In preparing for Motion Potion – 20 year anniversary at Public Works set this Saturday, I wanted to post some old-school photos and tell some stories from back in the day. These ones come from my first San Francisco residencies “WhatDaFunk” and “The Real” at Nickie’s in the Haight.
The basics of the story was that I had cut my teeth working on a Greek Island (more of this story tomorrow) and arrived in San Francisco in the Spring of 1997. I really had no expectations of ever landing a gig in San Francisco let alone a residency. Although I had played more than 150 5+hour sets the previous summer the circumstances were so bizarre that I actually probably was LESS qualified than a beginner. I remember getting booked to play a DJ night at a place (long gone) called Barcelona. I did what I had done the previous summer (mixing everything with everything) and immediately cleared the floor. Some young woman came up to me and in a really nice way (as nice as you can say something like this) “What the hell are you playing dude? You can’t do that in a club ya know?”
Then through some strange set of circumstances I got booked to play a wedding for Cary, the bartender at Nickies. It was up in Tahoe and their friends were all Deadheads so it was as low stress a gig as you can ask for. I ended up playing for (I’m not kidding…) 7 hours straight of funk, soul, rock etc. The owners of Nickies, Lonnie Lazar and John Didomenico were there and before it was over, they offered me a monthly playing New Orleans jams. The New Orleans Boogie series lasted long enough for them to shift me to Thursdays where I launched WhatDaFunk and things actually took off.
Perhaps because I had no context of what a “DJ is supposed to play” WhatDaFunk was an unusual funk night, even by the standards of a funk night. I was too broke to afford rare vinyl so I had to improvise with CDs, tapes, Dats, reissues, anything I could find. But this kind of freed me from the standard “original breaks” canon. We went deeeeeeep into catalogs, often examining one artist or theme in the course of a night. Besides obvious choices like James Brown, P-Funk and Sly, we also had Bootsy nights, Maceo nights, East Bay Funk, SisterSoul & Femmefunk, a Pops Staples tribute, a night where all the cuts were from LIVE records, one where we examined the hip hop connections, and one rock and one gospel. I might have played “Brick House” ONCE, and it was on our last night, and I played the LIVE cut. Tapers like Henry Heikkinen would bring me bootlegs of shows they had recorded the previous weekend and we would drop in cuts off the DAT tape. It was truly a funk afficionado’s paradise.
Within a few months we were rammed. Not EVERY week, like the closest present tense event: MOM DJs & Events. Rather, the different themes would bring out a different side of the scene every time. Some were HUGE. Some were light. They were all musically on point and I have never hosted an event with a better vibe than WhatDaFunk. With beloved local faces like Sabrina Enrique bartending, Marc James Mason at the door, we were like this weird antidote to everything that was hip in San Francisco at the time.
Remember that from 1997-2004, San Francisco was a MECCA for Deep House, and warehouse raves and turntablism and we were oblivious to ALL of it. We had little Mackie 400 speakers, no subwoofers AT ALL, no hard liquor at all, and a single red lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Every week I would come in to discover the DJ booth in a different state of disrepair. I brought my own CDJs, technics, and monitors, and records, and tapes, and cds, and often my own whiskey to drink. It was this strange little oblivious island of live music fans, taking over a dance club for one night to play the stuff THEY really wanted to hear. With patient help from special guests like Zeph White ROMANOWSKI Chris Veltri Vinnie Esparza D J Tom Simonian-Thump Soul Salaam Deejay Crimson J Boogie I eventually DID even learn how to mix on the beat.
WhatDaFunk, and the email newsletter that I started to publicize it led to SF Funk Festival, my partnership with the amazing John Miles and of course HUSHconcerts. It was one of those “time and places” that make you appreciate your “time and place”. We love those fleeting moments because they never last, and WhatDaFunk was no exception. In 2001 when the planes hit the towers San Francisco turned into a ghost town. The Dot Boom led to a Dot Bust and soon thereafter, Jon and Lonny asked me to move to Fridays and combine with Dj Wisdom on a new hip hop event called “The Real”.
In some ways, “The Real” was more important to my development as an artist than WhatDaFunk. Playing with Winston Djwisdom Bailey three times a month was a crash course in hip hop, mixing, scratching and basically HOW TO BE A REAL CLUB DJ. Although we still did theme nights devoted to (now hip hop) aficionados, I had to learn to play the hits and how to balance “what they want” with “what you know they need”. This is a CRUCIAL skill for 90% of the musicians in the world and I really have to give it up for Winnie for teaching me 85% of everything I know about Hip Hop. I would never have moved on to be in live bands like Mutaytor or to open for Jurassic 5, or to play and produce Breakbeat had it not been for the Real, and Winnie, and Cyrus and Marcella.
The Real lasted until 2004 when Nickies was purchased and renovated down to the floorboards. The present Nickies is a terrific neighborhood bar, with solid Bloody Mary’s, good grub, and a terrific staff. I go there to watch football quite often. And on some of those days, some dude will sit down and doubletake at me and say, “Hey man, didn’t you used to DJ here for like – ever?” And I usually look around tyhe place and remember it as it looked, sounded, and yes, smelled, and reply with a wink “No mister, you got the wrong Nickies. They tore that place down years ago.”