After numerous U-turns and eventually throwing away the directions, we finally see other cars packed with people who look suspiciously like Halloween revelers and follow them to a state park that wraps along the Southeast corner of the city. We walk through a grove of trees into a clearing that opens right along the water's edge. The water is almost perfectly still, reflecting the last remnants of storm clouds that rush overhead. A collage of costumed clubbers are dancing in front of the tent which is protecting the DJ booth. The smell of pancakes and bacon begins to fill the air from the picnic area nearby. The trickle of people arriving soon turns into a flood. It's just another day in San Francisco.
On this weekend, you had a who's who of DJs and parties to choose from: James Zabiela at Club Mighty, Meat Katie at the Opel Party, Lee Burridge at the Get Weird party at Paradise Lounge, Paco Osuna at the Endup, and Claude Von Stroke and Switch at Mezzanine. Where does one begin? These parties are in addition to the numerous other club and underground parties taking place across the city. Although San Francisco isn't geographically that large—seven by seven—its continued success as an international club destination is due to the quality of its events and the talents of those who host them.
The weekend after Halloween I found myself having to choose again: the Sneak B-Day Beats party at Mezzanine or the Brainfeeder party at 103 Harriet. I decided on both. Mezzanine has traditionally been a live music venue, but over the past couple of years, it has begun to host some electronic events. This weekend was no exception as DJ Sneak had his birthday party here with fellow legends Derrick Carter and Stacey Pullen. Brainfeeder is the brainchild of Warp Records artist Flying Lotus. The first Brainfeeder was held in London, and now, in collaboration with two of San Francisco's top promoters, An-ten-nae and Blasthaus, it was being brought to the West Coast.
I get to Mezzanine just after 11 pm and the place is already full. DJ Sneak is greeting people at the door. I make my way into the main room and I check out who is DJing. Is that Derrick Carter opening? Yes, it is. The energy in the place is electric. Mezzanine has one of the best sound systems in the city, and it's being put to good use here. The crowd cheers as Carter twists the filters, then drops a serious diva vocal into the mix. Carter is obviously enjoying himself, working out the classic Chicago House sound he helped to invent along with fellow Chicagoan and former roommate Mark Farina, who happens to be standing behind him in the DJ booth.
DJ Sneak is up next and begins to bang out the filtered-disco sound he invented. The beats are sparse and to the point: Sneak is not fucking around. And the crowd is eating it up. I suddenly remember I'm supposed to check out another venue. It's almost 2 AM and that means last call. Am I really going to leave in the middle of Sneak's set? All I can do is hope it's worth it.
But recently, 1015 has recovered, reinventing itself by splitting in to two smaller venues: the aforementioned 1015 and 103 Harriet, whose entrance is on an alley around the corner. The club also began to diversify its bookings, bringing in dubstep, glitch hop and minimal techno. San Francisco has always had a healthy breaks scene, and it was a natural progression for the city to embrace glitch and dubstep. The Brainfeeder party I'm heading to includes the likes of Daedelus, Flying Lotus, Kode 9, Gaslamp Killer and Martyn.
The venue is packed when I arrive, filled with a younger, more hipster crowd than Mezzanine. Daedelus is performing up on stage, dressed in a white Victorian long tail jacket. He is performing on a Monome, a controller consisting of 128 pads that light up as he touches them. With pronounced movements, Daedelus triggers a pastiche of samples and breaks. The Monome has been tilted forward so the audience can watch as the lights flash across the controller board. The beats are rapid-fire and the crowd is completely absorbed by the flair of the performance.
Next up is Martyn, who mixes out into some acid-tinged techno and then moves into cerebral, uplifting dubstep. The music is sublime, but at 3 AM in the morning, dubstep can't quite capture the energy of the room. All I can think about is Stacey Pullen and the fact that he's only playing three blocks away. Back at Mezzanine, the crowd has thinned, but those who remain are being treated to an amazing set of deep techno. Pullen looks like he's having the time of his life, deftly moving between tracks, filtering out the low-end here, dropping another deep bass line there.
Mezzanine and 103 Harriet, although located a couple blocks away, were continents apart that night in terms of the music they were providing and the crowds who attended. But that's what makes San Francisco unique as a city. San Francisco has a huge base of veteran clubbers who, well-versed in the history of dance music, continue to support the scene, allowing legends such as DJ Sneak, Carter and Pullen to return time and again to a packed house. But there are also new generations of party-goers arriving constantly, allowing clubs here to bring in avant-garde events such as Brainfeeder.
A quick guide to partying in SF
Kontrol at the Endup
The crew largely responsible for San Francisco's techno revival parties every first Saturday of the month at the most famous (and infamous) club in the city.
Dirtybird in Golden Gate Park
During the dry season in San Francisco (April through October) the label often sets up a sound system in Golden Gate Park and plays their music for the masses.
Qool at 111 Minna
Part club, part art gallery, Jondi and Spesh from Looq Records bring in DJs for this weekly Wednesday happy hour, which is the longest running in the city.
Satellite at Anu
After Qool, head a few blocks over to the weekly Satellite party. Headliners have included Anthony Pappa, Audiojack and DJ Three at this intimate venue.
Om Happy Hour at Wish Bar
Have some of the city's best cocktails every Friday, while checking out Om acts who drop by to play alongside resident deep house maestro, Still Rob G.
Founded by Franky Boissy, a pioneer of the local deep house scene, Pink has hosted the likes of Jazzanova, Gilles Peterson, Kenny Hawkes and Alton Miller.
It's more South Beach than SF, but this relatively new venue has already had a mix of big-time headliners (Satoshi Tomiie) and underground talents (Damian Lazarus).
Cement walls and a low ceiling make for a perfect spot to hear underground minimal techno. Recent guests: Stewart Walker and Thomas Melchior.
Records & Gear
These days, Tweekin Records is the only place to go to get vinyl. They have one of the best selections of West Coast House and one of the few places where you're pretty much guaranteed to find vinyl pressings from local producers.
San Francisco has the highest ratio of restaurants per capita in the US, so take your pick. If Mexican is your thing, however, head over to Valencia Street in The Mission district.
Ritual Roasters in The Mission district is known for their obsessive dedication to brewing black gold. In fact, it's so well-known you'll have to stand in line just to get a cup.
Although there are some fantastic hotels in San Francisco, you're still going to pay a lot for even mediocre accommodations. Your best bet is to go to Burning Man and then meet someone there who will put you up the next time you're in the city. Seriously.
Most DJs I speak to here have come from somewhere else as well, drawn to the unique convergence of music, art and liberal attitudes that defines San Francisco. Hac Le, a DJ and producer with Auralism Records, recently moved from Chicago, for reasons not only musical, but visual as well: "[San Francisco] welcomes individualism, eclecticism and weirdness in general, which is right up my alley." What finalized Le's decision to make this city his new home was the combination of quality events along with crowds that have "a very discerning taste when it comes to the dance floor."
Nikola Baytala, longtime resident at the Endup—one of the few venues in the US that has a 24-hour cabaret license—agrees, but also points out that while clubbers may be "fine-tuned to underground music" that venues in the city can also "bring in an underground act to a major venue and it will still sell out." Certain promoters, such as Blasthaus, as well as venues like the Endup, have gained such a loyal following that people will attend their events regardless of who is on the bill. Baytala says this creates an environment that "allows us the opportunity to expose new and upcoming talent."
This combination of established venues and dedicated club enthusiasts creates a scene where at any given spot just another night out can instantly become a night to always be remembered. Case in point: it's 6:30 pm on the Sunday night of the Halloween weekend and I've just arrived at Otis Lounge, a small bar tucked away down an alley near Union Square. There's a nice crowd on hand dancing to an excellent set of minimal techno by local DJ Jeffrey Allen that's both groovy and, even, dare I say it, sexy. It's normally the site of a weekly called Werd, but tonight is the Get Weirder party, the follow up to the previous evening's Lee Burridge party, Get Weird—both of which were presented by local promoters listed Productions.
The space is intimate, upstairs is the "dance floor" which is really just a glorified alcove in front of the DJ booth. I can easily touch the ceiling, and squeezing 30 people up there would be nothing short of a magic trick. Soon, Burridge steps up to the decks to tag team along with Chicago DJ Mike Khoury and they begin to take the party up a few notches. The atmosphere is charged, people start texting their friends to spread the word, and by 10:00 pm the venue has transformed into complete techno mayhem. Both floors are packed and people are dancing like the Halloween weekend has just begun.
Despite the relatively small size of San Francisco, the diversity of the scene and the loyalty of the crowds creates an environment that can cater to a spectrum of parties: San Francisco currently hosts the yearly LoveFest parade, an off-shoot of Berlin's LoveParade, which is now the largest electronic music event in the US. And it's also been the breeding ground for Lee Burridge's Get Weird parties, the first of which began in an underground spot called The Compound that has a maximum capacity of 150 people.
San Francisco's intimate geography has created an environment where everyone—artists, DJs, designers—constantly influences one another. It also means that to thrive here, venues and promoters have to maintain a high level of quality. The result is a continuous line-up of events—from the biggest party to the smallest underground—that has something for everyone.