San Francisco Raves 1990's - The Ambient Years

In the 90’s, as San Francisco’s underground dance music scene was evolving and becoming globally recognized, there were elements of the scene that had little to do with the dancefloor. Ambient music provided an alternative to the throbbing house and techno that was being played at parties, and the “Chill Out” rooms at San Francisco raves provided a space for weary partygoers to rest, reflect and/or freak out in peace.

San Francisco, with it’s history of alternative culture and love for alternative forms of spirituality, was the perfect place for there to be an ambient music scene. Some of the major movements in the ambient music scene at that time had ties, either directly or indirectly, to San Francisco.

Jonah Sharp / Spacetime Continuum

If there’s a “godfather” of San Francisco ambient music in the 90’s, it’s Jonah Sharp.  After moving to San Francisco in early 90’s, Jonah set up Reflective Records, which became a major connection between the Bay Area ambient/experimental music scene and the rest of the world.  Releasing music by major players in the IDM/Experimental music world at the time such as Ed Handley /Andy Turner (aka Plaid), Kid Spatula (Planet Mu Records label founder Mike Paradinas aka µ-Ziq) and Pete Namlook (Composer and founder of the Fax label), the label not only connected the dots between the scenes, but it also served as the launching point for newer talent at the time like Subtropic and Single Cell Orchestra.

Jonah’s own Spacetime Continuum catalog reads like a series of milestones for the SF electronic music community. His album Sea Biscuit is widely regarded as one of the best ambient records of the 90’s, and the record he recorded with Psychedelic pioneer Terence McKenna, Alien Dreamtime, served as a blueprint for the rave/psychedelic community for the next decade.

Single Cell Orchestra

Born in San Francisco, Miguel Fierro has his fingerprints all over the ambient and electronic music scene in San Francisco. Having released his first full length, Dead Vent 7, on Jonah Sharp’s Reflective Records, his roots in the SF music scene run deep. His first single “Transmit Liberation” released on ZoëMagik Records was a highly influential track in the development of Trip Hop.

While rooted in ambient, Single Cell Orchestra‘s output has been very diverse over the years, seeing him collaborate with Freaky Chakra on the hard-hitting Astralwerks release “Freaky Chakra vs Single Cell Orchestra,” and even taking up stand-up comedy. Now residing in Los Angeles, he continues to produce music, with an upcoming release later this year on Architects and Heroes records, as well as performing as a stand-up all over the country. ‎

Silent Records

Started in 1985 by Kim Cascone, the label served as an outlet for artists who made ambient music in a darker vain. As stated on the website, “Music of this nature was immediately absorbed by the industrial scene. Kim did not want Silent to be labeled an industrial label, or himself labeled an industrial artist. He wanted to convey something quite different.”

The labels roster of artists is far too extensive to list here, but a quick glance and you’ll see some of the most influential ambient/electronic artists to ever record music. The label’s run from ’86-’98 was a prolific one. With almost 200 releases, the label continues to cast a shadow over the ambient/experimental music community.

Asphodel Records

Named as one of the “top 10 independent labels in the world” by Rolling Stone magazine in 1998, Asphodel Records holds and special and unique place in the electronic music landscape of San Francisco. As the only real outpost for “Illbient” music on the West coast, the label did much to further the more abstract and diverse forms of the music.

With releases by DJ Spooky, John Cage, Robert Rich, Biosphere, Steve Roach and Ryuichi Sakamoto, to name a small fraction of the artists on the label, Asphodel intentionally created a diverse roster of artists that could be called “Ambient.”

There are many, many more artists, events and activities that influenced the SF ambient music scene in the 1990’s. As always, if you feel there’s something that’s been overlooked or omitted, please let me know. You can email me at [email protected]


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