Tourists looking for a taste of the royal life without making a pilgrimage all the way to Buckingham Palace often turn to charming Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, where afternoon high tea at the Fairmont Empress and a tour of the imposing parliament buildings offer a PNW refraction of merry old England—just as gray and rainy, but nearly 5,000 miles away.
But those tired tropes of Britishness belie the living connection between the UK and this far-flung New World corner of its postcolonial empire, one that comes in megawatt form at the annual Bass Coast festival in Merritt, BC, which should be an annual destination for Seattle-area electronic music aficionados.
Now a full decade past the publication of Tribal Revival, the seminal coffee table book on West Coast festival culture, we’re so far past peak festival money grabbing that any event surviving nearly into the 2020s must have some kind of organic cultural juice behind it. Such is most definitely the case with Bass Coast, which, this past weekend, capped its 11th year of a distinctively British Columbian interpretation of global sound system culture.
A quick primer for those who think of bass as simply the low-end counterpart to treble: In the 1950s, Jamaican entertainers mounted large speakers with turntables and microphones to play American R&B records during street parties. So-called “sound systems” quickly surpassed live musicians as the most popular form of entertainment on the streets of Kingston, and Jamaican homegrown music like mento, reggae, ska, dub, and especially dancehall began to dominate the decks, with sound systems fine-tuned to deliver maximum bass and duke it out in “sound clashes” between rival crews. Mass migration to the UK sent sound system culture along with it, where Jamaican music hit the British melting pot and early European rave culture to make London the harbinger of global underground music culture: 'ardkore, jungle, ragga-jungle, drum & bass, 2step, garage, dubstep, grime, and funky house. In short, UK bass music.
UK bass caught on in fits and starts in the U.S., mostly through a horrific butchering of dubstep epitomized by the chainsaw-esque EDM drop, much to the delight of festival bros everywhere. Meanwhile, Burning Man found itself unintentionally inventing a whole new music genre, playa tech, that has come to define the West Coast festival scene south of the U.S.-Canada border.
Which brings us back to Bass Coast: an unlikely marriage of the naked-hippie-camping-drugs-psychedelic-art-yoga-poi-spinning-hooping festival setting with the heavyweight aesthetic of sound system culture nurtured in Kingston and London, then imported to Vancouver.
Some call it West Coast Bass. I call it the best of both worlds. A place where a white guy like me can practice the puppy tail at a dance workshop, something that would definitely have raised eyebrows at a Kingston dancehall where such moves are ladies only. A place where I can glide naked down a river in a unicorn floatie after absorbing a chest-rattling set broadcast on tastemaking channel Boiler Room by leading UK selectors like Kahn and Shanti Celeste, instead of stumbling out of a London warehouse and into a sweltering city. A place where ravers can get their drugs tested for purity and pick up free supplies like snorting straws and crack pipes, a progressive harm reduction gesture from the same province that brought you North America’s first supervised safe injection site. (Just don’t tell Safe Seattle or they’ll run a law-and-order city council candidate in District Bass.)
Sure, bass music is cultivated in small corners of Seattle. Local low-end purveyors Shook! will celebrate their first anniversary on July 26 at Kremwerk. The Night Shift crew is known to rattle the Bar Ciudad sound system. Red Lounge is the home-away-from-home for Seattle’s Caribbean community with the soca-reggae-dancehall nights to prove it. Jam Jam, currently at Monkey Loft, has been putting lighters up for reggae and dancehall culture on Monday nights since the 1980s.
While Cascadian separatists believe we’re all one big happy Douglas fir family, the reality of the 49th parallel sets us on different cultural trajectories, one where British Columbia imbibes much more UK influence and absorbs fellow travelers from around the Commonwealth and beyond into a cosmopolitan underground (witness Bass Coast’s polyphony of Aussie, British, Swedish, and Québécois accents).
As a result, Seattle’s pockets can hardly compare with the bass-heavy center of gravity in Vancouver and environs where Andrea Graham, aka The Librarian, has rounded up everybody from the Whistler Junglists to Thursday Ting! for over a decade in an event that has grown from a few hundred in Squamish to a few thousand at dedicated music festival grounds—proof positive that there is a distinctive British Columbian variation of global bass culture with its own sound system maker to boot in Alberta-based PK Sound. (One heavily pregnant Bass Coast attendee shrugged off any in utero concerns—“I’m a sound system snob and PK Sound is so good you can have a conversation over the music,” she told me.)
While Bass Coast is full of progressive bona fides that make my inner lefty feel warm and fuzzy—bans on glow sticks and feathered headdresses for environmental and cultural appropriation reasons, respectively; an aggressive composting and recycling program to limit waste; strong emphasis on consent; erudite workshops on sustainable forestry and indigenous reconciliation (including one on decolonizing dance floors that encouraged us to refer to the province as “so-called British Columbia”)—there was one glaring omission of what gets lost when Afro-Atlantic sound system culture is exported to the white edges of the Pacific Rim.
Simply put, where was the lineup homage to the source material of Bass Coast’s polyrhythms, dub, reverb, and booty-shaking dance moves? I heard a lot of Jamaican patois on Mat the Alien’s 45s, spent many blissful hours at a stage that mimicked a London pirate radio station, and marveled at impressive dancehall queen's moves by the Light Twerkerz, but there was nary a West Indian or Black British selector or MC to be found. I fully understand Bass Coast is largely a celebration of British Columbia’s own interpretation of global bass music, one that skews heavily white and Asian per the province’s demographics, but there were enough out-of-town bookings to bring in at least a few representatives of sound system culture from its source. Sir Spyro? Lady Chann? Equiknoxx? Channel One? A single effing grime MC?
Seattle’s cutting-edge house and techno festivals from Decibel to Chance of Rain through Kremfest have long since learned you can’t throw a respectable weekender without booking a DJ from the motherland—Detroit or Chicago—and with a decade of maturity into a well-oiled machine, Bass Coast should likewise tip its hat to its forebears. Lighters up.