When Mark E. Quark takes over the turntables at the Flame on Monday nights, the outside world gets lost between the beats. Quark, house DJ during a venue club called G-Force, steps into the booth around 10 p.m., carrying his only instruments: two crates of records. He’ll work the discs between three turntables, blending and overlapping the sounds with a small mixer. Standing to Quark’s left, a guy bounces up and down to the beat, flipping horizontally mounted light switches that toggle strobes and multicolored lights. Quark rarely both- ers to look out of the DJ booth at the dancers, purposely avoiding contact — for fear they might break his focus on the electronic pulses he’s laying down.
Quark has a hard time describing the music that he plays. The best description he can find is “somewhere between house music and disco.”
“There are so many [styles] that I wouldn’t be able to tell you what it is,” Quark says. “For the moment, what I like in my music is a good beat, a really funky-ass beat. I like my beats to be funky and have a big, strong bass line. I once asked a friend what kind of music I played, and he said, ‘You play house music, but it’s got sprinkles on top.’ It’s really like drugged-out disco.
“When I go on I never try to hit people hard in the face with powerful music. Basically, I’ll have a few songs in mind that I really want to play. I’ll use all my other records to build up to those songs. So those will be different peaks in my set.”
In addition to his weekly stint at the Flame, Quark also spins vinyl three or four times a month at underground parties; occasionally he is flown to other cities to deejay. Performing in the 2–6 a.m. slot, Quark has made a name for himself as a “sunrise DJ.”
“I kind of got that through the first Narnia party, which I think was the summer of ’92,” he says. “I guess I played a really good set at dawn. From there, everybody wanted me to spin in the morning, which has been great, because for me, that’s the best time to spin. At the same time, I always want to spin at peak hours, but there’s not too much I can do about that. At that Narnia party, if I had played earlier in the morning, I would have played the same stuff. If I’m playing a lot earlier in the night, tend to play more energetic stuff, whereas in the morning, it’s a little bit more laid-back and mellow, a little bit trippy.”
“[The moniker] ‘sun- rise DJ,’ as much as I hate to admit it, can be a blessing or a curse. My music seems to be more appropriate for that time of day. Unfortunately, sometimes I can’t stay awake long enough. I’ll be tired, then someone will say,‘Okay, you’re going on.’”
Away from his turntables, Quark becomes a modest 25-year-old. He seems more at ease in the back of the club than at the center of attention. He squirms at the mention of his name drawing people into clubs and feels uncomfortable being approached after performing.
“When people compliment me, it puts me in a weird position. Before I started doing this, I was pretty much the antisocial kid. I didn’t go out very much. I was into my own thing. My life totally turned around when I started deejaying. All of a sudden I have to talk to these people after I’m done playing. Everybody wants to talk to you; usually I want to go hide somewhere. I can’t really go to clubs anymore and enjoy myself. I’ll go occasionally, especially if there’s talent from out of town. I’m always keen on seeing what they have to offer. Usually I’ll go out for a drink somewhere if I go out. Or I’ll hang out at a friend’s house,” he says.
“It’s so funny, sometimes if you’ve done really well, people come up to you and say,‘That was so amazing.’ They’re so impressed that it’s not justified — I didn’t make the records. I would probably be able to accept more compliments if I had made the music I spin. I’d feel honest. I feel kind of guilty sometimes. In a way I’m doing what I want with the tracks that I’m playing, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be anywhere without the music.”
Quark has been dee-jaying in clubs here since the late ’80s, building up his name through the rise of San Diego’s underground rave and dance-club scene. He started going to clubs for the music before he could drive, then learned the basics of his work by hanging around San Diego State’s campus radio station, KCR.
“I used to have friends that worked at radio stations when I was in high school, through KSDT at UCSD and KCR at State,” Quark said. “I was a little squirt back then, hanging out at the radio stations. There was a girl, Hollis [Queens, drummer for Jon Spencer’s noisy NYC blues quartet Boss Hog]. I used to go to her show a lot. Pretty soon I started spinning records. Next thing I knew, I was doing substitute shows at KCR and I wasn’t even schooling there. To me, radio wasn’t very satisfying, especially at those stations; at the time they were very inaccessible. Cable radio and stuff. I had been going to clubs since I was 14. I was always pretty fascinated with the technique of mixing one record to another one, kind of like this mega-mix.”
After getting his technique and style down, Quark mustered up the courage to ask to be house DJ at SOMA. This was in 1989, when the downtown dance club was in a warehouse on Union Street that occasionally featured bands playing in the basement.
“It was a night that didn’t do too well, so I went up and asked the DJ. I had a pretty good-sized record collection, and I just wanted to play it to a bunch of people. He said,‘Sure, come on in.’ The next thing I knew, I was the in-house DJ. At the time, I was spinning a mixture of styles between acid house, industrial, and disco.
“They ran clubs usually on Friday or Saturday. Through the two years I was there for one night or the other, bands were downstairs and I was upstairs. I was the only DJ, so I was deejaying five, six hours by myself, which I enjoyed.”
After so long at his SOMA stint, Quark itched to do other things. He was living with friends in a warehouse on Tenth Avenue between G Street and Market. Looking for a way to cover their rent one month, they came up with the idea of throwing a party to raise the money. They dubbed the party, “Where’s the House?” Quark would DJ and his roommates would take care of sound, lighting, and decorating.
“For the party, I changed my name to Mr. E. Quark, because I didn’t want Len [Paul, owner of SOMA] to know that was me. So that’s where the Mr. E. came from. It was kind of a joke, and the Quark, that was for several reasons. Quark is a computer program on Macintosh. So I stuck with that.” Quark started performing more frequently. “But Len found out.
“Len wanted his artists to be kind of exclusive, so to speak. I could understand it if I was doing something on the same night, or maybe even the night before, but it could be a Wednesday night thing and he would say, ‘If people are seeing you somewhere on a Wednesday night, we’re gonna have less people come here to see you on a Saturday.’ He’s a businessman. I could understand his point of view, so what I did was change my name. My name back then was Joy 23, which was kind of like a DJ hook that had stuck. I changed my name to Mr. E. Quark. This was at the time of the birth of the so-called rave scene, back in ’90 or ’91.
“It’s probably one of the best things I’ve done Just because it was so fresh back then and so new. It was the first time I had seen 500 or 600 people, all in one room, just going nuts.”
With his name change, Quark moved from SOMA, which was transforming into a live-music venue, to become an underground club DJ. The San Diego scene was exploding. Walk into any record store during this time, there would be stacks of cyber/psychedelic fliers announcing underground parties and clubs.
“I was already in there. There were other people starting to get inspired to throw parties, inspired by the rave scene over in England. A lot of people wanted to do the same thing. They’d see my name on a flyer, so it wasn’t hard for me to get work,” Quark says.
Of course, with the attention clubs and raves were receiving, it also wasn’t hard for police to figure out where the supposedly secret events were taking place. With the success of the first “Where’s the House?” Quark and his roommates decided to have a second party. Looking back, Quark considers it one of his worst DJ experiences.
“The cops brought dogs and the whole deal. There were tons of cops and a lot of yellow jackets. It was pretty serious. We lived there. One of the cops came into the DJ booth, looked like a regular young kid. He flashed a badge. I was so freaked out I just walked right past him and out the door. There was alcohol being served. There was a full bar, and as far as I know that’s against the law without any permits.”
Cops didn’t press the issue much further after closing the party down, but they were knocking on Quark’s door a few days later to follow up their investigation.
Such shutdowns by police, harsh city permit laws, and explosive popularity created San Diego’s current club scene.
“Like any scene,” Quark says, “there’s part of it that gets really commercial. You have people that don’t want anything to do with that. They want to stay underground. Like, when a band signs to a major label, they probably hear a lot of flack about selling out — it’s pretty much the same thing. The idea of rave was to bring all types of cultures together, from all walks of life, to dance. It’s been pretty interesting to see it evolve, because instead of bringing a lot of people together, it has segmented itself. There’s a lot of little subcultures. You have your people who will go exclusively to hear house music or exclusively to hear techno music. It has really changed. I think that part of the scene died. It has more or less gone back underground. That has to do with licensing laws and permits. It has become way too difficult to throw something on a large scale. Usually if there’s something, we’re talking about a thousand people, they’ll throw it on an Indian reservation.
“If you want to throw something together fairly quickly, it’s hard to work with the authorities to get the right permits. I’ve never tried to work with them myself. I’m a DJ. That’s about all I’ll ever want to think about. From what I understand, you could have all the permits you want, they could still come in and shut you down if they wanted to — if they don’t like your attitude and whatnot. It really depends on who you’re dealing with. Every cop is different. There have been cooperative police who come in and see what’s going on, and they’re, like,‘These kids are having fun, they’re not bothering anybody, there’s no one around. You can continue the party, but keep it down a little bit and make sure no one goes out.’ Other cops will just storm in and shut it down immediately.”
Quark’s ideal party, he says, would be at a “virgin” warehouse — one where no party has previously taken place — with 500 people. Excitement is built by the intimacy and uncertainty of a crowded, sweaty room where people are practically dancing on top of you. But when new locations can’t be found, or permits haven’t been issued, club fans hit their mainstays. The Worldbeat Center, for example, has after-hours clubs on a regular basis. Romperoom goes off every Saturday from midnight to 6 a.m. To keep things fresh, promoters for regular events often change decorations and lighting, so a club isn’t the way it was the week before.
The weekend of September 29 is a busy one for Quark. He is scheduled to perform at a party at midnight, then spin at a downtown warehouse from 4 to 6 a.m. Later that morning he is flying to Albuquerque to work.
Friday night is a bust. Quark arrives at the party, located at a private house in Encinitas, with two crates of records, each one weighing about 60 pounds. Maybe 200 people are hanging out in the back yard drinking, while a handful dance to a DJ in the rear garage. The party isn’t the type where Quark would normally perform, he protests.“It wasn’t anything that was related to the underground scene, other than the fact that there was a DJ in the garage,” he says later. At 1 a.m., Quark is still waiting to go on. Four Encinitas sheriffs arrive to shut the party down, due to noise complaints from neighbors.
The warehouse location for the after-hours club is located somewhere between Kettner Boulevard and Pacific Highway, near the railroad tracks. Quark doesn’t find out until after he arrives there that this party also has been shut down; the warehouse lacks proper emergency exits. The only thing happening downtown after-hours that night is at a bathhouse one block away on Cedar Street that is pumping out disco tunes. Quark heads back home for three hours of sleep before his 10:30 a.m. flight to Albuquerque.
We catch up after his return.“It was a pretty phenomenal experience. I spun at a club in downtown Albuquerque with a pretty well- known DJ from New York. His name is ‘Little’ Louie Vega. I can honestly say he’s the best DJ I’ve ever heard,” Quark says.
The heavy schedule did take its toll.“I had a total of five hours’ sleep over the weekend. It’s not very fun. I got kind of moody. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I just wanted to go home. My crates [of records] are really heavy. If I’m staying in a hotel room, I gotta wake up, jump in the shower, haul my crates down, call a cab, and jump on a plane.
“I had a lot of bad experiences happen. [In Albuquerque] I and this other party were waiting for cabs. Since we were both going to the airport, we decided to split the fare. The cab driver said, ‘No, you both got to pay separate fees.’ I was already late and almost missed my plane. I couldn’t argue with him. When I got into San Diego and took a cab, the driver wouldn’t help me with my stuff. He said, ‘No, no, I might hurt my back.’ Okay, fine. Then I told him I usually carry these things by myself. I had two crates. So he takes me home, drops me off, and he’s touching my crate. I told him, ‘If you want to help, you can.’ He said,‘No,’ then I told him that usually cab drivers help me out a little bit if they want a tip. He went into this whole thing about, ‘It’s not my job to help you with your bags. I’m just here to drive a cab, and I’m a minority and this is the only job I can get.’‘Look, I don’t care. If you don’t want to help me, I won’t tip you. I don’t want to hear about your life story.’ He starts in,‘It’s people like you...’ Oh, God.