Night of the living bass heads: In search of Miami bass at San Francisco’s Sound Factory
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 07.14.1998 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro July 2018 here.


IT WAS ONLY in the aftermath of Saturday evening that I was able to appreciate my good fortune at losing a contact lens in my backyard earlier that afternoon. I don’t think I could have handled the spectacle of the Sound Factory on a Saturday night with 20/20 vision.

Despite the warnings of friends, in the interest of amateurish modern anthropology, and on a dare, I braved the booming-bass behemoth that takes up almost an entire city block downtown, looming over the tiny bimonthly Goth club down the road and beckoning secretaries from Concord and mall employees from Daly City to its Batman-inspired rotating spotlights like moths.

a sweaty sea of people in the sound factory’s main room

I knew that the Sound Factory would be a shock to my system, but I didn’t really expect the lesson I would learn about the socialization and mating rituals of Australopithecus MiamiBassus, the species that likes its khakis uniform and its potential sex partners tightly-clad and jiggling.

The Sound Factory’s entrance looks like the gateway to one of the scarier rides at Disneyland — one must pass through a winding gauntlet that reeks of aftershave and leather to get frisked, ID’d, tickets bought, and tickets torn. (For some reason, the employees don’t search the girls at all, much to the relief of my companion, who absentmindedly brought her 4-inch hunting knife in her purse.)

The $15 cover charge, $3 coat check, and $5 drinks do little to discourage the masses from converging and tightly packing themselves in the joint like the 30 Stockton at rush hour. The sound system’s bass begins to dislodge your sternum at precisely the moment you enter the door, and a cloud of sweat-humidity, manufactured fog, evaporating hair gel, and hard-working deodorant hits your face like a jet-engine blast.

It’s cavernous inside; white swoopy things and deconstructed disco balls hang from the ceiling, and lights flash to give off the appearance of grandeur, frenetic chaos, or a futuristic space station just before it’s going to blow. A narrow hallway connects two monstrous dance floors and smaller lounging areas; one room plays techno, house, and Miami bass while the other one spins salsa, merengue, and Latin house.

Observation decks above allow clubgoers to search out prospective partners and make mental notes of bad dancers to avoid. As we watch the swiveling hips in the “Conga Room” from the deck, two girls with fruity drinks and high hair come stand beside us to scope for 30 seconds. “Nobody good,” says lower-haired girl to her vertical friend, and they flounce away. Determined to dance and unwilling to get the side-cramps that go hand-in-hand with merengue, we muscle through the hall to the “Booty Room,” as we’ve affectionately dubbed it.

As we enter the Booty Room, the jigglers have been shooed off the stage to make way for SSC, a Miami bass-ish act that’s performing live. It turns out that they’ve authored several popular songs that rumble from low riders around town, including the “whassup whassup whassup” song, the “smack it up, flip it, rub it down” song, and that other one that praises Daisy Duke’s fashion sense. They’re good performers, but the music rubs against every pretentious rock-critic bone in my body — it’s mind-numbingly simple, repetitive, and vaguely-to-obscenely sexist. (I love it, actually.)

The lights go down, the DJ spins again, and as we venture out onto the dance floor, we notice that we’re the only couple not hermetically sealed to each other from head to toe. Most of the girls have their backs to the boys; Dirty Dancing seems like Ice Capades compared to this scene.

literally the best pants to wear for a night twerk

Every once in a while, in a move usually reserved for prison showers, single men sidle up behind my friend and nonchalantly shove their crotches into her butt, arms extended and faces blank. “Stop trying to freak me while I’m not looking!” she hollers over the thumping music. I dance with my back to a pole.

We stay for a total of about 45 minutes before we run (screaming) from the place — hardly our $15 worth, but more than enough. In the dating world, it seems a little odd to me that — in at least one social circle — a common way to meet a potential mate for the first time is to mount them, Quest for Fire style, from behind. But when you’re in a place where most of the songs consist entirely of references to booty, 69-related puns, licking things, and general grinding, it makes sense that the corresponding nightlife would lack subtlety, to say the least.

I, for one, would rather spend two hours looking for a contact lens in the grass.


This is the 17th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here

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