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Dance to the Underground

The Knowmatic Tribe Soundsystem in its heyday: Xotec, Christ Sinister, Godmorgen, and Udagawa. (photo: Nancy J Parisi)

Knowmatic Tribe reunites for one night, evoking two decades of history of subterranean disco in Buffalo

Tonight is the night—the night before Thanksgiving, widely considered the Buffalo bar scene’s busiest. Tonight, old friends and acquaintances will descend on the city’s watering holes in an orgy of nostalgia.

But in a dark corner of downtown Buffalo, around the rear of a blond brick building, through an unmarked door, and down a flight of stairs, another reunion will take place, one that recalls the literal and figurative musical orgies of years past.

For the first time in 10 years, Marcos, Christ Sinister, Godmorgen, Xotec, and Matty—the notorious DJ collective that both heralded and transcended Buffalo rave in the early 1990s, and danced to the dawn of the post-millennial dance party era—will again take to the decks as the infamous Knowmatic Tribe Soundsystem.

Much has changed since 1993, when youthful hedonism heralded a cultural revolution. The Tribe reunion takes place at Soundlab, a fully licensed art space, not in the reclaimed firetraps that promised danger and opportunity when illegal parties were the order of the day. The DJs and likely most of the audience will be in their mid to late 30s, many with husbands or wives and kids of their own.

The reunion comes at a time when appreciation for dance music is on the rise. For twentysomethings, dancing and dance parties are once again an essential component of contemporary nightlife.

What better time to reflect on two decades of fleeting enjoyments, lost nights, and the heroic struggle to redefine youth and culture on one’s own terms?

Of course, what I am attempting is impossible: a history of moments, and not just any moments—those that exist outside time and yet summarize it so perfectly.

The dance floor is where a community’s expectations about life and style are negotiated and its hopes are advanced, where its expectations regarding the body, sexuality, fashion, and age are defined. It’s on the dance floor that feedback loops are cultivated with both the mainstream and the underground, where bodies and minds merge in the pursuit of a certain kind of elevated consciousness.

But before you complain that your dance music isn’t represented, that your favorite DJ didn’t get mentioned, let me first say that this is not a history of Buffalo’s various club DJs, but rather a personal reflection on a certain strain of midnight dance music typically played by DJs who draw their audiences from Allentown, the Elmwood Strip, and University Heights, hip neighborhoods filled with young people eager to experience contemporary urban life on their own terms. It’s also the history of DJs who absorb contemporary trends but re-craft them to suit entirely original incentives, unrestricted by genre or convention, who want to remake life, one night out at a time.

This is the history of a community that defines itself after dark.

The Birth of Buffalo Rave

Knowmatic Tribe (photographer unknown)
Knowmatic Tribe (photographer unknown)

Consider what it was like to grow up in the post-disco 1980s, a decade when by macho decree there was only one way, one way—to rock.

Rock is a manifestly physical music, but it’s not a physically sophisticated music. Live, you want a band to leap around the stage, and perhaps the crowd might sway in response. But ultimately the audience expects to simply stand there, possibly even sit there. The body barely exists in the transaction of the music.

To be sure, in the early 1990s, alternative music attempted to make of the body a subject of discourse, re-dressing rock’s traditionally phallic architecture in post-feminist facades. Riot Grrrl, for example, attempted a subversion of the dominant paradigm by playing estrogen-fueled rock; but in the end, the edifice of rock remained unchallenged.

In collapsing theaters and abandoned warehouses, musty basements and open fields, however, an altogether different flirtation took hold—with electronic music (the endlessly divisible genres of house, breaks, trance, techno, electro, drum n bass, trip hop, acid jazz, etc.) and DJ culture in general. Considering its iconic abandonment of guitars for turntables and the shift of attention from the stage to the dance floor, electronic music proffered a new model for music and culture, something that 1990s alternative music, caught in a subcultural endgame with the mainstream music industry, failed to achieve.

It was radical music, deliberately synthetic and stylized, both insistent and atmospheric, propelled by beats strung together like bricks in a wall dividing those moved to dance from those who considered electronic music nothing more than random sound effects dropped over a relentless pulse.

In its spare design, electronic music required its listeners’ bodies to complete the transaction, although an open mind also helped. Aided by the popular club drug ecstasy, which created a touchy-feely sense of communality, the electronic music scene was uniquely tactile, sensual, happy. The tribal nature of the music helped elevate interior euphoria to exterior social reality.

Rave, the early 1990s phenomenon of all night, ecstasy-fueled parties, was by the early 1990s a firmly entrenched European tradition, buttressed by a rich subterranean evolution that stretched from the gay bathhouses and alternative disco spaces of New York City through the legendary techno and house scenes of 1980s Detroit and Chicago, through the early 1990s “Madchester” moment and beyond. In Buffalo, however, this music went largely unheard—until 1993.

Indulging his “love of a newly emerging electronic music culture centered around acid and Chicago house and the creative possibilities I unlocked once I stumbled into the art of beat matching and mixing…literally a ‘eureka’ moment for me,” founding Knowmatic Tribesman DJ Xotec (Chris Moody), along with fellow party pioneer DJ Seuss (Ed Petellis) organized the first local raves, beginning at the since demolished Ellen Terry Theater, located on the corner of Grant and Potomac.

That night, Xotec met future Knowmatic Tribe partners Marcos (Udagawa), Christ Sinister (Chris Schorb), and Godmorgen (Scott Swiezy)—later to be joined by DJ Matty (Matius Cianfoni)—and the “whole twisted ride began,” he said.

Marcos, who had “started DJing as a result of a general dissatisfaction with what I heard when I went out,” found that more and more, he was not alone. “Matty Quinn—son of [Sabres managing partner] Larry, and bedroom DJ and Knowmatic Tribe friend—introduced Marcos to the decks, and Marcos introduced me and Chris to the decks,” Godmorgen explained in a 2002 interview with the collective. “This is at a time when we needed something new and positive to happen around here. It sort of just fell together. I remember looking at the decks while Marcos was spinning and looking at Chris like a caveman first seeing a flashlight.

“Chris and I started immediately after the first party, fall of 1993. I don’t remember much except for not knowing how to match beats yet [the art of syncing two simultaneously playing records, the core skill of most professional club DJing], so Chris and I became ‘ambient’ DJs. We were searching for something more mind-expansive that people could flip out to, so we started developing these ‘chill-out rooms.’ All-encompassing mind expansion chambers. If you didn’t want to dance and wanted to go for a ride, that’s where the riffraff ended up.”

In addition to the underground parties, in 1994 Marcos and Xotec began spinning every Friday in a small bar, Asbury Alley, on Pearl Street across from Shea’s. As Xotec recalled: “Marcos started playing records at Asbury Alley on one Technics 1200 and one not-so-good turntable. Once he got another Technics 1200 it was on!”

Developing a loyal following through this residency, the collective started throwing their own events, beginning in May 1995. The first was Timewave Zero, which took place in the basement of the Lafayette Hotel.

Timewave Zero was “True to the scene—dark, loud and risky,” explained Godmorgen. General debauchery was the rule of the day. And like most early Knowmatic Tribe parties, such as legendary extravaganzas thrown at the Masten Street Armory and the now demolished TCI building on Main Street, Timewave Zero involved “elaborate space scenarios, opium den-style rooms and, of course, Maureen the Golden Cow,” a “mystical bovine with a bloodlust for the funk,” as the announcement for the reunion show refers to her, that became a fixture at Knowmatic Tribe appearances.

Evolving into a kind of psychedelic street gang, the Knowmatic Tribe’s approach had more in common with punk rock than typical glowstick rave. The DIY installations Godmorgen and Christ built for their parties recalled the early 1960s happenings made by Allan Kaprow.

The Barnyard of Illusions, for example, was a party involving a manmade barn, turntables set up on haystacks, plasma projectors, disco balls, and Maureen the Golden Cow. Marcos celebrated the scene in true Tribe fashion, by pulling down his pants and screaming to the assembled masses, “This is how you have a real hoedown!”

“We really took our time throwing those old parties,” Marcos recalled recently, “The boys would come up with some far-out ideas. I really liked the underwater-themed party. They went so far as filling the room with fish balloons and weighting them so they would not go straight to the ceiling. [They] built papier mache sea monkey creatures,” including “a fucking crazy alien head with school bus mirrors for eyes.” All the details came together to create these memorable scenes, even if the resulting artworks boogied off on their own, like when they put “a bubble machine in a papier mache tentacled monster’s mouth,” Marcos remembers. The idea device “didn’t work too well and ended up looking like it was drooling.”

The Funk and The Fury

DJ Marcos (photo: Nancy J Parisi)

Verbal cacophony was a Tribe hallmark. Slinging insults and delivering commentary on the evening’s proceedings, Christ and God in particular developed “into excellent, unique microphone masters with their own twisted reflection of hip-hop,” explained Xotec. “True masters of the ceremony as well as masters of shenanigans.” Christ and God’s rants over the PA mixed what appeared to be scrambled bits of Chinese philosophy and street-fighting rhetoric in absurd send-ups of genteel sentiment.

“We realized early what fun we could have with a microphone,” Godmorgen recalls, explaining the voiceover technique by which they propelled events forward. “For instance, Chris Schorb and I called one ambient area [with Maureen the Golden Cow adorned in flowers in the center] ‘Geraonanon 1976 B.C.’ This room was based on our idea of what the last party right before a paradigm shift must have looked like. Every now and again, ‘Ruby Lauderdale’ would get on the microphone and say, ‘Welcome, everyone, to Geronanon. The Year is 1976 B.C. Are you ready for the jump into the future?’…stuff like that.

“The microphone would also get busted out when any kind of negative force in the room was messing with our good time. On more than one occasion I can remember Christ Sinister calling out some idiot or the cops, right in the middle of his set, with hilarious results. One time at [Main Street club] 658, for which we got paid only in beer, then only the overflow pitchers after a while, there was this guy down at the pool table who said, ‘Look at that dude’s package, it’s gotta be a sock or two in there.’ Well, for the rest of the time the guy was there we must have made the announcement on the mic a dozen times, ‘Folks, we have got a huge package for ya tonight, a really really big package,’ over and over again.”

For this writer, the Tribe’s euphoric anarchy was epitomized by a situation that went down during an event based around a screening of the electronic music documentary Modulations, which was shown on a half dozens screens and walls simultaneously, as well as on 20 TV monitors set up around the room. We had also hooked up vintage Atari consoles to the projections and monitors so that when it was over people could play video games in this all-over environment as the Tribe spun. The sound effects generated from the games were then linked up to the DJs’ mixers so they could use them in an “Atari/DJ Symphony” performed by the audience and DJs in collaboration.

When the Knowmatic Tribe arrived for the event, they carried in tow a giant effigy of 1980s sitcom star (and fervent Christian) Kirk Cameron, with dozens of giant sparklers sticking out of the head. I insisted that they didn’t even think about lighting up the prop inside the space. At around 2am, an irate neighbor living in an illegal loft nearby came tearing into the event and did what you never want to do with the Knowmatic Tribe—get right up in their faces while they are performing. Needless to say, the microphone was on fire and the guy fled into the streets.

An hour later he returned to announce that the police were on the way. Almost instantly, from its place behind the decks, Kirk Cameron exploded in a flurry of sparkler fireworks as Christ and God jumped on the mic and let loose with a barrage of hilarious trash-talk. They then cut the music and, with Kirk Cameron in the lead, marched the party out the door, down the steps, and into the parking lot, where the night ended in a sparks and laughter, as the dejected neighbor slumped home, able to win the battle but not even compete in the war.

“I don’t know at the end of those nights if we made money or not,” Marcos recalls, “but we sure did laugh a lot.”

The first wave of Buffalo rave flourished largely unscrutinized for roughly three years, but scenes like this always falter thanks to a few bad eggs. Xotec remembered autumn 1996’s “The Maalox Challenge” and “Keep on Runnin’” as “the last true underground warehouse parties before the police started cracking down with permits.” According to Xotec, media hysteria over ecstasy use propelled the heat, although permit issues provided the weapon for shutdowns.

While police raids marked the end of a golden era for Buffalo rave, the scene had already begun to gravitate from unlicensed underground parties to clubs, changing the atmosphere and aging the audience somewhat. As Godmorgen put it: “The scene was already ripping apart at the seams due to heat from the cops, so we spent some years getting fired from clubs and building loyalty between us and those we grew with.”

Atomic Cafe and the Kingsnake Lounge in the early years of the Chippewa Street resurgence were ground zero, attracting fashionistas and Elmwood’s denizens of cool, and later, Club e (formerly the Icon), 658 on Main Street, where the Knowmatic Tribe held residence once the Kingsnake closed, and the Opium Lounge, all opened their doors to electronic music. By now, there was a healthy community of experienced DJs, all pursuing their own personal styles—like DJ Zuk of Deep Soul Plug, who started playing cosmic lounge, and Dr. Wisz and Scotty, who as Deja Blu spun acid jazz.

Starting in 1997, DJ and producer Mike Parker began releasing his signature dark techno on Geophone, his own label. Parker’s tracks were played internationally, causing Thousand Words to write about his track “Vertebrae Walz,” for example, this way: “These dark and pounding cuts have already left upstate NY mesmerized and are heading to a DJ’s tables near you. Techno hasn’t sounded this good in a long while.”

As various subgenres developed on the local scene, and the Knowmatic Tribe scrapped along, another musical fascination centered around the weekly Babysteps night at Broadway Joe’s, which, debuting in February 1999, attracted spill-over audiences from the electronic dance music scene. Featuring Emcee Sick on the mic, your host the Ketchup Samurai, and DJs LoPro and Tommee on the wheels of steel, and regular guests including DJ Kreme and DJ Rich, as well as featured performers like Ajent-O, DJ Tommee, and 3rd Son, Babysteps packed Broadway Joe’s every Thursday from 1999 to 2004. Turntablist theatrics, breakdancing, and special guests were the order of the day. In addition to their weekly gig, Babysteps organized one-off events around town, had a radio show on Buffalo State station WBNY, and basically served as unofficial ambassadors for Buffalo alternative hip-hop. Guests to Babysteps events from the worlds of old school and contemporary hip-hop included DJ Kool Herc, Jeru the Damaja, Ghostface Killah, Black Sheep, Masta Ace, Mr. Lif, Cage, O.C., Yeshua the PoEd, El Da Sensei, Breezly Brewin of the Juggaknots, Maspyke, J-Live, Kev Brown, Subconscious, Yak Ballz, DJ Vadim, and many more.

As the new century began, the best DJs reflected a decade of dance music’s evolution, commanding skills and techniques drawn from multiple genres and honed through dance floor dialogue with audiences and other DJs alike.

In 2002, Marcos reflected on the development of the music this way: “I myself have gone through so many stages and phases and styles of music…now all that learning comes out as one. I’ll play drum and bass but keep a house sensibility and keep people dancing; I’ll play house but work a disco/hip-hop/no-wave/new-wave/Larry Levan thing with it…Sometimes it is important to beat match, sometimes it’s necessary to cold cut. A time to scratch and a time to rewind.”

Losing My Edge

While the 1990s will be remembered as the era of the superstar DJ, hyped as the new rock star and paid thousands to play festivals that rivaled Woodstock’s iconic numbers, distrust of the DJ and what was considered the mindless escapism of the dance music underground gained traction. Then came 9/11, and the Futurists’ post-modern dreams of a new cultural paradigm collapsed under the weight of Bush-era urgencies.

Panic on the streets of Brooklyn, panic on the streets of Buffalo. Like punk rockers challenging the overblown production of 1970s stadium rock, dance floor aficionados started looking for new music that said something to them about their lives. And like early hip-hop scientists, new technological advances gave emerging DJs the tools to respond.

Debuting one week before the events of September 11, 2001, disco impresario Larry Tee’s “Electroclash” night at Brooklyn’s Luxx celebrated a musical and stylistic aesthetic that better matched the urgency of the times.

Electroclash returned to “song” as the basis of a good night out, by new groups heralded by the scene’s tastemakers, late 1970s and early 1980s synthpop, electropop, new wave, and art punk bands from which they drew inspiration. Electroclash responded to the real possibility of immediate doom by deflating the all-night dancescape. Beat matching was beside the point. Techno became passé, and ecstasy faded from fashion. The cocaine glamour and Liquid Sky aesthetics of Electroclash reflected an agitated realization: that one’s youth could prove even more fleeting than you had initially thought.

DJs mattered in Electroclash, but only insofar as they played music made by groups. Fischerspooner, Adult, W.I.T., Soviet, Freezepop, A.R.E. Weapons, Ladytron, Le Tigre, Peaches, and Tracy and the Plastics were all cataloged, sometimes uncomfortably, under the Electroclash banner. A handful of Electroclash-affiliated groups visited Buffalo during this time, playing to mostly small crowds in rock clubs and artspaces like Soundlab, Mohawk Place, and the Continental, but Buffalo never really developed a significant local audience for it, nor any Electroclash-related bands of its own.

The movement’s absence nevertheless reflected a scene in transition.

Marcos, along with resident Soundlab DJ MJB Corporation (Michael Bauman), who had spun records at downtown New York’s Berlin and Reggae Lounge during the No Wave 1980s and only returned to the turntables when the music of that time and place re-emerged in contemporary form, were unique among Buffalo DJs in celebrating the new New York Noise.

MJB began playing a mix of new Brooklyn sounds, indie rock, art noise, and vintage Italo Disco, as well as No Wave oddities, mostly to art kids attending the weird shows at Soundlab. Playlists included material by such disparate artists as Montreal electro-art-punks Les Georges Leningrad, New York disco/minimalist composer Arthur Russell, New Wave pioneers Tuxedomoon, Krautrockers neu, new Brooklynites Parts and Labor, Electroclash poster girls W.I.T., Load Records icons Lightning Bolt, and various local bands, from vintage early 1980s New Wavers Paper Faces to contemporary Buffalo electro-funtime kid Mark Webb.

Marcos expanded his already idiosyncratic and experimental approach to house and breaks to include No Wave punk-funk, which synchronized with Christ and God’s explorations of vintage Electro. They worked the new sound into their mixes at a new local flowering of clubs and underground spaces, including The Plant and Main Street’s Iberia.

“Even when Marcos was just beginning, his tastes were always very diverse—hip-hop, trip-hop, house, breaks, d&b—he touches on them all,” Xotec reflected at the time. “Marcos also gravitates toward the deep, experimental stuff—drum and bass, trash disco, rare groove, hip-hop. What sets him apart from the rest is his ‘don’t give a fuck’ risk-taking, dropping Heart’s ‘Crazy for You’ or James White and the Blacks—nasty no-wave from the late ’70s—into a set for the hell of it...pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”

By the summer of 2002, however, Marcos, now pushing 30 and wanting something to show for his efforts, needed a change of venue.

After a shambolic, ill-attended party at Soundlab featuring Electroclash stars A.R.E. Weapons, Marcos finally flew the coop. His arrival in New York coincided with dance-punk’s reemergence under the auspices of the likes of DFA Records. Soon he was DJing regularly in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side and running with the architects of a new sound that took the sensibility of mixing rock and dance music to the next level, including members of The Rapture, !!!, and James Murphy, whose LCD Soundsystem, in the decade-defining track “Losing My Edge,” lamented the fading authority of the hipster that the DJ came to represent, while acknowledging the necessity of generational shift:

“I’m losing my edge to the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978…I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties…I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent. And they’re actually really, really nice.”

New audiences, not raised on deep divisions between “substantive” rock and “faggy” dance, had rediscovered the fun in both, and suddenly, it was cool for rockers to dance, and dancers to rock. DJs across Buffalo began to play the new punk-funk, which gained popularity in both dance clubs, where DJs like 3PO mixed it into their sets, and indie rock bars like the Old Pink.

Aiding this shift in sensibility were technological developments that radically altered the role of the DJ and the nature of the underground dance scene: file-sharing networks, which helped in the dissemination of music to audiences and budding DJs alike, and social networking sites like Myspace, which not only provided a previously unimaginable means for mass promotion, but gave the underground a face—an infinite number of faces.

In New York and LA, ubiquitous party pic websites like the Cobrasnake and Last Night’s Party arose to document the new nightlife, and scenes thrived over night with the aid of the internet.

Whereas in the past, DJs were like musical medicine man, mystically dispensing beats from a vast storehouse of tracks lovingly scavenged from bargain vinyl bins and white label record shops, overnight, the average person found himself harboring immense libraries of rare tracks, remixes and forgotten gems.

Just as pioneering hiphop DJs found in turntables the ability to access musical material without necessarily having to play instruments, the new DJs didn’t even need to learn how to DJ in order to throw a great party. Radically extending the decade’s disinterest in the cult of the DJ, amateur nights began popping up, in New York and, on a much smaller scale, here. On Wednesdays at Osaka Blu Lounge, for example, anybody could sign up for a chance to spin a few tracks to the small crowd assembled there.

These new amateur events foregrounded an aspect of the dance music experience that was always there, but somehow remained buried under the DJ’s ability to craft a set into a unified personal statement: the subtle play of desire, memory and style invoked by great songs.

The idea was conceptual in its democratization of the art form, not an attempt to mask a lack of skill

Enter the era of the dance party.

Hearts on Fire

DJs Shock and Awe (photo: Greg Corbi)
Shock & Awe (photo: Mike Cherry)

Inverting the ideal of the technical virtuoso by which DJ culture validated itself in the 1990s, the new DJ tended to serve as much as a magnate for the mix of people as a technician of the musical moment. They were the It girls and It boys around which scenes gravitated, and whose parties allowed communities to define and celebrate themselves.

Whereas in the old days, testing the limits of the listener’s musical knowledge proved your merit, as audiences came to play this role themselves, the role of the DJ changed from one of expansion to retraction. The best DJ was now not necessarily the DJ with the most unusual stuff but the one who knew how to edit effectively. This was of course always a skill that factored into the mix, but in the dance party scene, the DJ re-emerged as a paragon of style and taste, leading the vanguard of the community it served.

The roots of Buffalo’s dance party trend can be traced to the Chippewa club La Luna, which each Wednesday from 2000 to early 2009 featured a Brit Pop/Indie night hosted by various DJs including Snackboy, Teddy Getman, and Jena Nixon. Visiting La Luna Wednesdays, a club night for those with little interest in dance clubs, soon became scenester tradition, like winding up at the Pink at 3am every Friday. It was here that Buffalo’s latent hipster crowd started to become more self-consciously aware of itself, and from the very beginning, the night distinguished itself by supporting attention to personal style.

Significantly, the first big events billed as “dance parties” were held at a rock club, Mohawk Place. Launched in February 2004 ostensibly as a one-off, by Bill Paige and Jason Draper, The Cure vs. The Smiths Dance Party was so succesful that the duo made it a yearly event and started a related bi-monthly, Transmission, which became known for “evenings of synth pop, alternative, and indie dance music,” in addition to throwing smaller nights at DJ Brandon Chase’s Off the Wall and Staples. The team used Myspace to publicize their set lists, which drew heavily on indie rock classics and the new rock sounds. In the beginning, this involved bands such as The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Hot Hot Heat, Interpol, Depeche Mode, Ladytron, Joy Division, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Faint, Bauhaus, The Rapture, Blur and Sneaker Pimps.

DJ Flava Braun (photo: Greg Corbi)
DJ Mareospeedwagon (photo: Greg Corbi)
DJ Sir Richard Rector (photo: Greg Corbi)

For Kaitlin Isabella, one half of DJ duo Shock and Awe (with partner Jessa Zenger), the Smiths Vs Cure party was like the sun appearing through the clouds. A Buff State freshman disappointed by campus cultural life, Isabella sought solace in WBNY, the college’s radio station. At a training session for aspiring DJs, she met a few older discontents from the station who invited her to the Cure vs. Smiths jam later that night.

There she found, for the first time since leaving her hometown of Albany, “mostly art kids with similar tastes in music as I, getting together to dance, and be together. I ended the night with eight new friends in their apartment dancing on couches to Rolling Stones songs played on a vintage record player.”

Because she worked at the radio station, Isabella emerged as a go-to girl for interesting mix CDs, and finally one night while hanging out listening to music, she and Zenger hatched the idea of throwing a dance party of their own. The team in its earliest phases also included Frank Napolski.

“By that time I was sort of tired of the nostalgic dance scene,” Isabella explains, echoing DJ Marcos 10 years before. “When I went out, I wanted to hear what was new.”

Partly inspired by New York’s iconic Misshapes, an art- and fashion-conscious trio of DJs who in 2003 began throwing eponymous weekly parties for the scenester contingent, Shock and Awe “wanted to glamorize the scene a bit more. We wanted to create a reason for people to style themselves in an elevated way, and to have fun with it. We DJ from the side of the room, not the stage, for this reason…because it wasn’t about us as DJs. We wanted the kids to be the center of attention.”

Shock and Awe used Myspace to announce the event, exuding contagious attitude: “Lets get this straight. This is not a band. It’s a get together, a gathering, a dance-off, a party. We’ve been mixing a few different things, trying something new, and now we’re sharing it with you fine people. You’ve been waiting for this. Get ready. Save the date. We want to see you at Soundlab!”

The Shock and Awe party, which debuted in January 2007 and takes place every few months, became an immediate local sensation, injecting the hipster dance aesthetic into Buffalo nightlife. With Sparks-fueled sets that ranged from unironically played 1980s pop to dirty hip-hop to glam rock and Motown classics mixed with all the newest indie-dance tracks plucked from the internet months before their official release dates, Shock and Awe’s Lite Brite jams were played straight, without technical intervention. Sets included tracks by artists like Cut Copy, Peaches, Yelle, Phoenix, The Twelves, MJ, Anoraak, Jay Z, Annie, Junior Boys, Pete Bjorn & John, Empire of The Sun, Kid Cudi, Juan MacLean, Lykke Li, Royksopp, Little Boots and Hercules & Love Affair.

For old school DJs, the dance party phenomenon was an unmitigated bastardization of their craft, a classic instance of style prevailing over substance.

“In the beginning we had a pretty decent response from other DJs,” Isabella explains, “but as the party grew some people were like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, they can’t do that!’ On blogs and forums, people were saying, ‘They’re just playing off their burned CDs,’ which we were, since this was after vinyl and before we invested in DJ software for our laptops, but it didn’t matter. It was always about the song, not some tricked-out beat or fancy mixing. And either way, the lines to get in stretched around the block.”

Over the next two years, as more and more budding DJs empowered by the easy availability of advanced DJ software came into their own, a variety of other dance parties emerged.

Blending rock, pop, dance, and hip-hop styles, DJ D-star quickly gained a reputation for his insane mashups, the ADD-addled craze of playing a new song created by the blending two disparate older songs seamlessly overlayed one atop the other. He proposed an event, The Jumpoff, which debuted in January of 2007, the same month as Shock & Awe, this way: “I am interested in booking…a hip-hop/indie/electro/dance/mash-up party. We are hoping to create an alternative vibe with music generally considered hip by today’s standards, however not ostensibly mainstream. If you are familiar with A-Trak, the Rub, or Diplo/Hollertronix, it could best be compared to that.”

Once arranged, D-star stamped the party with this announcement on Myspace: “Finally, a club night for those that dislike the typical club atmosphere. Ask yourself - what makes a good party? Good DJs, a good location, and a good crowd will likely be on top of your list…dj.dstar’s JUMPOFF party provides all these elements and more…the party’s sounds range from the newest hip-hop/club bangers, dancehall reggae, mash-ups/blends, rock/pop guilty pleasures that we all love to dance to…Time to uncross your arms, lean back and tear the fucking club up!”

Of all the big new nightlife events, The Communist Party, which debuted in the small back room at Off The Wall on Elmwood in 2006 but switched to Soundlab when that venue closed, best combines an old school approach to the art of DJing with the new see and be seen sensibility of the dance party era.

Describing itself on Facebook as “droppin the tough on Buffalo,” and providing a “wild, sweaty monthly party for dance-aholics & those in love with bangin electro!” the Communist Party distinguishes itself by featuring big acts from all over the country each month, in addition to sets by its resident DJs Patrice, Mareospeedwagon, Sir Richard Rector & Flava Braun. The next installment of The Communist Party takes place this Friday, November 27 and features guest artist Reid Speed. Past visitors have included Hot Pink Delorean, Designer Drugs, LA Riots, Classixx, Flufftronix, Tittsworth, and Steve Aoki.

For Cameron Rector (Sir Richard Rector), who started Djing in 1998 and his then girlfriend/now wife Jessica Railey (Flava Braun), who learned how to use the decks under his tutelage in 2004, the Communist Party represented the next evolution of the Buffalo dance music scene.

“Any party at the time was House or Drum and Bass,” he explained. “We wanted a party where kids could go and dance to Electro, and to bring them different music. We also were DJing the Brit Pop/Indie night at La Luna and after doing that, we wanted our own party where we could play our own music. We actually did a weekly at Broadway Joes for a little while beforehand, in 2006, but the location didn’t work for us. We started the Communist Party at Off the Wall in May 2006.”

For the Communist Party, a dedication to the art of Djing sets them apart from other contemporary parties. “We try our hardest to engage the crowd, with progression, with dropping things out, with crowd pleasers, with new music, to bangers, to chilling it out toward the end. It’s not about playing just song after song with no rhyme or reason, it’s not taking requests-—it’s an entire set with an actual beginning, a buildup, and an end.”

One More Time

What have the OGs whose blood, sweat, and tears were shed in the service of Buffalo funk been up to in recent years besides preparing for tonight’s reunion? I spoke to the Knowmatic Tribe’s core members—Marcos, God, and Christ, once known among local electronic music fans as the “holy trinity”—to see where the ecstatic debauchery of their earlier years eventually led them, and to reflect on changes in DJ culture in general.

Christ Sinister continues to live the life of a seeker. “From 2005-2007, I was living in Brooklyn,” he explains, “running an underground music space called Galaxie.” There, he served as resident DJ, “sharing the decks with a myriad of NYC and international talent ranging from Rub-n-Tug to Trevor Jackson. We left after life threw a few major curve balls,” he explains, alluding to a brain cancer diagnosis for which a fundraising event was thrown in Buffalo in 2006. “I am currently living like a hermit in Woodstock, NY, which gives me ample time to apply myself, be selective, and continue to gather fresh material for guest spots in NYC and in Buffalo.”

True to his old school roots, Christ spins strictly vinyl, explaining, with exceptional Tribesman penache: “I might as well be using a mixer and two butter churns for turntables. All the technology in the world can’t change a midget into a canteloupe…”

Godmorgen is in Buffalo “raising the future of America,” as Marcos put it, and has undertaken an intruiging new musical assignment. “I don’t want to give to much away,” he says, “but the project I am working on is a very time consuming search through secondary nostalgia for clues about the speed of exponential evolution of the American species. The raw materials for this idea are thousands of tapes, given to me by my father. I had the unique opportunity as a kid to listen, nightly, to the radio shows my father listened to when he was my age. I had a glimpse into this simple world that my dad came from. Being a child of Atari and Activision, The Smurfs and The Banana Splits, I listened to these tapes and was shocked that they were not boring and dry, but filled with wacky voices and even wackier sound effects. I am taking these tapes and hunting for gems within them to combine with my own music for the sake of connecting the old with the new, and to show the irony that the McCarthy era was potentially responsible for spawning a mutant like me.”

Marcos has spent the years since his flight to NYC performing with “the infamous freaks of the beardo disco scene,” including Tim “Love” Lee, Scott Anderson/Bruce Force, M.P. “Coach” Messenie, and Southern Scott Anderson. Recently, he started a new Friday night party in the basement of Lucky Cheng’s, in the lower East Side; and on Saturday nights serves as resident DJ at Rose Bar in the legendary Gramercy Park Hotel.

“The door policy at Gramercy is pretty strict,” Marcos explains, responding to a question about how audiences for him today differ from those in the past, “so the crowd is either really rich or a who’s who of people with the right connections.” Marcos made the gossip columns in 2007 for a dustup with movie mogul and former Buffalonian Harvey Weinstein over a model, an incident I didn’t ask him about.

For Marcos, the new landscape for DJ culture brings with it convenience and challenge. “Technology has totally changed DJing,” he says, “and I’ve tried to embrace it as much as possible. I live in a six-story walkup, and there was a time I would carry 100 pounds worth of records up all those stairs at the end of the night. It was brutal, so technology saved my back for sure. With the new programs like Serato and Traktor you can bring a whole record collection with you. Thousands of records all on a laptop, and you can also make your own edits and remix on the fly. I love it, but I will still play records too. I know a lot of people like to dis the laptop DJs, because now anybody can get mp3s off the internet and become a DJ, but competition is healthy. You still need to know your basic skills, so power to the people!”

As for what audiences can expect of the reunion tonight, Marcos answers, “real rock-n-rolla stuff, punk funk Buffalo style. There was this great little parody thing I saw online about Rick James. He was basically bragging about how Buffalo and Rick James invented punk funk. So, being sons of the Queen City, no matter what we do, it’s gonna come out with that punk funk style.”

Adds Christ: We will hear “some of the funkiest intergalactic space disco, fit for Roman gods and kings. A mix of obscure, pop, disco, punk, ’80s and whatever is coming down the pipeline that will take you on a cosmic journey beyond the dance floor and into the deepest levels of your consciousness.”

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