It's Alive!

Yesterday's scenesters like to complain that S.F. dance music is dead. They're wrong. Here's why.

Over the last year or so, there's been a rumbling in clubland, and it ain't the whir of a subwoofer. More than just cyclical scenester malaise, some veteran observers are passing a certain dire diagnosis among them: Dance music in San Francisco is dead. Not just in a lull, but bankrupt of new ideas and no longer shaping the definition of cool in local underground culture.

But to say that the dance music scene in San Francisco is dead implies that it was once alive, so when was this and what did this vigor look like? Everyone intimate with the scene pretty much agrees that its high-water mark was sometime around 1999. Fresh batches of teenagers were still graduating from the rave circuit, thoroughly prepped to become upstanding clubbers once they hit 21. New subgenres were born every six months and each one was instantly swaddled in its own weekly or monthly party. Rock was in the doldrums, so the hipster dollar was going directly into bleeding-edge electronic imports and those over-the-shoulder record bags. And just about everyone in their 20s either spun records, had an Internet radio station for people who spun records, promoted a party where people spun records, or designed T-shirts with images of people spinning records on them.

To look back at this era with nostalgia is like an investor yearning for the days when shares of Pets.com were going for $100 a pop. Yes, it was easy to make money and yes, the wild speculation -- "Electronica will Change Music Forever!" blared the headline -- was good publicity for both dance music and the technology sector, but this was a dangerously overvalued market that wasn't sustainable.

As with the Internet economy, there were too many visionaries and not enough vision. The shortage of good ideas was masked by an infatuation with the future, what was coming down the road. The constant churn of next big things that fueled the late '90s scene -- drum 'n' bass, trance, 2-step, IDM, broken beat -- is often mistaken as a sign of its vigor. It's actually a symptom of dependency, an addiction to novelty over substance exemplified by the vampirism of Vice magazine, which trumpets a new subgenre one issue and shits on it the next.

The local scene today is the result of a massive shakeout from these binge years, and it is more streamlined and more sensitive to the needs of its audience because of it. One point the doomsayers make is that San Francisco isn't welcoming of the most exciting innovations in electronic music worldwide. It's more that clubbers and promoters are warier, and rightfully so -- they've been hyped up and let down before, so no longer is the latest permutation of U.K. garage accepted as dope before proven otherwise. Plus, people have different priorities now -- chasing down job interviews takes precedence over chasing down the sound of the minute.

Is this conservatism to be celebrated? It's just the reality of the situation, and it's a testament to the ingenuity of the scene that the dance music infrastructure has been able to evolve with the times. Seven years ago, a dip in the city's population like the one we're experiencing now might have thrown clubs and dance record stores into an unstoppable nosedive. Today, the number of venues that showcase DJs is probably the highest it's ever been, with new spots like Mezzanine, suite one8one, and Milk opening in the past few years. And with the exception of the closures of the trance shop Spundae and the jungle-only Compound, which were too specialized to survive anyway, San Francisco can still make claim to having more dance vinyl shops per capita than anywhere in the U.S.

The network is still intact, although there are fewer people going out because there are just fewer people living here, and they're making less money, so dance music went back to basics -- and even went backward -- to cater to a smaller, more discerning audience. One-off parties featuring ancient rave breaks have popped up like DJ and promoter Monty Luke's "Riot," dedicated to what he calls "regressive house" -- old acid house gems and other forgotten classics from dance music's early days. This might seem like a sign of stagnation, but only if you buy the modernist myth that says electronic music must ceaselessly march into the future to thrive.

"A lot of what we as DJs do is based on having the newest shit, and there's definitely a lot of value in that," Luke explains, "but the thing about these new genres that keep coming up is that the life cycles they're enjoying seem to be getting shorter and shorter -- look at things like drum 'n' bass, 2-step, and electro-clash. So what a lot of us have done is gone back to the foundation, which is house, and said, 'Hey this record fucking rocked, I haven't played it in a long time, and a lot of people who are going out now don't know it.'"

There's been little appreciation of history in electronic music, especially on the club side of things, and this return to the scene's foundational ideas suggests that disposability is being supplanted by authentic value. We might even take it as evidence that the scene is becoming an actual culture -- here's an older generation preserving traditions for the next and defining which qualities from the past should be carried into tomorrow. Going retro is how rock has kept itself alive for the last decade -- when hair metal threatened to sink it in the early '90s, grunge exhumed the spirit of '70s era Neil Young, and the Strokes and the Rapture are doing it again with the Velvet Underground and Gang of Four. Nostalgia is necessary like composting is -- new growth requires digesting old material.

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