A term that gets thrown around a lot, ‘underground’, has been around for decades and has been used to refer to any number of genres. In dance music in recent years, it has perhaps taken on new meaning as mainstream & Top 40 has centered itself around a pop version of electronic dance. As popular genres have evolved more and more into lifestyle soundtracks and further away from their roots, the escape of the dance floor and the speakeasy nature of early 90s raves have become commercial adaptions of those once underground destinations. Yet, electronic dance music’s perceived purity of the days of yore have actually been preserved on some of San Antonio dance floors.
For years, the Alamo City has been referred to as a “metal town” and while San Antonians turn out for rock music, it paints an incomplete picture. San Antonio boasts a majority Hispanic population and is located in central Texas and both realities carry their own musical influences: country and Spanish language music. But San Antonio has always had a strong underground dance music scene that’s organic, grassroots and has never been forced or manufactured.
Every month, a group of experienced DJs host an event called E:MERGE at Southtown 101, and it destroys any stereotypical narrative of what the San Antonio music scene is all about.
Recently, E:MERGE hosted EDC-Vegas & Euphoria Fest performing DJ, MSCLS. Throwing down a mix of deep house & heavy bass hitting tracks, the place was packed and vibing hard. Southtown 101 was almost at capacity and it took me nearly a half hour to get a drink in the small sized venue just south of downtown.
Recently, I sat down with, Abe Novy of S.O.U.L. Family, to discuss E:MERGE, the history of dance & electronic music in San Antonio, it’s current state and where it’s all going.
MILES TERRACINA: When did you start E:MERGE? What was the original idea behind it?
ABE NOVY: E:MERGE started in November of 2013 and has run every 2nd Saturday at Southtown 101 since that month. Our first booking was Pezzner (Freerange/Ovum) from Seattle, WA, and the principle idea behind the concept was to bring people together under one roof to experience quality underground dance culture, particularly working to bring acts (both regional and national) who are not "run of the mill" SA features. So many people bring the same thing to cities over and over, we try to keep things fresh and forward-thinking. The "E" at the beginning can stand for whatever relates to that, Experience, Electronic music, Eclectic, Energy, whatever makes sense to the person who is part if it. "MERGE" stands for exactly what it sounds like, a coming together of people, sounds and culture.
MT: When people talk about the history of dance music in San Antonio or highlights of dance music in SA, everyone always brings up The Davenport. What was it about The Davenport, was it location?
AN: If you look at Tuckers.. Tuckers doesn't have to be anywhere special, per se, its the people that are there. Leonard (Trujillo), JJ (Lopez) were involved, the same guys that are at Tuckers, were some of the same guys at Davenport that were involved. Gibby Diaz was playing house and hip-hop back then, and if you go the nights they host now- they have that same feel, that same vibe, those guys were the guys doing that back then. The location helped, it was kinda cool to have this bar at street level that just looked like your average bar, but then you go downstairs below the street and you've got Dance-Party-USA.
At the same time, around that time period, it was a real happening time for dance music (not just in SA, but nationwide) and for me, that was around the tail-end of when it was 'Great'. By the mid-90s, dance music really started to come in to it's own identity- but by 2003, '04, '05 - it was really happening and then by '07- you could feel the scene starting to enter a new era, there was this slipping away from where it was.
MT: Is dance music and electronic music in general having a hair-metal phase?
AN: HAHA This guy Luch, who use to DJ at the Cameo back in the 90s said something similar online recently, that EDM is a lot like Poison & RATT and that dance and electronic music is going through that phase.
MT: It seems as hip-hop & dance music changed and evolved over the years, it altered the nature of "the club" somewhat and those evolutions in the music itself changed the experience of going out.
AN: Absolutely. One of the biggest changes that has hit dance music in the recent years, or there's really 2 things: festivals and social media with phones. The reason I say that is, the festivals began adapting to what was going on musically, so they went from having a bunch of rock music (which isn't necessarily for dancing) to hosting DJs. The DJ booth use to be up high or in the corner and somewhat removed from the dance floor and people weren't watching the DJ. Now after festival culture has had it's impact, you hear people say: "I'm going to see the DJ, i'm going to watch this DJ", and before, it was about dancing. Even at a place at Kingdom in Austin, where the booth is up high and you can't see the "performance", people are standing around and trying to put their phones up, trying to get pictures and videos and it comes from the festival adaption of booking big name DJs.
MT: Switching gears: Club Rio, Alamo City Music Hall, Southtown 101 - very different locations hosting different types of dance music, can there be a venue or location that does it all? Or will SA continue to see these musical borders.
AN: For the most part, I think some of the divides come from factors like age groups, different musical styles, etc. But also that separation, that fine line between what's "underground" and what's not - there's that challenge of 'how do you get more people to come to your events without being "overground" or commercial'. You mentioned Club Rio, they bring people that use to be considered underground that now fall under a more mainstream category, like someone like Morgan Page. I've reached out to the folks at Club Rio to maybe host an event there (all still discussion phase), but one of my concerns is that those "underground" supporters may not make the trip to Club Rio because of where it's located, "its the northside, its not downtown" and it's not "puro San Antonio" - i think these perceptions and loyalties get in the way of people having a good time.
Part of why I got into this in the first place was because of exploration and music and sounds and nightlife. It's what got me going out and DJing and hosting my own parties, it was that curiosity and enjoyment of music.
MT: Money. I've had conversations with promoters in San Antonio, organizers trying to do something unique and special - and they are either going into the negative or barely breaking even. Are you spending money? Do you consider it a "loss"?
AN: I do and I don't. This is something most people don't want to understand - I don't do this as a business. This is not a business for me. I do this 100% purely for pleasure. I do this for fun and for two reasons: I love music and 2, the DJs and the people that come out, are people I love. I do it for, I hate to say it, it sounds so cliche', but really do, I do it for the people. I do it because I really enjoy watching people enjoying themselves. I won't ever get over looking at the photo of the 20th Anniversary Party we threw at The Korova with hundreds of people dancing, I live for that.
And another reason we love hosting E:MERGE at Southtown 101, is that the bar doesn't give us a percentage. We take what the bar gives us, which is a flat amount, we use a little bit to cover the expense of the sound & up keep of the sound, some for flyers and advertising, but 100% of the rest goes to the talent. It's how we're able to pay for headliners, we save money over a couple of months, but the truth is, I have to put in a little bit out of my pocket, but I don't see it as "oh, I'm losing money, I'm spending money" because it's an investment in my brand, in our brand as E:MERGE, it's an investment in not just S.O.U.L. Family, but Keeque and EFusion Radio and their guys. There's not much ROI, but we don't charge a cover. I don't spend money on myself with other things, I view this as a reward for the other hard work I do on a daily basis.
MT: Why house music? What other kinds of music do you listen to?
AN: Technically, E:MERGE is not just house music, we have hosted some techno and even slight variations of "bass music" as well. However, house music for me is just something that has been part of my life for 20+ years now. House music is universal in my opinion, it's something everyone can enjoy, share and feel comfortable with. I can't really say much more than that because as the quote goes, "not everyone understands house music, it's a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing."
Besides house, I definitely enjoy listening to some other forms of electronic music, such as drum & bass and techno. Outside of that, I grew up on hip hop and still love the classics and a few newer artists, and while I'll admit I don't know enough about it, there is some great indie music out there that I enjoy as well. But really, soul, funk, jazz, hip hop, house, I enjoy music, so putting a cage on it is difficult.
MT: What do you have cooking up for the near future?
AN: We have some absolutely great nights coming up for E:MERGE, including a July 11th date (and BBQ!) with NYC house icon Joeski (Defected, Maya Recordings, Suara), an August 8th show with Barbuto from Austin, the man behind [bas_mrkt] who is now on the incredible techno label Octopus Recordings, and in November we'll have our 2 year anniversary with...well...I can't tell you that yet, but as usual, it's going to be something fresh for San Antonio.