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Mushroom Variations

Happy as a lawn clam: Farina may be all smiles, but his Mushroom Jazz is dark and intense.

DJ Mark Farina can't talk too long. He has to go pick up his soundboard.

"It's been in the shop for two or three weeks," says Farina, one of San Francisco's top electronic artists. "It needed all this rewiring or something. I've had it for a few years and it's gotten dirty. There was construction at my old place a while back."

If that makes the bespectacled Farina seem like something of an anachronism, well, it's because he is one. While other electronic artists increasingly lean on editing software programs and other gimmickry to clean their sound or add a few circus tricks to their sets, the 32-year-old Farina keeps it real, using only two turntables, two CD players, an MDC-4000 sampler for vocal effects and his trusty, dirt-infested soundboard.

In fact, Farina's tools double as his recording palette. His popular Mushroom Jazz compilations on Om Records, which chronicle the DJ's love for down-tempo dance music, were all recorded in one take. That seems amazing when you listen to the albums, because Farina has an uncanny ability to maintain a consistent groove, so that one song melts seamlessly into another. The beat, an intense yet lazy swagger that lopes at 100 to 105 beats per minute, is Farina's main weapon, and when horns, rappers, electric piano, odd vocal loops (two-second audience laugh tracks, snippets from instructional tapes on CD-radios) and other layered samples leap from the stereo, the effect is psychedelic. If you stop paying attention to the track listing, the unrelenting mix is likely to transport you.

This helps explain the "mushroom jazz" name. Farina's music runs counter to aggressive house music, good not only for lounging but it also won't piss off mom and dad. "I find parents will generally like mushroom jazz mixes," Farina says.

"It took a little more creativity to come up with that sound," he explains. "Creating your own thing is kind of fun, because there are no rules. We didn't know if it was going to take off dancing-wise."

It did. Farina's experiments with "mushroom jazz" began in the early '90s, built into a regular, storied Monday club night at Cat's Grill in San Francisco mid-decade and sparked enough devotion to take on its own genre, in the mind of some fans, so much so Farina now tours out of town as much as he plays clubs around the Bay.

With Mushroom Jazz 4, released this past November, Farina travels further into hip-hop than he has previously. While Farina calls mushroom jazz a "hip-hoppyesque" creation, the beatwork this time pounds so heavily, it acts more like a pile driver than a pain reliever. The DJ offers few singing interludes or lengthy horn solos this time around. He lifts jazz-draped beats from East Coast stalwarts Pete Rock and Scienz of Life, employs raps from Bay Area compadres Mr. Lif and People Under the Stairs and borrows an ambient, oceanic loop from veteran underground boardsman DJ Slave.

"I kind of want that hip-hoppy backbone and to just cater to that street sound," Farina says. "There's some light stuff on there. But even that has a little bit of oomph to it."

The vocal samples on Mushroom Jazz 4 have some oomph to them as well. The album, after several introductory scratches, begins with a mock disclaimer: "The first [rule] is that whenever you listen to this record, have a notebook handy and make notes as we go along. The second is that this record was produced for your own personal use to go with you on your own exciting journey. To play this record for a group would prove to be of only temporary help." It may sound like a DJ Shadow-like exercise in self-expression, but Farina's use is much more catty.

"That was a poke at the Internet, about how everyone file-shares," says Farina. "It's a joke on those people that got it for free." That doesn't mean the DJ is entirely against digital downloading he acknowledges it tends to promote electronic culture and its console hero worship. "I just don't think things from this week should be on the Net. That takes away from the club people who make the effort to be at the show."

The compilations, Farina says, are methodically planned out. Drawing on his self-described role as a "modern traveling minstrel," one who tries "to weed out all the junk," he spends months trawling in record stores, digging through crates and working industry contacts looking for sounds, songs and innovations that fit the mushroom jazz concept. Then, once he has a pile of promising raw material, he hits up record labels for permission to use the stuff. Some of this is as simple as calling up Om labelmates People Under the Stairs. Other clearances are more cumbersome, especially when it comes to dealing with the monolithic majors and their army of lawyers and intellectual-property troops.

"When I play live, it's so spontaneous," he says. "I try to re-create that on the CDs, but I have to license everything. I don't like it to sound too contrived, but everybody I know who tries to record a live set and then release it . . . always has to cut something out."

Permission was more difficult when he was starting out. "If it's a major label, they feel it's not worth their while. But as you go along, [the process] gets easier."

Though the Mushroom Jazz series may be the DJ's international claim to fame shit, he could probably walk into Warner Bros. with a list of a dozen hits and get clearances by the end of the week he hasn't completely abandoned house music, on which he built his reputation. He still enjoys playing the fast stuff, and he often chooses what style to indulge in by the tastes of the city. Atlanta, home of the rapid-fire Dirty South sound, loves the mushroom jazz, but Phoenix usually chooses aggression over 'shrooms.

The DJ grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He spent his adolescence in a climate where he could turn on the market's main Top 40 and urban stations and hear hours of the latest underground stylings of anointed legends like Derrick Carter, who eventually became one of Farina's best friends. "Chicago is kind of the land of the DJ. I was pretty lucky to grow up there. It wasn't just little college stations that played house," he says. "You didn't have to fine-tune your radio to find some crackly little thing."

Farina began DJing in high school. He also began his flirtation with down-tempo in the Windy City. Mushroom jazz is often 30 beats per minute slower than traditional house. "It just started from a series of mix tapes I made, for something different to listen to," he says.

Once he moved to San Francisco a decade ago, however, he discovered a more diverse dance scene than the one back home, and that made cutting against the danceteria grain even more invigorating and lucrative. He soon found himself able to maintain a five-gig-a-week schedule, dealing in both fast and slow.

Lately, Farina says he's been sprinkling in Talking Heads songs like "Psycho Killer" along with more typical mushroom fare such as Jurassic-5 and Erykah Badu. Fans on his message board also rave about his recent remixes of Justin Timberlake's electric single "Like I Love You."

And who knows how much better it'll sound after he picks up his cleaner, meaner soundboard?

"My friend's here now," Farina says before hanging up. "I gotta go."


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