One night a few years ago, I was at a drum & bass party in
Honolulu. I remember hearing the hyped-up rhythm and refused to dance
to it. Back then I frequently saw reggae acts and DJs downtown, but for
some reason drum & bass didn’t make the cut. When I asked where the
DJ was from a guy turned and said, “San Francisco,” insinuating that I
should have obviously known that.
I kept watching, eventually trying to dance halftime. The speed was too much though and I stopped.
I won’t lie. I’m a creature of the night, a fiend for oddities and excessive behavior. On my second week after touching down in San Francisco, I went to a slamming party, and I finally began to understand dubstep. It was slowed down drum & bass with a reggae groove. Flashes of the future, a city beneath the ocean or some violent fucking desert highway, where bandits gather around a burning wagon raced through my mind that evening.
I like the soul of dubstep during a drop. The whomps or ambient pauses flood the negative space.
My ears are ringing and my clothing stinks of foul smoke and sweat. I
roll over and look at my cell phone. It’s 10:46 am. I never get any
real sleep in this city. I wonder if Geoff of Castle Blackheart is feeling the
same way at the moment. He is personally responsible for my disheveled
Last night I was passing — slugging, rather — through all recognizable time and space at a hidden location, where several hundred people had gathered for a dubstep party in a funhouse of mythic proportions. Lost between the freaks in the depths of what felt like a post-apocalyptic refuge for a daytime-zombie-killer-platoon, the speakers blared and pulsed a hypnotic rhythm caught somewhere between jungle, drum and bass, break beats and reggae.
Lights, lasers and projectors sprayed off the walls and dark corners. The songs transitioned with massive bass bombs that attempted to re-align my spinal chord.
If I had to describe the sound of dubstep in a word I’d say WHOMP.
As dawn broke and virginal sunrays came through the cracks, a remix of Bobby Caldwell’s song “Do for Love” came on in the mellowest of ways, within the Dubstep tempo of 140/70 BPM (beats per minute). It was on this late night, or early morning, that I first met Geoff Blackheart, dubstep master.
I bike over to his unassuming home studio in the Sunset to meet him
and his friend, another DJ known as Rastatronics, to hear some tracks.
I’m greeted with a loaded bong as I slide into the studio.
Geoff usually gets up early, puffs herb and then gets into mixing tracks. His multifaceted energy has him working with mostly dubstep but he’s produced an equally fantastic pop rock album I took a peek at and even ambient music. Something like 2,000 or more ideas have been recorded on his computer and never finished. His thoughts are in constant motion. The tracks that get completed and mastered become what Julian and Peter spin to the masses each night.
“Turn down the suck knob and turn up the sick knob,” Rastatronics jokes. Time slows, and I’m drawn into the bass line. As the track continued my mind drifted through thoughts of far off moons, jungles and bursts of parakeets overhead. Then takes a turn down a busy city street in the distant future patrolled by robots. In other words, dubstep morphs the organic with the machine in a swirl of digital Dali visions through persistent rhythms.
“Lets sample that line from that Jamaican movie,” Rasta says. “This old Jamaican woman saying, ‘Just take it and gwan!’”
Born and raised in San Francisco, Geoff has been on the scene
producing, writing and DJing since 1997. He lives with his girlfriend
Mal Harper, who owns MalLabel Music, a dubstep label. The two of them
are driven artists; a visit with them is best explained as harmonious
and mellow. Together with the Blackheart guys and others they
collaborate on great mixes and epic parties.
He remembers a time when electronic music was more collective, before splitting into many sub-genres. It meant staying up through sunrise, partying at drafty vacant warehouses around the city.
“People were here for the dotcom boom. That’s when the raves scene blew up, period. The raves were massive, just really massive and you had all these 18 to 25 year olds making all this money and partying,” he says, puffing on his smoke.
When jungle and drum & bass fanned out in popularity, the dubstep scene hit big in 2005. “There was also a shift in drug use. Molly (MDMA) wasn’t at jungle back in the 90s. When dubstep hit, everyone was doing Molly and rolling their faces off!”
I look outside and notice a light fog is passing through towards the park.
“We’re closing out a party tonight at 222 Hyde if you want to come.” I ride my bike home to the Haight to take a pre-party nap.
I catch a cab sometime around midnight and head off to 222 Hyde. At the
door I tell someone I’m waiting for Geoff. “Yeah, us too! Where the
fuck is he?” the girl jokes.
I walk in, I see Peter and Julien, Geoff’s partners in Blackheart. We joke about the “unofficial” dubstep scarf, the keffiyeh, which I had told Geoff I would wear to look more like him.
“What do you think?” They laugh and Julian says, “Yeah that’s the look these days.” Peter is wearing a keffiyeh too. The three of them used to live in a castle-like building in Oakland in apartment B, the birthplace of Castle Blackheart.
Geoff arrives a few minutes later, and we head underground to the decks.
What makes dubstep so much fun to dance to are the breaks and pauses where everyone, sweaty and stony, can freak it at their own pace. You can dance double time, half time or sort of float around in a trance-like state – it doesn’t matter. Blackheart is at the helm.
The party slowly rises to climax and Geoff starts going off – bobbing and moving and clapping his hands. He climbs up onto a large speaker to hype up an already riled gathering. The set is booming. Peter, Geoff and Julian all take turns on the decks, cueing up tracks, tweaking knobs and pushing buttons on an archaic mixer.
I love the sweaty, dirty energy dubstep gives off. There is something a little more tribal and maybe even prehistoric about the general presence of bass exploding out of massive speakers in some sort of dusty cavern on Hyde Street.
Having played music and messed around with entry level recording
programs for several years I decide to try my own hand at making
dubstep, or something like it. Every Mac computer comes with a basic
program called Garage Band. I opened it and selected some drum loops
and began building a track based on my taste for lounge and hip-hop. It
took hours of methodically arranging each track, but I finally got
something to stick.
Geoff has me over a week later. We’re sitting at the kitchen table, because I had been falling asleep in mid-sentence slouched on Geoff’s bean bag chair. At that point I decided to show him an ambient down-tempo track I had made.
“Well, you have some good melodies in there.”
I watched him pause and think for a moment. He was about to get critical. “…But the transitions need work. They should be an expression of you. You’re the storyteller. It should be an extension of you, brother.”
His philosophy made sense, and who better to ask than a guy who’s been on a long, late night ride for over a decade working with some seriously funky and wonky sounds.
Fading out of other scenes and genres, continually pushing himself beyond even physical barriers, Geoff will continue to morph with music, the extension of his soul. As Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
Without roaming the streets ripping stained promo-flyers off
dashboards, your ticket to the wonky land of dub can be found on the
MalLabel Music and the Castle Blackheart websites. Some venues are off the
radar for various reasons, but noteworthy ear-busters can be heard often at