She says she's not sure if she might have been enticed to kiss a girl if another DJ or a live band had been playing that night. Shelly's not really a DJ/dance music kind of person. But she knows what she likes, Motion Potion plays it, and that moment of dance-floor experimentation was just exciting enough to keep her coming back to the cramped and peeling bar every other Friday. "I can still remember what he was playing when I saw her," Shelly says, almost dreamily. "Some old George Clinton thing ...."
So what could this be? The rare case of truth in advertising in a DJ's name? (If so, Motion Potion might want to have Berkeley hip hop veteran DJ Icewater close for him.) Or is it yet another instance of funk -- that euphemism for sexual stink -- workin' regular folk into a tizzy? For Robert Kowal, the man behind the DJ's moniker, it's his life's work, his higher calling.
Kowal's like that deacon at a country church who runs the bingo night, teaches Sunday school, fills in for the preacher now and then, and pitches on the parish softball team. He spins all variety of funk all over the country, throws the nation's only Funk Festival here in San Francisco, puts on over 100 funk-related shows a year with his partner John Miles as Sunset Promotions, and writes a weekly e-mail newsletter called WhatDaFunk. This year, Sunset also took over the North Beach Jazz Festival (sponsored by SF Weekly), which Kowal and Miles want to steer in the direction of forward-thinking jazz. Kowal's lost girlfriends and lives like a pauper because of his passion for the music.
All this from a cat who looks like a retired tennis pro or a business school dropout. "Yeah, I'm a white kid who grew up in the suburbs," he chuckles while idling in the grass at Golden Gate Park. "What the hell do I know about funk and the black experience? Well, only what I've read. But I do know that when you get a bunch of people together on a dance floor, black and white and red all disappear into "The One.' To me, that's funk's future -- bringing crowds together, even if people don't always recognize it as funk."
Funk, for Kowal, is a broad utilitarian concept, the pleasure principle that makes a dance floor forget the workweek and drop the inhibitions. In serving it up, he'll mine everything from James Brown to Widespread Panic to '80s hip hop -- his approach is uncommonly egalitarian and populist. The consummate everyman's DJ, Kowal hasn't laser-focused his style down to the microgenre level like his contemporaries, and therefore can gig with Isaac Hayes one week and play a hippie wedding the next.
Perhaps his ability to mingle with many musical crowds is due to his own belated hipsterhood. "I was a very straight person for a lot of my life," he recounts, "a very hard-working and very serious person." But while living his own American-beer-drenched version of Boys Gone Wild as a student at Tulane University in New Orleans, Kowal had a near-death experience. At 21, his carousing and general tomfoolery led him to a personal rock bottom about which he doesn't like talking too much. In this moment of crisis, when he thought he had a terminal disease, he realized his existence had been vacuous and dangerously normal.
"There was this five-day period when I thought I was going to die," he says. "It coincided with the Mardi Gras, when everyone was celebrating life, and here I was contemplating my own death. I thought, "You have all these friends that you don't even know that well because you were drunk half the time, and you're not being who you really are.'"
Until then, he had been living in the Big Easy without really getting the music -- he had grown up in suburban Boston listening to classical and had mostly bought rock in college. Then, on the last day of Mardi Gras, he went to see the vintage New Orleans marching-style ReBirth Brass Band, whose name became forever poignant for him. "I had seen them before, but all of a sudden I got it. I learned how to dance that night, and appreciated the music for the first time. It hit me: the funk, the jazz. I had this totally transcendent experience, a moment of total clarity, a turning point in my whole life. I decided to devote my life to things that were far more positive than what I was doing."
Kowal's entry point into the funk was through DJing. After graduating college a new man, he wound up in Greece, working as a bartender. One night the DJ didn't show, and he was forced to take over with the limited CD collection the club maintained. "What was really important for my later style," he says, "is that I only had 40 or 50 CDs for the whole summer, so every night I had to make up something new with the same music. They had a little bit of everything -- rock, trance, house, jazz, reggae -- so I taught myself this very genre-unspecific way of looking at music. Instead of mixing on the beat in a specific genre, I would mix on the guitar on one track, or the vocal on another, or maybe on the theme of the song -- what the vocalist was singing about -- that would be the connection."
One night another bartender at the club was joking about Kowal's unorthodox style, and he said, "It's like a motion potion!"
"So that became my whole MO as a DJ," Kowal says, "the non-genre DJ."
That night at Nickie's when Shelly got her lesbianism on, for instance, he broke quite a few cool-guy San Francisco DJ rules. He played some very recognizable songs: a Blondie hit, "Sex Machine," and many other roller-rink funk standards. He also used the mike a number of times to exhort the party people to, well, party even more. (His MCing improv skills are in fact well honed, as proven when a certain music writer managed to cut the power to the sound system completely. Without missing a full bar of beats, he was on the PA urging the crowd to hum the bass line to the song.) And Kowal consistently, flagrantly, and shamelessly disregards the Golden Rule of DJing: Thou shalt not spin plastic.
"Yeah, I have no cool factor whatsoever," he concedes. Spinning CDs, though, allows him to share a much broader spectrum of music than '70s funk, rap, and dance, the domain to which vinyl DJs are relegated. The magic of digital technology also enables him to beat-match songs that would be impossible to sync otherwise -- CD mixers compress or stretch the music without changing its pitch (unlike vinyl). This technological advantage allows him to do things like string together the intros from every Allman Brothers song into one mix, which he did at a recent Funk Fest at Jazz Fest party that Sunset threw in New Orleans, or segue between a hip hop track and the original funk recording from which it was sampled, another of his common tricks.
"And live records are exactly my niche," he adds. "Eighty-five to 90 percent of the records I play are made by bands, not drum machines." Therein lies Motion Potion's special appeal and the reason why clubs such as Nickie's and Dalva, where he spins on Monday nights, enjoy having him on the bill. Many of his fans are like Shelly -- people who are into dancing but not necessarily DJ culture. Kowal does his share of dance-floor educating -- he's got plenty of rare groove up his sleeve -- but he'll draw the uninitiated in with better-known numbers first. "You use a record people know to sell them [a record] that will school them," he explains.
In the end, DJ snobs don't pay the bills, and playing only to them is like preaching to the choir anyway. People like Shelly couldn't care less if the music's coming from wax, plastic, or tinfoil, or whether a track was scavenged by a collector combing estate sales or included on a Starbucks compilation. They just want to dance, and maybe get a little booty.
If Kowal is professor funkemeritus and the DJ booth is his podium, then the annual Funk Festival is his university. He and Miles took the ideas of local funk historian, KPFA DJ, and author of Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One Ricky Vincent and built an institution around them. For Vincent, funk is a gigantic umbrella that covers Prince, Ice Cube, Galactic, the Prodigy, Bootsy, and Primus -- by definition, a mongrel music that brings different people together.
"Our mission with the Funk Festival is to break down the racial segregation that's been going on in funk," Kowal says. "There's a huge contingent of Oakland fans who only go see Cameo, the Ohio Players, and Earth, Wind & Fire; the get-dressed-up-and-go-out-on-Sunday-night crowd. Then you have the jam-band kids who get dressed down and go see Spearhead and Ozomatli, but would never go see Con Funk Shun. So one of our main contentions with the festival is that we are all one nation under a groove and we have to bring these people together."
To that end, they lined up odd pairings like having New York-based deep funk outfit the Sugarman 3, which courts the hipster crate-digger crowd, open for psychedelic free-form veterans Mandrill. Sunset also threw a forward-thinking series of parties called Tribal Summit, which brought together the second cousins that are the house music and world beat communities, pairing San Francisco house stalwarts Dubtribe Soundsystem with granola-sprinkled jam outfit the Motet.
As a DJ, Kowal tries to bridge this gap as often as possible himself -- he's opened for Southern rock revivalists Gov't Mule and closed for hip hop turntable demigod Cut Chemist. He frequently finds himself DJing for people who hate DJs, spinning CDs for people who cringe at CD DJs, and trying to get people to listen to music they usually avoid at all costs. He apparently even gets people to kiss people they normally wouldn't.