We Met The Godfather of SF's Gay Disco Underground
The year was 1975: there were drag queens on acid and house parties with Harvey Milk.
Steve Fabus is one of the few club DJs whose career spans almost the entire history of the profession and art form itself. His years as a DJ form a narrative that is inseparable from the progression of gay activism in 1970s and '80s San Francisco, with cameos by Harvey Milk, Andy Warhol and an LSD-soaked band of radical drag queens. Steve's DJing style incorporates the classics he was steeped in, but also newer, edit-driven disco and house. We spoke during the brief exhalation between the June 26th announcement of the Supreme Court's repudiation of two anti-gay statutes—the Federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8—and the beginning of San Francisco's LGBTQ Pride Celebration.
Michael Fichman: You have been active in the gay rights movement for decades. I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you for some brief thoughts about the Supreme Court's decisions on DOMA and Prop. 8.
Steve Fabus: It's a historic time. Last night was very charged and people are deliriously happy. The streets were just jam packed. They put barricades up to block traffic because people just went into the streets on Castro near Market. There were thousands of people there.
People were prepared to be fabulous or outraged. If it had been a decision that was unfavorable, there would have been some intense demonstration. Thank goodness it went the way it did.
You've lived in San Francisco on and off since what year?
I started coming here as early as 1971. Those were still hippie days. I'm from Chicago. I would come over here and spend three months and then go back to Chicago. I moved here in '75.
People were moving here because there was an incredible party going on, because of the culture and open-mindedness of the city. At that time there was this feeling, more than a feeling. After so many people move into a place you can exercise power by numbers.
The first way the gay community achieved power was in people coming out. Coming out to everybody—family, friends and even at work, even though that was still risky. The gay community is more understood just by the fact that when people come out, people realize that they know gay people and they're like, "This is no big deal, let's move on."
What made you interested in DJing?
I always loved music. To me it was everything in life and still is. In the early '70s I started giving house parties. I would go back and forth between turntable and [reel-to-reel] tape so I could have a continuous blend to keep momentum going. I was mixing James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, The Isley Brothers, Motown stuff, Led Zeppelin. This just feels great, I'm putting music together and people are being elevated by it because it's being programmed. It's not just some album being played.
I was coming out at that time. I was going to clubs in Chicago—Dugan's Bistro, Den One and PQ's. They were these incredible underground places where DJs were blending music. They didn't really overlay and do fancy mixes, but they were blending early disco. You'd hear Lyn Collins' "Think" or "Soul Makossa" or "City Country City" by War. What people would call David Mancuso's "Loft Music." Ron Hardy would play Den One. Lou Divito played at Dugan's. The parties went all night.
When I moved to San Francisco, I continued to do house parties. At that point I had already met the Cockettes, this radical drag group. They got national attention when people like Truman Capote and Gore Vidal would go see their performances. Drag queens on acid. John Waters, Andy Warhol. That's how I met Sylvester, he was a member of the Cockettes.
You met Sylvester in the mid-'70s, before he was recording disco, right?
He was singing. He was part of the show with the Cockettes, but he basically had a rock band—Sylvester and the Hot Band. I would DJ at house parties for that crowd. I was living in the Castro, around the corner from Harvey Milk's camera store. He went to my parties and we'd hang out with the whole cast of characters—hippies and bohemian luminaries and a lot of the boys who were moving into the Castro at that time. It was quite a scene. Everybody felt like something magical was happening.
My first spinning job was a bath house—actually a sex club. It's basically a guaranteed crowd. There was no dance floor but there was definitely a party to play for. I was glad that was my first gig because I got to practice and get into some very interesting trips where I didn't have to play commercial.
Because of the exposure I got at the bath houses, I met Bob Wharton and Sanford Kellman who were getting ready to open the I-Beam. That was going to be the biggest disco in San Francisco. I started playing there and it was wonderful. I compare it to the [Paradise] Garage in the sense that we played mostly soulful disco. That was '77-'78.
That was the era of the lush Philadelphia disco sound.
We played lots of that and Salsoul and lots of the Prelude stuff. The Casablanca stuff was coming in then too, and the West End stuff.
That music is primarily associated with Philadelphia and New York. Then things moved in a different direction. What was that like as San Francisco became nationally prominent in the disco scene?
The music produced here was more Hi-NRG. It was also a fusion sound. To me, Sylvester is total fusion—fusing the Patrick Cowley sound with gospel and soul. Sylvester himself was a fusion of so many things. Some people would say he was a transgendered kind of person but he was androgynous. He was male but he was also feminine. He was everything, he was himself. He was not afraid, he was just putting it out there. "If you don't like me, you don't like me, but I'm doing this, this is me." That was revolutionary in and of itself.
Steve Fabus (center with leather jacket), Martha Wash (sitting next to him), and Sylvester (standing above Martha Wash), and other members of the B.A.D.D.A record pool.
When Sylvester started charting, that's one of the first times there were unapologetically gay themes in popular hit songs. What did you think about that at the time?
That was progress. Looking back, the kind of trip that was going on in these gay clubs, they were underground. You went on a DJ trip—people dancing until dawn. Dancing in sexual ways, free expression, on drugs. Most of mainstream America had no idea what this was all about, they didn't experience it. When we got to the point where Diana Ross is doing "I'm Coming Out" and Sylvester had "Make Me Feel Mighty Real," and these were big hits, crossing over, we thought, "They are finally getting this music, it's finally seeping into the mainstream, they're digging it. Something good has got to come out of that."
I want to fast forward a bit. We met largely through Internet music subcultures that relate to music we're interested in. A lot of this is directly descended from music you came up playing as a DJ. This music is relevant again, it went through a dormant period but it's back. What has changed? What has stayed the same?
I'm very grateful there are substantial numbers of people in the younger generation that love real music. We've gone through periods where the numbers of people that get it have been smaller—not enough to support a scene. It was devastating to see the horrible music being played at circuit parties for a while. I was questioning whether it was the people who had bad taste or whether they hadn't been given anything.
What sort of music are you referring to?
Some of the pop music that was played in the more mainstream, commercial circuit parties. For a while it was pretty horrible. I know that that fueled a rejection by some younger people in the gay community who decided that they didn't want that music. That started happening more and more towards '06, '07.
I owe a lot of thanks to the Internet. People spend hours playing music [on YouTube], saying "This is good stuff and sounds better than 80% of the music on the Top 40 chart." There was a desire for people to go out and experience it with people and dance.
It's not as big as it was in the disco period or in the classic house period in the early '90s, but it's as big as we've had since those two grand periods of dance culture. There's been nothing quite as good since.
Was that the golden era because of the toll AIDS began to take on the club scene?
The Paradise Garage [in NYC] closed in September, 1987, two months before Michael Brody, the original cofounder with partner Mel Cheren, died of AIDS. In San Francisco nightlife changed dramatically in the late '80s when the Trocadero Transfer changed ownership. The scene did not completely stop but it was eerily different.
Even though people were still dying of AIDS, (the combination of drugs called "the Cocktail" that made HIV manageable didn't exist until 1996) they had the fatalistic view that they might as well go out with a bang and continue doing all things they loved to do. So they filled the clubs again, supporting the grand days of house and rave culture.
Were you ever tempted to quit DJing?
I've been able to DJ as my livelihood for most of the time I've been DJing. There was a break in '95, because I had AIDS—I still have it, but it's under control—so everything has turned around and I'm fine. But there was a point where I had no choice and I had to hang the turntables up for a while. A guest shot here and there but for about three years, I was chillin'. It's stayed interesting because I always find music out there that's interesting.
What do you think about DJing now versus DJing when you started?
I'm glad to see what's going on now, it's a new wave. Everybody involved in music and clubs in certain scenes, there's an excitement again.
A difference would be that in the disco era, and the house era for that matter, DJs played the whole night. One DJ. For the most part there's a signature DJ playing at a certain club and that club was known for the DJ playing there. That meant playing seven or eight hours, until the next morning. Now, you don't really see that. It happens, DJ Harvey does it, but it's rare. There's nothing like hearing somebody take people on that whole musical journey throughout the night, being able to get into some real nuances.
You have a night that has been very successful the last several years called Go BANG! That night has a unique roster of DJs, a unique crowd, in a unique venue [The Stud]. You and Sergio Fedasz—what's your philosophy behind that night?
Go BANG! is a special thing. If I have any angels or good spirits pitching for me, I'd feel that way.
Sergio came to hear me play years ago. He spent the whole night near the booth, looking up and me, I kept looking down at him. I was like OK, we're flirting or something. He stayed 'til the end of the night and I felt he was a very warm person. He said, he'd love it if I can come in and do a guest shot.
It was great. It was mostly straight, some gay people. I brought in mostly a gay crowd. It was mixing everybody up and it was a great night. Sergio said, "Would you like to be my partner?" I thought about it for ten seconds, looked him in the eyes and said "Yeah, let's do this."
He wanted me, I wanted him. We wanted each other as partners. It was a gut feeling. Every month it would get bigger. One point I felt that it had tipped because the hardcore dancers are here. They make it a destination, they want to occupy that dancefloor, they are ready to be served the music to dance to.
Follow Michael Fichman on Twitter at @djaptone.