Blasting past dubstep, setting controls for the heart of the bass
GOLDIES "I don't care how much equipment you have, how many laptops you've got hooked together — if you're just making a bunch of trendy electronic sounds, if you don't know melody or dynamics or how to really play an instrument... you aren't making any music."
The masked man known as DJ Nebakaneza is notorious for his dazzling and unsettling outfits, gonzo energy, brain-scrambling bass, and rollicking social media presence. He isn't afraid to court controversy or speak his mind about what's going on in dance music, either. But dig a little beneath the flash and bombast and a portrait of an artist as a young bass maven emerges, one brimming with deep musical knowledge, canny intellectual vision, disarming charm, and inspiring faith in his hometown scene.
It's almost impossible to talk about Neb without including the rest of his Irie Cartel DJ crew — JohnnyFive, Mr. Kitt, Miss Haze, and Danny Weird. Irie Cartel has had a profound effect on the San Francisco dance music scene. But to understand just how much of an effect, we'll need to run down a little history of what didn't happen in the San Francisco clubs.
In the early 2000s a deep and throbbing apocalyptic sound from the grimier neighborhoods of London called dubstep started shaking the bass bins of the underground. By 2007, it was seeping into club nights here like Grime City, Brap Dem, and Full Melt, drawing critical interest and providing a nice complement to the minimal techno and disco revivalism that was also happening at the time.
But then a funny thing happened: mainstream America, apparently looking for a new arena-style rockout, hijacked dubstep, gutting it of all but its deep bass and catchy name. Pop artists adopted the sound, twisting it into a series of bowel-rumbling bass drops (nothing wrong with those, really), and it became known more for its fist-pumping frat party reputation than a reflection of the more angsty corners of urbanity. A wave of bro-step began washing over US clubs, threatening to wash out more subtle party expressions with its macho aggression.
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
That onslaught was stopped at our borders, thanks to Irie Cartel, whose weekly Ritual dubstep nights kept the fun factor high (and the bass extremely low), but also made room for classic bass music sounds, experimental electronic showcases, and flights of melodic beauty. It still melted your face, but poetically. Irie also emphasized old school rave community spirit: At its height, in the basement of club Temple, the Ritual party included a community marketplace for people to sell their handmade wares and food. It was like a cosmic bass bazaar full of beautiful bass faces. "We're all musically nerdy," Neb says of his crew. "But we strip out all the 'look at me' ego that came with the mainstream dubstep scene."
DJ Neb got into dubstep, in fact, as a fresh-faced youth who wandered into Grime City one night. "I spotted this flyer pasted to a wall and decided to check it out — it was at the old Anu club on Sixth Street at the time. And when I walked in, I was blown away by this wave of bass, these awesome sounds that seemed to be pulling me apart. I never looked back from there," he told me over the phone, as he prepared to leave for a gig in Uruguay. "It seemed to pull together something that had been brewing in me somewhere. I'd always been into music. I started working at Rasputin Records as soon as I could, and would spend all my free time in there, too — just digging through bins and listening to music. My paycheck would go right back into those records. They used to pay me in music, essentially.
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