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"I feel I'm a good conduit, you could say, for bringing new music to a crowd," muses Mark Farina. "I get a lot of enjoyment from playing new music, even though vibes and artists have changed over the past twenty years. One of my initial things starting out was playing new, good tracks, even in 1990."
Farina's track selection is superb; he's got a vast library of funky house, acid jazz, hip-hop, spoken-word samples and unexpected surprises, but his popularity and longevity aren't mere products of his ability to select a track for the dance floor. Really, it's the sheer enjoyment of the music that he exhibits that makes his sets so enjoyable. He's not motionless or joyless behind the decks.
"I'm always changing and evolving," Farina says. "New music is definitely a key, and I'm getting new goodies every week. And it's worked in the past, that if music gets me excited, hopefully the crowd will get into it. I've seen DJs and performers in the past who are too emotionless, and you don't know: Are they enjoying themselves? Are they concentrating? I always like seeing artists who are enjoying themselves, and I always have fun spinning."
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That love of the music accompanied Farina from his high-school dance-club days in Chicago to the now-legendary Mushroom Jazz club night in San Francisco, manifested itself on seven Mushroom Jazz albums and countless world tours, and ushered him onto a new label, Mushroom Jazz Recordings, which will launch in early 2011. He became exposed to house while listening to industrial and new-wave music at an under-eighteen club in Chicago, his tastes moving from industrial to Detroit techno to house. He would listen to house mixes on the radio, record the ones he liked on cassettes, then take them to a record store to see if the staff could identify the mix.
"I'd ask a couple of people and try to find the tracks that I liked," he recalls, "which was kind of a quest at the time, to even find the record stores that held that stuff.
"I always had vinyl," he continues. But I got a really cheap Radio Shack mixer and used that and my turntables at the time to mix. [Technics] 1200s, they were kind of the Holy Grail at the time. I was like, 'Someday, I'm gonna get 1200s.'"
Farina started working at Gramaphone, one of the record stores in Chicago that did sell house tracks, and landed a gig at Shelter in 1989 playing all-night sets. Around the same time, he met Chicago house heavyweight Derrick Carter at Imports Etc., another record store. Farina and Carter collaborated on a guest mix at WNUR, the Northwestern University radio station.
"We'd mix it at my house and drive it over; this was still cassette days, pre-CD recordings," Farina notes. "We'd usually end up bringing it in kind of right on time when we started it off. So we'd bring it in right at 10:30 and bring it to Dirk, and that was entertaining. Then we'd park by the lake and listen to the mix off the radio — which is always exciting, to hear your own mix through the radio waves. Pre-traveling, we were just all geeks playing in Chicago."
Then other DJs began traveling to Chicago to spin, something Farina hadn't seen before. That got him and Carter thinking that they should play some sets in some different cities — and before too long, the rave scene began to explode. "Coming from where we would do all-nights, it was strange," he remembers. "We were like, 'You guys only want me to play two hours when I flew to another city?' The West Coast, at that time, there was the start of the rave scene. There really wasn't much of a rave scene in Chicago — just clubs and a loft party were the only thing rave-y in any way.
"We played a couple of raves on the West Coast, in L.A.," he goes on, "and the concept of having multiple headliners in one room was a different concept than the whole club-night thing that we were used to. We had to change into shortening your set. When you have eight hours, it's a different dynamic than fitting everything in two hours. The first one was like an hour and a half. You had to prove yourself a little bit before you could be worthy of two hours at one of the bigger parties."
Farina played more sets on the West Coast, particularly in San Francisco, and before long, he was maintaining two apartments for $500 a month — $220 in Chicago and $280 in San Francisco. "So I set up a room here in San Francisco," he says, "and found some cheap turntables from a friend and started bringing out crates from Chicago. I started just to have a little separate West Coast stash of stuff so I wouldn't have to limit my choosings."
Although he'd been releasing mixtapes under the Mushroom Jazz handle for a few years, the club night didn't kick off until the mid-'90s, at Cat's Grill in San Francisco. "Chicago was a house town; there wasn't much of a downtempo scene," he points out. "But in San Francisco, there was a big acid-jazz scene as well as house and all the other genres — five or six different production crews doing all acid-jazz parties. I still miss those San Francisco acid-jazz days. Pretty booming. And people didn't mind dancing to slow tempos. In Chicago, if it wasn't 125 or 120 beats per minute, they weren't really into it."