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San Francisco's sub-bass subculture 

Wednesday, Oct 1 2008
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This weekend, 150 electronic artists will create a cavalcade through the streets of San Francisco for the annual LoveFest Parade. On the surface, many of these DJs, producers, singers, and MCs represent far-flung genres ranging from IDM to glitch-pop to deep house to downtempo. Yet the common thread through all the LoveFest talent is a heavy influence, whether directly or indirectly, from dub music. The intoxicating, space-enhancing production techniques pioneered three or four decades ago by Jamaican dubmasters have become ubiquitous to contemporary electronic music. The only things that have really changed are the tempo and the technology. 

"It's all connected," says Aaron Mullagh, one of the organizers of the Bay Area Drum and Bass collective. "Doesn't matter what genre — you're gonna find a heavy dub influence. In every DJ's house, you'll find a crate of Scientist or Mad Professor records." While dub music bubbles underneath various electronic music genres, dubstep and drum 'n' bass in particular wear its reverberating echoes, rewinds, rinses, and shouts of "Bo! Bo! Bo!" on their sleeves. There's even an emerging "S.F. dub sound" which is spacier, more downtempo, and more global-minded than U.K.–bred dubstep and drum 'n' bass, and our dub umbrella extends all the way to hip-hop and dancehall.

Dancehall dons Jah Warrior Shelter Hi-Fi recently commissioned rap legend Too $hort for an original dubplate, while roots revivalist Capleton became a crowd favorite after an appearance at 1015 Folsom during this year's Carnaval.

San Francisco is already a top five market for electronic music, but Mullagh says it's also fast becoming an international dub capital. Forwarding the scene is an audience equally enthused about a dubstep night like Grime City; junglist parties like Shelter, In2It, and Bassism; an eclectic affair like Surya Dub; and the roots-oriented vibe of Dub Mission. You'll also catch a fair amount of dubby beats at "outernational" parties like Worldly. The fact that all these events exist simultaneously is a testament to the city's commitment to supporting sound system culture. "It's an interesting scene," Mullagh says. "You could almost go out to a jungle show seven nights a week." That community, he says, is influencing other locales as well: "Our dub style is being ripped off all over the U.K. You go to the most hard man in London, he's gonna know about the S.F. sound."

Mullagh references Juju, our best-known local drum 'n' bass producer who has paved the way for a younger breed of steppers like DJ G, OST, and Babylon System. Meanwhile, Surya Dub resident Kush Aurora has collaborated with artists in Brooklyn and India, while Grime City's expatriate MC Child boasts authentic Cockney credentials, having grown up on an English council estate.

The communal vibe among dubsteppers and drum 'n' bassheads is perhaps best symbolized by the Bay Area Drum and Bass' LoveFest float. While many other parade entries have out-of-towners manning the decks, its 40,000-watt–equipped tractor-trailer will feature a hometown lineup. At LoveFest, Mullagh says, "Everybody wants to have a big-name DJ come out. That's fine and dandy ... [but] we're all about locals."

Conversely, two decades of DJ culture have created a local nightlife network that's all about dub. It's both the bass and the basis for linking electronic music's microgenres and subgenres, and it's made the progression between scenes seem like a logical one.

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Eric K. Arnold

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