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

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.

DJ Motion Potion with George 
Clinton and 
John Miles at the 2002 San 
Francisco Funk 
Festival opening "Art of Funk" gala.
Annie Pierson
DJ Motion Potion with George Clinton and John Miles at the 2002 San Francisco Funk Festival opening "Art of Funk" gala.

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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"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.

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