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The job of the promoter in a city with as many entrenched music scenes as San Francisco can be tricky. The two main objectives of the party presenter -- to innovate and to satisfy -- often seem like polar opposites. A promoter gets known for putting on a certain sound, a following develops, and devotees of that particular niche return regularly, often with the intention of avoiding all other styles of music while nestling safely in the club.
But as any self-respecting party pusher will tell you, catering to listeners quickly leads to stagnation -- worthwhile live events aren't for entertainment only, but are a means for introducing the audience to new flavors of music, or at least to suggest different ways of thinking about the showcased genre.
So Chris Kahunahana takes the second role of the promoter -- that of the introducer -- very seriously. He's essentially made it the calling card for his promotion efforts as Mr. Brown Presents. The idea of having hip-hop turntablists and jungle DJs collide on four or six decks seems fairly obvious today, but when he started the Dubphonik party almost two years ago, it was blasphemy in certain camps -- and still is, to some diehards. Held the first Saturday of each month, Dubphonik is best known for musical combinations -- not of the subtle blending variety, but of the explosive, bubbling-over chemical reaction kind. On the flyer for March's party, two bright red and yellow arrows labeled "Hip hop, Reggae" and "Drum & Bass, Jungle" meet head-on to ignite a fire, under the warning "Dubphonik Causes Body Spasms and Sudden Fits of Mass Hysteria." Another line declares "It's the Return of the Funky B-boy Junglist," an image that sums up Kahunahana's vision for the new breed of party-goer he has in mind when he organizes Dubphonik. The regular attendee of Dubphonik is likely to have a penchant for breakdancing, positive lyrics, and funk in all its forms, from the computer-generated, to the old and rare, to the Caribbean and mellow.
"The concept's always been roots like dub, and using the mixer as an instrument, all the way to drum and bass," Kahunahana says. "It's getting wider and wider -- now we've got a lot more funk in it, which is cool because it's like a combination of all my shows slapped into one."
After moving to Marin from Honolulu two years ago, Kahunahana got a job bartending at San Francisco's Storyville, a club that only hosted an occasional live jazz night. Realizing he could help bring in more business by booking DJs with the jazz acts, Kahunahana was soon working as a full-time promoter. Fusion was the name of the game from his earliest shows -- the DJs usually ended up jamming with the live players -- and in four month's time, Storyville went from a neighborhood bar to the spot to see freeform turntable experiments. Dubphonik began there as a weekly, "just dub and drum and bass at first," he recalls, "but of course there was always a little bit of hip hop thrown in because of the DJs I work with. So it grew from having them come down and play into a turntablist thing.
"I was working a hundred hours a week," he adds, "promoting five or six nights a week, and they weren't willing to sign a contract." So Kahunahana moved on, taking Dubphonik with him, and quickly set it up as a monthly party at 111 Minna. "We were getting a good crowd, but for that space -- doing a month's promotion for two hundred people -- the numbers didn't work out. So at that time Rico's had just opened, Eklektic [SF's longest-running drum and bass weekly] had been in there for a week, so I checked it out. They hadn't been doing the two floors yet, so I came in there with the two-floor concept. I brought a sound system downstairs and started rocking reggae and downtempo down there and drum and bass upstairs, but we always flip it and stick some other kinds of music upstairs and vice versa. It creates motion in a club -- people get to see what they want, but they get to see some of the other stuff."
Dubphonik built its reputation on local talent, using performers who headline parties outside the Bay Area but tend to be taken for granted at home. Kahunahana's residents are all known widely in other regions of the world -- DJ Jahyzer as a hip hop and reggae producer, Shortkut as likely the best all-around turntablist, and Jamalski as one of the best American-born jungle emcees. When Shortkut tours, his reputation as a world champion battle DJ precedes him, and his audiences expect a certain kind of set from him. But when he plays Dubphonik, he's allowed to do anything he wants, and he usually returns to his roots as a party DJ.
"I think that's what makes Dubphonik a good show," Kahunahana says. "People who play at it want to play at it. It's not just like another gig. Shortkut will fly out from wherever he is while he's on the road for it. I love watching him take a crowd that's already bouncing and hype [it] to another level. A lot of DJs have the same records. I don't know what he does or how he plays them, but he takes 'hyped' to 'out of control.'"
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