RED BULL MUSIC
This Saturday, July 28, Red Bull Music brings together six boundary-pushing DJ crews for a two-floor celebration at Geoffrey's Inner Circle, honoring the history of the East Bay underground.
Oakland is a place with a rich, though sometimes underappreciated musical history, interwoven scenes, and a tradition of DIY creativity and spaces.
With Oakland's cultural landscape changing fast, this event pays tribute to the DJ crews, old and new, who have helped shape the sound, and the creative economy of the city's nightlife.
When my high school friends and I first started putting together shows in Oakland, a little over a decade ago, it felt like there weren’t a lot of places for us to go. It shouldn’t have surprised us that the folks who owned and operated buildings that could accommodate live music weren’t typically all that keen on renting them out to teenagers—especially if those teenagers were planning to play rap music to a room full of other teenagers.
We did find some places. The old Oakland Metro on Broadway. The beautiful, but beat-up ballroom at 2232 MLK, now the Starline Social Club. And Ashkenaz, a West Berkeley community venue known best for roots reggae, dance classes and drum circles. And of course, growing up in the East Bay offered plenty of other opportunities to get into trouble. House parties. Hallucinogens. Reckless driving. Local rap shows headlined by hometown heroes like Mistah F.A.B. or Souls of Mischief. Once or twice, a friend would tell me about an all-night rave they went to: how they called a number to get an address, or hopped on a bus to a warehouse somewhere off the 880.
Over time, the picture came into focus for me. Oakland’s nightlife—at least the one overground—was broken. Despite the legacy of a few legendary clubs, many of them black-owned, purveying blues, jazz, soul, and later hip-hop, the city’s economic woes had left the live music landscape pretty barren. But in place of a functional ecosystem of bars and clubs, grew self-sufficient networks and pockets of culture. Punk houses and co-ops, block parties and house parties, and raves. Some of those pockets existed in parallel. The East Bay has always been a place where you can absorb a little of everything. But it’s also a place where lofty ideals serve to obscure some harsh realities, like segregation and inequity.
By the time I came back home from school in L.A., in 2012, things were changing fast. More venues were opening their doors, even if some still upheld a soft prohibition on hip-hop (or “athletic wear”). The underground felt like it was teeming with activity, even though the rent was increasingly hard to cover for artists. To me, it felt like disparate scenes were leaning towards each other in ways they hadn’t always been. There were rap shows that felt like punk shows. After hours warehouse spots where you were just as likely to hear hyphy slaps as you were deep house.
That convergence, from where I was standing, felt like it was fueled by DJ crews. DJs, most of whom had toured the strange circuit of Oakland DIY spaces, served as torchbearers for this place’s sonic history: mob music and boogie funk, freestyle, SF’s queer disco underground, East Bay punk, Mills experimentalists, turntablists, independent rap tycoons. For the best DJs, that eclecticism fueled a sense of adventure and possibility in their sets. And plenty of those DJs doubled as promoters, entrepreneurs, or activists, building new worlds inside warehouses or bars or living rooms.
These days, the fight for space in Oakland has reached a crisis point: for artists of course, as highlighted by Ghost Ship, but I think we all understand that the cultural sea change we’re watching is much, much bigger than our creative communities. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that this is all for an event sponsored by Red Bull, a fact that’s hard to separate from Oakland wielding a kind of cultural cachet and profile it hasn’t always enjoyed—that, in some ways, has been weaponized against the people most responsible for shaping the city’s cultural identity.
But amid all that change, there’s something really hopeful in the kinds of spaces DJ crews, especially the ones we’re celebrating here, create. Red Bull Music Presents: Oakland features six crews that embody the best of Oakland DJ culture, and by extension, the city’s underground scene. Against the rising tide of sameness, these crews fill up rooms with specific intentions in mind. On the best nights, a party hosted by Club Chai or B-Side Brujas feels like it actually delivers on the utopian ideals we’ve been promised by say, rave culture or Berkeley liberalism. These parties are little worlds, designed with personal experience and collective history in mind, to create space for people to be themselves, to find community, to feel free.
There’s a history worth celebrating here, and I hope, a future too.
— ANOTHER PARTY FAM
If you’ve spent much time partying in Oakland lately, chances are you’ve seen Aux Cord’s beanies—loud, construction-site orange—bobbing behind the DJ table. A few years ago, they started showing up everywhere. And though they still consider themselves the “little bros” of the Oakland party scene, the last few years have seen his Another Party Fam crew host high-octane, slap-heavy parties as consistently as anyone.
Co-founded by DJs Stefan Aguilar (AKA Aux Cord) and Francis Kawasaki (Kawasaki Papi), along with regulars OG Kel, Damo AKA Sweetest Threat, and Cristal, APF was founded on trying to build a more accessible, welcoming space than a typical club atmosphere. “We were inspired to create a no-judgment environment where we felt comfortable, says Aguilar. “No dress codes, no bottle service sparklers, nobody on a microphone making you feel any less than someone in a VIP booth.”
It’s an energy they carry with them, whether at semi-underground spots like Jack London’s Brix, or across the Bay supporting headliners like Playboi Carti and Dipset. It’s a very Oakland ethos, one they say was shaped by the guidance of their good friend and collaborator Daghe, especially the warehouse mini-festival, Skumfest, he helped bring to life in 2013.
Like all the Bay’s best parties, the crew explains, APF is about bringing people together: “Everybody may have different tastes in music, may dress different, look different—but when ‘Tell me When to Go’ or ‘Cuttin’ It Up’ come on, we’re all best friends in that exact moment.”
“For me, one of my key influences is my tias at family parties,” says April Garcia, who spins as DJ Abrilita. “They get so dressed up to be around family, with their shiny jewelry, tight clothes, lipstick on their teeth, taking shots of tequila—and when their song comes on, you can they feel the beat and lyrics to their bones.”
B-Side Brujas is a DJ crew founded on a sense of community, pulling from a collective history, but also finding strength in difference. Since coming together at the Golden Bull’s Suavecito Oldies night a few years ago, the all-women-of-color, all-vinyl collective has turned out functions around the Town, helping shake up a DJ and collector scene that sometimes skews dusty and dude-heavy.
The women of B-Side—Abrilita, Zakiya Mowat (AKA Lady Z), Toya Willock (DJ Chatoyance), Cherry Bogue (DJ Cherry Moon) and Moe Alvarez—have a contagious onstage energy that makes a room come alive, and an expansive musical repertoire that spans from boogie funk, salsa and lowrider oldies, to rap and footwork.
Brujas sets are as hypnotically funky as their name suggests, and signal to a greater sense of history and purpose, carving out a space for resistance and self-care. “There is an immense sense of solidarity that we exude through the dance floor,” Zakiya tells us. “A sense of ownership over our own bodies and right to exist in a space where we can be, and project our own individuality.”
— B-SIDE BRUJAS
— CLUB CHAI
Club Chai was founded in 2016 by good friends Lara Sarkissian and Esra Canoğullari, who make music as FOOZOOL and 8ULENTINA. The two artists came together around shared experiences (the name points to a point of connection between their Armenian and Turkish heritages) and perspective. But in the two-plus years since their first collaborative parties, the name has come to stand for more: a label, a collective, an event series, a radio show, and more broadly, an ethos.
In their own words, Club Chai’s focus is on a “hybridization of non-western sounds and visuals with contemporary western culture among diasporic people, women, trans and femme artists and DJs.” In concrete terms, that intention has translated into packed warehouse spaces that exude a sense of freedom, and feature expertly curated lineups of boundary-pushing Oakland creators, like Fela Kutchii, Russell E.L. Butler, Jasmine Infiniti, and XUXA SANTAMARIA.
As Club Chai has grown into a fixture of Oakland’s underground, people outside the Bay have taken notice too. Following an instant-classic Boiler Room session at the Starline Social Club last year, both Lara and Esra have spent time touring overseas and working on new projects—including a gorgeous new EP, EUCALYPTUS (Esra), and an artist residency working on an audiovisual exhibit alongside heavy hitters like Brian Eno and Holly Herndon in Germany (Lara).
Despite a growing global reach, Club Chai’s success story so far has been about cultivating community here at home, and about the value of letting your convictions and taste guide your work. Asked about what they want people to take away from what they do, the duo replied: “To remember the times of celebrating each other and have the space for a moment and let go. To be inspired from each other and these space to want to create something—anything—of your own after.”
— WILLIE MAZE
Willie Maze, AKA Martin Aranaydo, is a Town native whose presence in the scene represents a bridge between eras. His brainchild, NVR OVR, is an umbrella that holds under it his clothing design and one of the city’s most beloved recurring functions. It combines elements of two movements he’s been a part of: the legendary graffiti collective TDK, and the sprawling, slap-centric DJ crew Trill Team 6.
Marty is joined each time for NVR OVR, usually at the Layover, by two TT6 members: Albert “Neto” Luera (who co-founded the radio show Sick Sad World) and Daryl Hutchinson, AKA Starter Kit. Setlists range from old school Town classics, freestyle, and funk, to 2000’s-era blappers and beyond.
As a crew, NVR OVR and Trill Team 6 are indebted to the city’s rich cultural history, but also responsible for subtly shifting it in new directions. While many of the city’s bars and venues still enforced an unofficial prohibition on rap, TT6 retrofitted a punk and electronic music tradition for the post-hyphy era, taking over then-plentiful warehouse spaces for after hours functions that showcased a new generation of Internet-savvy rap DJs, and breakout local artists like Main Attrakionz and Antwon.
NVR OVR prides themselves on being “practitioners of the ever-evolving culture of DJing,” with the trio spinning via vinyl and Serato, a controller, and a laptop, respectively. But as gentrification continues to reshape the Oakland landscape, they’re still protective of the legacy and history they grew out of. “Oakland has always generated culture and substance,” says Aranaydo. “The music scene reflects that, and will continue to unless we’re all priced out or in the grave.”
— ASONIC GARCIA
For the last half-decade, Smart Bomb has held it down for Oakland’s beat head scene and beyond. At recurring parties and audiovisual getdowns around town, the collective—led by DJ Asonic Garcia and founders Mike Boo, Marcus Stephens, Alex Abalos, Michael Reed—offers up “frequencies and vibrations from the future,” curated by a sprawling, rotating cast of beatmakers, DJs, vocalists, and artists.
Smart Bomb’s stated goal is to “provide a much-needed platform for abstract and forward-thinking music and art,” united conceptually under the banner of futurism. Sonically, Smart Bomb sets tie together past, present, and future effortlessly, from dusty breaks and lo-fi, Brainfeeder-ish beats, to footwork, funk, astral jazz, and beyond.
Over the course of five years, Smart Bomb events have hosted a who’s who of Oakland diggers and sonic adventurers, like SELA, Spaceghost, Cheflee, and Salami Rose Joe Louis and Eighty9s. Along with that soundtrack comes a special attention to the visual experience, typically a backdrop of kaleidoscopic projections, often mixed live by in-house visual specialist Flatspot_.
As their profile expands (the crew was included last year by the Yerba Buena Arts Center on their annual list of the 100 creators shaping the future of culture, for example), Smart Bomb is committed to keeping the close-knit, community feel of what they do in tact: “We are proud to have each Smart Bomb function give off the vibe of a family party,” Asonic told us. “Folks come to connect, to get inspired, to heal and to get fuckin’ FREE.”
— DJ PLATURN
As their name suggests, The 45 Sessions bills themselves as “the West Coast’s premiere all 7” vinyl movement.” For the better part of the last decade, the six-man crew behind the event has carried the torch for a rich tradition of turntablism in the East Bay, dating back to pioneers like DJ QBert, DJ Shadow, and Dan the Automator.
Headed by DJ Platurn, E Da Boss, Enki, Delgado, Mr. E, the 45 Sessions team is a murderer’s row of vinyl archeologists, brought together by a love of rare gems from “every imaginable genre” and a shared respect for craft. “We’re known for bringing real skill and showmanship to the art of spinning [records],” says founder DJ Platurn, “It's all about the set and how you piece it together to tell a story, not just the individual songs themselves.”
With that in mind, the event has brought out all-time greats for past sessions, from Prince Paul to Diamond D to Just Blaze to Z-Trip. And in 2013, the crew brought another legend into the fold, officially bringing in Shortkut, “a friend and a mentor” known best for his role in storied West Coast crews the Beat Junkies and Invisibl Skratch Piklz, as a resident.
With the so-called vinyl resurgence in full force, it might be hard to remember a time when all-vinyl DJing seemed like it was on its way out for good. But even now, with Urban Outfitters slanging Kendrick LPs and Temescal dads stockpiling esoteric reissues, it’s still a digital-dominated landscape at bars and clubs. At venues like the Layover and the New Parish, and over the course of a longtime recurring residency at the Legionnaire, 45 Sessions helped keep Oakland’s vinyl scene alive and well, presaging a more recent wave of all-wax nights that’s helped tip the scales.