The domination of computers, plug-ins, and the all-mighty Ableton makes DJing vinyl in nightclubs somewhat impractical in 2015. Mark Farina, the Chicago-house raised, jazz-boom educated master of all things beat-matched, can do as he pleases. Be it mixing fluidly, in a live and organic manner, or diving through crates of records, he is of a different generation of musical explorers. Ballsy and determined, Farina chooses to do things his way. From his track selection to his mixing style and his Blackhawks baseball cap, no one tells Farina which track to play.
Farina has come quite a distance since he picked up his first set of 1200s and an old Radio Shack mixer. After saving enough money from working at a pizza place during high school in Chicago, Farina finally splurged and began his music career. Two buses and a few subway stops later he picked up a used set of 1200s and "this dodgy mixer that had weird sound effects on it," for $600. "I put the 1200s in a pillowcase, and stacked them and carried the stuff all home on the bus," says the now 46-year-old Farina.
Although the industrial new wave music from across the pond was just taking over American clubs, Chicago was different. The jackin' house scene was prevalent everywhere in the late 80s, from the record stores to the radio, and the latter gave Farina the his first opportunity to hone track selections. Thanks to exposure by the Chicago radio mixes of Bad Boy Bill or Jackmaster Funk, Farina began experimenting with mixing himself, whether it was by recording cassettes or controlling the pitch on belt-drive turntables by hand.
On one particular occasion, while his friend Terry Martin was DJing in Chicago's popular nightclub Medusa, Farina suggested Martin play a specific track. Martin turned to a young Farina and said, "Alright smarty-pants, you play it." Farina says he held his breath and stepped behind the decks. "I was in high school at the time, but when someone tells you to get on during that moment, you do it."
Farina continued to live and learn in the DJ booth, even as a bystander. By 1987, he had completely immersed himself in the music culture of Chicago. Along with friends like Derrick Carter, DJ Sneak, and J-Dub he would work and hang out at record stores—like the famous Gramophone Records—for hours at a time. By recording what he heard on the radio, Farina would carry cassette tapes to record stores in hopes someone he knew could ID the tracks. Back then, it was quite a labour intensive process, one that's overlooked in the "Google it" era of the present.
Farina's perspective on music was passion-fuelled and economically innocent. In Chicago, the idea of getting paid to DJ or making a living off DJing was out of the question. "At that time there weren't travelling DJs," says Farina. "There weren't multiple sets in a night, it was all done by one DJ. You would do all night in a room… that's just how it was." His first DJ gig was from 9 PM to 4 AM at $10 an hour. The transition from part-time to full-time in music was an organic one for Farina, but one that came at a cost. "Doing those early nights in Chicago, being a DJ, you had to be your own promoter," says Farina. "You would make your own flyers at Kinko's, print them up, drop them around to record stores… you would have to bring your own gear to the club too."
Aside from his Chicago house music glory, it is his Mushroom Jazz sound that truly captivates his versatility. The inaugural Mushroom Jazz mixtape—which debuted in Chicago in '92—never received the attention it deserved. After being booked in San Francisco for the first time, along with Derrick Carter, Farina noticed a significantly different attitude coming from the crowd on the West Coast. Taking advantage of the parties (and more importantly the promoters) available in San Francisco compared to Chicago, Carter and Farina gradually played more and more gigs in Northern California instead. "Eventually it got to a point where I had two apartments, one in San Francisco and one in Chicago. It was $500 for both," says Farina. Around 1994, he settled down on the West Coast, where he began his legendary Monday night residency, Mushroom Jazz.
Fusing the beat-matched and heavily mixed of Chicago DJing with the soulful, acid jazz-infused groove taking over the West Coast, Farina brought something new to the table in San Francisco. With his disco-infused acapellas and vocal samples, his residency took off. "With the Mushroom Jazz style, in Chicago, it didn't really go over much. I would only play that in a club or two, in the B-room of the club," says Farina. But things were different in San Francisco. "There was a bit more openness to different tempos and there was a whole Acid Jazz scene going on there at the time." This resulted in a widespread acceptance of Farina's style.
It was never his intention to create a subgenre or a niche following, rather, Farina was just playing to his roots, something Chicago house sometimes inhibited him from doing. His notable affinity for hip-hop helped accelerate his sound, as it wasn't very popular in the house dominated city of Chicago, he says. "Chicago wasn't a hip-hop town at all, there was no hip-hop until later. All the urban, African-American black contemporary stations all played house."
Instead, Farina relied on friends in New York to send him hip-hop tapes and radio shows by the likes of Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito. That hip-hop tempo, embraced by Farina but ignored by Chicago he says, was danceable. Unlike Chicago, "there was a dancefloor vibe in San Francisco to the Mushroom Jazz tempo." It's success was cemented by the eight years of Monday night Mushroom Jazz that Farina and his crew provided for the community in San Francisco.
Eventually, with an exhaustive touring schedule and the degradation of the venues being booked, Farina decided to conclude the weekly Mushroom Jazz residency. This signalled a change in San Francisco's scene, which prompted Farina to put his talents towards the Mushroom Jazz compilations. The compilations span across seven volumes and two decades and typifies the sound Farina spent so long crafting and inadvertently trademarking. Although he no longer plays exclusively vinyl sets anymore, those late night open-to-close sets in Chicago can still be heard in his output today.
"I used to work three nights a week, for over five years. Even if you're playing at home for nine hours it's not the same as playing in a club," he says. "I remember the first time when a guest DJ came to Chicago, we were shocked. I'd say, 'You just play guest sets? You just play two hours somewhere?' They were making more money than any Chicago DJ, I had never heard of such a thing, it was such a foreign element."
Farina may have come from the long-set, vinyl-only environment of the past but his vision expands far beyond his own personal upbringing. With his current roles stretching from label owner of Great Lakes Audio, to producer, DJ, and curator, Farina no longer spend his days in Chicago record stores, but his relentless creativity continues to shine. Recently, his experience captivated an audience at Toronto's picturesque Sunnyside Pavilion, phasing through everything from downtempo and jazz, to a Beatles sample, and even a sax-infused mix of Public Enemy's "Bring The Noise" as a conclusion.
Let's see who else—if anyone else—can do that.