On a Friday night in mid-March, a crowd stood around a dimly lit table in the center of Uptown's newest venue, Legionnaire Saloon, where a DJ stood tweaking the knobs of a mixer. To the uninitiated, the scene — a sea of hats and hoodies nodding in time to the beats — might have looked odd and uneventful. But it was the inaugural night of Smart Bomb, a new party that aims to be the home for the Bay Area beat music — a genre that combines leftfield electronic with stony, instrumental hip-hop.
Over the past few years, "beat music" has broken free of its underground roots, having been popularized by artists like Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing, Shlohmo, and Teebs, who carry the torch lit by Madlib and J Dilla. Not as club-friendly as house or techno, the beat sound twists jazz, psychedelic textures, found sounds, and funk into lumpy low-end and swung rhythms. The genre's initial roots are firmly planted on the West Coast, particularly Los Angeles, where the weekly party Low End Theory helped launch the careers of the aforementioned producers from a downtown dive bar. Now members of the Oakland beat/jazz collective Secret Sidewalk hope Smart Bomb will similarly foster beatmaking in the Bay.
While beat music was quickly adopted and championed by many Bay Area bedroom producers early on, it has yet to find a local audience as faithful as that of its SoCal counterparts. San Francisco's Change the Beat series was the closest the genre had to a regular party in the Bay, but it lacked a permanent venue during its run from 2010 to 2012 and struggled to build a lasting movement despite its thoughtful curation. Perhaps encouraged by Smart Bomb's successful first party and producers such as Flying Lotus being more a part of the mainstream, Change the Beat organizers recently announced the party will return after a year-long hiatus on Friday, April 19, at 1192 Folsom.
Still, Smart Bomb curator and resident selector Jason Garcia (aka Asonic Garcia) explained that none of San Francisco's parties have spilled over to Oakland or Berkeley — where a growing number of producers currently reside.
"I never really knew of any nights focused on beats in the East Bay," said Garcia. "There'd be warehouse parties here and there, but those would be more on the Burning Man or rave tip. Nothing was ever really about true, heady instrumental beat stuff around Oakland."
Garcia and his revolving cast of Smart Bomb residents (Mike Boo, Puzzle, Michael Reec, Marcus Stephens, and DJ Centipede) think now may be the right time for Oakland to give the beat scene its Bay Area home, and they just might be onto something. In the past year, a number of East Bay producers have begun to make waves outside of the close knit tape- and MP3-trading circles of their fellow beat producers. Space Ghost, Elephant & Castle, Mark Aubert, Ruff Draft, Kouta, Boats, and others regularly release music on small labels and attract fans using music-sharing sites like SoundCloud. Because each represents considerably different styles within the often abstract genre, it's hard to claim a particular sound or aesthetic that is unique to the East Bay beat scene. Garcia said Smart Bomb hopes to use this lack of cohesiveness to its benefit.
"With this night, we want to have such a full lineup of different people from different circles," Garcia explained. "With a lot of beat shows, it has usually been somebody getting all his homies to play, and they're already a crew anyway, so no one hears about. We want to connect to a bigger network, bring beatmakers out from San Francisco, the South Bay, and all over, but have the East Bay be the home."
At Smart Bomb's first party, this formula appeared to have worked well. Beat scene heavy hitter Dakim (who hails from LA and Detroit) shared the headliner slot with Devonwho (a recent SF transplant), and was supported by Oakland's own Space Ghost and Ruff Draft, as well as Aly, who said he drove down from Stockton. In between sets, the resident DJs played a fitting array of tracks while a host emcee kept the crowd's attention with freestyle rap. In other reminders of the Bay's turntablist and true-school hip-hop days — scenes the Smart Bomb residents claim as their roots — the night included live painting and an open-mic policy when it came to emcee duties.
While the party was not as dance-floor-focused as some might expect from a night of electronic music, the crowd seemed to get it, even when the beats sank into loose, stuttering patterns that resulted in more head-bobbing and chin-stroking than straight-up body-moving.
"It's leftfield music with a good backbeat," Smart Bomb resident Mike Boo explained. "You could have a drone and the sound of seagulls flying around, just as long as it has that bump."