Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Vinyl Dreams (Part 1)
Movements May Fizzle But Dreams Live On
If arts and culture knowledge can pay your rent in today’s San Francisco, you are bona fide knowledgeable. You may be the head of a department at one of the universities, an art curator at SFMOMA, or a record shop owner in Lower Haight. Michelangelo Battaglia, a.k.a. Mike Bee, the owner of Vinyl Dreams, is a dance and electronic music aficionado that’s been deeply-steeped-in-the-scene for decades. He was raised in the Pittsburgh area in a very musical Italian-American family: “so it's in the blood.” He moved to San Francisco in 1994 while chasing the US rave scene at the time. “San Francisco had a bit of a legendary mythical thing going on, or so we heard back East, so I jumped at the chance to go see for myself—and I never left!”
In this interview, Mike Bee shared with us his personal accounts from the unconfined and unstoppable dance music scenes of the ‘90s (part 1), his time at Amoeba Music, running a record store in San Francisco, and finally, three records that influenced him greatly (part 2).
――So what was that mythical rave scene of San Francisco like in 1994?
In '94, it was on the tail end and you’ve almost missed the heyday. The scene itself may have continued to grow, but the core vibe of it, which was very DIY: non-traditional venues, and nonstop-24-hour-parties—that ended. It turned into a more organized, legal thing, and in some cases, it became more corporate. Everything was moving into nightclubs. So to me, I kind of existed around ‘95 and stopped with the rave scene.
Between ‘90–‘95 was the golden era for me. There is a local promotion group called Sunset Sound System and in ‘94 they started throwing free events on Sunday afternoons that were held outdoors. Most of these events were initially at the Berkeley Marina, so there was a beautiful view of Treasure Island, the City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge, and they would start at noon and go to sunset. On the day I arrived in the Bay Area, I attended one of these and immediately knew that this place was going to be my home: these are my people! [Laughs.] It was really magical. There were no rules, no uniform, there was no lifestyle yet, and everyone was just making up this new thing as they went along—it was really inspiring.
It's hard for me to describe to people today, because everything is so boxed and locked down. I tell people I used to go to parties in playgrounds, abandoned construction sites, national parks: literally anywhere. The police really didn't bother us either. They would kind of look over and maybe pull up across the street and watch us for a couple of hours, and then leave when they saw that there was nothing to see there. So, we were able to really get away with a lot that you can't anymore—it's impossible. They also passed laws against it. In the States here it’s called the RAVE Act and they made it illegal. It's similar to the Criminal Justice Act in the UK that basically criminalized playing dance music outdoors on a sound system. I personally think it's unconstitutional, but no one has ever contested it, and from what I know, the law remains on the books. So the RAVE Act was the end of the rave here in the States. It basically criminalized raving.
――Can you tell us more about the events that were happening during the heyday?
Sure. On the East Coast, you had promoters like Ultraworld (Baltimore/DC rave promoters), Primary, and there was Storm Rave. There were big nightclubs in New York that were also part of the scene like LimeLight and NASA. On the West Coast, we had Wicked which basically kicked off the West Coast rave scene. A lot of these British DJs came over from the UK in '89 to live in SF (San Francisco) and they basically took what was a nascent house music scene and turned it into full-blown rave culture. They brought the idea of: Let's take a sound system down to the beach and play music all night. And it was right on the beach! A lot of those guys are famous today: Garth, Jeno, DJ Harvey, and Choci, they were all from the same group of people that came over at the same time and brought what was happening at the UK to the West Coast. Even in SF alone, the names of some of these parties are still legendary: Toon Town, Mr Floppy’s, but Wicked is one of the most well known. Wicked had regular events in a club called DV8, but they also did these incredible outdoor parties; a lot of them were down the coast in a place called Bonnie Doon. Those Bonnie Doon parties are still very legendary, and those guys were the driving force behind it.
――There was obviously drug use at these parties.
A lot of acid, a lot of ecstasy. But for me, the defining point of a rave is as an unofficially unsponsored gathering of people to listen to loud house or techno music in any setting.
――That sounds like the punk mentality.
Oh totally. A lot of the people who kicked off the rave in the UK, New York and the East Coast were former punks or people who came from the industrial scene. It definitely had that DIY, anti-authoritarian, and the we are gonna do this whether you like it or not-mentality—which was really attractive to me as a kid.
――What was your entry point into this music that was coming out at that time?
Good question. I don't' even know if I can really pinpoint it, because it all was coming together at a time when I became very aware of music and started to explore it for myself. So I was already into industrial music like Nitzer Ebb, Font 242, synth-pop like Depeche Mode, and had been reading about house music through the UK press, but I wasn't really hearing it in Pittsburgh on the radio. I heard a lot of R&B, a lot of '80s dance music like pre-house, or music that was happening parallel to house music that wasn't quite house. But once I started to dig a little deeper, I found these compilations that came out domestically that were called Best of House Music 1, 2, and 3. Those were very formative for me as were the early albums and singles of the band, 808 State. I was a big 808 State fan. The gateway for me, really, was reading magazines like The Face, Melody Maker, and New Musical Express, and those writers were painting a picture of what was happening over there and that immediately hooked me. I was listening to a lot of British rock at the time and the whole Manchester scene that emerged in ‘89, ‘90. It was rock bands basically discovering house music and the rave scene, so that is how I got into that. Even before I had ever been to a rave, this tour came through Pittsburgh that was sponsored by Mute Records, and it was a showcase of all the music they were releasing: they were promotional videos for all of the dances that they were pushing that summer. They also had Derrick May, the Detroit techno producer and DJ, on hand as who was playing a DJ set, and the band Renegade Soundwave played live, and I… [chuckles] I remember approaching Derrick May and talking to him about potentially booking him for a rave in the Pennsylvania countryside that my friend and I were kind of cooking up, despite not really knowing how to do that, or even how it looked like. And he was really open to it, he was like, "Yeah, yeah, I’ll do that. Here is my contact information." I think I kept that all this time having met Derrick May at age 17 or whatever I was. I don't know what the hell I was talking about. [Laughs.] It was a way to talk to Derrick May, right?
"In retrospect, we (SF) were only one of three or four
American cities that were clued in to what was going on,
and actively participating in the culture."
――He sounds like a good representation of what that whole scene was like at the time.
Yeah. Here is a teenager coming up to you at an event and you have never seen this person in your life, and yet, you are kind of like, “Yeah ok, I will come out to the middle of a cow pasture in Pennsylvania and play records for you.” That's equally crazy! [Laughter.]
――So that paints a good picture of how these different influences and scenes lead you to San Francisco. Let’s fast forward to the tail end of the rave era; what came next for you?
Well, I was getting into jungle music. The music that we were listening to at raves was generally techno, English techno, and Belgian techno, and what we called hardcore at the time, which was sort of British techno being married with breakbeat from hip hop records, and a Jamaican sound system attitude with giant bass lines. So we started getting into hardcore regularly. I used to live with a DJ that became quite famous in that world, and he was bringing in UK hardcore breakbeat records every other week from London, and I was going with him to his gigs every week.
As the music morphed into jungle, I started to turn my eyes and ears toward wanting to DJ, and the jungle scene was happening at nightclubs mostly. So as I started to explore that music, a community emerged out of people I had just met here in SF. It turned out that we were all into the same thing, and I was able to partake and bear witness to this amazing jungle and drum and bass scene that happened in SF. Eventually there were 15 different crews—you could go out every night of the week to a different party or club to hear music. Tons of people were making music and labels were coming out of SF. In retrospect, we were only one of three or four American cities that were clued in to what was going on, and actively participating in the culture. So that was the next big thing for me: diving right into the jungle and drum and bass scene.
I also started to get a lot more involved as a journalist; I was a staff writer at XLR8R and I was a columnist for URB. So that was also exciting. Honestly, it was all driven by a motivation to get closer to the music, so I could hear the music before anyone else, or get it before it came out: to stay on top of what was happening. There was a bleeding edge of culture, I mean when you look at it now, it happened so fast how these genres emerged and became something vital, and then codified into something uniform, and then became stale. Drum and bass still exists, there is still a scene worldwide, but It's not quite the same as it was; it doesn't have that new vibe, like we were breaking musical ground, and it really felt like something totally new. Unfortunately, music for me these days is largely a retro thing; or the new music that is being made isn't something that I consider very progressive or forward thinking—not that I don't like it; I do enjoy it.
The writer Simon Reynolds talks about the "Hardcore Continuum" that started with breakbeat house that evolved through hardcore and jungle. Then came drum and bass, and then the tempo drops to include UK garage, speed garage, and 2-step garage. There is the whole West London broken beat contingent which brought a more jazz and soul element to it. Once the 2-step thing became dubstep—I think it ended there. You could maybe argue that it continued into grime, which also continues to this day, but I don't think it really progressed beyond that. This amazing 10-year period of intense innovation ended then, for me, at least.
――Do you think that kind of energy of community-based evolution of music has died out? What do you think happened?
Again, I think it has become this very rigid, codified “lifestyle” that is very easily digestible and more importantly, marketable. I think what has been lost is the chaos of it, or that sense that anything can happen. I think now it is very much put in a box, and anything outside of the box is not it, and everything inside the box is it. I see that surrounding German techno—that to me is the evolution of all of these subcultures—but there is so much money in it. Certain people are getting paid, many people are still not getting paid, and so many people are not getting recognized for paving the way for that to exist.
I see it as very much bourgeois.... All you really need is money and time, which a lot of millennial-20-somethings do in America and Europe. If you can travel regularly to European countries, if you have the money to look the right way (sport a Joy Division T-shirt from Forever 21; when you don’t really know who that is) and to buy all the equipment you need—you can basically buy yourself a career in dance music. Unfortunately, I have seen this a lot over the last decade, you know, the standards have dropped in the toilet, and it is very much a marketing exercise and the substance is lost.
On the flip-side, one of the reasons why I love working in vinyl and working in this kind of cottage industry, is because since all the money got taken out of it, everyone is there because they want to be. Everyone pressing records is doing it because they want to do it; they believe in the format and it’s part of their lifestyle. There isn’t really a return on it, you know? You might have a hit, and you might make a little money off of it, but unfortunately, it's just kind of eliminated. People were pressing 10,000 copies of records back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and now you are lucky if it’s 500 copies. And that's just the reality of the market and what happened with the advent of digital music. In a way, though, it kind of leveled everything to the point where everyone is not out to get something over on you or to enrich themselves. These are people I work with, that I buy records from: artists, the label owners, the distributors, you know, all of the chains in the industry. Those people are generally pretty cool these days—because there isn't a fortune to be made here.
593 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117
Hours: Mon, Wed-Sat: 1pm-8pm (Sun: 1pm-7pm)
Closed on Tuesdays
Tel: (415) 379-0974 USA
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii