It's Saturday night at Koko Cocktails in the Tenderloin, and Adam Tadesse is on the decks, spinning a bouncy late-'60s tune by Jamaican pioneer Prince Buster. It's a reggae cover version of American soulman Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood," and the small crowd in the cozy bar is nodding along. He follows up with Pat Kelly's early-'70s cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears." Dancers rush the decks to ask who performed the song.
Tadesse's twice-monthly "Fire Corner" night is one of half a dozen regular San Francisco events exploring vintage Jamaican music. With several new bands stoking interest, the city is witnessing another ska, rocksteady, and early reggae revival.
Tadesse cut his teeth in L.A. ska-punk band Grandpa Knucklehead, began collecting rare Jamaican 45s, and founded the Revival Sound System in 2004. In addition to "Fire Corner," he DJs at monthly Make-Out Room night "Festival 68" and hosts KUSF's early reggae program, Wake the Town, on Thursdays at 10 p.m.
"Five years ago, there was nothing but dancehall reggae" in San Francisco, he says. "The rocksteady and early reggae community has grown a lot recently, although it has been a slow process."
Like Tadesse, most of the local DJs are mid-30s fervent record collectors who have spent time in mod, ska, skinhead, or Vespa scooter crews. Music publicist and writer Mark "DJ Dukey" Gorney recalls looking on Yelp for rocksteady nights a few years back, but over the past two years, vintage Jamaican club nights have flourished. DJ Andrew Rush does two monthly parties at the Make-Out Room, while Gorney and friend Bryan Martin from the San Francisco Vintage Reggae Society blog spin at the Skylark's weekly "Music Like Dirt" happy hour. "As they say in Jamaica, 'Old-time something come back again,'" Gorney says.
The latest revival has roots in previous decades in the Bay Area and abroad. Jamaica's jazz-influenced ska style first appeared around 1956. A decade later, rocksteady briefly took hold, followed by organ-heavy early reggae sounds in 1969. A U.K. ska revival emerged in the early '80s when punk collided with Jamaican sounds and birthed 2-Tone, while America's Third Wave ska craze hit in the mid-'80s with acts like Berkeley's Uptones and L.A.'s Untouchables and Hepcat. Myriad pop and punk ska bands such as Operation Ivy and No Doubt followed. Currently, L.A.'s Aggrolites and S.F.'s Titan Ups and the Impalers are recharging the organ-driven sound.
Revival and 2-Tone sounds also figure prominently at "The Selecter DJ Kirk" Harper's "Concrete Jungle" night, second Saturdays at the Knockout. Harper co-founded the Mr. Fives and 330 Ritch venues as well as the Secret Society Scooter Club. Since the club night's launch 18 months ago, things have gone well, attracting up to 200 people each time. "2-Tone is the hook and the look that makes [the party] cool and fun," he says. "But we mix in artists from that era who had a ska feel or influence, like Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, or Ian Dury."
S.F.'s revival reggae clubs have great DJs and bands, but the audiences are far from diverse. Although a few Jamaicans attend his gigs, Tadesse says for the most part the crowds are older and white. "It would be nice to see some more people of color come out," he says.
Harper thinks younger acts could be the key to a vital scene. "If a band in their young 20s plays this sound, they're going to do great," he says.
Still, there's clearly something special going on. The promoters are optimistic, often cross-promoting each other's nights, and Tadesse has been flooded with requests from DJs. "We have people from Jamaica, Japan, Europe, and all over the U.S. wanting to come spin at our nights," he says. "The Bay Area is now on the early reggae map, and I couldn't be happier."