“It happens at least once a party,” says the fictional rave promoter Ernie in Groove, when he's queried on why he puts his freedom from prosecution on the line each time he throws an underground warehouse party. “Someone comes up to me and says, 'Thank you very much for making this happen. I really needed this. It meant something to me.'
“Then they nod. And I nod back.”
Wade Randolph Hampton first got the nod as a DJ back in 1986. “I rented out the local Sheraton Hotel in far North Dallas for our high school graduation party,” he recalls. “We spent down the last of our class fund. I was playing mix tapes from other people in the downtown Dallas scene and mixing them together. Everyone was having a great time. By the end of the night, the principal had come up to me and said, 'That was very nice Wade.'”
Hampton (aka DJ WishFM) is the music supervisor for one of the summer's most eagerly anticipated indie films: writer/director Greg Harrison's Groove, a perceptive, intimate look inside one night at an underground San Francisco rave. Ernie, played by Steve Van Wormer, is the guy who brings a single night of heaven down to Earth for the willing participants. The film, which opens Thursday, has been riding a wave of buzz that began at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Sold for $1.5 million to Sony Pictures Classics, Groove arrives in theaters during what could be the most uncomfortable period in the history of rave culture. Damaging legislative assaults on dancing in Chicago and Toronto, a series of high-profile drug busts (including the seizure of nearly 500,000 hits of Ecstasy at SFO last month), and increased media attention to teenagers' participation in the all-night dance parties is driving an underground subculture above the surface in a battle for its existence and its livelihood.
But while the mainstream media will likely focus on Groove's honest portrayal of drug use at raves, a hopeful byproduct will be deserved attention to the music that has spawned the culture and made San Francisco one of the most fertile grounds for new music since the Summer of Love. Forget the uninformed comparisons to Saturday Night Fever; disco was already dead in the clubs by the time John Travolta became a household name. Electronic music — house, trance, techno, jungle, and its many other subgenres — is still evolving and morphing into new, powerful forms. As Hampton explains, Groove is to the nascent dance culture what the film Krush Groove was to hip hop — a bridge from the underground to the mainstream.
John Digweed, the internationally recognized British DJ and producer who has both led and been a participant in this most recent musical renaissance, is the spiritual guru of Groove. A gay couple spend the length of the film trying to make it to the rave to celebrate the anniversary of their meeting at a Digweed show. And he appears in the film as himself, the late-arrival DJ whose appearance propels the rave's promoters back into action after the cops shut them down. E-mails go out, voice-mail messages are changed, and the dancers start to filter back to the warehouse: “Digweed's just arrived with a fresh crate of vinyl,” Ernie exhorts. And the party kicks back in.
Digweed sees this as the perfect time for Groove's release and thinks audiences can put it into the right perspective. “The whole DJ explosion in America, which seems to have happened in the past six to 12 months, is amazing,” he says. “We want people to find out more about the music. You need to experience it and find out what a DJ does during a set. It's giving people a taste of something, and from there they can make their decision [as to whether it's something they want to try].”
For the San Francisco DJs and producers who have been spinning at underground parties and public club weeklies for years, the film is an opportunity to spread their music and community to a much wider audience. Wicked, a crew of local DJs who have been promoting parties in San Francisco for nearly a decade, and who have helped to shape the recognizable sound of San Francisco house music, is well represented in Groove. Two compositions from Wicked's Garth appear in the film; one of his most recognizable tracks, 1996's “Twenty Minutes of Disco Glory,” is remixed by Wicked pal Simon and is featured on the first of numerous soundtrack CDs for the film to be released by Kinetic/Reprise. Garth sees Groove as a goodwill ambassador for the Bay Area's thriving electronic music community. “It's going to do a lot for the dance scene across the States,” he says. “There's no Hollywood glitz with this film — it's about really regular people. I think it will bring the mainstream further into the dance music industry's core.”
It was important for Greg Harrison to offer the San Francisco scene a platform from which to preen, promote, and dance its collective ass off. “I wrote the treatment in late 1996,” Harrison says. “So much of it was about the music and how it sounded, and what the dance floor looked like when the music was really going off. It was an essential point of [my experience] that I wanted to capture.” Harrison, a film editor who moved to the Bay Area from L.A. in 1994, entered the West Coast rave scene in its formative years, attending his first party in 1993 with college pal and future Groove star Van Wormer. He became a regular in the Bay Area scene and aligned himself with the Friends and Family rave collective and its diversely knit community rooted around the cultural mantra of PLUR: Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. As Harrison began writing the script, he started assembling all of the mix tapes he'd collected over the years. “I would go down to Spinelli's [now Tully's] on Irving with my laptop. I wrote the entire script with headphones on in the coffee shop, listening to DJ mix tapes — mostly local house and trance,” he says. “I thought they were going to kick me out for using all their electricity, but instead, after a while they started giving me free coffee.” Again, the nod. [page]
Music supervisor Hampton, who with partner Stephanie Smiley owned the renowned Lower Haight DJ record shop Faster Bamboo, first met Harrison when the idea for Groove was still developing. Their union wasn't exactly Hollywood in nature. “We figured out later that we had met when I went in there to buy some CDs during the time I was writing the script,” laughs Harrison. It wasn't until production of the film had begun that their paths actually crossed professionally. Harrison and producer Danielle Renfrew knew they needed a music supervisor to handle the formidable task of assembling more than 40 tracks for the film's backing soundtrack and DJ sets during the rave. They initially hired an L.A.-based music supervisor, but quickly found that the task and its challenges were outside of established process.
“The first supervisor did very traditional things in order to get the music, and it was just all wrong,” remembers Harrison. “The stuff he brought us was very much kind of the co-opted techno-electronic sound that a lot of L.A. bands were doing at the time.” Contemplating this mismatch of visions, Harrison felt inspired to more fully involve the DJs and music of the San Francisco scene. Around this time, Renfrew ran into Smiley at a party, and suggested a meeting with Harrison and Hampton. As principals of Domestic Recordings, the successful production business and record label they run out of their Utah compound, Smiley and Hampton seemed like perfect allies.
At their first meeting in a Mission cafe, the Domestic Recordings duo delivered the filmmakers a home-burned CD of tracks they felt could express the range of emotions Groove was trying to represent. “We had so much need for music,” Harrison says, “everything from what was going off on the dance floor to what Leyla [played by Lola Glaudini] was listening to on her jambox at home.”
“On that very first CD they had the songs we used both for the opening credits and the closing scene. It felt so right,” he continues. “I really felt the energy of the music and it was a pivotal moment for me in realizing that we could pull this off.” Hampton went to work, soliciting local artists, and reviewing the various CDs, tapes, Web site URLs, and vinyl that people delivered in droves to Harrison. “We wanted to mix it with things that heavily influenced S.F., or came from down the street,” Hampton says. “Without the film having a distinct year attached to it, we tried to make it more of a time capsule for the '90s. It was very wide open.”
As a result, at least three-fourths of the 42 tracks featured in the film come from artists who have defined the San Francisco scene over the past decade, including, among others, ambient scenester DJ Caliban, progressive house wunderboys Jondi & Spesh, techno pioneer Jonah Sharp, drum 'n' bass mistress DJ Polywog, and house music maestros the Hardkiss Brothers (Gavin, Scott, and Robbie), the Wicked Crew (Simon, Markie, Jeno, and Garth), and Dmitri From the Lower Haight (aka Baby D Love), who's also been known to serve double duty as a baby sitter for Hampton's 3-year-old.
During the hullabaloo of Sundance, Harrison and Renfrew could breathe easy about one crucial fact: They'd obtained clearances for every piece of music that appeared in Groove, which meant there would be no heated negotiations over a studio's influence on the almost requisite soundtrack. In the post-deal bliss of Sundance, it seemed like a no-brainer that the film's soundtrack would be released by pre-eminent American dance music label Astralwerks, and the filmmakers were making allusions to such a plan. But music supervisor Hampton wasn't ready to cut a deal just yet.
“Greg still kids me,” says Hampton, mimicking the director: “'We did our deal in three days and it took you three months to get this soundtrack deal completed!'”
It was worth every minute of those three months. The first Groove soundtrack will be released June 20 on Kinetic Records, home to the Tranceport series and the recent LTJ Bukem disc. A DJ mix of Digweed's set from the film is slated for later in the year. And, Hampton hopes, additional soundtrack CDs will feature the sets of other local DJs who brought the music up and the house down throughout the film: Polywog, Forest Green, Bing Ching (DJ Snaz), and WishFM himself. And after a week of premiere parties on both coasts, where Digweed, Hampton, and other DJs from the film will spin, the music supervisor will take the Groove show on the road. The DJ tour will hit cities and towns across the country, featuring Hampton and Dmitri From the Lower Haight along with local DJs from the various locales they play.
Harrison's film, and its resultant soundtrack, represents a feeling that, these days, is hard to come by — even in San Francisco's notoriously free-form party scene — where divergent subgenres of electronic music are thrown onto the turntables as the DJs take their turns behind the decks. “I tried to mix the soundtrack CD the same way those legendary after-hours parties would sound here in S.F. back in the early '90s,” says Hampton. “Early Doc Martin, Dom T — those guys would play such a huge range of stuff. The film is so representative of the whole range of '90s artists. There were parties where Sasha [Digweed's regular turntable partner] would show up at the end of the night at a warehouse party. It really happened.”
And while any medium that attempts to distill the mood, emotion, and personality of an entire community into 90 minutes won't always hit the bull's-eye, Groove comes closer than any other film has. Right down to the fleeting view of the Sunday morning revelry outside the Endup as the film's closing sequence unfurls to the strains of alter)ring's gorgeous morning trance anthem “Infinitely Gentle Blows.” [page]
“I really wanted to [represent] what the Bay Area institutions mean to people,” says Harrison. “If it was something you did, it would be nostalgic. If it is something you do, there's a sense of relief that it was captured accurately.”