It’s Friday, March 20, and Primo Pitino is hanging out in his San Francisco apartment, preparing to perform his first ever live-streamed DJ set. Earlier that day, he got an invite from a friend to play a “Zoom rave” with some other Bay Area DJs; the flyer on Instagram read, “Location: comfort of your own quarantine.” Since Primo was last on the bill and wouldn’t go on until midnight, he had time to pick the right songs, and of course, decorate. Anyone who’s seen him perform knows a Primo set wouldn’t be complete without black lights and lasers.
“My room can look pretty weird and sexy if I want it to,” he says.
His set time also gave him the breathing room to figure out how to actually do a live-stream, using technology that is new to him.
“I was like, OK, well, let me first actually see what this site is, because I’ve never used it in my life,” Primo says. “And I don’t do a lot of online stuff, you know?”
Making San Franciscans feel better has been DJ Primo’s livelihood for closing in on two decades. No matter what we were going through, either collectively or individually, DJ Primo and his gang of partners were there with a jubilant and imaginative party to take our minds off of things.
“Even back when I first met Primo, I was really impressed at the way he could DJ acid techno and weird house at Two Men Will Move You, and then the next night, he’d be at Edinburgh Castle playing soul 45s,” says Chris Zaldua, DJ and co-founder of San Francisco label, Left Hand Path records, on his earliest memories of Primo. “He was a working DJ. He wasn’t trying to build his brand, or build up an image, or be anyone other than this guy that loves music, and knows music, and wants to play records for a whole bunch of people.”
During normal times of distress, fans of Primo could self-medicate by going to a Mission or SOMA dive bar, like the Make Out Room, to drink a Tecate with friends and dance to his eclectic mixes. But these aren’t normal times. On March 17th, to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the Bay Area, mayor London Breed announced San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order, with the rest of California soon following suit. It wasn’t long before every bar and music venue in the city was shuttered, and Primo was out of a job.
“For me, I really wasn’t very interested in music for the first week of this happening,” Primo says soberly, noting that he needed some time to process everything before he could get back to DJing. “I looked through my old photos, my old graffiti photos and my old pictures of people at clubs, and stuff like that — I was really a lot more interested in that.”
In some ways, it’s a bit of a breather. As a DJ and party promoter, Primo is scrappy, and DIY. In fact, according to people we talked to, Primo’s hustle touches almost every aspect of the parties he DJs, from location scouting to promoting to decorating — he even draws his own flyers. Jordan Heyser, who currently lives in Los Angeles, started Two Men Will Move You with Primo in the late 2000s. They ran the popular Italo disco and acid house party together in the Mission for almost a decade. According to Heyser, Primo’s old-school hustle and attention to detail — like, “having just the right laser for a party on a Thursday night” — are part of what draws people to his events.
“I think people kind of notice,” says Heyser, who is now based in Los Angeles. “If you’re a DJ who’s just kinda like, ‘Hey, I’m playing Tuesday at this bar,’ that doesn’t necessarily track energy to you. But if people see you like, ‘Wow, you’re out there putting up flyers, drawing flyers by hand every week’…people will start to notice somebody’s invested in this thing.”
And since DJing is both Primo’s passion and his main source of income, he hasn’t taken a break from it in years.
Despite needing a few days to “let the shock kind of wash over,” Primo is adapting to life as a DJ in the new normal. Every Tuesday night from 7:30-11 p.m., he’ll be pulling choice selections from his massive collection of soul and funk records and spinning them on Twitch.And, he recently created an Instagram account to share archival photos from “Club Lonely,” the party he helps throw at the SOMA bar OMG with DJs Jeremy Castillo, Vin Sol, and GOGO dancer organizer, Kitty Komforts.
To see Primo explore new technologies, like live-streaming, might seem contrary to his DJ image. Think of a modern day DJ, and you’ll probably imagine someone lit up by the glow of a Macbook. Primo’s devotion, however, lies with turntables, and occasionally CDJs. Then there’s the vintage music that fuels his and his partners’ parties, like northern soul and acid house, a subgenre of techno developed in Chicago and the UK that was popular with Bay Area ravers in the ’90s.
Even so, Primo doesn’t see himself as a retro act. Consider “Oldies Night,” Primo and Daniel Bermudez’ now defunct party that ran on and off from 1999 to 2019 at The Ruby Room in Oakland, The Attic (R.I.P.), and The Knock Out in San Francisco. In the mid- to late-2000s, rockabilly kids, punk rockers, and hipsters would regularly line up for the sweaty dance party, soundtracked by R&B, doo-wop, and soul 45’s from the 1950’s and 60’s.
“I was always pretty adamant that Oldies Night not seem like a night where we’re trying to go back to some other generation,” Primo says, explaining his philosophy on the party. “The idea of Oldies Night was like, ‘We’re listening to this music now because it’s some interesting, underground dance music… I don’t want to look like someone from some other time period, or something like that.”
Although the pandemic is currently dealing a serious blow to the local economy, Primo is excited about the prospect of trying something new, which brings us back to the “Zoom rave.” Despite the fact that Primo had never used Zoom, the buttoned up, remote conferencing service that’s become an important tool for entertainers in the time of the novel coronavirus, the performance went well.
“At the end of it, it really felt cathartic and like I connected with people,” said Primo.
It was a lo-fi affair; Primo recorded himself playing records through a cell phone, which was duct taped to the wall of his apartment. Flanked by two walls of vinyl records — “five-hundred 12-inches on one wall and six-hundred on the other” — Primo spun some “real kind of crazy psycho music for fun, and then took it into a very spacey, beautiful place.” Finally, he rounded out the night with “(Falling Like) Dominoes” by Donald Byrd, a feel-good disco-funk track from 1975, because it’s “so uplifting.”
If the audience could make out the lyrics being streamed through Primo’s cell phone, they would’ve heard a reassuring message: “One day we’ll laugh and then you’ll say, that everything’s alright / So let’s not worry ’bout tomorrow while we got each other here tonight.”
But even, if they couldn’t, just seeing him in a tank-top with his familiar skinny frame, flailing arms, and shoulder-length hair, would’ve been a comforting sight.
Follow DJ Primo on Instagram to learn about his upcoming shows on Twitch.