Meet the former lab scientist turned DJ and record label owner who is elevating electronic music in the Bay Area
The city of San Francisco has been an epicenter of music and counterculture for generations, a welcoming beacon of progressiveness for those drifting to escape repression or individuals wanting to express themselves in a safer space. From the psychedelic rock of the 1960s to the underground electronic scene of the 1990s, San Francisco stood at the forefront of radical creativity. But the tech boom and corporatization of the city has resulted in some questioning if its music scene is bleeding to death. DJ and co-founder of Dark Entries Records Josh Cheon sheds some light on today's electronic music scene in San Francisco.
Soul, funk, 1980s hardcore and West Coast hip-hop of the 1990s are just a handful of genres that San Francisco left its mark on. In the spring of 1991, a small group of acid house ravers from Great Britain went on an adventure to California. Combined with San Francisco's music legacy and rebellious attitude, wild and lawless parties started to define a new chapter of music culture in the city. Dance music gripped San Francisco and brought like-minded people to it.
Things started to change in the late 1990s as the dot-com boom began to change the city, later tech and startup culture came to define the image of San Francisco abroad. Corporatization and a scramble for space resulted in the city becoming the most expensive place to rent in the US-a far cry from the 100,000 teenagers and young adults that arrived in 1967 to immerse themselves in the Haight-Ashbury counterculture movement.
The freedom and rebellion that once pulled generations of creatives to the city are now considered a fading memory. Rising costs have alienated those still experimenting with life paths. Tension fanned by gentrification has been on the rise as locals worry the city becomes a playground for Silicon Valley and IT workers. Today's San Francisco music scene fails to grab headlines, playing second-fiddle to entrepreneurs and social media giants. Some argue the music scene is dying, while others say it is the most exciting it has been in years and journalists aren't paying enough attention to it.
Josh Cheon in Mr Hudson Explores describes how San Francisco's music scene inspired him to relocate from the East Coast and that it is still alive and thriving, especially in the gay party scene.
Josh lives in Tenderloin, the "seedy underbelly of San Francisco" he describes. He tells us how this was the original gay neighborhood, "where all the bars were, the hustlers. The Pride parade came here before the Castro. It’s where the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot happened, before Stonewall." The grittiness of Tenderloin reminds him of visiting New York City as a teenager, a nostalgic feeling that helps keep him grounded.
Josh grew up in New Jersey and was aged 25 when he came out to a friend. His friend told him to "go to San Francisco." So he did. During a week-long trip he "met the right people, went to the right parties, heard the right music, and met a guy." One month later he returned to permanently live in his "LGBTQ utopia."
In New Jersey, he felt "trapped and stagnant." He says, "San Francisco was a fresh start and helped me come out of my shell and the closet. When I first moved to San Francisco I would attend parties almost every night of the week, where I heard everything from disco to house to goth. There was so much going on and I made friends quickly with the local DJs and music dorks."
For 11 years Josh balanced DJing with working in a science lab (he majored in Biology at university). His colleagues never talked about Josh's sexuality in the lab and when they asked what his weekend plans were he replied, "DJing," without mentioning it was to 700 gay guys in harnesses.
In 2018, Josh packed in the science lab to pursue music full-time. The first year since the transition was a learning curve. "I could actually breathe more and focus all of my energy on the label. Last year I was traveling a lot for DJ gigs since I had the freedom but it was exhausting. So this year I decided to take more local DJ gigs and focus on my routine in San Francisco."
Josh refers to San Francisco as always being a transient city. A characteristic which appealed to marginalized communities in the past, including one of his heroes, pioneering artist and disco musician Patrick Cowley.
in 1971, Patrick took a bus from Buffalo, New York to San Francisco with just one suitcase-a similar story to Josh. Patrick was a young and freshly announced gay guy who needed to escape and found refuge in California. Later he went on to become an example of "quintessential San Francisco" according to Josh.
Patrick's 1980s gay porn soundtrack was released by Dark Entries Records and fellow San Francisco label Honey Soundsystem Records in recent years. Josh is a keen LGBTQ activist who staged a fundraiser for a trans suicide prevention hotline, he donated proceeds from the records to Gay Men's Sexual Health Alliance and AIDS Housing Alliance.
San Francisco has changed since Patrick Cowley's heyday and sound of the 1980s, but a lot of musical movements in the city are still rooted in progressive politics. While the past decade has been tough for the electronic community, the situation is changing with creatives stirring up new places and ideas. "Underground SF and The Stud have weekly and monthly events that showcase a diverse cross-section of local and international talent, Chaser at Aunt Charlies Lounge, one of the last gay dive bars in SF, Club Lonely at OMG is always a fun time and Tenderloin record shop RS94109 (a vinyl store and bar in front of Josh's Dark Entries office) just acquired their entertainment license and are hosting monthly parties."
Josh spent much of his first year as a full-time position playing venues across the world, including Berlin's Berghain. The constant commuting took its toll on him and this year he has decided to focus closer to home. He told us, "San Francisco itself only has 800,000 people so the dance community is quite small compared to most European cities. The parties are more intimate depending on the venue. I love playing parties in San Francisco because the crowds are passionate about music and dance until the very end of the night or morning."
To wrap up our interview we asked Josh to pick three songs to soundtrack San Francisco and why they are of importance. He replies with, "Sylvester - I Need Somebody To Love Tonight-the greatest slow jam that ever was evocative that captures a synthetically funky 1979. Patrick Cowley - Menergy-patron disco saint of San Francisco Hi-NRG peak time anthem about cruising for men the bars and bathhouses of yesteryear. Group Rhoda - Mexi Meri-“Mexican Marigolds have the most lovely fragrance and represent the fragility of life. A song for life and love cut short.” dedicated to the 36 victims of the Oakland Ghost Ship fire on December 2, 2016."
In Mr Hudson Explores, Josh Cheon reflects on moving from New Jersey to San Francisco, the city's music legacy, and what is currently happening in the scene. Available in English and German.