On a small, semicircular stage, a DJ tilts his ear to a pair of headphones, one hand on the fader, the other holding a beer. His name is Hyper D (aka Dave Richardson) and he's playing to a mostly empty house whose patrons are more interested in mingling than moving.
But as the gallery lights dim and the beats pick up speed, the first intrepid dancers take up positions on the floor. Hyper D peers out through a wall of dyed black hair, glancing at the growing strands of dancers. As he turns the sound system up another notch, the rhythm slips from background ambience into something more insistent, more electronic. With each passing minute, more dancers fall into the unoccupied spaces.
By 6 p.m., the floor is shaking. The crowd moves easily, hands reaching toward the ceiling, buoyant. It's partly the beer, but mostly the music. Hyper D finishes his set, hops down from the stage, and disappears into the back of the club. Now his real workday begins.
Richardson, it turns out, is the bar manager at the club. And while his hectic job takes up most of his evenings, the fringe benefits are good: Working at 111 Minna puts him at the epicenter of one of San Francisco's most creative electronica scenes.
It's not the first time Richardson has been near the shining lights of the dance world. For more than a decade, he has been involved with some of the music's most seminal moments, as when he manipulated video for throbbing Tokyo warehouse parties or brought new levels of lighting to San Francisco's exploding rave scene. But now his job at 111 Minna has led to something unexpected: It has transformed him, at 39 years old, into one of the area's most exciting DJs.
When Richardson was looking to leave his native Australia in 1988, he chose Japan for its close proximity and its technological bent. He had been tinkering with electronic music for a couple of years in Sydney, and it took only a few months in Tokyo before Richardson hooked up with other kindred souls and began throwing warehouse parties. Early on, Richardson established himself as a manic jack-of-all-trades -- organizing the events, spinning records, and running the video and light shows. It didn't take long before he found himself worn out and at a crossroads.
"I was 28 years old, standing in front of a room full of 700 people all going crazy," Richardson recalls. "And I just kind of had this epiphany. I decided that being the DJ and throwing the party and doing all of it at once was too much."
For Richardson, deciding which hat to continue wearing was easy. "It's like, here was a fork in the road. And if I looked over to the left towards the DJ thing, there were 50 million people walking down that road. And over to the right to the visual sort of thing, there was no one."
The decision to go with the lower-profile video gig was partly a business decision and partly an ideological one: Richardson harbors a Groucho Marx-like resentment about being in any club that would have him as a member.
"I'm just not a joiner," Richardson says. "If everybody goes left, I go right. I don't know why ... head injury from an early age, maybe. But if everybody is doing something, then that's enough reason to head in the opposite direction."
Instead of following others, Richardson led: He and a friend founded a company, Hyperdelic Video, that became an integral part of the underground Tokyo warehouse party scene. When other light teams were training beams on disco balls, Hyperdelic was creating an experience that rivaled the auditory fireworks coming from the DJ booth.
"We'd build pyramids of TVs and have crash-edited video," he says. "We would mix the video while the DJ was mixing the music, live. And we would mix it very aggressively. So if the beat was going "boom boom boom,' we would cut from one image to the other on the beat."
For Richardson, good party visuals not only enhanced the audience's experience of the music, but they also politicized a form of music that had distanced itself from any sort of ideology.
"In the late '80s, the words were slowly but surely going out of house music," Richardson explains. "By virtue of that, most house music is completely apolitical. ... It doesn't upset the apple cart. With the visual stuff we could be a little more political. The early Hyperdelic Video was really confrontational."
Richardson pauses, and grins. "Then it got California-ized."
A visit to San Francisco in 1993 ended Richardson's Tokyo sojourn. Dropping by the offices of the massive Toon Town raves, whose promoters had read about Hyperdelic Video in the magazine Mondo 2000, Richardson and his partner received an unexpected offer.
"They were like, "Why don't you do the light show next time you're here in town?'" Richardson remembers. "And we were like, "What if we move over here? Can we do the light show every week?'"
A few months later, Hyperdelic Video was a fixture of the Toon Town raves. But the dance music scene was changing in San Francisco. Police crackdowns in the city were moving Richardson's livelihood to far-flung locations, and the travel and hassle of setting up equipment -- only to take it down again a few hours later -- was taking its toll.
"It's a young man's game," says Richardson of the video business. "You're first in; you're last out. It's very labor intensive. A lot like DJing. It's high impact. And in terms of remuneration ... I hate to say it, but you probably end up making less than the coat check girl."
With his interest in running the business waning, he began helping 111 Minna owner Ei Ming Jung with the bar. Originally hired part time, Richardson soon moved to working full time, and the next thing he knew, he was managing the bar at one of San Francisco's most innovative spaces for house music.
For Richardson, it was an exciting place to find himself, but not as exciting as it once might've been. After spending nearly a decade in the electronic dance scene, Richardson had grown tired of techno and house. When DJ Spesh approached him about spinning at "Qoöl," Loöq Records' Wednesday dance party at 111 Minna, Richardson happily agreed. But he decided not to play electronic music; instead, he welcomed the then-minuscule crowds with sets of easy listening artists such as Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendes.
"Dave would spin incongruous things," remembers Spesh, laughing. "[Electro-dub artists] Renegade Soundwave over James Bond themes. ... I thought, "Why not have something different?'"
Surrounded by Spesh and the other resident DJs at "Qoöl," Richardson felt himself slowly getting excited about house music again. He began closing his sets with 10 or 15 minutes of beat-heavy, uptempo tracks. He also started buying more records, and spending his Sunday afternoons on the turntables at the empty club trying to learn how they fit together.
"[Mixing records] is weird; it's a real triumph of the will. It's real Nietzschean. You make those puppies go together. You make them. And sometimes they're recalcitrant," Richardson says. "There was a period that I'd spend a lot of time practicing to get my chops so I wouldn't make a complete fool of myself."
As "Qoöl" has evolved, so have Richardson's tastes. With both an ear for smooth mixing and a keen perception of dance-floor mood, Richardson has become a highlight of the now-packed Wednesday night events. The positive attention hasn't made him any less likely to march to the beat of his own drum machine though.
"He brings a sense of rebelliousness," says Spesh of Richardson. "Instead of blindly following what's going on, he tries to push things in one direction or another."
Often, that rebellious spirit results in unique treats for dancers and audience members. Whether he draws from the early synth-pop of the Human League or the harsh art-rock of Psychic TV, Richardson's eclectic sets are full of succulent morsels that transcend the bites and samples usually heard in progressive house music.
For Richardson, this is a lot of the fun of DJing -- pushing the envelope and bringing the musical mutations he hears in his head to life.
"It seems like so many people want to be a DJ, and yet so many people want to be one for all the wrong reasons. I realized the reason I started playing records was the reason I started doing the light show was the reason I started throwing parties. It was because I wasn't seeing what I wanted to see, and I wasn't hearing what I wanted to hear."
However iconoclastic, Richardson takes pains to maintain the overall flow of the evening. As he'll tell you, his opening slot at "Qoöl" comes with its own set of requirements, from both the crowd and other DJs.
"I'm there as an opener to go from zero to 59 3/4 miles per hour so when [the next DJ] comes on he can start at 60 miles per hour and go from there," says Richardson. "In some ways the opener is like the fluffer in the porn movie. Nobody really thinks about that person too much. But really in terms of audience enjoyment, the fluffer is very important."