Lost in the Night: Partying Underground on the Outskirts of San Francisco

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Kahley Avalon Emerson
Too Far Gone with Carlos Souffront, Bobby Browser
Undisclosed Location
Saturday, Feb. 10, 2013

The fare on the meter read an astonishing $20 by the time we reached the outskirts of the city. Passing through a desolate industrial expanse, I momentarily wondered how we were going to get home. It's a sign of the times that San Francisco's undergrounds have gradually returned to the outer limits. With the rate the cops have been busting things, it's just too risky to do it in the SOMA, and downtown might as well be completely off limits--besides, you can be as loud as you want if nobody lives nearby. We made a turn onto a new street and the thumping drone of an industrial-strength machine kickdrum guided us toward our destination, an unmarked doorway on a street lined with shuttered warehouses.

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Kahley Avalon Emerson

Talk about underground parties and inevitably the conversation steers towards Los Angeles. Our rival to the south has long enjoyed a robust after-hours scene centered around the dilapidated downtown area. As of this writing, it's become such a thing that even event promoters in the Bay Area often forgo San Francisco in favor of the more accessible and less risky Angelino nightlife climate. And that's a shame, because even though it may be more difficult to do, there is potential here for something really special. Last Saturday's party offered a glimpse at what the ideal could be, with a unique mixture of good sounds, good people, and interesting architecture that, once added-up, equaled something timelessly San Franciscan in nature.

The walls breathed with colorful psychedelic patterns projected from afar by visual wizard Donovan and his LightsOut Light Show. It was just about midnight and the party had yet to really begin. A sparse crowd ambled about drinking Tecates and glasses of whiskey, bundled up warm in jackets to ward off the cold. A parka-clad C.L.A.W.S presided from the DJ decks; you could see his breath as he matched the room's unfinished feeling with a set of booming but slow-paced techno. I looked over and watched Donovan as he shuffled some slides around and frantically repositioned his projectors.

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Kahley Avalon Emerson

The music changed from techno to sample-heavy house. I looked through the now densely packed dancefloor and saw the hoodied figure of Bobby Browser working two old-school Yamaha SU700 samplers. It was mostly new material, and it was amazing. More direct than his sometimes abstract compositions, this was straightforward and banging dance music with bits of '90s New York and Detroit flourish thrown in for good measure. Yet it wasn't just a hardware set -- it went a little beyond, and at times it felt like he was DJing on his samplers. He did this by crossfading between them with a mixer while using live EQs to cut the bass and pump the mids to devastating effect.

As the night wore on, people began to arrive from all corners of the city. Most of the people were familiar faces, diehards who, like in the old Compound days, didn't mind a bit of a trek if it meant a good all-nighter. This is crucial to the whole experience: the relative remoteness of the location removes a lot of the random seediness and replaces it with a familial vibe.

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Kahley Avalon Emerson

Then it was ex-Detroiter Carlos Souffront's turn behind the deck, and he moved things in a rather different direction. With a firm hand on the pitch-shift of his record player, he beat the room over the head with a set of raw and gritty Chicago house tracks. Effortlessly mixing with a cool look on his face, every blend was seamless even though the tracks themselves barrelled out with pummelling aggression. Building toward some intense climax, he filled the room with an exclamation point-like cloud of rhythmless noise. Then it was all screams and whistles when he served up Lil' Louis' 1988 classic "The Original Video Clash." From there it just got more twisted and the crowd began to match. Keys and capsules were passed around on the dancefloor, overly sympathetic sentiments were expressed, and the night marched further into surreality.

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Kahley Avalon Emerson

There was never a point where it felt like things were winding down. Instead the party only seemed to attract more people. And by the time Conor and Solar took to the decks the evening was in complete bloom. The freaky chanting of Arpadys' "Monkey Star" rung out from the speakers, causing the vibe to deliberately ricochet towards a cosmic slant. Conor was on deck, yet he was spreading out and taking more liberties with his playing than he usually does. Working the EQs hard, he reshaped entire pieces of the song into a dramatic expression of the emotions of the moment. Yet it still had that certain kind of conservative restraint that he specializes in -- just one of the reasons why he's such a good DJ. Showing no signs of stopping, he quickly ran through his records, threw a 12-inch on the deck, and mixed in Psychotropic's "Hypnosis." Its approximation of chemically induced states of happiness was ultimately the soundtrack to our departure. Standing outside next to the smokers I could still hear the song as clearly as if I was standing next to a speaker. I looked at the empty street and smiled -- it felt good to be in San Francisco.

-- @DerekOpperman @Avalon_Emerson



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