It’s just after 11pm on a Saturday night in July, and bodies are spilling out of the second-floor venue of the Legionnaire Saloon in Oakland. It’s crowded. So crowded that finding a spot inside requires patience, fluidity and a string of “excuse me’s.”
The DJ, Threesixsashia, drops Deneice Williams’s airy, glittering '70s R&B single "Free” into her set. There's not much room to dance, but fervent nods and widely splayed smiles abound at volume 49 of the monthly beat showcase, Smart Bomb.
Saturday nights like these have been a regular occurrence since 2013 for the East Bay music and art collective behind the popular party, which spotlights mostly local producers and DJs with an ear for experimental jazz, hip-hop and electronic sounds.
“It’s kind of like church,” says co-founder Jason Garcia, who also performs as Asonic.
Born of the imaginations of avid record collectors and crate diggers, “beat music” is a cross-pollination of R&B, hip-hop, jazz and more obscure, cerebral genres like IDM, or intelligent dance music. This type of experimental beatmaking saw a more mainstream crossover when, picking up the baton from the cult producers like Dabrye and J Dilla, producer and head of Alpha Pup Records, Daddy Kev, launched the party Low End Theory in 2006. With Low End, Daddy Kev created a platform for influential artists like Flying Lotus, DJ Nobody, Nosaj Thing, Daedelus and Glitch Mob, and laid the groundwork for creating and fostering a community of artists who spun hip-hop into a patchwork of sputtering drums, psychedelic synthesizers and near-suffocating bass.
“Those cats inspired everyone,” says Smart Bomb member Andrew Johnson, who makes music as Drewmin. “Everyone tried to run around and do what they were doing.”
While Johnson saw the beauty in Low End, he didn't want to just reproduce the L.A. party. Instead, he sought to give it a distinctly Bay Area spin. “It’s like when people talk about sampling Dilla: don’t bite that guy, do something crazy and new if you want to honor dude," says Johnson.
“The Bay Area has its own style,” says Garcia. “The headiest people could also be the hyphiest people. There's a soulfulness that’s in everything, no matter what you do. You come up to the Bay for new ideas, so that’s what we’re trying to be, on the forefront of this type of music.”
In the beginning, it was hard to get promoters on board with the nebulous nature of Smart Bomb. “We started it out of sheer lack of any kind of consistent gathering for all the artists we hang around with,” Garcia says.
Smart Bomb found a home when Legionnaire owner Zack Turner was on the verge of opening his venue and looking to book local talent. The Irish pub and Smart Bomb volume one both debuted in March 2013.
“We were kind of on the fringe of everything,” Garcia says. For the first show, which starred his band Secret Sidewalk, whose music plays like a futurist dispatch of samples, synths and saxophones, he called up friends from different geographic and sonic pockets to assemble his “dream team” line-up: funk-oriented Oakland producer SpaceGhost, San Francisco’s Ruff Draft, Puzzle and Secret Sidewalk member Mike Boo.
“There was a wealth of talent in our community that never really had a place to shine before,” Garcia says. In the last five years, Smart Bomb has also booked talent from outside the Bay Area (previous names on the bill include introspective rapper/producer Quelle Chris, Watts-born beatmaker Dibia$e and Ras G, an Afrofuturist, free jazz-inspired producer and DJ out of Los Angeles) but their focus remains on Oakland talent, and people have taken notice.
The collective is one of six DJ crews picked to play Red Bull Music’s Oakland showcase this on July 28. Alongside Club Chai, the B-Side Brujas, Another Party Fam, 45 Sessions and NVR OVR, Smart Bomb will round out a party intended to highlight the underground music scenes that make The Town was it is.
“As we [continue to] grow, it’s important to have a balance of shining light on new talent and exposing young people to the legends,” Garcia says. This balance of established local talent and up-and-comers, the crew envisions, is a chance to show greener artists the ropes.
“A lot of these young cats, they’re in their bedrooms being creative, they have amazing imaginations but they don’t know nothing about what kind of cables they need or what kind of plugs; they don’t know about how to hold the mic or what kind of mic to use; they don’t show up with anything,” Andrew explains. “It’s our responsibility to game them up.”
In that vein, Smart Bomb isn’t another party. It’s a space of discovery, for those on and off stage.
“I feel like this place has changed a lot of people’s lives, because it’s such a family oriented place,” says Cinque Mubarak, a photographer in Smart Bomb (the collective has expanded to include other types of artists who share their ethos of standing on the fringes). Before Smart Bomb, Mubarak says he was very reserved, but the monthly event opened up to him a community of artists.
“People grow here. They come every month and see familiar faces, especially people who have social anxiety," Mubarak says. “I’ve seen them grow so much. If you want to be a wallflower, you can be a wallflower."
The Smart Bomb crew performs at Red Bull Music's Oakland showcase on July 28 at Geoffrey's Inner Circle. Details here.