DJs dig into '90s nostalgia

It was one of those balmy September weekends when San Franciscans can actually go sleeveless after 10 p.m. And yet in the line snaking outside Mission bar the Knockout for the club night Debaser, partiers were bundled in flannels. One dude kept a nest of dark hair tucked under a black ski cap. Were we in the same climate zone here? Yup. These folks weren't dressing for the weather; they were working an era. This particular Saturday night was all about the '90s, so no matter what the thermometer displayed, the look required plaid Pendletons — or, I should say, the admission discount required it. If you show up at Debaser before 11 p.m. in flannel or a babydoll dress, you bypass the $5 cover.

Inside the jam-packed dive, two blondes in line for the bathroom went the extra mile in vintage Nirvana Ts. Debaser mastermind DJ Jamie Jams spun a mix of Morrissey, Spiritualized, Eels, Flaming Lips, Weezer, and other hits from the Alternative Nation generation. If you ever needed proof that backwards-glancing club nights were finally moving beyond the '80s, Jams' monthly — named after the Pixies song, and including DJs Matthew Davis, Sarah Gion, and Jessica Beard — is one clue that the '90s are slowly pushing the '80s out of the way.

Of course Debaser isn't the only event with a '90s focus. Across town at Annie's Social Club, DJs Omar, Jet Set James, and Aaron Axelsen were hosting their own old-school monthly, Leisure, which has played “classic Britpop and indie jams for those who remember the first time” for the past three years. That particular Saturday, patrons were getting cozy under the chandeliers or performing sloppy Britpop karaoke in the back room, as the sounds of the Charlatans and Stereo MCs blasted from the speakers. “The music that came out of England in the '90s seemed to be fueled by optimism,” Omar says. “It was a welcome change from grunge and it was unashamed to be fun.”

Other San Francisco promoters tuck singles from 10 years ago under different auspices: DJs Dimitri Dickinson and Ryan Poulsen drop a little Sugar Ray and Pearl Jam into their hilarious Worst Music Ever monthly, also at the Knockout. Like Omar and Jams, their mantra is to deliver unabashed revelry.

With each of these nights, the specific nostalgia they're evoking is still fairly fresh, even as the tracks themselves have grown dusty. It's a lot more amusing to hear these forgotten standbys than the same old Duran Duran and B-52s tracks ad nauseam, and in a music world intent on working through the new artists at warp speed, there's understandable comfort in one night of remaining stationary in the past.

Giving a club a specific '90s focus is a fairly new concept that has spread around the globe. London hosts I Love the '90s, Boston has My So-Called '90s Night, and JD Samson of Le Tigre DJs at an event in Brooklyn called U.N.I.T.Y. Samson is revisiting her high school years with pal Lauren Flax, and together they spin everything from slow jams to hip-hip to alt-rock. Rage Against the Machine is a particular favorite. “The crowd loves it,” she says. “It's really easy to get the crowd screaming lyrics.”

The same is true at Debaser, it seems. At the Knockout, people are singing at top volume to obscure late-'90s act the New Radicals. They're yelling out requests for “Possum Kingdom” from post-grunge boys the Toadies. “There are a few one-hit wonders that make everyone go nuts,” Jams says. “Who knew?”

Dancers get so worked up over Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that Jams has to restart the song (for the fourth time) because someone keeps knocking into the turntables. The crowd is acting as if this is a live rock show, yet none of the local, '90s-focused cover bands Jams has booked in the past — Enchanting Wizards of Rhythm (Beck); Purple Flannel (Dinosaur Jr.), and Ocean Spray (the Cranberries) — are here tonight.

Jams says he came up with Debaser — which, a year in, ranks among the Knockout's most popular nights — after tiring of hearing the same dozen bands everywhere he went. “I was like, at some point people are going to get really burned out on Joy Division and Gang of Four, and there's going to be nowhere else to go but the '90s,” he says. But early experiments with Debaser, such as a one-off in 2005, proved too early to bring out the Smashing Pumpkins records. These days, though, '90s-speak is everywhere, from the Sub Pop 20th anniversary earlier in the summer to long-awaited tours from icons like Liz Phair and My Bloody Valentine. Hip-hop is also peering into this same span of history: A recent New York Times article listed newer acts like the Cool Kids, Kidz in the Hall, and the Knux as reinvesting in the aesthetic of that genre's Golden Era.

Whatever it is that's causing a yearning for the decade of MTV's 120 Minutes, grunge bands, or hip-hop's Native Tongues crew, it seems music fans are flocking to club nights directed down this particular memory lane. As for Jams, his time capsule seems to be working. “We literally had crowd surfers screaming the words to Hole!” he says of the last Debaser. “It's ridiculous.” It's as if Courtney Love never went away. Or, um, well, whatever … Nevermind.

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