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The Royal Whee 

Live house band Dubtribe Sound System gets older, wiser, and imperial

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
The scene: the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, a Stanford experimental co-op that specializes in alternative substances. The date: 1993, at the height of the house music craze. The band: Dubtribe, a live house act from San Francisco. The small crowd -- barely enough to fill half the room -- looks on unenthusiastically as the quartet sets up keyboards, bass, and congas. "Where's the turntables?" the onlookers' addled expressions seem to ask.

But Dubtribe doesn't care -- in fact, the band members don't even seem to notice. The group whips the crowd into a frenzy that lasts until 2 a.m. By the end of the night, Dubtribe's passion for live house music has converted everyone in the room.

In the years since that show, Dubtribe's dedication to music hasn't changed. For the last decade, Sunshine and Moonbeam Jones, the husband-and-wife team at the core of Dubtribe Sound System, have stood as an unwavering force in the often fickle world of San Francisco dance music. If you were lucky enough to be around during the early days of Come-Unity, Wicked, Sunset, and the now-legendary Full Moon parties, then you always saw Dubtribe -- banging congas on the beach, hunkering down in the basement at Ten 15 Folsom, or driving its van to the next (hopefully) copless party. "Those were the best days of my life," Sunshine says. "We had so much optimism. Nothing could stop us."

Dubtribe was born in 1989 from the ashes of a hip hop/acid jazz collective. At first the band had trouble getting gigs -- even in the blossoming world of San Francisco dance music, people weren't ready for a live house act. "Promoters liked our tapes and a few actually called about DJ bookings," Sunshine says, "but when they found out we were a band they were not down with the idea." So Dubtribe did what any group worth its salt would do -- it went DIY. "We gave up looking to get booked at clubs and threw our own parties instead," says Sunshine. "We gave it everything we had. We wrote music all day and danced all night. We played absolutely any kind of club night or party that would take a chance on having a live group."

Eventually the hard work paid off. Dubtribe started booking raves regularly, established residencies at Spundae and Come-Unity, and even organized a U.S. tour. Soon after, Dubtribe landed a contract with Organico Records. The band released the singles "Sunshine's Theme" and "Mother Earth," the latter an instant classic on the rave circuit. In 1993 Dubtribe released its debut LP, Sound System. It was a good time for Dubtribe and for San Francisco house music in general.

But a lot has changed since 1993. Full Moon parties are history, Sunset's gone commercial, and Ten 15 is -- at best -- a sad parody of the ideals it once stood for. Playing music and talking all night is fun, but just like the hippies 30 years ago, the ravers have learned that talking doesn't pay the rent. As the '90s progressed, San Francisco house luminaries began recording their own songs, pressing their own vinyl, and signing their own contracts. At first this seemed like an improvement -- everybody wanted to make money, and no one deserved it more than hard-working house music artists. But as more local artists signed corporate distribution deals, the scene began to lose steam. Sunshine explains, "We were so free of corporate oppression. But then you start looking around at the choir, and half the choir is dying for a record deal with Sony." Dubtribe decided never to sign onto a major label and never to play large, impersonal parties. "For the millennium we were offered $50,000 to play a party in Montreal. We turned it down."

After releasing Sound System, Dubtribe incurred the kind of label problems that are all too prevalent in the dance community. "I called Organico 368 times in 365 days," Sunshine says. "They didn't call back once." What's worse, Organico's distribution of Dubtribe's recordings was abysmal. "All we'd hear for two years, playing for a million and a half people, was, "We can't find your record anywhere,'" says Sunshine. "It was the worst kind of failure." For its next LP, Bryant Street, Dubtribe chose an independent label, Jive.

Unfortunately, Jive wasn't the right home either. "What Jive said to us was they wanted to embrace electronic music. None of that was really true -- 380,000 copies of Bryant Street later, they still weren't impressed." So Dubtribe founded its own label, Imperialdub Recordings, which to date has released a number of singles, two Dubtribe archive albums, two compilations mixed by Doc Martin and Mark Farina, and EPs by HeSoHi, Bphleksi Parmella, and Dawn Patrol. "We're trying to expand our reach as a label," Moonbeam says.

"Imperialdub was a way for us to reinvent ourselves, after being let down by other labels," Sunshine adds. "Pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and support the local community."

Dubtribe also became founding members of the San Francisco Late Night Coalition (SFLNC), a powerful force in the ongoing battle to protect the rights -- and often the very existence -- of San Francisco's popular SOMA nightclubs. At the heart of this battle stands the megaclub Ten 15 Folsom, widely believed to be the only venue popular and wealthy enough to make a successful stand against the police and live-work loft residents who are trying to shut clubs down. Recently Ten 15 Folsom agreed to a controversial settlement that allows for heightened security, increased searching, and the installation of closed-circuit cameras on the dance floors, at the bars, and even in the bathrooms. "Ten 15's settlement was ridiculous," says Moonbeam. "In my opinion they turned their back on the people who go to their club." But on a positive note, Moonbeam adds that "as a coalition we're making great strides, protecting the rights of clubs beyond 2 a.m."

Members of Dubtribe have also been busy developing their skills as DJs. Both Sunshine and Moonbeam started out as live musicians, vocalists, and producers, but only in the last few years have they become serious about the turntables. They used the San Francisco Dubplate parties, which ended recently, to hone their skills behind the decks. Right now, though, Dubtribe is focusing on a new LP and on the Imperialdub DJ tour, which launched recently at 60 Sixth Street. The tour, which includes DJ sets by Sunshine, Moonbeam, and Corey Black, will take the group along the West Coast, up into Canada, and possibly even to Europe and South America.

Other than that, look for Dubtribe to keep doing more of the same work it's been doing for the last decade. "We've been on a mission for 10 years," Sunshine says. "Progress is slow. For all your effort, you take baby steps forward. But as long as people want it, we'll do it. Bring it on. Whatever it is, I'm down."

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Fred Medick


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