Looking for hints of San Francisco’s renowned underground nightlife? It pays to keep your eyes and nose to the ground — and to be textable. That’s one of the few subtle signs that the hottest underground party in town is happening right here on an early Sunday summer morning: reedy, peg-legged hipsters standing out by the curb on this barren, bulldozed Hunters Point artery, busily texting and talking up fidgety, insomniac friends about their next landing strip. Beats bang gently in the background as fashion-damaged kids dangle from the railings along the short flight of steps to the door, smoking and guzzling from sacks like it’s recess at their own semiprivate too-cool school.
Upstairs in a long, tall space lined with huge rectangular windows, the Sixteens are getting ready for a set. And everyone else — and that’s every-fucking-body — is madly dancing on the other side to stabbing electrotech beats that come off so metallic and grimy that you could slice yourself open and get a nasty infection on ’em. Is that arch-retro-candy raver actually swinging a stretchy glow stick with one hand while trying to hold on to a mixed drink in the other? Swirling moiré patterns, projections of flames, and found industrial footage lick the walls of the room and the faces of the dancers. A burnt-orange slice of summer moon is slung low in the sky as if already hungover from the shit-hot party raging below.
Closing time — you may not know whom you want to take home, but do you know where your next party is? Above-grounders might say “you don’t need to go home, but you can’t stay here,” but you needn’t turn into a pumpkin and pass out in your car just yet. Bay Area underground parties like this one — and of every imaginable stripe and musical genre — are where sleepless scenesters flock.
So why is the underground scene continuing to blossom like a hundred Lotus Girls on a dust-caked playa in a city chock-full of wholly legit clubs? This summer, as a series of humongoid dance clubs including Temple Bar SF, prepped to throw open their doors, one had to wonder: why bother going off the grid?
Perhaps that’s where you can find the sounds you crave, a frustrating chore when clubs book conservatively — and an experience that may end all too soon with the city’s 2 a.m. last call. DJs such as Jamin Creed of BIG are seeing their grime and dubstep parties, for instance, starting to blow up now both over- and underground after gestating in after-hours soirees. “It’s a music-orienting thing, to be honest,” says underground breaks party thrower DJ Ripple, né Lorin Stoll. Citing undergrounds in Big Sur as well as the Harmony fest in Santa Rosa, the ex-Deadhead sees continuity between the city’s Left Coast vibe and “the merging of the counterculture of the ’60s with the rave culture of the ’90s, merging with the experience and professionalism of Burning Man culture in the 2000s. It’s created this nice renaissance in underground music.”
Dub it an unintended fringe benefit stemming from the failure to change the city’s last call two years ago, an effort led by Terrance Alan, chairman of the Late Night Coalition and legislative chair of San Francisco’s Entertainment Commission. That move failed — after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution urging the state legislature to make the change — when the proposed legislation got stuck in committee at the State Assembly. Despite the support of the city’s Entertainment Commission, Board of Supervisors, and Mayor Gavin Newsom, the bill was opposed by antialcohol groups and organizations such as the Oakland Police Department, whose officers testified that a later last call in San Francisco would create traffic accidents in Oakland. “Those observations were never supported in the data on changes in last call,” Alan says today.
The reality is that partly as a result of those quashed endeavors, the Bay Area underground party scene continues to flourish, via Tribe.net, lists, and those omnipresent flyers. Tomas Palermo — a DJ, Guardian contributor, and former XLR8R editor — thinks the underground warehouse and techno event circuit has been bubbling along nicely since 1988, with surges in house in the early ’90s and explosions in drum ’n’ bass during the dot-com years. And even a seasoned listener like him isn’t immune to the simple pleasures of an outdoor beatdown: “In the last two weeks I went to a free [breakbeat] sound system gathering in a tiny grassy nook of Golden Gate Park and a Sunset Party in McLaren Park,” he e-mails.
The latter gatherings, put on by Pacific Sound System, just may embody the resilient, oh-naturel vibe of the undergrounds in this area. DJ Galen began the daytime Sunset Parties on summer Sundays about a dozen years ago at Golden Gate Park. Old-school — yep. Family oriented — believe it. Ideal if you’re still tweaked the morning after — maybe. An outdoor dance floor of up to 3,000 — yikes. “I just feel events are very much the reflection of the people who put them on, and you can kind of tell when people are doing it for money or just the pure feeling of bringing people together through music and the outdoors,” says Galen, who co-owns Tweekin Records. When he started the parties, he was a shell of a raver, burned out from lifelong training as a swimmer for the 1996 Olympics. “I hadn’t felt like I lived life and came home and some friends took me to a party and just opened my eyes,” he recalls, citing the Wicked Crew’s Full Moon Raves as inspirational. “Looked at all these people having fun and a sense of community — I just got so excited that this whole other world existed and got immersed in it.”
He maxed out his credit card, bought a sound system, and began playing house music in the park as the audience grew. His three-person collective has since produced successful overground boat parties, but they’ve maintained that earthbound sense of perspective. “I think that’s one major reason why things have gone well — we’re not out of it for ego,” he says. “We are very respectful of everyone, and in turn people are respectful of us. When we leave these parks, they’re spotless, and a lot of people have told us, ‘Wow, that was a really crazy party, but everyone’s so mellow and nice!’ SFBG