Meet the Renegade DJ Crew Who Helped Bring Rave Culture to the West Coast
From Burning Man’s first sound camp to LSD-fueled God delusions, Wicked looks back on their 25 years of hard partying.
If you reside on the West Coast of the United States, you may not know it, but you owe your beloved clubs nights and festival sensory overloads—at least in part—to a renegade crew of British DJs by the name of Wicked. Following the Second Summer of Love in 1989—a wild time in which a few other Brits (Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, and the like) absconded to Ibiza and returned to spark an acid house-fueled hedonistic rave movement across the UK—another group of pals who DJed under the names of Jenö, Thomas, Markie, and Garth made a similar pilgrimage. In 1991, the crew behind Wicked moved from their England residences all the way to San Francisco, in search of adventure.
The Wicked crew quickly latched onto the psychedelic energy that had been brewed in San Francisco since the days of tie-dye tees. Coupling the acid house styles they imported over from England with the freewheeling rock and disco native to the City by the Bay, they began throwing notoriously "anything-goes" illegal parties on the shores of San Francisco's Baker Beach, where a few years prior a little party called Burning Man was born.
Here they made a name for themselves as outlaws by throwing full moon parties—all night beach gatherings occupied by sound systems, bonfires, and LSD—that fell in line with the city's love affair with weird and occasionally deviant arts and culture. They also managed to bring a bit of their home country's hedonistic rave culture to this new context, introducing hordes of hippies to the psychedelic possibilities of electronic music.
From there it was a groundbreaking loft party above the city's shuttered BPM Records, sweaty after-hours parties held in a basement below Jessie Street, and a stream of sporadic warehouse parties that won the hearts of the city's night creatures. Eventually the crew set up semi-permanent shop in the King Street Garage (which coincidentally shares a name with the former location of the Paradise Garage in New York) where they had a custom designed Turbosound system to play their shape-shifting tracks until the wee hours of the morning.
By 1995, Wicked had made a solid name for themselves as purveyors of good times, and were considered by many to be the go-to destination for big-name DJs looking to spin in San Francisco. They had the likes of DJ Harvey, Tony Humphries, DJ Pierre, and countless others hit their system to show their stuff to a curious, open-minded crowd. In tandem, the crew also were among those that helped shepherd in an era of DJing at Burning Man—a lineage whose roots hold tight today—through their efforts as fearless DJs exiled far off in in the dust of the event's restrictive "techno ghetto."
Following their success in San Francisco, the group began touring across the lower 48 states in a customized vintage Greyhound Bus from 1947, hitting major cities like Denver, Miami, Baltimore, and NYC, and finally after a 13-year reign, they disbanded in 2004. In 2011, they started coming together briefly for some annual reunion parties, but aside from that stint the crew has mostly been focusing on their own individual efforts. Garth, who runs his own label Greyhound recording as well as an edit series, had a fruitful career remixing and producing before starting a new career in Los Angeles as an actor. Thomas, who's also had a career in production alongside DJ Harvey and Eric Duncan, in addition to his own STD Records, has recently been pushing mezcal across the world through his own importing business (as well as writing a book on the subject). Markie is a science teacher in the Bay Area, and Jeno is working on a video project that celebrates the history of Wicked (he's also been running an eclectic radio show called Noise From The Void that's gone out every full and new moon for the last 12 years).
This Friday in Brooklyn, longtime fans and curious newcomers will be treated to Wicked's 25th Anniversary party, with the trio of Jeno, Garth, and Markie spinning DJ sets. It's being presented by San Francisco and New York promoters, Listed, Blk|market Membership, Tom Mello, and Soup NYC, in an as-yet-unannounced warehouse location. Along with three mixes from the guys recorded at last year's 24-year party, we caught up with (most) of the original crew to hear more about their story—from catastrophic acid trips to the current state of San Francisco.
THUMP: Can you share a memory from the early Wicked days that's stayed burned in your brains after all these years?
Garth: For me it was the three-year anniversary full moon party at Bonny Doon Beach near Santa Cruz. Several thousand heads showed up that night. We got held up leaving the city loading up the sound system so by the time we arrived the party was already under way— tents were being set up, drum circles, fire pits, the works. It was the biggest turnout we ever had, and the moon was hanging over the ocean like one of those biblical paintings. The sound was heavenly (we had a Urei mixer propped up on a rock) and the cliffs to our backs, making the perfect amphitheater. Rolling Stone even showed up and covered the happening
Things got a bit out of hand to be honest: someone thought they were Jesus Christ on acid and threw themselves into the fire. This was before cell phones but eventually medics came for him by helicopter, while California Highway Patrol shut down the highway so it could land. People swore they saw aliens (probably just the helicopter), and during someone's morning set we ran out of gas for the generator. Some bright spark returned from his truck triumphant with reserves and a full tank—but soon it dawned on us he'd filled it with water. Everybody waited patiently for a good hour without sound while the generator dried out before we could refill it with gas. Party time again. Honestly I think Markie played the set of his life that day. Nobody left until late in the afternoon. No hassle from the man. Glory days!
Jeno: In the early 90s we took our nomadic full moon party to a beautiful local spot called the Water Temple. We had several hundred enthusiastic friends with us which didn't go unnoticed; a large number of cops showed up in a rather confrontational mood. I remember riot helmets and riot sticks silhouetted against the skyline. It was a pretty intimidating moment, not knowing if they were going to wade into us with batons twirling, but our highly excited friends kept their cool and danced in the cops searchlight beams—keeping the mood so smiley that the police were left feeling ridiculously overdressed for the occasion. After dawn we moved the party to a local park, DJed through a rainstorm, and rocked the crowd all the way to late morning.
Garth: Things got a bit out of hand to be honest: someone thought they were Jesus Christ on acid and threw themselves into the fire.
San Francisco's changed a lot since you guys started Wicked. What do you miss most about the 90s? What changed for the best?
Garth: The cheap rent. I used to pay $570 a month in the Haight Ashbury area with parking, and I distinctly remember wondering if I should take on such a princely sum. San Francisco was full of arty types then—it had that edge—so the people were on the same wave length.
Jeno: I don't miss the 90s, but I do miss the feeling at a full moon party. Those jams were wild and pagan, and helped define a dramatic change in SF's dance music culture. Before we showed up, AIDS had decimated SF's disco/dance scene and someone needed to relight the fire! Soon enough the city was burning with so much enthusiasm that it went from a dance music outpost to a dance music mecca, in no time.
But that's the thing about SF, change is one of it's few constants, and not always welcome. As the 90s rolled on, we also witnessed a heavy crackdown on dancing in SF, the insanity of the dotcom bubble, and before you knew it, the 90s were over. Part of me was happy to see them go. But the full moon jams left a great legacy, including pioneering an outdoors approach to dance music that has caught on here over the last two decades.
The full moon parties you guys did on Baker Beach gave way to Burning Man, which is a culture that's really made its way in the mainstream. Does it surprise you at all it became such a big thing?
Jeno: I'm not surprised Baker Beach birthed both Burning Man & SF's 90s dance music scene, it's a beautiful spot tucked away from prying eyes. With the Golden Gate Bridge looming out of the fog it's a perfect setting for a ritual whether burning a wicker man or just throwing down some Wicked grooves. But we weren't burners at first and it wasn't until the mid 90s that we ended up bringing our Turbo rig out to the playa.
The bass from those beautifully tuned prototype speakers travelled for miles, which at a time when dance music was frowned upon by the organizers meant exiled to a "techno ghetto," far away from main camp. Though Wicked wasn't the first or only DJ crew to make the trek out to the playa, what we contributed was a next level approach that brought the dance music vibes together in a way they hadn't happened up to that point. It was a key part of events that forever changed the role and acceptance of sound system culture at Burning Man. Just look at it now.
You guys left the UK in a time when illegal underground events were the norm, and now a lot of those kind of parties are returning due to so many proper venues being shut down in London and elsewhere. What do you think about the government's currents efforts against club culture as people who have seen it all evolve?
Jeno: I've witnessed several crackdowns over the years, from the UK government's attacks on the free-festival scene in the mid-80s, through to the UK acid house/rave hysteria, and then SF's crackdown in the mid 90s. We used to throw this raging weekly in SF called Come-Unity and while I was DJing the cops came in and physically ripped the club's mixer out, mid-song. And that was a fully licensed nightclub.
DJ Jenö: Our behind-the-scenes organizer, was dragged out of a busted Wicked by his hair, thrown in a cop car and told he was a British rave junkie who wasn't gonna be allowed to corrupt the youth of SF.
Also Alan, our behind-the-scenes organizer, was dragged out of a busted Wicked by his hair, thrown in a cop car and told he was a British rave junkie who wasn't gonna be allowed to corrupt the youth of SF. That kind of heavy handedness was only overcome because the dance music community came together and organized a successful grassroots campaign against it, rewriting SF's permitting process for the better. So getting organized can make a difference. Then again so can getting out of the clubs and going back to basics. I grew up with the punk DIY ethos, and as far as I'm concerned it remains the most creative approach to dance music celebration.
Did you ever think raving would become such a big business through festivals like EDC, for example? Do you get the credit you deserve?
Jeno: America loves to "go big," but that direction in dance music isn't something we deserve credit for. That dubious honor may belong to more money-focused rave promoters, who like good opportunists, saw the growing dance music phenomenon as something to be reamed for all its worth. Funnily enough we did get approached about bringing Wicked out to EDC this year, but it was never gonna happen. EDC, who cares really? We're grateful to be doing this Wicked thing 25 years on, on our own terms and for the love and enjoyment of the experience. Hard to top that.
Grab tickets to Wicked 25th anniversary bash in Brooklyn on Resident Advisor.
David Garber is on Twitter.