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Return of the Freakazoid 

For the umpteenth time in 20 years, the electro dance sound seems poised for a breakthrough

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001
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Adam Miller was a recent art school graduate with electro dreams when he moved from Detroit to San Francisco in 1993. Looking for a suitable place to set up his Ersatz Audio imprint, he figured the Bay Area would be perfect for releasing his peculiar brand of twitchy, synth pop- inflected dance music. He moved back east 11 days later.

"The music scene was so unbelievably lame," he says wearily from his Motor City office. "One story that sums it up was I went out to parties the first four nights I was there, and then someone asked me to go out again on the fifth. I told him, "I just can't handle it. I just got here from Detroit and everything I hear is house.' So he said, "You're in luck -- tonight's progressive house!' Since my only outlet for techno was the Detroit records I was buying at Amoeba, I moved back as soon as I could."

Miller, now one of the electro scene's most prominent dignitaries via the groups Adult and Le Car, isn't the only electro freakazoid sent packing by the Bay Area's narrowly defined dance scene. In 1999 Ed Upton, the cheeky Brit behind the one-man retro-electro DMX Krew, attempted a similar move, but found nothing but indifference to his music. He describes his year in San Francisco as the most frustrating in his career.

While no particular city has a proper electro scene -- or hasn't since the mid-'80s -- a handful of urban jungles like Detroit, Miami, London, the Hague, and Tokyo welcome electro's sinister cyborg vocals, clashing drum machine syncopations, and sputtering, laser-zap analog synthesizers. Meanwhile, San Francisco has remained stringently unreceptive, perhaps because of a dance lineage that traces indirectly back to Summer of Love psychedelia. Until now. A year and a half after Upton returned to London, there are signs that the electro sound and aesthetic are catching on -- although all of the people interviewed for this story were wary of calling it a scene per se.

Recently, there have been a number of electro club nights and one-offs, as well as a mushrooming crowd of electro producers and DJs. With the release of SF BASS (Vol. 1), a new compilation of electro-inspired tracks on local label Exact-Science, the city's electro "whatever you want to call it" might just be the biggest it's ever been.

Even Miller, who played his first Adult gig in San Francisco in February with his wife, Nicola, has nothing but praise for the city these days. "We were both obviously apprehensive -- very nervous actually," he says, concerning the decision to play here. "So we were really taken aback with how good the response was, and you could tell it wasn't just polite. You could tell people were genuinely into it, and the promoters -- the Friends of Whitney -- really had it together. It was interesting how split the crowd was between the indie rock people and the electronic people. The whole thing seemed really healthy to us."


Electro is defined broadly as funk interpreted through drum machines and synthesizers, and defined narrowly as a bass-heavy hijacking of Kraftwerk by hip hop producers and other urban bastardizers. Electro is one music that both hip hop and electronic musicians cite as inspirational, and it is often the only thing the two camps can agree upon -- besides the Technics 1200 turntable. When electro first spread through America in 1982 via hits such as Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock," Man Parrish's "Hip-Hop Be Bop (Don't Stop)," and Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," it was lumped into the rubric of hip hop. (Bambaataa dubbed it "electro-funk," a term that was shortened as its grooves became wobblier and more jarring.) Longtime Bay Area DJ and musicmaker Eddie Def, who helped lay the groundwork for the turntablism movement as a member of the Bullet Proof Scratch Hamsters and is now a member of electrofied hip hop crew the Space Travelers, remembers that in the mid-'80s, "everything was [happening] -- all the electro, all the hip hop, the [1983 graffiti film] Wild Style thing, kids breaking on the corner with tile. It was crazy: It was like everyone had ski glasses and a Kangol [cap], tagging on buses."

No local music arose from this period, although crews like the Turntable Dragons (later the Invisibl Skratch Piklz) cut their teeth spinning electro jams at high school parties, and the Berkeley label Fantasy released Detroit group Cybotron's classic cut "Clear." Later in the '80s Oakland's Too $hort took the music's stripped-down drum machine template and slowed it down to accommodate his sluggish rhymes -- thus marking the beginning of electro's long hibernation.

Still, the sound was never fully snuffed out: During a time when gangsta rap pooped the party out of hip hop, the local Filipino community never lost its love for the lively Roland 808 bass hits and cowbells of early electro and freestyle, its R&B-flavored offshoot. As Exact-Science co-owner Brad Steinberg points out, the gay scene also helped keep synth pop and '80s cheese alive with parties like "Trannyshack," in which revelers dressed up like Kraftwerk.

It wasn't until the rave movement rolled through the bay in the early '90s that electronic music became widely produced, and even then the emphasis was on DJing rather than record-making. Eventually, the "funky breaks" scene emerged, with producers crafting a kissing cousin of house music that was like electro, except that most of its percussion and melodies were sampled instead of synthesized. Another difference was that breaks tracks such as 1994's "Trip Harder" by East Bay outfit Ultraviolet Catastrophe implied that this crazy new technology might bring us together, while electro always suggested it could tear us apart. Now that the effects of the Ecstasy decade appear to have worn off, electro's inherent darkness is re-emerging. On the new SF BASS collection, Ultraviolet Catastrophe's Jeff Taylor and Jon Drukman (the latter now working as Bass Kittens) deliver two far more pessimistic songs.

Steinberg, who compiled the album, drew from a diverse range of scenes for the album's tracks, choosing to treat electro as a mind-set rather than a set of formal principles. Therefore, Taylor's acid house-inspired dance-floor stormer "Electressa" rubs up against UFO!'s scratched-up hip hop cut "Push 2DC.S3" and Safety Scissors' hyperabstract "Egglipse." Anyone looking for "Planet Rock" tributes will be sorely disappointed, which Steinberg says was very intentional. As promoter for the seriously eclectic, now defunct "Static" party, he's been one of the most visible local electro pushers, describing his role as trying to preach to a community that's partially forgotten its roots.

"When I play out now, I won't even play "Planet Rock' or the old jams anymore," Steinberg says. "Electro has become so much more than that. It's one of those sounds that people can recognize without knowing it's electro." Pointing out that elements of electro's sound exist in sublimated form in almost every variety of beat-centric music, he comments, "You could easily slip an electro song in a drum 'n' bass set, a techno set, a house set -- even a hip hop set. That's why [Exact-Science partners] Andrew [Kringstein], Bret [Lee], and I wanted to give an update on what it's become, and how it underlies all these different San Francisco sounds."

As such, electro seems to be both everywhere and nowhere in the local electronic music scene. While legendary underground party "Mad" (which ran from 1995 to 1997) billed itself as "Techno Electro Trance" and the Future Primitive hip hop sound system throws a "booty bass" party now and then, local promoters still say a pure electro night won't sell. Steinberg, hoping to bridge the gap between old and new in his DJ Bre-ad sets, often attempts to segue from classic breaks numbers to the latest frenetic oddity from Germany's Gigolo Records. The dancers invariably clear the floor before his hand is off the cross-fader.

Which brings us back to Ed Upton, who, when asked to assess San Francisco's electro scene via e-mail, wrote back, "What electro scene?"

"Well, I'd agree with him -- it's true that there is no electro scene here," admits Steinberg. "But we're over that now. San Francisco had to evolve past that -- we're at the community stage now. You see [promoters] Mr. Brown and Hurlehy working together, you see Exact-Science and [weekly hip hop party] "True Skool' working together -- stuff that never used to happen. Everyone's coming together now around their common heritage, and a lot of that heritage sounds something like electro."Weeklies

"Impulse," Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. at An Sibin, 1176 Sutter (at Larkin), S.F. J-Bot, Clairity, Guthrie, and Forest Green, plus special guests. Admission is free before 10, $3 after; call 273-1918.

"True Skool," Fridays at 9 p.m. at Storyville, 1751 Fulton (at Stanyan), S.F. Ren the Vinyl Archaeologist, plus special guests. Tickets are $10; call 820-1420 or go to www.true-skool.org.

"Under the Radar," Tuesdays at 9 p.m. at Fuse, 493 Broadway (at Kearny), S.F. Stephen, Evan, and special guests. Admission is free; call 788-2706 or go to www.undertheradar.net.

Monthlies

"The Bridge," first Saturday of the month at 10 p.m. at Kelly's Mission Rock, 817 China Basin (off Third Street), S.F. On July 7, DJ Assault; on Aug. 4, Disco D and Godfather. Call 626-5355 for admission price.

"Hot Hair Care," last Sunday of the month at 10 p.m. at the Beauty Bar, 2229 Mission (at 19th Street), S.F. Bre-ad, Latex, Actual Jakshun. Free; call 285-0323.

"Sub Six," second Sunday of the month at 10 p.m. at Club Six, 60 Sixth St. (at Jessie), S.F. Bre-ad, Ren, Ramone, and MC Subverse. Tickets are $10; call 863-1221.

Special Events

Kelp and Circuits presents Miami's Phoenecia and Otto Von Schirach, plus Uprock Rhizome and DJ Bre-ad on Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. at 1148 East 18th St., Oakland. Go to www.kelpandcircuits.com for more info.

Jeffrodeeziack, J-Yo, and Lil' O-Dawg perform Thursday, June 7, at "Booty Bassment" at Backflip, 601 Eddy (at Larkin), S.F. For time, price, or other info, call 771-3547.

About The Author

Darren Keast

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