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Tony Brooke: Electrology 101, A DIY Guide to Learning About DJs, Electronic Music, and Hip Hop
by Tony Brooke
(Originally published 3/5/03 in SF Weekly's music supplement "Listen Up! 2003".)
"Taste is a matter of Taste." -- Jay McInerney
Even major music junkies will admit to not knowing all of the latest splinter genres and the sometimes subtle differences between house, acid house, deep house, garage, speed garage, 2-step, hardcore, drum 'n' bass, jungle, breakbeat, broken beat, breakstep, techstep, techno, trance, electro, electroclash, down-tempo, dub, ambient, etc. Genres are a necessary evil, awkwardly categorizing the uncategorizeable. They are temporary textual stand-ins for a sound.
It's no surprise that San Francisco's legendary cultural diversity (and resistance to categorization) extends to our cutting-edge music scene, which has produced international artists and even a few subgenres of our own. The Bay Area's recordings and performers epitomize our reputation as a pioneering community, and that wide range of styles is what we love -- but it also makes it hard to grasp at first. There's no accurate, easily accessible term to sum up today's soundscape. Calling it "DJ Music" is too vague, since a DJ can play any music. Keeping up with today's increasingly diverse electronic music and hip-hop scenes is a daunting task without a little guidance. Welcome to Electrology 101, which presents DIY resources to help you listen and learn. In the end, it's up to your ears, so open them up and don't let anyone tell you what to like.
"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." -- Elvis Costello (probably)
Learning about new music is much more effective when you can hear the actual audio in question, coupled with quality descriptions from a trusted source. The following Web sites, e-mail newsletters, and streaming audio will turn you on to a plethora of tasty tunes. All you'll need are a net connection and streaming music player applications such as Winamp (PC), iTunes (Mac), and RealOne Player.
To start, check out Epitonic.com. It's got it all: free music (for streaming or download), smart reviews, and an excellent e-mail newsletter. Listen to their "genre walkthroughs" to get a feel for their eight main variants of electronic music; read the descriptions of another dozen; and listen to the music. Being familiar with these genres is essential to navigating your way through club listings. To listen to Epitonic's music, set your audio player by clicking "site prefs" at the top of any page, then "choose your player prefs." Mac users, note that "winamp" = mp3/iTunes. They also cover another dozen genres, from neo-dada to pop. Epitonic will start requiring subscriptions soon, so get it while it's hot! (http://www.epitonic.com)
Allmusic.com (All Music Guide) is the mother lode of music info. It's an unparalleled musical almanac of vital stats about almost every album ever released, with brief editorial descriptions. You'll find more than four million tracks and over two hundred thousand reviews here. Not too shabby. To learn more about the history of genres, their "music maps" are useful and their excellent articles are deep but dry. AMG is best used hypertextually: Search for a particular artist name, album title, song, style, or label, and then follow the links and explore. Click "buy this album" to hear sound samples. Note that electronic genres are found under the "rock 'n' roll" category. If your MP3 collection is full of question-mark tracks lacking ID3 tags, fill in the gaps here. (http://www.allmusic.com)
Another powerful tool is the world of online streaming stations, spinning every conceivable style of music. The best ones are encoded so that the song title and artist name are displayed in your music player. This, plus a "recently played" list on a station's Web site, can be immeasurably educational. For coverage of the tastiest streams and how-to guides, visit http://www.tastycast.com. A few of the great stations listed there are somafm.com, staticbeats.com and netmusique.com.
Aquarius Records, the best little music house in the Mission, kicks megachain music-store ass and has an e-mail newsletter with more reviews than you could ever wrap your ears around. Audio clips follow most reviews, so you can actually listen to what they're crowing about. Each biweekly newsletter is up at their site, and the thousands of previous reviews are archived in their massive sales catalog. They cover the whole spectrum of music: electric, analog, and everything in between. Support this local treasure by buying from them. (1055 Valencia at 22nd St., San Francisco, http://aquariusrecords.org)
Let's not forget old-school print. Augmenting 19th-century technology with a companion CD, each volume of XLR8R magazine's Incite compilation is worth the price of the whole year's subscription ($16 for 1 year, 10 issues). That's 10 CDs plus 10 mags for the price of one CD! The CD features artists from that issue, giving proof to their editorial pudding. XLR8R covers loads of styles, with a heavy emphasis on cutting-edge electronic trends and hip hop. Their writers are well versed, and they mix it up with bits on street art, fashion, and technology. They even devoted an entire packed issue to the San Francisco scene (Issue #62, 10/02, all of which is on their site). Beware of XLR8R's occasional circular genre-reference-itis, though, which can be confusing to newbies (so visit Epitonic.com first). (http://www.xlr8r.com)
Your final classroom assignment is pretty easy, so let's head to the A/V lab for a movie or two. To familiarize yourself with turntable skills see Scratch, and to understand the history of b-boy culture don't miss Wild Style (Netflix has 'em both).
OK, now it's time for a field trip. Hit the clubs and check out the huge range of choices that only San Francisco has to offer. Clubs change their themes and styles of music night-to-night, so don't rule out a club that you once didn't like. One thing you can count on is that many venues have consistent weekly nights with resident DJs, so look for the "weeklies." Many shows are free if you arrive before a certain hour, or they cost a few bucks after that. The bigger venues charge more, in general, but have cheap nights, too.
There are hundreds of gigging DJs in the Bay Area and dozens of venues. To learn which DJs are up your alley, listen to archived shows from the DNA Lounge, Beatsauce (on KUSF, 90.3fm, 6-8 p.m. Sundays), Thump Radio (on KUSF, 8 p.m.-midnight Sundays), and True Skool. Then, find show listings at the many free print, web and radio music calendars.
Going out to clubs to see DJs in action is the best way to explore, because nothing beats the real thing. But, despite the best intentions of our top-notch DJs and the inclusive vibe of most promoters, there's an inherent learning curve that hinders many potential fans.
First, it's tough to figure out where to go if you don't know what the genre descriptions mean, and what type of music to expect. The club listings use lots of creatively vague titles to differentiate the night's vibe. Use the resources listed so far to help you read between the lines. For example, if you like it mellow, look in the club listings for nights that mention down-tempo and dub. If you're into harder styles and want to dance your ass off, look for techno or trance. If you're bored by the constant 4/4 beat, try drum 'n' bass or breaks. Hip hop and rap nights are a bit easier to pick out. Expect the unexpected, since all genres are just a reference point.
Even if you know every sub-genre and can recite them alphabetically, once you get to the club it's hard to find out details about particular songs, artist names, etc. There's only one way to connect the dots -- ask. Keep in mind that DJs are pretty busy -- give them space. Wait til they step back or hand the decks over to the next DJ. Better yet, start up the topic with other folks, because that's what builds a community: communication. To this writer, there's nothing duller than a room full of shoegazers who never talk to each other. After all, we are all there to share our love of music and our knowledge, not just to pose and dance by ourselves. It's a community thing.
Another barrier is figuring out which DJ is on the decks at the moment, since most nights have no MC, and most DJs don't say a word. Ask the club staff, and keep an eye out for the usually seamless handoff between DJs. Distinguish between song selection and turntable skills. Sometimes you're there to see skills, but if the DJ isn't playing music that you like, it won't matter how good they are at mixing, beat matching, and juggling.
In the end, it's all about the music. The San Francisco scene is unique because nowhere else on earth is there such a wild, bizarre, fun, freaky bunch of music heads. We are what we hear. Hear me? Now go out there, and next time don't just hear the music, listen to it!
Tony Brooke is a wiseass music technology know-it-all who has serious issues with thinking inside the box. For more tips and the scoop on Silent Way's recording equipment rental, live recording, and Mac consulting services check out www.silentway.com, and tune in to www.tastycast.com.