Photographs by Josh Adler
Chill Room: DJ Zack Darling riffs at Decadance twice a month.
Turning the Tables
North Bay underground electronic music makes a comeback
By R. V. Scheide
You can feel the power of the music three blocks away, a vibration surging through the concrete sidewalk like magnetic current, drawing you toward Decadance, the underground-electronic-music dance party held every first and third Friday at Michele's in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square. At the entrance, the ground literally shakes as a black-clad security detail checks IDs for the 21-and-over club. Inside, loud, funky bass-drum notes explode like concussion grenades, rattling the wood, stone, and glass building outside.
It's incredibly loud, almost off-putting, but the rhythm of the bass worms its way into your bones, sucking you into a maelstrom of sound and light and human bodies. A ring of red-paper Japanese lanterns glows softly overhead as men and women, young and old, straight and gay, white and Latino and Asian and African-American, dance and contort and writhe to the rhythm, doing their own thing but moving in unison to the pounding beat that sets the floor, the ceiling, and all the air in the room to buzzing. When the beat changes, the bodies twist and contort till they find it again, like a field of wheat in the shifting wind.
In the corner, watching over it all like some sort of hip priest, the DJ, Zack Darling, hunches over two Technics turntables and a mixer, getting down close to see the grooves in the vinyl, laying hands to plastic to speed the beat up or slow it down, stabbing at fader and tone knobs to control the downtempo mix blasting out of enormous speakers placed on either side of the small raised stage. Darling sweats, and squinting out at the crowd through the psychedelic projection beamed on the screen immediately behind him, he smiles.
He's got plenty to smile about. January marks the one-year anniversary of Decadance, which twice monthly has been packing 200 or so people into Michele's on nights that were previously dead by comparison. Next month, Darling begins hosting his own radio show, The Chill Room, on KRCB 91.1/90.9 FM. Across town at Anthony's, Mac Skinner, a colleague of Darling's, has kept Elevate, a twice-monthly show, going strong for the past seven years. North Bay DJs such as Erik Brown and Gianni Messmer have international reputations. Underground electronic music is alive and well in the North Bay, and there seems to be a growing thirst for it.
That's what Darling, Skinner, Brown, and their crowd prefer to call it--underground electronic music. To them, R-A-V-E is a four-letter word. Not that all of them haven't attended and even played at a rave or two or three. Most of them came of age musically in the mid-1990s, when the rave--large electronic-music dance parties, often in unregulated venues, attended by thousands of people--was the rage.
What started as a grassroots underground scene preaching universal enlightenment through music and movement was quickly mainstreamed, as car manufacturers began featuring electronic music in TV commercials and big-time promoters raked in millions from mega-events designed primarily to make money.
By 2001 a number of highly publicized drug-related rave deaths across the country, including two in the North Bay, had cast a pallor over underground electronic music. Rave became synonymous with the party drugs ecstasy and "GBH". The deaths and resultant bad publicity might have killed electronic music in the North Bay if DJs and event promoters like Darling, Skinner, and Brown hadn't stuck with it.
Ask any one of them why he stuck with it, and you're likely to get the same answer. For them, it has always been about the music. It certainly can't be about the money. With few exceptions, there's not much in it.
On a rainy December night, Darling summoned a handful of colleagues, including Brown, Messner, Skinner, David Schubeck, and Damian Peters, to talk underground electronic music with the Bohemian. These local knights of the turntable met up, appropriately enough, at the Roundtable Pizza in Montgomery Village.
"I've been into dance music since the Bee Gees," says Brown, the oldest of the group at 35. "Everybody else was into Kiss; I was into 'Staying Alive.'"
Contrary to popular myth, disco never died. The four-on-the-floor beat of artists such as the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and Gloria Gaynor morphed into the 120-beats-per-minute sans-lyrics style known as "house" in the clubs of Chicago and New York during the mid-'80s. In Detroit, DJs combined the sounds of electronic pioneers such as Kraftwerk and New Order with Motown funk, creating a brand-new flavor of techno. By the early '90s, when the Chemical Brothers introduced the world to breakbeats, a music that defied disco's driving groove, electronic music was well on its way to its present state, splintered into a dozen different genres, each with its own set of subgenres.
As the music evolved, promulgated through specialty record stores that sell limited-edition remixes of the various genres on vinyl, so did the function of the DJ. Once a mere player of records, the DJ learned to match the beat of the two records, using the controls on the mixer to cut and fade from one turntable to the next, creating a "new" remix live on the spot. Combining these skills with a specialist's knowledge of the music, the DJ became something akin to a rock star. Beat junkies such as DJ Shadow and DJ Spooky gained international prominence as they broke into the mainstream, developing the music into its own brand-new aesthetic.
Those gathered around the table agreed that Brown and Messner were among the first DJs to raise underground electronic music to a more noticeable level in the North Bay. Beginning in 1996, Brown's well-produced North Bay shows (call them raves if you must) eventually drew electronic music fans from across the Bay Area and beyond. Gianni traveled to England, where trance and jungle mixes originated in the early '90s, returning with an arsenal of new sounds that continue to keep him in demand as a DJ worldwide. It was during this period that Mac Skinner attended his first rave.
"I remember in the early '80s, when rap first started, we laughed and said it wasn't music, it was electronic," he said. Skinner, now 27, has played piano since age five and is finishing a music degree at Sonoma State University, in addition to producing Elevate at Anthony's, the longest running electronic music show in the North Bay. "When I actually did go to a rave and watched a DJ control a crowd of 3,000 people, it blew me away. I met a DJ from Santa Cruz and went to his house and started spinning records, and all of a sudden I had all these compositional tools at my fingertips."
The power over the music and the audience remains one of the most tantalizing perks--and pitfalls--of the DJ trade.
"You can make them have a good time or you can clear the floor," Messner says. "It makes you feel like the most powerful person in the world."
"It can also make you feel like the most powerless person in the world," Darling adds. "It has power over you. It's like in surfing, when you're on the edge of a wave, it's a total high. But you can wipe out."
Wiping out, such as failing to match the beat between two records, is known as "train wrecking" in turntable lingo. The music breaks down in a cacophony of jumbled rhythm and beats.
"There's nothing worse than a bad DJ," Messner says.
"Then you realize that the power should not be in the wrong hands," Darling laughs.
Despite the fact that the DJ's stature as artist and cultural icon has grown, Brown is quick to puncture any potentially inflated egos at the table.
"I'll be the first to tell you, I ain't doing nothing special up there," he says. "Not to discredit my function; my function is very important: to facilitate the movement. But the bottom line remains, is the record any good?"
Five years ago, while driving home from a gig, Brown was involved in an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He may have lost the ability to walk, but his priorities as a DJ remained intact.
"When I woke up in the hospital, I had two questions. One, how's my hair? And two, where are my records? Obviously, I'm a pretty deep guy."
"Records are like family portraits in a house fire for a DJ," Darling adds. "They're the first thing you go back for."
"I could lose every piece of equipment I own, but there's no way I could lose my records."
First-Names Basis: Dana, Weyaka, and Camie fall under the DJ's spell.
Producing records--arranging a remix or creating a totally new track worthy of being pressed into sought-after limited-edition vinyl--remains one of the pinnacles many DJs shoot for, but so far, no one in the North Bay has scaled that peak. For that reason, it's premature to talk about a "North Bay sound." But there's definitely a "North Bay vibe," and it is as political and spiritual as it is musical.
Darling idealistically views the scene as a self-sustaining economy where record producers, event producers, DJs, and the audience coexist as equals instead of the traditional top-down hierarchical relationship.
"The music producers make the limited-edition records, the DJs buy them, the audience goes to events," he says. "It constantly repeats the cycle. There's no place for a corporate agenda. The roots are in the people who make it happen."
Because the North Bay's scene is smaller than, say, the city's, DJs often pull double duty as event producers simply to be able to play the music they love. Lasting partnerships form, based on love for the music. Darling and Peters have known each other since grade school and share DJ and production chores with Decadance and other endeavors. David Schubeck, when he's not off DJ-ing in Hawaii, has been co-producing Elevate with Skinner for the past seven years. Both Decadance and Elevate showcase local DJ talent as well as top DJs from the Bay Area.
Messner is perhaps the "purest" DJ of the group, because he doesn't have a day job or other source of income besides playing records. He's relocated in the Bay Area, but returns to play the North Bay often. When Decadance first took off a year ago, the Last Day Saloon, three blocks away from Michele's in Railroad Square, offered him a slot that would have put him in direct competition with his longtime colleagues.
"This is all I do," he says. "Every dollar I make isn't extra; it's the rent money. But there's no way I would do something against people I'd been friends with for years. At the end of the day, I just couldn't do it."
"The whole industry is built on relationships like that," says Schubeck. "In Hawaii, which is a small market, the producers are very careful not to overlap shows." Oversaturation can burn out a scene quickly, as unscrupulous promoters proved in the late '90s, when raves became more about making money than making communities.
Few can converse on the power of the music to shape and make communities with the authority of Schubeck. "There were certain people who understood that they could structure music to affect the mind, the beta, theta, and alpha fields," he says, recalling controlled electronic-musical-environment experiments with audiences conducted in San Francisco during the 1980s. "It was a huge evolutionary boost in our culture."
Call it the power of positive music. A persistent positivism drives most electronic music, particularly jungle, trance, and house, which are among the most popular in the North Bay. It is music that is literally designed to make people feel good, to make people dance. Perhaps that's why with few exceptions, there are no lyrics--words would only get in the way. It gives the music tremendous cross-cultural appeal.
"Electronic music is not directed toward any one style. It's dance music that's open to everybody," Messner says. "When I'm playing 8,000 miles away in Asia, the people in the club are into the music just as much as they are here."
Increasingly in the North Bay, it's becoming music that has tremendous cross-generational appeal as well. Progressives young and old appreciate the music's diversity. Pagans appreciate the elements of tribalism. New Age baby boomers, always seeking new ways to naturally alter states of consciousness, are grooving to trance. If there's anything that defines the North Bay scene, it's this sense of openness. No one is turned away at the door.
"People come up to me after their first show and say, 'This is the most amazing thing I've ever heard,'" Peters says. "It's really cool."
Dancing Queen: Deanna Reis shakes it up at a recent Decadance dance party.
While the North Bay scene suffered a decline during the early years of this decade, one thing remained constant. Like the kids who dreamed of becoming rock stars in the two generations before them, today's kids still all want to be DJs. For those lacking the wherewithal to travel frequently to the city to shop for records, there's really only one place to go in the North Bay: Iron Fist Records, located in the back of the building that houses Kodiak Jack's in downtown Petaluma.
Iron Fist is operated by a diminutive 24-year-old of Laotian extraction who goes by the name of Go. The store was formerly known as Hot Wax, but Go changed the name because he also uses the space to teach martial arts. He doesn't necessarily see the scene's crash three years ago as a negative.
"What it did was distinguish who was for the music and who was for the drugs," he says. Those who were for the drugs have gone now. "It was a bad period, but it was good for the scene." Now, he definitely thinks the North Bay scene is on the rebound.
"There's a very big underground scene here," he says. Big events are out, small parties are in. "It's part of the independent style. I like to spin for my friends, and they like to spin for themselves. They're not out to make a name for themselves. Of course, it's a cheaper hobby when you own a record store."
On the record-store shelves, Go has the craziest records you've never heard off. Unlike some electronic-music enthusiasts, who decry rap and hip-hop for its violent content, Go makes no such distinction, stocking a wide assortment of different genres. For him, the end result is the same.
"I like the originality," he says. "When two guys throw down the same record, it never sounds the same."'
To illustrate, he throws down a pair of eclectic selections on the turntables set up on the store's counter, unlikely remixes of the Beatles' "Get Back" and Blue Öyster Cult's "I'm Burning for You." He then proceeds to demonstrate the art that has come to be known as "turntablism."
First, he adjusts the speed of the records to match the beats and pitch using the controls on the turntables. Once the beats are matched, he experiments by letting one side spin while he scratches with the other, using one hand to grab and pull the record's groove back and forth on the needle to create the characteristic hip-hop chirps and scribbles, and the other to adjust the knobs and levers on the mixer.
It takes about a year to learn how to beat-match, and another year on top of that to learn tricks such as beat juggling and scratching. "Most guys don't even know how to scratch," Go says. "But if you can play every style, you can get a job anywhere you want."
That's turning out to be the case for Dan Vincent, aka DJ Crackerjack, who recently dropped off his latest live club recording at Iron Fist. The former Sebastopol resident counts Gianni Messmer, who doesn't scratch, among his biggest influences, but says it was seeing Joey Mazzola, a Detroit native who passed through the North Bay before taking the Bay Area by storm several year ago, that really turned him on.
"He could cut and scratch like nobody I'd ever seen," Vincent, 23, recalls. "I thought, 'He's from Santa Rosa. If he can do it, I can do it.'"
Vincent DJ'd more than 100 shows before getting any sort of financial compensation. Now, as a resident DJ at clubs like Kimo's in the city, he makes $100 to $200 per show. He's already traveled to Paris, Amsterdam, and Croatia for gigs. Next year he plans to go to Bosnia. "It's not all that lucrative. It's really hard to make good money," he says via phone from the city. "But it's so much fun it makes up for it."
Fun just might be underground electronic music's operative word. Darling likes to put it this way: "There is a North Bay vibe, but how to put it in one word, that's hard to say," he explains. "It's easier to say what we are not. We are not the kind of party where some prick can show up at an event and start grabbing some girl's ass. We're here to dance and be respectful of one another."
On the third Friday night in December, bass notes are falling like thunderclaps as Decadance once again kicks into high gear. There's a tall blonde dancing with herself in a miniskirt and go-go boots who looks just like Peggy Lipton. A guy dressed in thrift-store slacks and a white vinyl belt sways next to her in the electronic-driven turbulence. What appears to be the entire shift from a local hospital--some of them still wearing beepers and work clothes--form a makeshift conga line that snakes through the crowd, their hoots and howls drowned out by the music.
Young and old, fat and skinny, white and brown. All these different people, rubbing up against one another in the sonic maelstrom, celebrating a rite that's as old as Dionysus. Fun, that's what it is. Darling and his cohorts aren't sure where this music will eventually take us, but one thing seems certain: It's a scene.
Those interested in sampling electronica locally may do so the first and third Wednesday of each month at Elevate, Anthony's, 53 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa, 9pm, $5; and the first and third Friday of each month at Decadance, Michele's, Seventh Street and Adams, Santa Rosa, 9pm, $10. Both shows, 21 and over. Decadance first anniversary party, featuring San Francisco DJs Garth, Brad Robinson, Green Gorilla, and Yoga Tai Chi Collective, is Friday, Jan. 16, at 9pm. For details, call 707.570.0565.
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From the January 1-7, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.