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Return of the Hawke 

The breakbeat style of Gavin Hardkiss is back in vogue -- but he still can't get the respect he deserves

Wednesday, Apr 10 2002
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West Coast breaks are back, but things aren't necessarily any easier for Gavin Hardkiss. Sitting in a coffee shop in his former Lower Haight stomping grounds (he recently relocated to Marin), Hardkiss recounts the DJ gig from which he's just returned. In order to play out as much as possible to support his album Heatstroke, recently released under the alias Hawke on local label Six Degrees, Hardkiss had had to slash his pay rate. "So I'm supposed to play this huge club opening down in San Diego, with [trance superstar DJ] Sandra Collins headlining. But she doesn't show, so I play for the whole five hours. The set went great: I took the crowd on a journey from nu-skool breaks and electro all the way through to house, and they responded really well. Then I go pick up my envelope from the promoter, and there was almost nothing in it. I tell him, "'Hey, what's this? I just covered for your headliner and saved your ass.' [He says,] '"Yeah, but this is the rate you were booked at, and Sandra Collins is on the cover of URB magazine this month.'"

Discounts, post-performance wranglings, oblique disses from promoters -- none of this seems fitting for somebody of Hardkiss' significance. With his "brothers" Scott and Robbie Hardkiss (there is no actual blood relation), Gavin Hardkiss was responsible for concocting some of the first distinctly San Franciscan dance music. In the early '90s the trio introduced syncopated rhythms and percussive tribal crescendos into the club and rave scene, which had been the exclusive domain of the metronomic house and techno beats. At the forefront of the emerging "funky breaks" style, the Hardkiss label released such classic singles as Ultraviolet Catastrophe's "Trip Harder," Hawke's "3 Nudes in a Purple Garden," and God Within's "Rain Cry," some of which can fetch nearly $100 today. (By way of clarification, the funky breaks moniker usually refers to tracks of a house music tempo that are built on drum passages from old funk records, while West Coast breaks are less focused on melody and house-referencing. The lines between the two styles can be subtle, porous, and mostly distracting -- it's all syncopated electronic music.)

But for every breakthrough there is a backlash, and the funky breaks sound -- which often sacrificed subtlety for immediate dance floor digestibility -- eventually became associated with the younger ravers. In the mid-'90s, the big rooms of clubs fell once again under the sway of regimented drum sequencing, and those with a taste for syncopation switched allegiance to drum 'n' bass, which was discovering new production techniques on an almost monthly basis.

The pendulum kept on swinging, of course, and within five years drum 'n' bass hit a creative cul-de-sac and breakbeats made a comeback. As veteran house DJ and recent breaks convert Graeme puts it, "There are only so many things you can do with a beat in dance music, so inevitably, standard breaks had to come back." This time around, though, British drum 'n' bass producers such as Rennie Pilgrim and Dave Tipper fashioned a stiffer, higher-tech version called "nu-skool breaks."

Even with the genre updates, the debt owed to the Hardkiss family and other California producers was clear. "A lot of the nu-skool guys were very influenced by the original West Coast breaks sound," points out Dave Bruyns, breakbeat DJ and export manager with local record distributor Eyephunk.

So it would make sense for Gavin Hardkiss to return, add some gewgaws to his old sound, and clean up. Instead, on Heatstroke Hardkiss remains oblivious to the current breaks fervor, opting instead for the timeless sound that originally put S.F. on the map. Tracks like the psychedelic drum circle workout "Pacificodelic" and the polyrhythmic house roller "Le Le Lengwe" recall beachfront raves circa 1992, where a premium was put on uplifting melodies and buoyant grooves rather than masterful drum patterns. Equally anachronistic is the dance floor unity message -- i.e., "Party People (We're Gonna Change the World)" -- a sentiment that sounds damn naive next to the studied pessimism of drum 'n' bass.

All in all, Hardkiss makes few concessions to current dance floor trends on the album, steering clear of the commercially viable nu-skool shtick. Perhaps it's his unwillingness to promote himself as the next big thing that's kept him off the main stages of the DJ circuit, or maybe it's just that his "thing" was next and big a decade ago. But the scenario that played out in San Diego is not a new one for him, especially in his hometown.

"I've always felt kind of snubbed by San Francisco," he states plainly. Both Scott and Robbie have moved out of state, but when all three Hardkisses were living locally, they were infamous for being incapable of filling a modestly sized room in town, even while attracting huge lines at East Coast raves. "A lot of San Francisco artists have sold way more records than I have," says Hardkiss. "I don't know what it is -- it's like I'm either too big for my boots or not doing what everyone else is doing."

It's not that all of the world is lukewarm to his music. Hardkiss is revered as a hero in the breaks-worshipping state of Florida, and more than a few critics fawned over his 1998 offering Namaquadisco, with the Chronicle describing it "as one of the "frontier' albums of the '90s, setting Gavin Hardkiss apart in a league of music explorers such as Brian Eno and Phillip Glass."

Hardkiss figures that his status in the city he's called home for over 10 years probably suffers from the trio's initial success. "Hardkiss is a big myth, and most of the people who subscribe to it don't own any of our music," he says. "So it's a myth based on people just talking. But I like misinformation and shit being larger than life, so I kind of promoted it myself. People probably react to that and think, "Hardkiss can't be all that.'"

When asked to summarize the Hardkiss legend, he smiles a little indulgently and replies, "I think people think we're just uncontrollable nuts who came here and shredded ourselves a new asshole, did some crazy things, made some good records, and then disappeared into smoke."

The bit about disappearing does have some validity. Hardkiss has devoted much of the last two years to making an environmental soundtrack for the Airtight Garage, a virtual reality arcade at the Metreon. He's also made a point of playing the most out-of-the-way gigs possible, such as a whaling village in Chile and a surrealist nightclub in the Spanish town where Salvador Dali lived. Residencies at local clubs were never a priority for him, and when Columbia absorbed the Hardkiss label in 1997 -- effectively dissolving it -- Hardkiss' presence in the scene waned. He's managed to stay afloat through one-off projects, high-profile out-of-state gigs, and A&R work for the Sunburn imprint he co-founded.

Hardkiss has always been less concerned with adhering to the regimen of the underground producer -- the constant spinning, the pushing vinyl on shops -- than he has been with transcending the sometimes myopic scope of that scene. "People spend a lot of time talking about genre in dance music," he states, "but no genre stamp can capture a certain heart and passion and emotion. You don't label emotional records by style -- they just catch you. I'm just looking to catch people with what I produce, not make music within a certain set of boundaries."

He says that the feeling he tried to evoke with Heatstroke was one of optimism and the "lighter shade of adventure" of Cervantes' Don Quixote, "where you know nothing's going to hurt him and he's going to keep on doing what he does."

Maybe Hardkiss has a little of the man from La Mancha in him, too. West Coast breaks can come and go yet again, but count on Gavin Hardkiss to remain faithful to his style, whether the rest of the world endorses him or not.

About The Author

Darren Keast

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