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Creative Cacophony 

In one Lower Haight studio space, techno, R&B, and hip hop artistry as well as a bit of radical history collide nightly

Wednesday, Apr 14 1999

It's nearly midnight in an overheated recording studio, and Robbie Hardkiss is mad as hell.

He's just lost his perfect beat on the mixing board -- what he calls his "disco poke." "You're too farty!" he yells to a blinking Macintosh, frantically trying to re-create the missing beat from one of three stacked synthesizers. "Oh, we're getting there. C'mon baby, c'mon ...." After the 17th attempt to expunge the "alien fart" twinge, the perfect "zwing" manifests itself. He flips a few switches on the mastering board and takes a deep breath; his disco house track is almost complete.

Here, inside the newly installed Hardkiss Recordings control room -- an unevenly painted sky-blue production studio haphazardly stuffed with an eclectic assortment of high-end and retro equipment -- Robbie and his two "brothers," Gavin and Scott Hardkiss, will complete their individual debut releases for Columbia/Sony later this year. The behemoth-sized label, which finally wised up to the commercial possibilities of electronic music, signed the three DJs two years ago -- a break that enabled the crew to invest in this modestly decorated, yet lavishly stocked, engineering facility in the Lower Haight.

Meanwhile, down the hall in Bayview Studios, three members of Cellski -- a young hip-hop crew from the Lakeview District -- are languidly stretched over a nappy couch, yawning and flipping through magazines while the Enhancer works silently to tweak out the perfect breakbeat thump. "That's it -- almost," he mutters, adjusting a multitude of knobs on the mastering board. The owner of this hip-hop recording and production facility, the Enhancer, along with his partner, TC, has produced some of the Bay Area's most successful hip-hop names: N2Deep, Rappin' Forte, the R.B.L. Posse, and TC's own Totally Insane.

The Hardkiss and Bayview studios are only part of the musical creativity emerging from the building. Just beyond a set of wrought-iron gates and dysfunctional doorbells, a cacophony of electronic beats pumps at full volume seven days a week. In addition to the Hardkiss and Bayview studios, the Victorian flat includes building owner Jim Larkin's own R&B Frisco Studios and Sunburn Recordings -- a dance music label founded by the Hardkiss brothers in 1994.

Although each rhythm-based enterprise functions as a separate entity, there's a lot of creative overlap. The Enhancer helped Charlotte the Baroness of Sunburn master her first mix tape a few years back, and later this month, he and TC will apply their hip-hop skills to a number of remixing projects for the label. Sydney Wilson, the in-house technical guru, provides around-the-clock assistance to vexed producers, and also functions as Larkin's full-time engineer and partner in Frisco Studios.

"It's a very supportive environment," explains Gavin Hardkiss. "Everyone hooks each other up with whatever you need. The Enhancer is a wealth of knowledge on production and engineering techniques and gear. You can ask that man anything and he'll always have the answer."

Niven Bonar, who took over the Sunburn label after the Hardkiss' Columbia/Sony deal, is equally pleased. "The fact of the matter is, none of us have any hang-ups," he says. "We all just want to be stuck in here making music, and to provide the best possible environment for our artists to record in. Because we're all here together, we realize that we can only achieve things as a unit. So although there are four distinct groups housed inside this building, it's a definite force."

Establishing the tone of the cooperative milieu, however, is Larkin. A long-time social activist, performing arts instructor, and martial arts sensei, the 63-year-old Larkin began teaching karate and meditation techniques to Western Addition youths in 1965 from the old Belvedere Gym in the Haight-Ashbury. "There were a lot of young black kids in the neighborhood who didn't have a lot of discipline," he explains. "So I came in to teach them through the zazen concept -- a meditative and spiritual, mind-over-body kind of situation."

The reputation of Larkin's martial arts expertise spread to local revolutionaries. "Eventually the Panthers started coming to the class, as did a group of hell-raising students from San Francisco State called Students for a Democratic Society," he says. "I had this strange cross-section of political people and teenagers."

In 1966 Larkin founded the Black Light Explosion Company, one of the city's first black-run community centers. Inside a 44,000-square-foot building on Grove Street, Larkin and a host of volunteers provided voice, dance, theatrical, and martial arts training to children and young adults, including Danny Glover, Sheila Escovedo, and Mario Van Peebles. "It was a mecca for the black artistic and performing arts community," says Larkin. Although the center closed after only three years, Larkin went on to head the Bayview Opera House on Third Street and Palou Avenue, a community center in Hunters Point.

In the late '70s, Larkin purchased his Lower Haight flat, where he installed a karate dojo and Frisco Studios, catering almost exclusively to R&B clients. Though he now spends less time inside the studio, he continues to teach martial arts and to help budding performing artists. Some of his most noted proteges in the past 20 years include Cindy Herron of En Vogue and Grady Wilkins of the Whispers.

"Here in the Frisco Studios, Jim has given a lot of young people the opportunity to be in a commercial space, and has always been open to almost any kind of music," says Sydney Wilson, who became Larkin's karate student when he was 13. "He's been a pivotal force for a lot of us -- that's why we all call him 'Pops.' He's the father figure to a lot of young men and women who come to this facility, whether they be involved in music or the martial arts. He's kept a lot of young people from going astray by providing them with love and a viable space for their creativity."

When Larkin encountered the Hardkiss clan for the first time in 1993, he found the mysteriously related "family" rather odd. "I was renting out the front office space, so Gavin came by to have a look," reminisces Larkin. "Then, about seven of them came by, and I found out that everyone's last name was Hardkiss. But one was from Scotland, another from South Africa, and a few were from Washington, D.C. -- and none of them looked anything alike," he says. " 'How on earth did you all get the same last name?' I asked. I still didn't get it, but what I liked about them was that they were fresh and full of new ideas. I didn't know what techno music was, but I could feel their good vibrations." Within hours the entire Hardkiss family had signed the lease.

The Hardkiss' own story started with a visit to the Glastonbury Music Festival in 1990, the height of the British rave years. There, Scott and Gavin encountered acid house for the first time, and in that Ecstasy-induced context, Scott says, "I found God on the dance floor."

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991, Scott and Gavin drove cross-country to San Francisco, where they met up with former high school mate (and purported family member) Robbie. Within months, the Hardkiss brothers began producing music and DJ'ing at their own "Sunny Side Up," one of the city's first underground house clubs. But they lost all of their combined savings on a rave that was shut down by the police.

Only through an act of charity were they able to release their first album later that year. "We somehow got a gift of $1,500 from a world-traveling raver," explains Robbie. "We met him through [Manhattan techno DJ] Frankie Bones -- the guy had just arrived in San Francisco after throwing parties in India. For some unknown reason, he gave us exactly what it cost to release our first album, and we haven't heard from him since." Titled Magical Sounds of the Underground, the debut earned the group worldwide recognition.

Two years and numerous releases later, the brothers moved into Larkin's office space, where they began to operate the growing Hardkiss label and traveling DJ team. With the help of fellow club kid Bonar -- a Scottish teenager they met while buying records -- the brothers established Sunburn, a label whose primary function would be to release the best music the trio discovered during their cross-country DJ'ing gigs.

Bonar, who now runs the Sunburn label with the help of DJ All-Jay, has produced a solid array of uniquely talented electronic musicians and DJs in the past few years, including Charlotte the Baroness, Infinite Posse, Q-Burns Abstract Message, Wish FM, and Manchester's Freeloaders. Although Gavin and Scott released albums on Sunburn in 1998 (Namaquadisco and Crucial Introspection, respectively), all future Hardkiss albums will remain exclusive to Columbia/Sony.

"This place is a real home for us," says Scott of his new recording space. "Pops is an amazing man and has totally inspired me and a lot of other people in the neighborhood. He's a father to us all and truly pure soul.

"This place is proof that people of different ages and backgrounds can work together cooperatively. Now why would we leave that?

About The Author

Amanda Nowinski


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