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Black electronic acts break beats and assumptions 

Wednesday, Dec 17 2008
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Anarchist writer Hakim Bey coined the tag Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) in the early '90s to describe a transient space — anything from a club night to Burning Man — that is freed from convention. In that vein, think of the Afrotek Festival, a one-night showcase of electronic sets by black artists, as a TAZ for the local music community. The convention the festival wants to bust? That if you're an African-American beat artist, you're automatically working on hip-hop and R&B.

In the Bay Area scene Too $hort and E-40 built, Oakland-based producers say they face a lot of skepticism based on skin color. "We get the same questions all the time," says Ed Dee Pee of the post-technoheads Blaktroniks, who are among the acts performing at the first festival. "'Are you a rap group?' Well, we kinda DJ and perform simultaneously. 'Are you hyphy?' Well, we're electronic ...'" They'll take the stage alongside Oakland's house-downtempo-dancefloor-jazz producer Jaswho? and broken-beat vocalist RepLife; San Francisco multi-instrumentalist and spoken-word artist Douglas Pagan; and Sunnyvale siblings Paul and Christopher Leath, who spin as Leathal DJs.

Conceived by local DJ, producer, and music writer Tomas Palermo (who also runs the Voltage Music label), the festival is meant to spotlight musicians and producers who battle market invisibility as they work outside of racial stereotypes. Inspired by the East Bay's multigenre club nights of color like The People and the Black New World Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Palermo figures the festival can serve as notice to promoters and audiences. "This region has unrecognized talent right under its nose, so Bay Area techno promoters don't necessarily need to fly in European artists," he says. "There's a real musical renewal going on in the area."

Black artists' involvement in innovative electronic music stretches back six decades. A long thread weaves through Sun Ra's pioneering mid-'50s use of electronic keyboards in jazz and Bernie Worrell's groundbreaking '70s synth work with Parliament into the electro and techno era forged in the '80s by artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Juan Atkins. Virtually all the foundational electronic dance music of this generation — including house, techno, breaks, drum 'n' bass, and garage, along with subgenres like grime — were birthed in black clubs that played tracks by local black producers. But this generation has also seen the music industry narrowly map out urban music at the mainstream level to the two-genre idiom — hip-hop and R&B — it can most easily sell.

Pagan points to the Obama victory as a portent of what he calls a "mini-renaissance" in alternative African-American culture. "I think that nationally, people are getting more attuned to the breadth and possibilities of black cultural life — that it's not just hip-hop or a certain socioeconomic strata," he says.

So can the Bay Area cultivate a black avant-electronic music scene on the level of Detroit's legendary techno milieu? Most of the festival's artists say yes, with the right infrastructure. "It's got to operate on a level where there are a bunch of steady venues to share ideas and music," Blaktroniks' Badi Malik says. JasWho? cites local history as he cautiously projects: "Listen, [the East Bay] has a heritage of innovative black music, starting with Sly and the Family Stone. We can do it, but it would take a long, sustained movement that people support for 10 or 15 years."

One key to that movement could be to make autonomous zones like the Afrotek Festival regular occurrences.

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Ron Nachmann

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