There's a wide range of perspectives about the importance behind the city of San Francisco. To some, it’s emblematic of 1960s counterculture, and the legendary music that defined the Summer of Love. To others, it’s the gay capital of the USA. To most, it’s a city with a rich artistic legacy.
In recent years, the Bay Area’s westernmost city's reputation tends to precede itself, known to most as a hub for tech innovation, overseen by baron landlords thanks to the high demand for housing within its mere, yet magnificent, seven-mile breadth. Rent prices, and the continued property conquests of tech giants, present onerous difficulties for those who want to “make it” in SF — be they millennials looking to cut their teeth in the world, or established event spaces, such as the currently-doomed Mezzanine.
Yet, the same intrepidly creative spirit which led San Francisco to become the expensive metropolis it is today is the energy through which its inhabitants survive the struggles it presents. DIY events are all but ubiquitous in San Francisco; the random group of friends playing monkey-in-the-middle-middle with a Traktor controller in Golden Gate Park may be just a few years away from being a dominant promoter in the city’s largest clubs... or perhaps they’re already on their way to becoming a celebrated Burning Man camp. (After all, before Black Rock City became home to one of the world’s most sought-after gatherings, it was just three friends burning an unimpressive wooden man and dog on Baker Beach, likely garnering strange looks from passers by.)
Most of San Francisco’s longstanding cultural institutions were once incredibly informal endeavors from folks simply looking to share their passions with the people around them. Unsurprisingly, that timeless love of doing it for the sake of doing it, which has attracted so many people to the crowded coastal city over the years, is passionately reflected in the culture of its dance music scene and parties that maintain San Francisco's standing as a destination for nightlife unlike anywhere else. All the while, queer culture is more alive and well than ever in one of the world’s most iconically pro-LGBT cities.
Read on for a round-up of seven of the city's most exciting parties today.
Permission to Land
It’s difficult to believe that fewer than five years have elapsed since the Midway Creative Complex set up shop in San Francisco’s Dogpatch. Since its 2015 establishment, the space has become inextricable from the city’s club and art culture: the industrial venue prides itself on being equal parts gallery and event destination.
While a majority of the Midway’s shows happen within the building’s uniquely adorned walls, its patio serves as just as alluring an attraction, thanks to the regular Sunday Permission to Land day parties. Held on an almost weekly basis, the event series has grown substantially in popularity since its very limited 2016 inception, thanks in no small part to the appeal of the Midway’s art installations with the ever-appreciated backdrop of a slowly setting sun.
Unlike most of the other parties on this list, Permission to Land is defined mainly by its schedule and location, rather than a specific narrative and vision, serving primarily as a platform with a general emphasis on hosting deep house artists and events. Indeed, several of the following entries will find themselves partnered with PTL just within the coming month.
Sunset Sound System
Like any grassroots party, Sunset Sound System has humble beginnings. San Francisco newcomers are likely to mistake the staple Bay Area gatherings’ roots as being in the city’s Sunset District. However, the moniker’s origin is much more straightforward, coming from its earliest days in 1994, when founders Galen and Solar would set up a sound system in the Berkeley marina, and DJ for a few friends while watching the sunset over San Francisco across the bay.
In the decades since, Sunset Sound System has become a veritable force in the Bay Area’s deep house and techno sphere, with club (and boat) shows that attract both underground talents and heavyweights such as Dixon. Their 25th year of parties in the Bay also marks their 10th year of the collective’s Sunset Sound System Campout, an annual festival which takes place in Belden, CA.
Phoenix Hotel Summer Series
San Francisco’s tech-driven present often obscures its rich history as both a musical epicenter, and a mecca for the counterculture of the ‘60s. In 2018, the trendy Texas hotel group Bunkhouse sought to cash in on the nostalgia that so many have for this fabled era by revamping the Tenderloin’s erstwhile Caravan Motor Lodge, an old motel court which they boast once housed the likes of Neil Young and Kurt Cobain. Keeping the moniker it first acquired in the late 1980s, the modern, uber-gentrified version of the Phoenix Hotel now looks toward a different scene as it strives to re-establish its musical legacy.
When conjuring the notion of poolside DJ parties, one normally thinks of bustling affairs at the sprawling resorts of Las Vegas, or hotels lining Miami’s South Beach. The small, densely-packed urban jungle of San Francisco doesn’t make the shortlist — or the long one, for that matter. Yet, the Phoenix Hotel clearly has a quest to change this perception.
The hotel dubs its recurrent pool parties as the Sunday Summer Series, though they actually begin in spring and end in fall. While they may be only a fraction the size of a Vegas XS bacchanale, this only serves to make the concentration of energy even more electric — fitting, for a city such as San Francisco.
In Sundays past, the Phoenix Hotel Pool has hosted parties with the likes of The Knocks, Soulection, Mark Knight and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Future events include headlining sets from The Black Madonna and Darius, though unfortunately, these will serve as the final two sessions of this year’s Summer Sunday Series. Thankfully, group Yoga by the pool will remain at the Phoenix Hotel year round.
Pizza and Techno
Sometimes, a party grows quicker than its founder ever expected (or even intended) it to grow. One could certainly argue the former for Pizza and Techno founders Will Newton and Reid Chatham. Just two years ago, the two friends and their extended “Pizza Squad” began setting up portable speakers and a pizza oven in San Francisco’s quaint Panhandle park, and inviting any and all who might be interested to indulge in the dual sensations that would yield their soon-to-be brand its name.
Since its pizzetta beginnings, Pizza and Techno has become a legitimate California event producer, though Newton claims he and friend Michio Fukuda run the San Francisco operation in an informal fashion still. Nevertheless, while they may not take themselves or their name too seriously, the industry gives them their due notice. Their success with lake parties and takeovers at Dirtybird campout eventually caught the eye of high profile guests such as Justin Jay and Astronomar, leading clubs like Audio, Great Northern and Public Work to host PAT parties.
With an SF boat party and covert LA plans on the horizon, it seems that 2019 is still just the first chapter in Pizza and Techno’s swift evolution. This growth shows no signs of slowing, thanks in large part to Newton’s simple, yet effective event strategy:
“The ‘recipe for success’ is to really aim for a house party or festival vibe (instead of a club vibe) — and to provide free pizzas delivered every hour. That combined with slapping music all day and flowing booze makes for one hell of a party.”
[Photo: Yula Costa]
Though Black Rock City is more than 300 miles northeast of San Francisco and Burning Man only comprises one week of each summer, the city is abuzz year-round with parties centered around the gathering which got its start within its limits. No list of San Francisco’s club scene would be complete without addressing various camps’ ornate, frequent fundraising parties and decompressions.
In terms of scale and frequency, the Pink Mammoth camp stands in perhaps the highest repute among these parties, to the point that it’s even renowned among SF laypeople who have yet to make it to the Playa. With an event calendar that practically stretches the entire year and country, Pink Mammoth’s hometown events — which largely feature DJs from within their ranks — range from block parties and warehouse massives, to boat parties off of the embarcadero.
[Photo: Haley Busch]
It would be criminal to overlook San Francisco’s queer club culture when attempting to get an authentic sense of the city’s nightlife. Today, there is perhaps no better embodiment of this than the parties thrown by Honey Soundsystem. The collective —which currently centers around the trio of Jackie House, Bézier and Jason Kending — draws inspiration from the gay forefathers of dance music’s underground scenes, and has been attracting spectators with raucous, non-commercialized techno and house selections since the mid-aughts.
With rosters boasting the likes of fellow influential LGBT+ artists such Honey Dijon and Horse Meat Disco, Honey Parties are a regularity in SF nightlife anytime they aren’t touring elsewhere, particularly on holidays and during Pride Month. Notably, they were also part of Mixmag's first Lab San Francisco 2017, filmed from the iconic gay bar, The Stud.
[Photo: Mariah Claire Tiffany]
Housepitality is a longstanding staple of San Francisco’s weeknight club culture. Founded nine years ago, the weekly Wednesday party had been a fixture at f8 for years before the divey space at 1192 Folsom Street changed its name from Icon. During that time, they’ve maintained a core tenet of remaining a weekly party meant to support the underground, rather than a cabal of profiteers. Thusly, Housepitality hospitably offers guests free entry before 10PM with RSVP, $5 online and $10 at door — a policy that remains in place whether they’re hosting a local dark horse, or if their guest is someone of the caliber of KiNK or Mark Farina.
Will McCarthy is a writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter.
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