There’s a speaker on fire, its wires and sound waves still burning high into the sky. More than 20 years have passed since it sparked the first Hardkiss party in San Francisco, riffing off a chain reaction that’s still going today. It pulsed with a brave mixture of spiritual thirst and sun-kissed optimism. And it smoked with an electricity supplied by two turntables packed in the trunk of a car that crossed the country West in 1991, spinning on the inspiration of American legends like Derrick May, Frankie Bones and Josh Wink. Down to one speaker that night, it was enough to start a revolution.
The Hardkiss Brothers’ “year one,” with its history of blazing sound systems and manifest destiny is celebrated with heart and wisdom on their new album, 1991. It’s a throwback to that heady time as well as a timely loop into the future. It takes glitch and house music and fires them up from within, glowing with a sunny psychedelia that is pure California. In some ways, the Hardkiss Brothers are the Beach Boys of the rave generation, a warm wave to Disclosure’s cool stare, surfing in a parallel universe to the aquatic electro of “Retroactive Futuristic Psychedelic Funk Bump” and the tidal grime sublime of “Cameras Are Watching.” All the while, their comeback heads for the global horizon, tipping its hat to the synth techno of Germany’s Booka Shade on “It’s Right” or the sweeping romanticism of Bedrock on “Flowers Blooming (Glow of Love).” But don’t ask Hardkiss to get too specific about their EDM who’s who list. Then as now, they follow their own compass.
“As much as things change, everything stays the same,” says Gavin Hardkiss. “I don’t listen to a lot of ‘EDM’ except when I’m out DJing. I don’t know all the characters involved. But of what I do hear, I think there’s a sound that’s limited and I think we can offer something. I think we have a texture and emotion that no one is really doing.”
From the Loss of Scott to the Beginning Within
The story of Hardkiss is a story of risks. It’s a story of three brothers bonded by music if not by blood, each pushing the other to great heights. The long friendship of Gavin Bieber, Rob Cameron and Scott Friedel runs deep in the DNA of America’s rave scene. Known internationally as the Hardkiss Brothers — hailed for their humanist DJ sets and seminal Delusions of Grandeur compilation from 1995 — they’ve influenced everyone from the Chemical Brothers to Goldie to Sasha. Last year, on March 25, 2013, that impact was felt painfully when Scott died unexpectedly of a cerebral aneurysm. The news shocked the veteran dance community, eliciting tributes across the globe.
It was Scott who pushed Gavin and Robbie in 1991 to go for it and start making music with the do-it-yourself technology of the day, using samplers and drum machines to stitch together their unique sound. “He was reading NME and Melody Maker heavily when he was in England for his year abroad,” says Robbie. “He basically studied how these early techno records were made that we were into. I remember him so excited, ‘No, I’ve read about this. I’ve figured it out. I know how we can do this. There’s no reason we can’t do this. We just need to get into a studio.’”
Their plan was simple: throw some parties to make a couple bucks to buy studio time at first and then gear and then press up records. So the three went into a studio with Scott’s knowledge and a handful of samples. It was nothing fancy. The engineer’s studio was in his dad’s basement. But there began the first original Hardkiss production: San Francisco, the Magick Sounds of the Underground.
“We just said, ‘Let’s start with this sample,’” says Robbie, highlighting the simple miracle of their first foray into production as well as the crude romance of the Hardkiss genesis. “‘OK, yeah, like a drum, like a hard drum, can you make it sound like this?’ That’s all it was. ‘We can do it.’ Put the parts together.”
Scott Hardkiss, who sometimes recorded under the name God Within, effectively put their music on the map with his first single, 1993’s “Raincry,” a moody breakbeat ride into sky-worshipping euphoria, lifting hearts from LA desert raves to clubs in London and Ibiza. His “Psychic Masturbation” remix of Andrew Weatherall’s One Dove “White Love” remains a defining moment, a cross-Atlantic embrace between California and England, sparkling curtains of rain giving way to a rainbow paradise, rivaling even Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea.” John Digweed, a fan of what he once called the “West Coast vibe,” used to finish his DJ sets with it. Scott’s remix of Gavin’s own “3 Nudes” track into “3 Nudes (Having Sax On Acid)” still reigns as one of the smoothest slides into the deep. More recently, Scott continued to burnish his vision on 2009’s eclectic Technicolor Dreamer album along with a beautiful remix of The Veda Rays‘ “All Your Pretty Fates.”
“He’s very present in our music and our lives,” says Gavin. “He’s such a huge influence and friend and compatriot, and partner, who brought us to this point in so many different inspiring ways. We couldn’t help but change the way we listened to the music after he passed and as much as I tried to figure out how to get that album to sound like it was about us, it invariably becomes about Scott. I think we recognized this and Robbie went deep into making a song about Scott and Romanthony. It’s like a dirge, a funeral song, it’s so intense. It’s such a range of loss and recovery.”
“The title would make a lot of people think that we wanted to do an album that sounded like 1991,” says Robbie. “That we want to go back and play the ‘90s acid house. But really it’s more sentimental. It’s more about the feelings and emotions we were having at the time and the experiences….We’d been apart for like a decade. So that put 1991 in the room right when we got back together. Starting to get reconnected to Scott with the music takes it to another level. And then losing Scott just takes it to an ‘Oh my god!’ level of paying homage to that time, what a special time.”
Picking themselves back up and in partnership with Scott’s widow, Stephanie Diaz-Matos, Gavin and Robbie relaunched the Hardkiss Music label this past March: 1991 represents a new beginning with remix singles and more albums to come. “Fourteen or fifteen months ago in January, we started floating ten new tracks to different people to get feedback,” says Gavin. “Scott was living in Brooklyn. We fed it to him and he got excited about what we’d started on and he started remixing some of the material. I feel we were at the point of reeling him in and then he passed away. It came as such a shock to us.”
The one remix Scott completed before his death was for the album’s lead song, “Revolution.” It sums up the Hardkiss sound perfectly, stirring the soul with a righteous mix of urban disco, future funk and acid breakbeat. Like the ‘90s daytime parties in Golden Gate Park that Gavin and Robbie remember so fondly, “Revolution” could be a soundtrack to raving in the sun. But its message extends beyond the dance floor.
“It just seems like individually we’re all going through our personal revolution, trying to transcend our current situation,” says Gavin. “But there are very real political revolutions going on and they’re being set off every few months in different cities. There could be one right around the corner. It’s just this time we live in. It’s so combustible and we’re not standing up for shit anymore. We’re all aware what’s going on. It’s not going on behind closed doors like it would have 20 or 30 years ago. It’s in your face.”
The song’s lyrics were written over ten years ago by friend and rapper Scavone. Its urgent “time to move on” and “people dying in the street” is a challenge to the rave generation to get back on its feet. But Robbie also hears Scott’s last haunting musical touches in its words. It’s a finality that triggers mixed emotions.
“I listen to that or I play it at a club even and the ‘time to move on,’ once we lost Scott, I find it disturbing,” he says. “I’m like ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to move on.’ So I keep hearing that. That’s like a ghost in that song that actually pains me….Since he’s been gone I’m with him so much more now than I have been since we lived in the same city. This project: the connections that we share with people that we’re reconnecting with, the photos that we put on the cover, the songs — I’m spending way more time with him now in a long time, which is sweet and heartbreaking.”
A Tree of Hearts for Robbie’s Loop De Loop
In the ‘90s, Robbie became a focal point for Hardkiss, his ready humor and party-stoking DJ sets making him a mainstay at many West Coast raves. His Hardkiss solo project Little Wings was a mixture of Jimi Hendrix psychedelia and funky echo techno, his “Mercy, Mercy” a gentle strumming wonder. In 1996, Robbie, Gavin and Scott each recorded distinctive DJ mixes for Los Angeles’ Moonshine Records, spreading their eclectic vibes far and wide. Signed to Sony-Columbia to pen an original album, the Hardkiss Brothers were a hot commodity. But after suffocating under major label demands, they parted, setting Robbie on the longest loop of the trio.
“It was the confluence of a few things, where we were in our lives, hooking up with our wives, marriages, divorces, kids, all coinciding,” explains Robbie. “When we did sign the Columbia deal, that took a while to work our way out of. We pretty much broke apart at that time. It wasn’t all, ‘We’re breaking up.’ It was more like ‘I need to move here with my wife.’ That sent Scott to New York. I got married and moved to Austin and Gavin was left in California.”
One thing Hardkiss fans will be surprised to hear on 1991 is its prevalence of singing, most of it by Robbie. This is one of the more magical outcomes of the group’s splintered evolution. It turns out Robbie has a soulful singing voice reminiscent of Prince, including his cadence and love of gasping cries. “It’s funny because it’s clear that he’s in me,” he says. “Prince is actually the way Scott, Gavin and I all met. In high school Scott was rocking ‘1999’ coming to soccer practice. I heard that music coming out of his car and struck a conversation with him based on that. ‘You’re into Prince!? Oh I love Prince!’” Lyrically, Robbie also achieves a succinct poetic balance between his words and the groove, making his voice the missing link in the Hardkiss sound.
When Robbie left San Francisco and moved to Texas in 2001 with his wife Kelly, he set up his music studio and found himself suddenly alone. “I didn’t know anyone at all in Austin, which was pretty lovely for me at the time because I was pretty burned out,” he says. “But then I’m working on a groove and I need a vocal. I had a microphone and I knew where the vocal should go, so I just did it. The first one I did sounded good. ‘Whoa, I can do that, that’s funny.’ I was the only one there so I just sung more and more and realized how much fun it was.”
In those in-between years, Robbie and his family ended up in Philadelphia for a tough run. He and Kelly bought a home and tried to plant roots. But her new job quickly soured and the strain of raising two young kids while rebuilding a hundred-year-old house wore on them. So when Kelly got a new job offer back in the Bay Area, just 15 miles from where Gavin lived, they headed back West.
The lyrics of 1991’s “Don’t Worry” carries the weight of this time, making it a genuine pep talk full of inventive musical tricks. “You don’t know how to do it right now,” sings Robbie with slick timing. “Don’t worry you can figure it out. Just take a deep breath, now reset, clear your head and think about it. That’s not you with your head in your hands in the dark on the kitchen floor…Lonely heart, you’re falling apart, you’ve got to get yourself together. When you figure that out and you go out, I bet you find something better.” The song bumps with an infectious positivity, Robbie’s call-and-response of “ooh-ooh-ooh” floating over a yo-yo-ing synth, his voice bouncing and reflecting in mirror shards. Coming on like a permanent wave, its snarling bass line washes away spilt milk. “I had it, I lost it,” complains a higher pitched voice. “But you’ll get it again,” answers a lower inner mantra. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.”
“I was hurting when I got back out to California,” says Robbie of his odyssey back home. “When I got here, the sun was in my face. I remember going to Safeway and seeing the California hills behind the supermarket and just seeing the sky and being able to walk to the beach. It was amazing. That was instant positivity, instant California, just getting out of the cold dark experience I was having in Philly. In 1991 we had all come from the East Coast. Scott and Gavin came later than I did but when you go to California, it’s kind of a dream. I had never been to California…I just drove across the country to San Francisco. It’s a place for dreamers I guess, to go fly the freak flag and live however you want and do whatever you want.”
Back again by the Pacific, Gavin and Robbie immediately got to jamming as if no time had passed between, decades of trust and memories buoying their reunion. “I met Robbie when I was 19 or 20 and I was at college with Scott,” says Gavin. “Robbie would come visit because he was at college at NYU. He’d come down to Philly to party with us…. Before we even made a note of music, Robbie was like, ‘You remember when we were in college and we used to just listen to De La Soul, Three Feet High and Rising? That album, man, come on! Let’s make something like that.’”
“When I moved back to California, I was bumping around with that in the car,” says Robbie of the feel-good hip hop classic from 1989. “I pulled out the old CD. I took it to Gavin’s studio too. We weren’t like, ‘Let’s do it like this.’ We were feeling it.”
Another influence that rekindled the spirit of 1991 was Change’s 1980 disco funk hit “Glow of Love,” featuring the vocals of soul singer Luther Vandross, a childhood friend and neighbor of the late DJ Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music.” Listening to the song on his move back West, Robbie was amped to cover it. The Hardkiss version refracts the original through a wild psychedelic storm, hitting Detroit along the way, and catching rays walking onto the beach. “Smilin’ faces, goin’ places, it’s a wonder, it’s so clear,” sings Robbie. “By a fountain, climb a mountain, as we hold each other near…Walking in the glow of love. We’re walking! We’re wa-wa-walk-iiiii-nnnnnng!” Trippy guitar licks on the downstroke keep the groove strutting while Robbie’s voice bursts with the joy of spring’s return. “I can feel the flowers blooming. Can you feel it in the air? Can you feel it all around you? It’s a wonder.”
Gavin’s Roots and the Magnetic Pull Out West
As De La Soul raps on Three Feet High and Rising, “three is the magic number,” and in those years leading up to 1991, the friends bonded over a mutual love for music, from Prince to Primal Scream. But Gavin’s story is perhaps the most intriguing of the three because he took perhaps the biggest risk of all, planting the seeds for Hardkiss when he moved from his home of South Africa to America. “It’s not a music expression,” he says. “It’s just a way of being. I’m African. It’s hard to explain. It’s something different. I always think south of the Equator is more chilled out.”
When Gavin met Scott at the University of Pennsylvania, he borrowed Scott’s music collection and realized they had the exact same taste. The two instantly bonded and set out on many musical adventures. “We’d go to Tower Records in Philadelphia on South Street and King Britt was the buyer there, but it was kind of a limited vinyl section,” says Gavin. “Then we found a DJ magazine with an ad in the back for a Brooklyn record store called Groove Records. So we’d drive up there and that’s how we got to meet Frankie Bones and his whole crew, just going up there to buy new records and then they invited us to go to their parties.”
“Frankie was lit from DJing in the UK and knew that the scene’s arrival in the US was imminent. The first Groove party we went to was on some abandoned train tracks in Brooklyn. Someone had a couple of speakers and turntables. It was just young kids making weird electronic music: Lenny D, Adam X, Jimmy Crash and Joey Beltram. All those guys were there and we were meeting them for the first time not knowing who they were. This was within just a few months of Joey Beltram’s ‘Energy Flash.’”
“And then we went out to one of the first Storm Raves. I have an idea of what Storm Rave became, but this was someone’s townhouse in Shelter Island, you know what I mean? It was in the garage in the back room, like 25 of us. That was fantastic driving through Long Island to Shelter Island all the way from Philadelphia to go party for the whole night with Frankie and his crew.”
Inspired to start their own scene, Scott and Gavin hatched a plan to join Robbie in San Francisco to make music. They packed up Scott’s turntables and their records in the trunk of Scott’s car and drove across the country. Along the way they made a call to Prince’s Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis and set up an appointment by role-playing big time producers who wanted to tour the legendary facility. But they were too much in a hurry to meet their destiny in California to make the stop. One night they tried camping, but after only a few hours they got right back on the road, again feeling the magnetic pull West growing stronger by the mile. They took a quick helicopter ride in Bryce Canyon, taking in the great expanses of the old frontier. Gavin touchingly memorialized this wide-eyed trip across America on an “In My Boom” radio show a couple weeks after Scott passed.
“What we were trying to bring was us,” says Gavin about their Hardkiss dreams. “That’s all we had. How hyped and excited we were. Just high on life. We thought we could do it. You know, I wanted to be Richard Branson. Scott probably wanted to be Mick Jagger. I don’t know. We came out to San Francisco and told Robbie, let’s do this together.”
“We were really optimistic and full of life and love at that time so that’s what we wanted to share,” says Robbie. “But it wasn’t like we had calculated or that we were trying to make a certain sound. We wanted people to feel it, the emotion, that was one thing. We never broke it down and discussed it. We shared music incessantly, all the music we listened to and then you just start making it. You know when you like it.”
Of the three, Gavin has been the most prolific. He has produced four solo albums as Hawke, from the Afro-Latin electronica of Namaquadisco to the neon future pop of +++. His recent Knight of the Hawke E.P. breathes with stabbing electric funk on world-class tracks “Fields of No Name” and “Can I Borrow Your Cane.” On 1991, you can sense his love of musical journeys on the rubbery “It’s Right (Hawke Mix)” and the epic “Feeling Scott Through Romanthony.” His melodic sixth sense is perfectly tuned to the rave heyday of early ‘90s California: “Forever Forever” rises into the sky with shattering horns, a wasp of a synth twisting overhead, stretching like taffy while a gentle burst of notes echoes into the canyons of your mind. He also recently self-published his own novel about a DJ’s surreal adventure called Cubic Lust.
“I roll with the seasons a bit,” he says. “January comes around and I get an inkling to do something and I just do it. ‘I’m going to have an art show.’ ‘I’m going to write a book.’ A couple years ago, I started reading some journals that I had written in the ‘90s.’ I just started writing and staying up late and waking up early and I started living the character.”
It’s this magpie life that has made Gavin one of the most fascinating characters in the American underground. He still keeps in touch with fellow trailblazers like Tranquility Bass’ Mike Kandel, who started LA’s first acid house label with Tom Chasteen in 1991, Exist Dance. You can hear it in classic Hawke tracks like “Vivos En La Muerte,” a kind of Hardkiss battle cry in Spanish. With Robbie and Scott, he also played a key hand in the operation of Hardkiss offshoot label, Sunburn Records, which output much of their post-Columbia work, championing gutsy statements like Lorien Ferris’ gorgeous “Arboreal Sunrise” as Universal Machine.
“It’s not easy to be positive and not be cheesy in a jaded world,” he says. “Everyone’s had their fair share of knock downs and problems. We all want to be picked up. But to do that sonically is quite a challenge. It’s a Hardkiss quality. It’s our sound. There’s a kind of melancholic truth that’s uplifting.”
Renegade Generation, Welcome to the Eternal Sunshine
That sound was born on the dance floors of San Francisco, from cramped basements to beach raves to boat parties to the famous 1015 Folsom. In the early ‘90s, ravers were flooding San Francisco from around the world, some of them refugees from the UK’s jaded scene. The likes of house maestro Charles Webster and ambient jazz man Jonah Sharp, were among the Bay’s British transplants. The legendary Wicked DJ crew were also in search of a new frontier. More native talents bloomed with Dubtribe and Young American Primitive. Before Electric Daisy Carnival or Tomorrowland, there were mega raves on the West Coast like “Toontown,” “Circa” and “Pau Pau Ranch.”
Wicked’s “Full Moon” parties and The Gatherings are particular standouts for Gavin and Robbie. The sunrise at parties both outdoors and indoors was a special ritual — being awake when the earth makes its rhythmic turn from night to day. “Whether it was Boogie Buffet or Carefree Dancing, we enjoyed it most when the sun was rising,” Gavin says. “Sometimes I wouldn’t go out until 4 a.m. — sleep and get up and go out before the sun came up.”
It’s this ability to see the world anew and seize the day that drives Hardkiss forward. That’s why 1991 is so important as a year and as a musical reset, because it’s where their journey began and where it continues. They’re not going backward but revolving around the sun, a year since they lost Scott, carrying him and the rest of us with them.
“You talk about the sound and culture of that early ‘90s period,” Gavin says. “There was gangster hip hop going off, and grunge and Eddie Vedder yelling in your ear. And man, we were living in the sunshine. We weren’t paying any attention to all the depressing shit people were listening to. We were living in the sun and enjoying those vibes. Any way we can pass that on, it’s a good sonic expression. I love it.”
It’s the rhythm of the sun that still binds all three brothers. “Even that song ‘Broken Hearts’ was written well before Scott passed,” says Robbie. “It was written with him in mind. Gavin had beautiful melodies in that song at an early stage and when I heard those melodies, that’s how ‘1991’ started popping up. ‘This sounds like ‘1979’ from Smashing Pumpkins a little bit.’ Something about the melody. Gavin started calling it ‘1991’ just as a file name. I started writing lyrics that were about Scott, Gavin and me. That song was done and in the books and we sent it to Scott along with others to pick what he wanted to remix and that was one he was really excited about. And then he dies. That song means so much more now. You have the feelings and sentiments before something like that happens and then it’s just like ‘Whoa.’”
“I hope that your broken heart can mend,” Robbie sings with unfailing love as Gavin’s mournful melody zigzags the clouds. In answer, we hear Scott’s words from that first leap of faith: “That we can make music. And we can make music.” It’s a moving goodbye, a sunset that bends to sunrise. I couldn’t bring myself to ask Robbie and Gavin what they played at Scott’s memorial in San Francisco, but I can imagine “Broken Hearts” would make angels weep. Aching in its beauty, it will bring tears to anyone who knows the Hardkiss story or the long road “EDM” took from its native land to Europe and back again, an improbable migration West to what Scott once described to URB magazine as “where all the seekers end up…literally the end of the country.”
Which brings us back to those burning speakers on 6th between Mission and Market in San Francisco, 1991. It’s an image that every raver should know because it speaks to the power of perseverance. As we lose some of the original authors of the underground, from Romanthony to Scott Hardkiss to Frankie Knuckles, 1991 reminds us that today is tomorrow’s yesterday. It transports us to a time when the sun was burning from within and rising high, making this Hardkiss album one of the most important EDM records of the last ten years.
“Some dude on the dance floor told me the speaker was on fire,” remembers Robbie of that fateful night. “I was like, ‘Yeah! Hot, right?’ thinking he was speaking metaphorically. But I looked, and sure enough, flames inside the speaker. The door man unplugged it, picked it up, took it out the back door, threw it into the alley and hit it with the fire extinguisher. For awhile, we kept going with one speaker. Then that one caught on fire too. No speakers, no sound, so party over.”
As people were leaving, the Hardkiss Brothers handed out a number to call for the location of an outdoor make-up party, which ended up being a late-night renegade by Candlestick Park. Sometime in the middle, automatic sprinklers started spraying the speakers and turntables. Robbie remembers standing on a sprinkler, getting soaked, trying to keep it from getting the gear wet. But what he sees most clearly now is a moment that perfectly captures an intimate grandeur. It’s an image that welcomes the revolution and mends the heart.
“Scott played Frankie Knuckles’ ‘The Whistle Song’ after the sun came up,” says Robbie. “While it was playing, seagulls came and flew around the dance area, then left when that song was over. I know that sounds completely made up or hallucinated, but it actually happened. You can ask any of the ten to fifteen people who were still there dancing. Such a sweet memory.”
1991 was a big year for electronic dance music and the planet. Here’s a list of ten things that echo today in no particular order:
1. Hardkiss Music is born in San Francisco
2. Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash,” released end of 1990, rules raves in 1991
3. Future Sound of London releases ambient breakbeat classic “Papua New Guinea”
4. Exist Dance label is born in Los Angeles: Tranquility Bass births trip hop classic “They Came In Peace”
5. Frankie Knuckles releases classic house composition “The Whistle Song”
6. Alexander Shulgin publishes PIKHAL: A Chemical Love Story
7. Queen singer Freddy Mercury dies, raising profile of AIDS epidemic
8. Rodney King is beaten in Los Angeles by CHP officers
9. Apartheid comes to an end in South Africa
10. The Internet is born
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