USF’s main campus looks to have been hit by hangover apocalypse as I cross the quad. It’s a very dead noon on a Sunday, and the students are either passed out elsewhere or on summer break. I figure the Arizmendi pizza delivery dude is a sign of life and follow his steaming pies into McLaren Hall, which is housing community radio station KUSF’s quarterly record fair, the Rock-n-Swap. Inside, the room is buzzing with hustle. Record geeks who’ve wolfed down donuts and sodas and are surging through or selling crates, boxes, and haphazard stacks of vinyl, DVDs, CDs, cassettes, and cassingles (Yeah, they’re back. Two for $1.).
I’ve always loved hanging with record geeks. Back when I was a teenager, music was my escape from suburban Portland lameness. I was a miserable kid until I was old enough to grasp a new language of punk and indie band names, which I learned faster than freshman Spanish. I quickly befriended the other excitable social aliens, and anyone who could expand my nascent music knowledge was automatically awesome. Particularly if they were also old enough to buy me beer.
Since then, I’ve made a career of writing about music, but more importantly, I’ve spent my free time cultivating friendships with rock fiends who round out my standby picks with new suggestions. San Francisco is ridiculous with options for turning snobby obsessions into something social—so much so that I’m able to hit two events, a record sale and a mixtape trade, in one fabulous afternoon.
Unlike the hardcore Rock-n-Swappers, I don’t care about the rare collector’s items. I’d rather hang with a guide who’ll lead me though this labyrinth of random recordings. My chosen date for the day is KUSF program coordinator Jantine B., who’s fashionably late. Her taste is dance floor to my dive bar, but the momentum of her afternoon setlists energizes me. She also cracks me up. When she’s really digging something, Jantine gives a “yeah, buddy!” shout-out, a phrase she lifted, naturally, from a bodybuilder named Ronnie Coleman.
Jantine arrives at McLaren Hall among a sea of scruffy dudes and she’s impossible to miss. She’s sporting flared jeans, dark sunglasses, blonde braids, and candy red lipstick. As she waves across the room, there’s a straw purse connected to her arm.
Jantine looks like a disco Dorothy, and on the air she’s a wizard of good cheer. She spins disco, house, funk, boogie, and “tender tunes.” “There’s already a lot of ugliness in this world,” she explains of her preference for uplifting music. She adds with a wink that she’s a Libra, so she naturally loves the prettier, gentler things in life.
We move around the room—counterclockwise, per Jantine’s method – and I ask how she builds on her setlists. I learn her shopping is as casual as her timing – the records “find” her. She randomly rifles through boxes of 45s and cassettes. (“I love a cassingle,” she says). A remix of “Love to Love You Baby” gets an “Oh, hello there,” from Jantine, as do albums by the Bee Gees, Marvin Gaye, and Sylvester. She’s looking for bargains – every item she grabs is $5 or less, as these albums won’t gather much dust in her collection.
“I’m not delicate,” she explains with a flip of a tattooed wrist. “I open my toys and play with them. They get to go out and see the world.” This is my kinda record fan.
Any DJ worth their crate weight shares one thing, Jantine adds: a confidence in taste. “No matter what the music you love is, have your own opinion and be firm in it,” she advises, a fist full of House of Pain, Big Daddy Kane, and Jane’s Addiction cassingles in her hand.
Jantine was at McLaren Hall earlier this morning – as in 4 a.m. earlier. KUSF’s staff is all volunteer, and these regular sales give the station its pocket change. She tells me about the first round of shoppers – the quiet, poker-faced collectors from Japan or from local record stores, who flip through their finds silently so as to not alert the competition to their discoveries. These fiends help KUSF earn half its sales before noon.
By 2 p.m. Jantine says she needs a quick disco nap.
Before she takes her break, she briefs me on one more Rock-n-Swap secret. Today’s vinyl emporium, like its predecessors, is 97 percent men, many of whom are local DJs and musicians. Jantine throws a hand on her hip, cocks another giant smile, and adds that she doesn’t leave before trying to find the cutest boy in the room.
I spend the next hour flying solo, seated next to a seller named Alex from Bakersfield. I believe this guy has good taste based on his Mars Volta–cloud of curly hair. Record nerds with big Afros should have excellent psych knowledge, right? Alex lives up to his hairstyle when he sits me down next to his portable turntable and has me listen to a couple of recommendations. The ‘60s record with the bevy of turtleneck gentlemen was far too gentle, but I dig the epic prog jams and acid rock on the King Crimson and Atomic Rooster records. I hand Alex $15 for those two and hop into a cab. Time to hit the Make-Out Room for the second half of today’s sonic social.
The flyer for the San Francisco Mixtape Society warns that tape trades start at 4:30 p.m. sharp, but when I arrive 15 minutes late, people are still posting their playlists on the bar wall. This quarterly group is open to the public and suggests a different comp theme every round. Prizes are issued based on best setlist and packaging, and mixes can be turned in on CD or USB port, but if you arrive with a mixtape in hand, you earn extra love. “Bring in a cassette and you get a free drink,” the judges explain from the stage.
I set up at the bar and fill out the song titles I’ve compiled for the challengingly general theme of Foreign versus Familiar. My CD cover is a spooky Holga print and my mix is a random selection of the well-known (local garage rock from Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, and Tim Cohen) along with the strange elders with similar aesthetics (The Endtables, The 13th Floor Elevators).
As I post my playlist for the judges, I realize that I’m gonna lose this contest. I read the explanations people have written with their titles, and see the real competitors DJ with their hearts on record sleeves. A mixer named David writes that his CD of Indian and African-American music was inspired by his fifth anniversary with his girlfriend. Another music fan named Jeremy explains how his songs tell his life story.
The real killer, though, comes from Rachel, who writes wistfully that her boyfriend is gone “75 percent of the time” and she makes him mixes for his many hours on the road. “Most of this should be foreign,” she writes, and her picks are definitely obscure – Soko, Admiral Fallow, Angus & Julia Stone. She gets my vote.
I’ve invited Jantine to make a mix and hit this swap with me, and she arrives just as the judges are announcing the winners. Bags of schwag (from the SF MOMA, Mission Minis, and other sponsors) go to the woman who wrapped her songs in a beautiful three-dimensional globe, a mixer named Sangeet who I learn shares my taste for Thee Oh Sees, and an aspiring KUSF DJ named Josh who turned his comp of Tuvan throat singers and Spanish covers of the Stones in on a cassette. He’s now drinking for free. So much for the romantics.
Jantine and I exchange our mixes as the crowd settles back into the booths. Her disc, called I Am Love, has a cover image of naked women running into the sunset, and lots of songs about colors by spoken word poet Ken Nordine. She says all her comps involve a cohesive element, and her Nordine thread is a perfect example, keeping the listener engaged with colorful (ha!) breaks between singles by Nina Simone, Jackson 5, Leon Russell, and Al B. Sure (singing in Spanish!).
As the setting sunlight sucks the last bits of late afternoon from the Make-Out Room, Jantine is on fire. She’s full of great aphorisms, but my favorite is her approach to both DJing and collecting. She ticks off the line from some fashion designer with another big grin. “When you think you have too much on,” she says, “put on a little more, just to be safe.”
I promise to live by that mantra, continuing to cram more addictive music socials into my life, only to add more on top.
KUSF’s quarterly Rock-n-Swap has taken over McLaren Hall for over 20 years. Speaking of KUSF, you can find Jantine B. DJing on different afternoons if you tune into 90.3 FM or listen online.
The San Francisco Mixtape Society is another quarterly affair. The members meet at the Make-Out Room on the given Sundays. Find out about dates, themes, rules, and prizes at http://www.sfmixtapesociety.com/ .