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Dreams Can Come True

[whitespace] Soulstice Potential Pop Stars: Soulstice has become one of San Francisco's first electronic bands to attract the bigwigs of the music industry.

Om Records

What was once Soulstice's dream has now become its job

By Amanda Nowinski

Three years ago, at half past two in the morning, I found myself in the basement of a Mission Street warehouse, completely mesmerized by the sight and sound before me. A small white girl in a huge fur hat belted out a bittersweet love song with the might and beauty of a gospel singer, while two club kids on keyboards and another on the turntables blended house, ambient and funk into buttery, Motown-on-ecstasy soul. The groove was on, and despite its hip clubber hesitance to enjoy live music, the crowd was feeling it.

After all, this was not the riff-ridden acid jazz that then plagued San Francisco; here was a live electronic band playing something genuinely new, something that didn't sound like Dave Brubeck with a lobotomy and a bitchen' pair of flared corduroys. My friend turned to me and whispered, "These kids are scaring me--they're too good." Admitting to neurotic mixtures of awe and jealousy, we knew that this group--whatever the hell its name was--would someday be famous. It's possible that we weren't too far from the truth.

Twenty-three months and two record deals later, Soulstice has become one of San Francisco's first electronic bands to attract the bigwigs of the music industry. First signed to Om in '97, Soulstice was recently presented with a hefty contract from Dreamworks, the multimedia love child of the most powerful triumvirate in Hollywood: Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Earlier this month, Soulstice released its first two tracks with Om and is currently spending "14-hour days" in the studio while it completes its full-length debut for Dreamworks.

As I chat with the bandmembers in the rear bar of Backflip, their cell phones ring with persistence and the bartender delivers free drinks. Clearly, I am in the presence of potential pop stars. "What was once our dream is now our job," says singer Gina Rene, whose large-eyed, spacy etherealness and denim overalls render her happily unpretentious. "There's no group of people I'd rather be with," adds Mei Lwun Yee, the group's DJ (who bears a striking resemblance to Ice-T). "I couldn't ask for anything better. I feel blessed to be a part of this group."

Bred in the magic mountains of Santa Cruz, Soulstice has been in the making since the late '80s, when Gabriel Rene, Gina's older brother, discovered the rave culture with future bandmates Mei Lwun and Andy Caldwell. "We became obsessed with house music," Andy explains. "It's all pretty much due to the English invasion of San Francisco in the late '80s and early '90s. They brought a lot of that music here, especially to raves like Wicked. I would listen to Jeno tapes six million times a day."

Soon, the threesome began DJ-ing and producing tracks at the Rene family music studio in LA. "Raves were our inspiration," Gabriel agrees. "If it hadn't been for the rave scene, we would just be another funk band playing around San Francisco for the next 10 years."

Then one weekend in 1989, Gina, who was "over" raving at the age of 17, accompanied her brother and the rest of the group to Los Angeles, where she stood in on one of their studio sessions. "I was rapping over a beat we had just put together, and I sounded like a 14-year-old Chuck D," Gabriel explains. "Just for kicks, we asked Gina to join in, and she totally blew us away. She smoked it--her delivery was amazing, and she added little timings that we hadn't even thought of. We were all amazed. It was at that point that I realized that this could be a possible life direction."

It wasn't until seven years later, however, that Soulstice was actually formed. "Andy and I were producing house music and break beats in San Francisco, and one night we had Gina sing over a house track," Gabriel says. "That was it. We felt the power of our music, and we all realized that this is what we were supposed to be doing."

Unlike most electronic bands, Soulstice didn't find its audience from within the invisible confines of a producer's studio. Instead, the band entered the public's senses by way of live performances throughout San Francisco nightclubs. "111 Minna became our living room," Gabriel says. "This was in '96, during the fall of the house scene--electronic music got really stale, and everyone was getting sick of acid jazz. But because of the acid-jazz phase, people became more interested in down-tempo music. The electronic music scene became more experimental."

But whatever you do, don't confuse the band's sound for trip-hop--Soulstice is not a pasty appropriation of hip-hop. If anything, the group is more of a hybrid of the Barkays, Nina Simone and Massive Attack on antidepressives. The two Om Records tracks, "Tenderly" and "Knot Alone," borrow from Bristol-style goth (Tricky, Portishead, Massive Attack) but are balanced with the optimism of American funkiness.

"One thing that sets us apart from every other electronic band out there," Andy explains, "is that we are blending three distinct musical genres: one is soul, the other is electronica and the [third] is hip-hop. And I don't think there are any other groups that are doing that in the way we are."

Contrary to logical belief, Soulstice is not planning to defect to the synthetic shores of Los Angeles, where the music-industry hype is as plentiful as the supply of fake boobs and lost dreams. "This band couldn't have evolved anywhere else," Mei Lwun explains. "We can play all kinds of music in San Francisco, and people will groove. People here are just really open-minded," Gabriel continues. "There's a buzz about San Francisco right now. DJs flock here, and people come here from all over the world for the vibe. In 15 years, people will look back and recognize this place as a Mecca for electronic music." And in a matter of months, we might recognize Soulstice as the band we once jammed to in a tiny San Francisco club.

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From the December 21, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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