While some of us might be horrified to discover an 11-year-old on the dancefloor of our favorite club, Santa Cruz promoter and house DJ Robin Simmons' club experiences began at that precise age, at an underground party accompanied by none other than his mother. Inspired by the positive vibes and energy of the event, he began fiddling around with cheap records from the famous Streetlight Records, where his mother also worked. Only a year later, he played his first DJ gig in a Veteran's Hall basement, for a weekly event called Colors. In attendance was funk/disco/house DJ Rick Preston, who soon took young Simmons under his wing and brought him to various parties around the Bay Area.
Now 25 and residing in San Francisco, Simmons' early influences remain apparent in the parties he throws as a promoter and house DJ, whether it be the underground party Odyssey or the all-vinyl Boombox Affair in Dolores Park. We recently caught up with Simmons to talk about his early start in clubs and his spiritual journey in starting the Odyssey party. Odyssey takes place Friday at Public Works, with headliner Neon Leon, Steve Fabus, Robert Jeffrey, Viv Baron, Jason Kendig, and Simmons himself.
The first underground party you went to was when you were 11. What was that experience like?
So many new things at once that it was hard to focus on anything at all. An immersive audio-visual environment designed to create a night-long journey. A dancefloor where you were supposed to get totally funky and be as fabulous as possible. An environment where people who were not in the 'moral majority' were not only accepted, but cherished and celebrated. My first taste of community. And most of all the music -- the energy and passion of the DJ, and the connection between the DJ and the dancefloor. Seriously an out-of-this-world experience.
And a year later, your first DJ gig took place. What was it like making a DJ debut at the age of 12?
I knew about a weekly DJ night called Colors in the basement of the Santa Cruz Vet's Hall that had a house room and a jungle/DnB room. Friends from Streetlight Records (where my mom worked) tipped me off that if I went during setup I could make it in past security and deliver a mix to the promoter. So I made a mix of my favorite 'deep house' records, (it's called "Satisfaction," and I still have it), mixed on belt-drive turntables, with used vinyl I got at my mom's work. It featured artists like Sumo, Hesohi, Lawnchair Generals, King Britt. I was lucky enough to get a shot! Honestly, it's very hard for me to imagine myself taking a 12-year-old who likes deep house seriously, so I'm very grateful for the Colors crew for believing in me and accepting me at that point.
How did growing up in Santa Cruz influence your taste in music?
To always have San Francisco just out of reach was a really big thing growing up. It felt like there was this magical land of culture and music and freedom just over the horizon. There was always just enough culture trickling down from the city to keep you hungry to find something more, to find that perfect vibe or that perfect sound. So when [the] local music scene was not happening, you wanted to push harder to find it.
Tell us the story of Odyssey.
My straight friends would call it gay. My gay friends would say it's mixed. Musically it's living at the delicious intersection of house, nu disco, old disco, hard soul, sexual techno, and wherever the selector takes you on that particular night. I tell my DJs to show me what dance music should sound like, and I expect them to tell a story with the music. Visually, it's beautiful and immersive, a cultural/sexual/psychedelic experience, meaningfully integrated with the music by our local legend and in-house wizard, Donovan. It's a six-hour celebration, and a thrill from beginning to end.
Odyssey started in a private, five-room space with a wall-sized chalkboard, balcony overlooking the dancefloor, custom installation, and gorgeous sound. Now it's currently rocking the main room of Public Works on a spontaneous basis, and we plan on trying out several other commercial spaces throughout the next year or two. It's going to be a blast!
What inspired you to start this party?
It may not be what happens at your average club or bar, but I know from my own life that music can be very liberating, celebratory, and very healing -- all at the same time. Knowing only the tiniest bit about the history of nightlife and dance culture in America, I could see that there was a big precedent, and opportunity, for this kind of thing here. I had been getting the feeling that nightlife was no longer about social issues, but that it could be. To have a vision for love and celebration that you want to share with others is definitely a special thing. But it's nothing without the opportunity to enact that vision, grow it out and build community around it. I was lucky enough to have a close friend, Devin Fitzpatrick, who believed in me, and was interested in acting as an investor, sounding board, business founder, party host, participant and dancer -- just to make sure I have a chance at getting started. I know for sure that not everyone who deserves a chance gets one, so the fact that someone took that chance on me inspired me to focus and push myself to achieve that vision.
How have you seen it evolve this past year?
We started "underground" and are now proudly participating in the public conversation, which is an important step in the evolution, but for me most of the important stuff happened much earlier. The first really big thing was our visuals guy, Donovan Drummond. He's a Bay Area legend, an innovator, a tireless artist, and a scholar in his own right. Not to mention an amazing down-to-Earth person who I am proud to call a friend. His visuals stepped the party up onto a new level.
There are a couple other things worth mentioning. The rotating DJ shifts (three DJs doing two one-hour sets) create a conversation and create an opportunity for true collaboration between DJs from different places and generations. Another big one is the integration of some of the talent in my community: from the photographers, the art and performances, to the amazing gourmet paninis.
Next: Simmons on the song that's sure to get him out on the dancefloor