The Curious Story of Mushroom Jazz, Dance Music's Chillest Genre Ever
The surprising origins of the shroomy, genre-spanning sound, according to the man who invented it.
Evening Mushroom. Photo courtesy of OrestART/ Wikimedia Commons.
Back in the 90s, Mark Farina's Mushroom Jazz mix CDs were the perfect comedown solution for nights when the aggressive drum 'n' bass and post-acid techno of the American rave explosion got too overwhelming. But like the fungus that gives the genre its name, his deep, funky grooves started popping up all over the place. Beyond the dance world, Farina's discs for OM Records found an audience with the indie-leaning hipsters who'd been turned on to what the media broadly termed "electronica." Even hippies got in on the action: in the mid to late 90s, it seemed you had to own at least one Mark Farina mix in order to be a college-town weed dealer.
Farina came up in the Chicago house scene during its 80s heyday; along with DJs like Derrick Carter, he helped adapt dance music for a new decade, one where it would finally catch on with a mainstream American audience. Ironically, he pushed the idiom forward by embracing the genre-agnostic philosophy that Frankie Knuckles used to create house in the first place, expanding that sound's hard four-on-the-floor beats and electronic leads with soul-indebted vocals, jazzy piano lines, and the dusty boom-bap that defined hip-hop's golden age, which was then in the process of unfolding. In the process, he roped in fans of those sounds as well.
Currently based in Dallas, Farina has been working on the series for 25 years now—and touring steadily to support it. On July 22, Farina will self-release its long-awaited eighth volume, via Pledge Music—a full six years after his last installment ("Life stuff happened," he explains). To mark the occasion, we got Mark to tell us what Mushroom Jazz is, and how it came to be. To our surprise, the story begins in Chicago's distinctly un-mellow 80s industrial scene.
Mark Farina: I grew up in Chicago in the early 80s. I went to high school out in Park Ridge, and we were starting to go to Wax Trax! Records [the store that would launch the eponymous industrial record label] like once a week. A couple friends of mine in high school were into industrial/new wave stuff. Then we found [teen house club] Medusa's. That was kind of my first regular clubbing experience. They had a thing called Teen Dance back then that was Friday and Saturday, and it was like 6:30 to 11. They'd have Medusa's Late Night after, and we started sneaking into that. All that industrial music was heavily mixed back then—beat-matches and blends and that type of thing.
We'd record [house] mixes off the radio. Coming from a more industrial background—with Ministry and Front 242 and all that—I was into more of the trackier stuff. Then I got more into acid tracks and that kind of thing. Even at Medusa's, some of those early acid tracks would cross over into the late-night industrial thing, like the original "Acid Tracks" and Sleezy D's "I've Lost Control" and "No UFO's" by Model 500.
A DJ named Terry Martin who worked at Medusa's sort of showed me some ropes. Eventually I found a pair of used 1200s and a mixer for something like six hundred bucks. When I first started playing, it was still a lot of Nitzer Ebb, Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Anne Clark, Section 25, early New Order—all stuff that was in that 120-130 BPM range. And even in the industrial scene, you had to mix.
After spinning in clubs for a couple years, I was playing [influential 90s Chicago club] Shelter. I was doing the main room, which was all house—and then they opened a b-room called the Paramount Room, which was more like a lounge room. It was a big room, but it had tall, lofted ceilings and a lot of couches. This is 1988-1989-ish. We started going to New York around then, and the clubs there—one room would be house and another room would be hip-hop and another room reggae. In Chicago, there would be two or three rooms in the club, and they'd all be playing house.
So they built this new room [at Shelter] and they were like, "You're going to start doing Thursdays" or whatever. I was like, "It seems silly to play the same music in this room that they're going to hear in the other room," so I started pulling out all that early acid jazz stuff—early East Coast hip-hop, funk, and some soul stuff—and mixing that in. The room didn't have a dance floor—it was just couches, and it was kind of head-nod music. People would go in there to have a drink and nod their head before going to dance in the main room.
I loved hip-hop—all that slow, early East Coast, Stretch & Bobbito stuff—but it didn't get played much in Chicago. Chicago was very un-hip-hop for a long time. All the contemporary black stations played house—unlike in New York, where it was all hip-hop and R&B. I thought it was a chance to play something different. So we were buying all these records that were in that slower BPM range, say, 100 BPM to 110.
"I'd do the Mushroom Jazz thing, and some people would dance, while other people would just be tripping, lying on beanbags. Mushroom Jazz found this little niche in the rave culture, in the b-room."—Mark Farina
We'd also go hang out at Grateful Dead shows at that time—not really for the music, but for the vibe. The people there were so nice and open. We'd find our little "party elements" [there], then go to our car and listen to house music. So that's kind of where "Mushroom Jazz" came from. The first time I heard the term "acid jazz," it sounded so crazy to me, even though I was into psychedelics. So to make up a term from our little psychedelic adventures, it was Mushroom Jazz.
That was still the mixtape days as well, so we'd all sell mixtapes at Gramophone and various other record stores. Eventually there were only house tapes available, so I made the first Mushroom Jazz tape with all those downtempo tracks—like early UK and European acid jazz mixed with A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. [With gangsta rap] I didn't agree with the lyrics, but the instrumentals were good. I was into peace and being nice and letting people be themselves and stuff, so I didn't really play angry lyrics.
[Mushroom jazz] wasn't a dance floor thing–it was more of a chill type of thing. The Mushroom Jazz tape became popular with people before they went out, or after. This was before the rave times, so there wasn't even really a chill-out scene yet.
It wasn't until I started venturing out of Chicago that I actually got a dance floor for playing this slower-tempo stuff. When I came to California, it was around the time of the birth of the chill-out room concept. I'd do the Mushroom Jazz thing, and some people would dance, while other people would just be tripping, lying on beanbags. So Mushroom Jazz found this little niche in the rave culture, in the b-room.
[San Francisco] was definitely kind of a culture shock. Chicago was a weekend town, mainly, whereas in San Francisco, in the 1992-1993 range, there was something every night of the week—people going off, going crazy. The peace and love history of San Francisco that started in the 60s carried into the house scene in the 90s. In those days, there would be three or four rooms with completely different lineups in the same party. You'd get a house-y, techno-y room, then a jungle room, then a happy hardcore room. It was carefree. People were doing a lot of psychedelics. For me, that was the golden age of San Francisco clubbing.
When the rave scene diminished around 1995, everything sort of went to the 21-and-up clubs. I continued doing two or three places a week—some small clubs, some bigger clubs. There was a period there—probably around Mushroom Jazz 4  or 5 —where I think a lot of the club gigs I was playing didn't really cater towards slower BPMs. Then, around 2008 or 2009, I started to find more gigs where I'd play longer sets, or even two sets, and everything didn't have to be house all the time. In the past seven years or so, there's been more opportunities and gigs that want more of a Mushroom Jazz style. Scenes change, musical tastes change. That's just the way it is.
I've been doing different festivals the last couple years, and younger artists will tell me, "Oh I got Mushroom Jazz, and it got me really into stuff"—and maybe they're not even doing the same thing I'm doing, but I can hear some elements. I'll meet different artists from dubstep-y, trap-ish styles who give me props for their early influences. I like that quite a bit.
I'm kind of surprised in a way to see Mushroom Jazz hang on for so long. I never really anticipated doing a series that was going to be around for 25 years. We made a digital teaser for Mushroom Jazz 8, and I was thinking if I'd seen that 25 years ago when we were making the first cassette I would've been like, "What? Are you kidding me?" I was grateful to put out even that first CD.