The first Club Chai party that DJs 8ULENTINA and foozool threw at a West Oakland warehouse was the sort of event that makes nightlife feel like a spiritual experience.
The lineup at its January 2016 party was eclectic, to say the least: The founders — both also music producers — mixed club music, hip-hop, and dancehall with traditional rhythms from their respective heritages. (8ULENTINA is of Turkish and Jewish-American descent, and foozool is Armenian-American by way of Iran.)
This take on club music -- using it as a place to excavate and reimagine traditional sounds through a modern, multicultural lens -- is challenging. But the other DJs at their debut party came ready to surpass that bar. San Jose’s Turbo Sonidero spun electronic cumbia. DJ Haram, who flew in from Philadelphia, left the room humid with sweat after her breakneck Jersey club set. And the audience was just as diverse as the performers, who also included Oakland’s Neto 187 and Jasmine Infiniti.
Just a year later, Club Chai has evolved past its warehouse-party beginnings. Its anniversary party, which takes place at Oakland’s Starline Social Club on Saturday, Jan. 21, also serves as the release event for its first compilation, Club Chai Vol. 1, which dropped online Jan. 17. This and other recent projects are the first steps towards transforming the underground club night into a label -- and, if the duo's dreams are realized, a wholly international, multi-disciplinary brand.
“We started with the warehouse parties, but we both had a similar vision for it and we knew it was gonna be something that’s gonna branch out,” explains foozool, a 24-year-old San Francisco native, when I meet her at 8ULENTINA’s West Oakland studio on a recent drizzly evening. (Both artists requested to not use their real names for this story.)
“I think whenever you do something that’s based in DIY or warehouse or underground, you know it’s gonna be temporary, especially the space you’re using,” says 8ULENTINA, who is 26 and originally from San Diego. “So I think we were always like, ‘How can Club Chai eventually be something that supports people beyond the club nights that we’re doing?’”
After meeting through mutual friends, the pair initially bonded over a shared desire to connect with their respective cultural backgrounds through experimental video and music. After creating the audiovisual mixtape Border_Convos for the creative collective Browntourage, they began to collaborate on events — first with that collective, and then on their own as Club Chai.
The recurring dance party now has a permanent home at Starline Social Club, and 8ULENTINA and foozool have taken it to Los Angeles and London. But the co-founders have also been busy devising ways to expand Club Chai beyond the ephemeral experience of a club night.
“We just finished making a mix for Rinse FM,” says foozool, gesturing towards the open audio file on her MacBook screen as 8ULENTINA fixes me a cup of tea. We sit down at their studio table, which is almost entirely taken over by a set of Pioneer CDJs -- CD turntables that also function as DJ controllers.
Rinse FM, 8ULENTINA explains, is a UK station that started out as pirate radio but eventually got its FM license. “They put on a lot of grime artists,” says 8ULENTINA. “But now they’re branching out to a lot of different sounds and respecting the club scene more internationally. It’s amazing to get the opportunity to play an FM radio mix and be like, ‘There’s people in their cars listening to this.’”
The two artists’ overseas appeal is growing, as well; they now host a monthly online radio show on London’s Radar Radio, which they use to showcase up-and-coming electronic talent from the Bay Area. The deftness with which they blend local music with influence from all over the globe — artists they consider part of the Club Chai “extended family” — is apparent in the choices they made selecting tracks for Club Chai Vol. 1.
The compilation puts Bay Area artists at the vanguard of the local electronic music scene — such as Russell E.L. Butler, Jasmine Infiniti, Spellling, and Turbo Sonidero — in dialogue with like-minded folks from a far-reaching range of other underground scenes, like New York’s Stud1nt, Uruguay’s Lechuga Zafino, and Chicago’s Ariel Zetina. The comp features 21 artists in total.
“People don’t always acknowledge that there’s a club culture in the Bay, or that there’s club music coming out of the Bay that has a [specific] sound,” 8ULENTINA reflects. “I think it’s important to be like, ‘We’re out here on the West Coast, we’re making club music, we’re putting on club nights. We’re friends with a lot of these people on the East Coast and in other countries, and we’re all playing each other’s music.’”
In cities like New York, argues the duo, mainstream institutions support underground club culture in ways that Bay Area institutions simply don’t. For example, MoMA PS1 hosted an edition of DJ Haram’s Philadelphia party, ATM, in November 2016. And the UK Arts Council gave the British label Tobago Tracks the necessary grant to fly out 8ULENTINA and foozool for the London edition of Club Chai the same month.
London partygoers’ response to Club Chai blew the two DJs away. “People there turn up in the club to Middle Eastern music, and I feel like here it took a bit of convincing,” says 8ULENTINA.
“It went really well,” interjects foozool. “We were overwhelmed.”
Club Chai has always been a bit difficult to define. While the project’s founders and many of their collaborators are of Middle Eastern descent, it celebrates cultural exchange among creators from non-Western backgrounds on a broader level. And while it has a heavy queer and trans presence, it’s never been an explicitly queer party or platform.
Thankfully, 8ULENTINA and foozool don’t seem all that interested in streamlining their message into a digestible soundbite. They’re too busy expanding Club Chai, envisioning beyond the club night and record label to become a curatorial platform that will eventually put on art shows and film screenings.
It might be tough to sum up in a sentence. But a resistance to following rules or a template is exactly what made that inaugural Club Chai party so exhilarating one year ago -- and, as it grows, that's what its founders hope will keep the sweaty, liberating magic alive.
Club Chai's anniversary and compilation release party takes place this Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Starline Social Club in Oakland. Free; more info here.