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We Used To Dance

“Not everyone understands house music,” goes Eddie Amador’s 1998 anthem. “It‘s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing.” The song that put West Coast house music on the map is an ode to a hybrid culture that has struggled to be accepted. For a long time, not everyone understood the West Coast’s take on the post-disco sound. It had neither the gay gospel of its New York brethren nor the spaced-out Roland 303 squawk of its “second wave” Chicago heroes (“It‘s as acid as can bebut we don’t use no 303 -- this is the next school,” says Hawke and God Within‘s 1996 “Acid Funk”). Spliff-inspired, heavily flavored by Latinos, Londoners and Chicagoans, and stained by countercultural history like a pair of vintage bell-bottoms, Pacific Coast dance music has opened its arms to the globe, even if it continues to pulse under the radar at home.

DJ Dan, Jay-J & Chris Lum and Hipp-e & Halo are globetrotting jocks used to wild crowds, glowing trade press and strong dance-chart positions. Their styles fit the uncertain times as much as they represent the breezy climes of California. Halo Varga’s 2000 hit “Future” set the tone with rough Latin percussion and an ominous whisper, “Making an enemy of our own future.” It was as deep as a hall of mirrors, and it made the British cover-jock circuit take notice, with high-profile spins by BBC Radio One‘s Pete Tong. The California love keeps on coming, with subsequent global hits from such vinyl-focused labels as San Diego’s Siesta, the Bay Area‘s Tango and Sacramento’s Doubledown. San Franciscans Jay-J and Lum have become the champions of the coast: Lum had a recent smash with “Big Tool,” a refried take on the Jungle Brothers‘ “I’ll House You” with buzzing analog keys and a nasty bass line that‘d make Warren G’s head bob.

“Jay-J and Chris, what they do is spot-on,” says DJ Dan, on a break from a House of Blues DJ tour. Still, says the don of West Coast rave-house who grew up near Seattle, found his sound in San Francisco and settled in L.A., a flood of “Future”-derived tracks is too dark. “It‘s gotten way too serious,” he says of West Coast house. “It’s not that it‘s not good music. It’s very one-dimensional -- it‘s total fucking stoner house.” Jay-J and Lum, however, have broken through the haze with “Roots Roll Call,” a gorgeous Lum-spoken shout-out to the duo’s mostly East Coast house heroes (“The entire state of New Jersey”) laminated with a gospel reprise, “Thank youAnd I thank you.”

Perhaps the first West Coast house head was L.A. native Sylvester, whose funk and gospel roots got “Mighty Real” and set the stage for a gay-disco-hippie axis in San Francisco in the late ‘70s. On Dubtribe Sound System’s 1996 “We Used To Dance,” a voice bears spoken-word witness to the next apostle, Doc Martin, who brought house to the Bay in the late ‘80s: “We used to go down to this club called Townsend down on Brannan Street in San Francisco. Doc Martin was the resident DJ there. Boy was fierce -- he played hip-hop . . . One week he pulled out some different records and dropped these four-on-the-floor beats. You know, some people got up there on the beams and started vogueing right away, but, uh, me and my friends, we went screaming from the club. Man, we didn’t go back. It took me a little longer to let house seep in, but when it did, you know, we fell in love.”

By 1990, Martin had moved to Los Angeles to add techno fuel to the rave fire. Meanwhile, a trio of Brits later christened the Wicked crew came to San Francisco and added a dubbed-up traveler vibe to the city‘s psychedelia. “They brought the whole U.K. acid-house sound to the States and added a sort of underground disco flavor to it,” says Lum, an Angeleno who relocated to San Francisco in 1993. Dan had moved to San Francisco the year before, and in 1993 he single-handedly set off the midtempo explosion of “funky breaks,” largely by pulling out breakbeat house rarities. “I searched out all things funky,” Dan says. He “literally stopped” playing funky breaks overnight in 1997 when Florida producers took over the style “and it became really cheesy,” he says. But the syncopated spirit of percussion in harmony lives on in Dan’s dazzling deck work.

The mid-‘90s hailed the arrival of Mark Farina, who had a profound influence on the Bay Area with his tech-jazz Chicago roots. Singing DJ Colette arrived in L.A. from Chi-town two years ago, and she sees a clear trail of kick drums down Route 66. She plays records from West Coast labels Siesta, Wax and Bloom, but thinks the long, funky mixes between songs for which the likes of Dan and Hipp-e are known are a Windy City effect. “A lot of DJs there are really interested in creating new sounds out of two records,” she says.

Thomas White of next-wave house duo Natural Rhythm cites Chicago as a big influence. The Orange County pair peddles chilled-out, melodic offerings such as the optimistic yet percussive Set Me Free EP, forthcoming on Life Music. “I consider myself more of a world musician than a West Coast musician,” White says. “My influences are Mark Farina, DJ Sneak, along with earlier influences from the Wicked crew of DJs, Doc Martin and good old New York house.”

There are other exceptions to the typical West Coast house style. From Martin’s slow-baked bass-line excursions to DJ Donald Glaude‘s on-fire showmanship, the region is a crossroads of dance. Santa Monica--bred Marques Wyatt spins classy, uplifting New York records with a California seasoning of thick, extended blends. San Francisco’s Naked Music pumps out the candied vocal soul of its co-founder, New Yorker Jay Denes. “I think the West Coast sound is more of a melting pot than it used to be,” says White.

The scene has been buoyed by a cottage industry of record labels, including Tony Hewitt‘s Tango (“Tribal, funk, dub, deep, all things house,” he says), Jamie Thinnes’ Orange County--based Seasons Recordings and surfer Jason Blakemore‘s Huntington Beach--based Life Music. Blakemore, who grew up with parents who listened to disco, sampled the sounds of crashing waves and seagulls for his latest 12-inch, “Ocean View.”

While the music is exploding because technology allows for cheaper home studios, venues dedicated to house come and go, and that could hinder its growth. The lack of dance floors is frustrating for artists who have more opportunities in Europe than Southern California, and it’s even more stressful for club promoters like DJ Sol, who recently quit her Saturday-night showcase at Hollywood‘s King King. “If you’re just taking the door and you have to bring in big-name DJs and a sound system, it doesn‘t add up,” she says. Dan agrees: “It needs to go back to the DJs nobody’s heard of, because the club has earned its reputation and is bringing people who inspire. There‘s a lack of venues, and the promoters are doing what’s safe. We‘re stuck in a rut.”

Still, new swells of fans -- rave graduates, public-radio listeners, adventurous college students -- come knocking for this digital soul food. Vinyl shops such as Doc Martin’s Wax on Melrose Avenue and Chris Long‘s Higher Source in Huntington Beach and West Los Angeles are surviving the iffy economics that have seen DJ stores in New York sink this fall. House music is the best seller at both Higher Source stores, which also serve hip-hop and trance jocks. All these years since disco sucked, West Coast house music has survived to transcend, and it beckons more than ever.

“People are searching for the same type of utopian existence that hippies were looking for back in the day,” says White of Natural Rhythm. “It is this dance-floor escape, drugs or no drugs, hippies or not hippies, California or the world over, that people come looking for.”


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