One Nation, Under Funk

DJ Motion Potion's populist approach to spreading the funk has got dance-floor denizens hot, bothered, and coming back for more

Shelly, a 26-year-old graduate student and lifelong heterosexual, made out with a woman for the first time at the Lower Haight club Nickie's BBQ while DJ Motion Potion was spinning. "It was one of those slightly sketchy moments," she recalls afterward. "A little too much booze and a lot of sexy music -- I guess one thing just led to another."

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.

Scott Chernis
Scott Chernis

Details

He spins every other Friday at 9:30 p.m. at "The Real" Nickie's BBQ, 460 Haight (at Fillmore), S.F.

Admission is free before 10:30, $5 after; call 621-6508

He also spins Monday nights at 9 p.m. at "Mondango," Dalva, 3121 16th St. (at Albion), S.F. Free; call 252-7740

On July 19, DJMP and Tom Thump kick off "Othership Connection" at 9 p.m. with guest DJ Leema (every third Saturday) at the Hush Hush Lounge, 496 14th St. (at Guerrero), S.F. Admission is $5; call 241-9944

For more info, go to ww w.motionpotion.com

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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."

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