Saturday Night: Afrotek Festival at the Dark Room
The Dark Room
December 20, 2008
Review by Eric K. Arnold; Photos by EKAphotography
Better Than: A typically clichéd hip-hop club.
Arriving at Club Six's "Dark Room" at around 11 p.m., I overhear a group of about seven people with Eastern European accents. Where are they from, I wondered. Germany? Austria? Romania? Czech Republic?
"It's here, it's here," one Euro dude says, pointing to the club's entrance (as it turns out, he and his posse are from Austria, and they were celebrating the last night of a four-day visit to San Francisco).
This is a good sign. The Europeans, after all, know their techno. In fact, the most significant cultural development in that part of the world since the fall of the Berlin wall may be the rise of electronic music. Where the USA has given us Britney Spears and Madonna's celebrified, stadium-ready appropriations of underground club music, Eastern Europe has produced actual underground club music, made by acts with handles like Modeselektor, Munk, and Pluxus - not exactly household names.
A big part of electronic music's appeal is the undergroundiness of it all, and in that respect, the Dark Room doesn't disappoint. The venue's aesthetic is minimal, Spartan, and bare-bones - kinda like the genre itself. There's a bar, a dance floor, and a stage, all in deep indigo if not pitch-black lighting (or more precisely, the lack thereof). The white lighting of a small lounge area to the left of the stage provides much-needed contrast from the dim main room. We're in San Francisco, but we could just as easily be in Bremen, Prague, or Vienna.
Tonight we're here for the Afrotek Festival, a showcase of electronic music made by local black artists. There aren't a whole lot of black people in Europe, so it's understandable that the Euro electro scene is predominantly Caucasian. But there's no real reason for the seeming lack of African American representation in the stateside scene, especially considering that techno and house music originally came out of underground black clubs in Detroit and Chicago, respectively. And while Afrika Bambaataa is known as one of hip-hop's godfathers, he's also a pioneer of electro, having made one of the genre's most influential, seminal tracks, "Planet Rock."
Likewise, while San Francisco's electronic music scene has created nationally-known figures like Miguel Migs, the Hardkiss Brothers, and Claude VonStroke, yet the scene has been surprisingly lacking in diversity, at least as far as perception is concerned. The Afrotek Festival - presented by local indie label Voltage - attempted to remedy that, by spotlighting electronic music that just happens to be made by black people.
On the surface, however, there's not too great a difference between typical hip-hop acts and Afrotek Festival participants like Replife and Blacktroniks. Both feature emcees rhyming over beats, and where they diverge stylistically from, say, hyphy artists, is in subtle nuances: the subject matter tends to be less clichéd, the tempos are faster, the beats quirkier and more "alternative." The biggest difference may indeed be in the crowd: the electronic music audience just wants to dance, and is not at all concerned with being ostentatious or having "swag" (ger)..
Replife came off as an energetic, appealing guy with positive lyrics. He was nonthreatening in a PM Dawn/ Us 3/ Tribe Called Quest kinda way, but while he had good stage presence, his rhymes were somewhat generic. Note to Replife: if you want folks to buy in to the notion of Afro-futurism, you've got to elevate your lyrics well above the norm.
Blacktroniks not only had the best name of any Afrotek artist, but the most experience. The group has been around for the better part of a decade, and while they have yet to become international stars on a Modeselector level, they're well-respected locally. Their sound typified the Afrotek ethos: techy and nerdy, perhaps, yet effective. It wasn't too hard to imagine them becoming big in Europe one day, if they keep progressing. Like De La Soul once said, they might blow up, but they won't go pop.
The low-maintenance, low-profile scene was a refreshing change of pace from tired hip-hop shows, and both groups went over well with the contingent of visiting Austrians, who had this to say about SF in general: "We are amazed by the people here. They are open-minded, good-natured, tolerant." On a night which embraced cultural diversity, albeit in small doses, this was as good a summation as any.
Personal Bias: Back when they were big, I always thought PM Dawn sucked.
Random Detail: At one point, Replife welcomed people "to the Replife movement" and compared himself to "Rollo from 'Good Times'" (word!).
By the Way: If Afrotek sounds like your cup of tea, check out Voltage Music online.