How Sweater Funk DJs Revived Boogie, a Once-Uncool Sound

The tight but amorphous crew behind the popular San Francisco party Sweater Funk digs deep into the sounds of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. (Courtesy of Sweater Funk)

While some people are content to spend Sunday nights at home, a group of San Francisco DJs have made Sunday the night to hit the dance floor. The tight but amorphous crew behind Sweater Funk digs deep into the sounds of the late '70s and '80s at one of the city’s most beloved parties, which will soon celebrate 10 years as the Bay Area’s premiere night for funk, disco and a rare proto–hip-hop subgenre genre called boogie.

The next party, on July 29, is Sweater Funk’s last weekly event at The Knockout before it goes on a brief hiatus. An official 10th anniversary celebration takes place at the Elbo Room on September 29, and the crew will bring back Sweater Funk as a monthly on Nov. 10, holding down second Saturdays at The Knockout.

Boogie is a subgenre of funk that might sound familiar to anyone who was listening to the radio when bands like Tavares and Slave were popular—or it might sound like disco. Yet the slower, bass-heavy boogie, which Sweater Funk popularized locally, is a direct result of the so-called "disco sucks" movement of the late '70s, during which mostly white, male rock fans publicly rallied against the genre. Critics have since interpreted the movement as a backlash against disco fans and artists—many of whom were black and Latino, queer and female.

“Disco and uptempo R&B had to go underground again and it got cooler. It got black again, it got gay again and it got good again. It got sexier, it got funkier,” says Jacob Pena, aka DJ Guillermo, adding that Michael Jackson and Prince dabbled in boogie. “I think this is a really accessible genre; it’s positive and the lyrical content is almost always about love.”

Sweater Funk's sweaty fifth anniversary party in 2013.
Sweater Funk's sweaty fifth anniversary party in 2013. (Courtesy of Sweater Funk)

Co-founders Jon Blunk and Pena, both former Southern California residents and longtime DJs, met at a Long Beach soul night called Good Foot and bonded over their love of obscure funk records. Both moved to the Bay Area circa 2005–2006 and, inspired by legendary Los Angles boogie party Funkmosphere, started a boogie night in the basement of Chinatown’s Li-Po Lounge in 2008.

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“At that time, everyone subscribed to the belief that funk ended in 1974 and '80s stuff was considered cheesy. You'd only ever hear it if a lowrider happened to be rolling by,” Blunk says.

But the two DJs were drawn to the heaviness of records such as Keni Burke’s “Hang Tight” and La Voyage’s “Never Looking Back” (both from 1982), and so were partygoers. Sweater Funk quickly created a tight community.

“We all felt like we had this one thing in common, which everyone else told us sucked,” says Pena. “But we knew better; doing this night kind of proved it.”

Less than a year in, the small basement became packed with dancers, record collectors and other local DJs—including The Selecter DJ Kirk Harper, who quickly became central to Sweater Funk—that were into the underground, gritty and incredibly danceable vibe.

DJ, producer and singer Eric Boss fell in love immediately. “It felt like a party someone would throw in high school when their parents were out of town in a dark basement with the music blasting, drinking beers, smoking a 'lil something.”

After Li-Po’s basement shut down, Sweater Funk landed at The Knockout, which has been the party’s home since 2012. The Sweater Funk DJs also host special events at Elbo Room and open for likeminded artists coming through town.

The Sweater Funk crew of DJs grew to a dozen people of different ethnicities and genders, including K-Maxx, Christina Chungtech, Sean Sullivan and Sheila Hernando. The women of Sweater Funk paved the way for all-female DJ groups like the B-Side Brujas, the Chulita Vinyl Club and the Cookie Crew, Harper added.

The sound of Sweater Funk also evolved, adding peripheral genres such as lovers rock, “modern soul” and slower-tempo steppers. Out of respect and curiosity, DJs often play entire songs rather than mixing samples. The party’s accessibility, style and dedication to boogie and its adjacent genres garnered widespread attention, attracting like minds from across the country.

“Sweater Funk has been one of the main crews known around the globe for keeping the boogie style in fashion,” said Chicago-based boogie DJ and Star Creature label co-owner Tim Zawada. “Because of its persistent popularity and welcoming vibe from DJs, there has been a nice increase in the amount of artists, labels and vinyl releases focusing on a modern interpretation of the boogie spirit.”

Mainstream artists have embraced the boogie influences in recent years. Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic and Mayer Hawthorne's side project Tuxedo both heavily employ boogie sounds. Locally, groups like Con Brio and Los Angeles’ Orgone have been influenced by early '80s sounds.

Although Los Angeles DJ Miles Tackett came up with the name Sweater Funk, after the fuzzy sweaters featured on many boogie album covers, the party's success may be due to its unique San Francisco spirit.

“San Francisco is down to party. There’s still a heart to it that hasn’t been snuffed out yet. Hopefully we’re helping to keep that heart beating,” Pena said. “Ferchrissakes, we started in a basement in Chinatown! You can’t more San Francisco than that.”

The next Sweater Funk takes place July 29 at The Knockout. Details here

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