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[whitespace] Shobhan Pied Piper of Jungle: DJ, promoter, songstress Shobhan at Moulton Street Studios.


Raising the Roots

Not only can Shobhan recount San Francisco's musical history--she's been integral to its formation

By Jack Shamama

Shobhan started spinning records before most of today's party people even knew what a fake ID was. After moving here from Birmingham, England, in 1984, she started spinning reggae and soul at mostly African American clubs around the city. With a love for all kinds of dance music, she was influential in the early house scene and is credited with introducing drum 'n' bass to San Francisco with Riddim and Rewind at The Top.

You moved to SF in '84. I'd imagine that the scene has changed quite a bit since then. What was it like in '84?

It was really different. Cocaine was really in. I was really into reggae and soul, or what they call soul here we call R&B in England. I was always trying to find that. The first club I went to was the I-Beam and I couldn't believe it. I was like, "What the fuck is this?" I was used to England--I worked at a big nightclub that held 2,500 people and had all the latest lighting equipment and lasers and smoke machines, and they hadn't even heard of that here.

So the I-Beam was a dive?

No, it just wasn't a space. It had no lighting systems. It wasn't what I was used to. Coming here and hearing rock in a nightclub was really confusing to me. I was very disappointed, so I tried to find places that played soul and dance music, and at that time, there was a club across from the I-Beam called the Anxious Asp--it was a black club. I asked them if I could do a reggae night there, and they took my number. I wasn't even a DJ at the time, I was just a music enthusiast. Two days later, they called me up and said, "Our DJ's leaving, we really need a DJ, can you come and DJ?" and I was like, "OK."

So you took the job even though you had never spun before?

No, never (laughs)--but this was before, you know, Technics 1200 and high-end stuff. Just crappy old turntables and a crappy mixer. So I went in and I did it. I was a "DJ." (laughs)

Did you have a DJ name back then?

No. DJ culture as it is now hadn't been recognized. A DJ was just a person who played music.

It seems strange to me that there was all this night life on the Upper Haight back then, because now the Upper Haight's such a wasteland.

Yeah, totally. So I stopped DJing then. Had I known at the time what DJing was going to become now I would have continued doing it. So I dropped it at that time; the whole music scene was so boring--for me anyway. And I didn't get back into DJing again until I went to Goa in '89, where I went to my first rave on a beach in Goa.

And that was still before the whole rave scene took off in the U.S., right?

Well, the rave scene was going on in England and Europe then. In 1989 there was nothing happening here in house music. I was really interested to know what acid house was, but I couldn't find it. When I came back from Goa, there was Maurice's record "This Is Acid," and I managed to find that on a cassette single.

Tracks were being released on "cassingles"?

(laughs) Yeah. There were a couple of people trying to throw parties saying they were acid house, but there was no real movement in SF at that time. I was really waiting for something to happen. And having had my first experience of dancing all night on acid in Goa was amazing. Finally someone told me about the full-moon parties on the beach, which I went to the first one.

And this was in '91?

That's where I met Simon and some other people. Come-Unity was starting up at 1015, and it used to happen every Tuesday night. I think I went to the second one. From there I found out about Osmosis at DV8, which was really amazing. I loved it. Then Chad started up Housing Project, which was Wednesday. So our weekend ran from Tuesday through Sunday: Tuesday Community, Wednesday Housing Project, Thursday Osmosis. Friday and Saturday there was Toontown and Love at Big Heart City and whatever other big parties that were being thrown, like A Rave Called Sharon, which was my favorite party. Saturday and Sunday was the EndUp during the daytime.

They were playing house at the EndUp back then?

Yeah, it was all house. Everything was house. I started to go down to L.A. every other week because they played techno in L.A., which was really exciting to me. Also, Doc Martin threw this after-hours party called Flammable Liquid which was amazing. Jeno and Doc Martin were the DJs of the time, and they really moved me.

It seems like this was a pretty exciting time--there was actually stuff to do every night.

Every single night, except for Mondays. Monday we slept. I was really involved in it. I was right there living it. Then I had some really upsetting love affairs. The person I had this love affair with said to me, "I don't know why you don't start DJing again." And I thought, "Oh, what a good idea," so I started buying records again and I got turntables and started from there.

So that's when you returned to DJing house?

Yeah. And then I realized that there was more than just house music out there. 'Cause I had only been exposed to house music and a little bit of techno in L.A. I realized there was so much music that I hadn't heard. So I started to get into techno. The first club I did was an after-hours with Billee Sharp called Missing Link. That was still in '91. Everything was really great. By '93 things really started to get really boring.

To what do you attribute that?

Well, people stopped taking ecstasy and started taking crystal and that's when things got diluted. Everyone was on Crissy and no one was being particularly creative. I was DJing techno but nobody was interested in techno anymore--everyone thought it was crap. I threw Spacelab with Bille and Jonas Sharp and OST at the end of '93. We really wanted a techno club to go to because there really wasn't anything going on with techno. Everyone was into house, but there was this other music--techno--using 303s and weird sound effects and it was much faster, and we were into it, so we threw Spacelab at the Trocadero. Then Chris and I became so inspired by Detroit techno one day sitting on my bed listening to Derrick May--the intervals in the Transmat album--it's a compilation of the first Detroit techno that was put out. I got it in '94. These intervals on the album were so beautiful and we were so inspired, we were like, "Oh my God, we have to go to Detroit!" And I was also really, really into underground musicians since Mad Mike.

Did you have any idea what Detroit was like?

We knew it was a hostile place but we didn't really know what it was like. And we didn't know that all these guys were black. Their whole thing is that they don't really get interviewed or photographed because they're underground. I imagined Mad Mike to be some dorky white guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a bald head. And he was this super-gorgeous, fine black guy. And he wasn't just into techno; he was really into house as well. He was a musician--he played bass with Bootsy Collins. He's one of the unsung heroes of techno because everyone always mentions Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson and Carl Craig and they forget about Mad Mike and he's one of the best ones. He's just it.

But then you got exposed to the jungle scene while you were in Detroit, right?

Yeah, there were a lot of people from Toronto, where there was a big jungle scene. At the time it was called breakbeat. It was just about to go through that transition. That deep-sounding bass that was taken from reggae and hip-hop started to come into the music. I felt really excited by that. We came back to San Francisco and I told my boyfriend, OST, that I wished I could play a jungle set, so he went out and bought me a bunch of jungle records. That was what started it. A lot of people hated it at first but a few people loved it.

That winter I met Billy Jam and we decided to do a club--it was called The Jungle at Il Pirata. I went traveling around Japan and Europe for a while, then the night kind of stopped while I wasn't around. When I got back, I met Leigh [manager of the Top] and she offered me whichever night I wanted. I took Saturday. And that was how Saturday night at the Top started.

And the scene is still going strong-

I mean, it all began at Il Pirata, but it didn't take off till we got to The Top. Il Pirata started in March, and it didn't start till September at the Top. So it gave people a chance to get used to the music.

With drum 'n' bass being new, it must have all been really exciting.

It was. But in my opinion it didn't grow very much. It became accepted into the mainstream. You hear drum 'n' bass at any cafe along Haight Street anywhere in San Francisco. Everyone's used to it and knows it, just like house music. Techno faded into the back of nothing.

Now you're focusing on singing?

Well, I've been singing for years; I just never really have done anything with it. And now, when I DJ, I'll take maybe three songs that I write my own lyrics to and sing over my set. I've gone back to my roots as in playing old soul music. Old Chaka Khan and Tina Marie. I play a bit of hip-hop because I think that some of the hip-hop around now is fucking brilliant: great to dance to, really sexy.

Which hip-hop artists in particular?

Money B, from Digital Underground--he's coming out with some solo stuff that's really, really good. I think that Missy Elliot is the shit. Lauryn Hill--I like a few of her songs. Erykah Badu is really seriously amazing. I want to be able to play that when I play a set and not have people look at me like I'm from another planet. If I feel like playing hip-hop in the middle of my set, I don't think that people should walk off the dance floor because it has a different beat. It's the end of the millennium. We've had dance music for 30 years. If I can't play Aretha Franklin in my set and people can't appreciate that, then there's something wrong with them. It's where influences are coming from. The sounds of Motown Records from Detroit--everyone was dancing to it, it was revolutionary when it was happening. I want to be able to play more than one style of music when I play--maybe some house and some Underground Resistance thrown in and some hip-hop and some R&B, Mary J. Blige or something, you know, why not? Last time I played at the EndUp I played some hip-hop. All the white people left the dance floor, and the black people that were there--all five of them--got on the dance floor and they loved it .

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From the November 8, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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