Flashing lights

Pub date December 16, 2009
WriterMarke B.
SectionMusicSectionSuper Ego

Guardian illustration of DJ AM, Daft Punk, and Steve Aoki by Matt Furie and Aiyana Udesen

DECADE IN MUSIC Good lord. Who can remember all the strobe-lit twists and turns that Bay Area nightlife slid down in the past decade? Even if I wasn’t utterly and gloriously hung over from 10 years of being 86ed, it would still be a sweat-drenched, dry-iced, hypnotic blear. That’s a lovely thing. The ABC crackdown on underground parties in the late 1990s still held strong — and lively licensed spaces like Café Du Nord, Slim’s, Buckshot, and DNA Lounge as well as many music-oriented street fairs are still feeling the pressure of the War on Fun. But you can’t stop the party. And, baby, we lived through it.

One point about nightlife in general this decade: no one could ignore it. From hip-pop’s odiously capitalist-utopian "da club" to the tourist-trap explosion of global dance music festivals, club culture was on everyone’s radar. Today’s pop stars blithely name-check underground nightlife legends like Leigh Bowery and Larry Levan, and middle-school kids fill their notebooks with fantasy club outfits. Oh yeah, edgy nightlife has been completely commodified — thank you, Steve Aoki and DJ AM — but it’s a testament to its amazing versatility that going out is still enormously subversive fun, and the onslaught of bottle service and stretch-limo-packed music vids have had little impact on a vibrant independent scene. (In fact, the independent scene has gotten a ton of mileage out of parodying and reinterpreting mainstream club dreams.)

The last 10 years of the local club scene certainly gave me a lot to write and think — and drink — about. That was probably nightlife’s most distinctive feature: it finally came into its own as an art form, one that welcomed multiple interpretations while devilishly playing with our heads. The best party promoters in the Bay worked hard not only to present immersive subcultural experiences but also to contextualize their parties in terms of global movements. You couldn’t just fly in a supastar DJ and set the light show on random anymore. Clubgoers rejected that kind of dollar-driven cynicism. They wanted to know how a party would plug them into something different, something relevant, something uniquely of the moment, something beyond.

In short, they wanted personality. At times, this meant that concept trumped music — how many times did you find yourself spazzing on the dance floor to someone’s hodgepodge iPod playlist in 2005, just because that someone was ironically amazing? But it sure was fun for a while, giving dance culture a kick in the fancy-pants and throwing open the door to a glittering array of musical styles. And everybody looked fantastic. Irony freed us from previous expectations like beat-matching, genre hegemony, fashion anxiety, and bland slickness. (It also introduced a flood of unicorns and neon accessories.) Deconstruction at last! For good or ill, but mostly for good, anyone could be a DJ, throw a party, design a flyer, work a look. All you needed was a little space, a big idea, and a sense of adventure. A crowd helped, too, but only if you worried about something as mundane as paying the bills. Reality? Oh, really.

That mid-period chemical peel of irony neatly divided the decade. We cruised and shmoozed into the new millennium on the Boom-bubble back of a lazy lounge wave — the sunny house-lite sighs of Naked Music and Miguel Migs, the mushroom jazz of Mark Farina, OM’s smooth-beats Kaskade, and the friendly turntablism of Triple Threat popping the pink Champagne. That wave soon crested, churning up a foam of pink-slip parties, when discount daytime raves and increasingly baby-powdered coke binges took over. Luckily, happy hour took credit cards. Clubland reverted to a pre-Internet sensibility, with small spaces ruling and breakbeats all the rage again.

Alongside the breaks (a sound the Bay actually had a big hand in developing) the club music menu was still hogged by chunky techno, diva house, Burner trance, retro overload, and sing-along hip-hop. Post-punk, electro-funk, radical eclecticism, and global-eared sounds popped their heads up at times: Joy at Liquid, Milkshake at Sno-Drift, Club KY at Amnesia, Knees Up at Hush Hush, Popscene at 330 Ritch, Step at An Sibin, Fake at Cat Club, roving Bardot-a-Go-Go, and one-offs at 26Mix, Blind Tiger, Jezebel’s Joint, Pow!, Annie’s, Tongue and Groove, Storyville, and Justice League. Electroclash had its brief moment, too — anyone remember Electro Rodeo at Galaxy? — and reggaeton made a thrilling brief appearance. But in general the Bay was a little late in breaking free from the ’90s.

That sounds absolutely pukey, but it wasn’t. Some beautiful nights came out of this period — I’m half-remembering Said’s Afro-house Atmosfere, David Harness’s deep-souled Taboo, and anything at the Top, EndUp, or the Cellar. And living in the ’90s wasn’t so bad considering primo parties like Qoöl, Wicked, Stompy, Thump, Death Guild, and New Wave City maintained a presence. Also, if you were looking for "exotic" sounds, you could easily find them at some of the best ethno-audio spaces, like Bissap Baobab and Café Cocomo. But yes, those four-four beats got tiresome.

Then, around late-2004, came a return of the repressed, an explosion of Day-Glo styles that had been incubating in a clutch of neon-oriented, omnivorous-eared parties like Le Freak Plastique at Hush Hush and DJ Jefrodesiac’s Sex With Machines (later Frisco Disco) at Arrow. Soon San Francisco was in the midst of a small-venue, independent promoter golden age — and a rosy flush of youth. Finally, more than the same four people were throwing parties! And you were never sure of what you’d hear.

After a few debauched months of those rag-tag iPod-oriented shindigs, things sorted out into a handful of heady genres. Technology spookily inserted itself — almost every dance floor was bathed in the light of a little half-eaten apple. Serrato and Ableton software made live edits and mind-boggling mashups, like those heard at Bootie, possible, and timelines fell away to reveal gleaming ahistorical sonic landscapes. Beat-matching gradually came back into vogue, but wittily revealing the seams between tracks became the ne plus ultra of DJ craftsmanship.

The French invaded in the form of Daft Punk- and Justice-inspired electro bangers, spraying young clubbers with American Apparel and shutter shades. To my ears, Richie Panic and Vin Sol were our best balls-out interpreters of this fuck-all party sound and spirit, and Blow Up at Rickshaw Stop its finest venue. Minimal techno made sure hot nerds with little glasses were still in control — Kontrol at EndUp, in fact, was the club that did the most to nurture the Berlin-based sound here, with venue Anu and now the near-perfect 222 Hyde offering various party backup. Genius local minimal players like Nikola Baytala and Alland Byallo worked hard to stretch the boundaries, while Claude Von Stroke and the Dirty Bird Records crew added some much-needed humor.

There was a backlash to all the technology, which revolutionized gay clubs. DJ Bus Station John’s all-vinyl, unmixed bathhouse disco sets goosed the moribund queer scene into exploring its AIDS-shrouded past, and threw open the back door to the far-reaching sets of freestyle and rare ’80s fetishist Stanley Frank and the kiki-technotics of Honey Soundsystem.

London’s dubstep sound morphed into glitch-tipsy future bass — another genre the Bay can claim as its own — before it got a firm party foothold here. Which is more than all right, considering that mutation spawned beloved duo Lazer Sword and led Burner techno giant Bassnectar to change his sonic stripes. Most inspiring to me was the outpouring of global sounds in the Bay, from NonStop Bhangra’s whirling saris to Surya Dub’s growling dubstep-bhangra hybrid, from Tormenta Tropical’s bass-bomping nueva cumbia to Kafana Balkan’s breathless, Romani-delirious funk.

So where are we now? If any moment could be called "post-whatever," this is it. Anything goes, excellently, but it’s accompanied by a feeling that we’ve informed ourselves fully of the past, that we’ve mastered the technology of the present, and that, no matter how intelligent the music, we can still have a damn good time. My only gripe about the past decade in nightlife — other than I wished we’d had a more conscious reaction to war — is, alas, the same one as last decade. Where are all the women? Big ups to Ana Sia, Sarah Delush, Forest Green, J. Phlip, Felina, Dulcinea, Miz Margo, Nuxx, Black, and the Stay Gold, Redline, and B.A.S.S. sisterhoods. But seriously, I hope the teens see less testosterone-driven talent behind the decks. We’ve got the style down — now let’s change the look. OK?