By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
Adam Miller was a recent art school graduate with electro dreams when he moved from Detroit to San Francisco in 1993. Looking for a suitable place to set up his Ersatz Audio imprint, he figured the Bay Area would be perfect for releasing his peculiar brand of twitchy, synth pop- inflected dance music. He moved back east 11 days later.
"The music scene was so unbelievably lame," he says wearily from his Motor City office. "One story that sums it up was I went out to parties the first four nights I was there, and then someone asked me to go out again on the fifth. I told him, "I just can't handle it. I just got here from Detroit and everything I hear is house.' So he said, "You're in luck -- tonight's progressive house!' Since my only outlet for techno was the Detroit records I was buying at Amoeba, I moved back as soon as I could."
Miller, now one of the electro scene's most prominent dignitaries via the groups Adult and Le Car, isn't the only electro freakazoid sent packing by the Bay Area's narrowly defined dance scene. In 1999 Ed Upton, the cheeky Brit behind the one-man retro-electro DMX Krew, attempted a similar move, but found nothing but indifference to his music. He describes his year in San Francisco as the most frustrating in his career.
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While no particular city has a proper electro scene -- or hasn't since the mid-'80s -- a handful of urban jungles like Detroit, Miami, London, the Hague, and Tokyo welcome electro's sinister cyborg vocals, clashing drum machine syncopations, and sputtering, laser-zap analog synthesizers. Meanwhile, San Francisco has remained stringently unreceptive, perhaps because of a dance lineage that traces indirectly back to Summer of Love psychedelia. Until now. A year and a half after Upton returned to London, there are signs that the electro sound and aesthetic are catching on -- although all of the people interviewed for this story were wary of calling it a scene per se.
Recently, there have been a number of electro club nights and one-offs, as well as a mushrooming crowd of electro producers and DJs. With the release of SF BASS (Vol. 1), a new compilation of electro-inspired tracks on local label Exact-Science, the city's electro "whatever you want to call it" might just be the biggest it's ever been.
Even Miller, who played his first Adult gig in San Francisco in February with his wife, Nicola, has nothing but praise for the city these days. "We were both obviously apprehensive -- very nervous actually," he says, concerning the decision to play here. "So we were really taken aback with how good the response was, and you could tell it wasn't just polite. You could tell people were genuinely into it, and the promoters -- the Friends of Whitney -- really had it together. It was interesting how split the crowd was between the indie rock people and the electronic people. The whole thing seemed really healthy to us."
Electro is defined broadly as funk interpreted through drum machines and synthesizers, and defined narrowly as a bass-heavy hijacking of Kraftwerk by hip hop producers and other urban bastardizers. Electro is one music that both hip hop and electronic musicians cite as inspirational, and it is often the only thing the two camps can agree upon -- besides the Technics 1200 turntable. When electro first spread through America in 1982 via hits such as Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock," Man Parrish's "Hip-Hop Be Bop (Don't Stop)," and Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," it was lumped into the rubric of hip hop. (Bambaataa dubbed it "electro-funk," a term that was shortened as its grooves became wobblier and more jarring.) Longtime Bay Area DJ and musicmaker Eddie Def, who helped lay the groundwork for the turntablism movement as a member of the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters and is now a member of electrofied hip hop crew the Space Travelers, remembers that in the mid-'80s, "everything was [happening] -- all the electro, all the hip hop, the [1983 graffiti film] Wild Style thing, kids breaking on the corner with tile. It was crazy: It was like everyone had ski glasses and a Kangol [cap], tagging on buses."
No local music arose from this period, although crews like the Turntable Dragons (later the Invisibl Skratch Piklz) cut their teeth spinning electro jams at high school parties, and the Berkeley label Fantasy released Detroit group Cybotron's classic cut "Clear." Later in the '80s Oakland's Too $hort took the music's stripped-down drum machine template and slowed it down to accommodate his sluggish rhymes -- thus marking the beginning of electro's long hibernation.
Still, the sound was never fully snuffed out: During a time when gangsta rap pooped the party out of hip hop, the local Filipino community never lost its love for the lively Roland 808 bass hits and cowbells of early electro and freestyle, its R&B-flavored offshoot. As Exact-Science co-owner Brad Steinberg points out, the gay scene also helped keep synth pop and '80s cheese alive with parties like "Trannyshack," in which revelers dressed up like Kraftwerk.