Lost in the Night: There's More than Soul at Motown on Mondays
Motown on Mondays
Madrone Art Bar
Monday, Feb. 18 2014
"Bottle service clubs used to be about finesse -- there used to be some skill there, like, how many songs you could fit into a given set or how well you could rock a party. Now it's all about Traktor controllers and EDM," said a DJ friend over complementary scotches at a party in the cafeteria at GitHub headquarters downtown. I listened to the music on the room's Funktion-One sound system and considered my free whiskey -- Arran 12 Year Old Cask Strength -- as my friend continued to explain some recent developments in the more extravagant side of the city's club culture.
When he was working as a club DJ full time, he used to spin using Serato, a vinyl emulation software that allows a spinner to control a laptop computer's playlist from two vinyl "control discs." He came to DJing from a turntablist background, which for a long time seemed dominant characteristic of bottle service clubs -- spinners like him were hip-hop heads who brought their rapid-fire mentality to the mainstream, spinning scratch-laden sets that moved at an insane pace through conflicting genres, all with the intention of creating maximum dancefloor appeal.
This style was something that never really appealed to me personally, though I appreciated it from a technical perspective: To do this kind of thing right, you had to possess both machine mastery and manual dexterity. His lament was mostly based on the fact that technological developments in the years since (namely computer-assisted mix capabilities) have removed the second part of that equation, opening the gates for a whole batch of novices without ear-trained proficiency. This flood has caused the DJs at a lot of these clubs to take on a more jukebox-like role, eviscerating whatever room for creativity was left in that field. In more realistic terms, this has meant that a lot of the older DJs of that era have been replaced, and their style has begun to recede with them.
I was outside of Madrone Art Bar, waiting in a line for Motown on Mondays, one of the city's most popular Monday night weeklies. I'd arrived at around 10:30 p.m., which meant I'd be standing on the corner of Divisadero and Fell for about an hour before finally being admitted inside. Just as I reached the bouncer, a gaggle of heavily made-up girls streamed out the front door with sweat pouring off their faces, their de facto leader yelled a boozy, "Fuck this, I'm sooo over it, let's go to taqueria." I stood there for another 10 minutes. A friend made an astute observation, "This starts at 6 p.m.? That's got to be the trick -- you show up then and start drinking before the party gets crazy." Through the walls I could hear the muffled bassline from Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through The Grapevine."
Motown on Mondays' success is something of an outlier in the city: It's on a traditionally slow night (Monday), it's in a removed area (Divisadero Corridor), and it trades in a relatively specialized form of music (retro soul and disco). Against these odds, the party is so popular that it's now franchised itself out to a number of other American cities. I ordered a drink and took in the atmosphere, which consisted of catching eyes and watching people nervously peek at each other. It's a pick up kind of scene, with a surprisingly balanced ratio of guys and girls. People danced facing themselves, not towards the DJ booth. George Kranz's new wave dance anthem "Din Daa Daa (Trommeltanz)" hit the speakers and two guys in leather jackets next to me threw their arms in the air while chanting, "Eins, zwei!" in exaggerated German accents.
As you might imagine from that track, Motown is not the only thing played at Motown on Mondays. In fact, the sweetly soulful sound of '60s Detroit was only a small component of the larger soundtrack of the evening. Resident DJ Gordo Cabeza is a selector whose style seems to be coming from a similar place as the friend mentioned at the beginning of this piece. He mixed using his computer and Serato, throwing scratches in occasionally while gliding effortlessly through a set comprised of one-to-two minute hooks pulled from popular songs, like The Bee Gee's "You Should Be Dancing" and The Jackson 5's "Rockin' Robin."
He effectively created a monstrous collage of ear worms that incited dance-offs and sing-a-longs with nearly every incoming track. It was cheesy, it was obvious, but there was some artistry hidden in the purely technical way he managed to sustain a novel and never ending peak -- he'd sometimes veer off and switch things up with a piece of a relatively obscure disco track or off-kilter breakbeat rhythm or electro remix. This is the kind of finesse that my friend spoke of: the art of keeping a non-underground crowd dancing while taking them for a ride through musical territory they might not have explored on their own. It's not an easy thing to do, but in Motown on Mondays' case, its dancefloor, which remained packed all night, speaks for itself.