Scratch" Perry, Augustus Pablo, and King Tubby.

Dubtribe Sound System, the production duo that co-owns Imperial DUB with Black (and last year signed a deal with Jive Electro), is one of the few local house acts to have 10 years of record production under its belt -- and as many Top 10 songs on the European charts. Sunshine, one half of Dubtribe, notes San Francisco's overlooked connection with Jamaica: "Before house, I remember dancing in the Western Addition every Thursday and Saturday at a reggae rave-up party all through the '80s." Dubtribe's sound has always been purist, noncommercial house, but made with a dub producer's fascination with what bizarre effects the technology could muster.

DJ Ra-Soul, a house producer who has labored in obscurity since 1991 and is now finally getting wider attention, remembers being influenced by the DJ techniques of the Wicked crew. "Sometimes Jëno would put two records together -- one would be something totally deep, and the other record would have something completely tripped-out and weird going on." Since DJ'ing as an art works by applying the "1+1=3" equation -- a new synthesis created out of the combination of unlikely musical parts -- it's logical that a sound put on the map by DJs would draw on dub-style methods when translated to the studio.

So why did it take San Francisco so long to build a reputation for having quality producers? Chicago, the birthplace of house, has spawned records every week since the mid-'80s, and in London, DJs who don't also produce have long been considered second-rate at best. Sunshine, who enjoys a unique perspective as a producer who only later learned to DJ, ventures a guess: "It's really daunting, especially when you're a music lover, to think you even can produce. I mean, who do you think you are? You can buy all these legendary and amazing tracks -- what makes you think you can do it, too? And just because you can DJ doesn't mean you can make a record. So here you are a DJ and you're playing four or five nights a week. When you go to make a record, baby, the pressure's on."

The long-standing perception that the West Coast is house music's ugly stepchild also plays a role. In the two years Ra-Soul lived in London, he "saw all the hype around New York producers there. It got to the point where someone could put out one record and everyone was jumping on their tip. If you weren't from New York or Chicago, they didn't think you knew anything about house music."

Though Bay Area house music has begun making it onto vinyl only recently, the scene's depth is reflected in these recordings. "It brings a smile to my face when kids in other cities come up to look at what record I'm playing," Jëno says, "because it's usually when I'm playing a record made here. To me, it's like all the history and everything we've done is embodied in that little piece of plastic.

About The Author

Darren Keast

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