A good party requires a trifecta of danceable music, an interesting crowd and a welcoming vibe. Nailing down all three can be a tricky ordeal. But thanks to Social Underground, you can be sure all those elements will align on the first Saturday of each month at Bar Exit, the event’s home base.
With good music, cheap booze and no cover, Exit is an irresistibly dingy venue; perfect for a good night out. Located in a discreet alley near the Hongdae playground, Exit has long provided its cozy, garage-like space to expats and locals alike who yearn for good dance music, the likes of which does not include “Gangnam Style.”
On Feb. 2, Social Underground is celebrating its first birthday, and if history is any indication, it is going to be an epic party.
“We’re gonna rock out as hard as we can,” said Joey Raicovich (Raico), who, along with Lewis Thompson (whose DJ name is Lewis Anthony), is the brains behind the operation.
Their mission is to bring solid underground electronic music to Hongdae for a night Raicovich characterized as one in which “the music makes up the entire package.”
“Social Underground is a party designed to take clubbing back to its roots,” he said, “which basically means it’s all about the music, not bottle service or VIPs.”
True to that mission, the event boasts a powerful lineup of DJs from around the country.
At the January installment alone, the hosts kept the energy flowing around the dance floor. Also at the DJ command the same evening were Sam Gates of Strut, Ian Lilburn and Raico and Lewis Anthony, and they all kept the punters moving with dance-friendly, yet edgy, tracks.
The artists that played over the year that were missed in January include Aaron Cho, Zach H and Rob McCall of Silk/Juice, Paffers (Oli Stuart), Dan Luba, Jim Wooham and Dambi Kim. But they’ll be back.
Kim is one of the rare local female DJs and she’s an act to watch. Her sets seamlessly interweave hi-hat cymbals and vocal samplings that echo like a voice in your head and keep you moving hypnotically until dawn.
“Her track selections are insane. I really think if she keeps it up and keeps on playing out she’s going to be right up there,” said Sam Gates of Strut, whose own tracks, featuring spiky, percussive bridges and streams of swaggering pop bounce, injected a seemingly endless stream of energy onto the disco ball-shot floors that night.
“The lineup at Social Underground each month is pretty varied,” Gates said. “Lewis brings DJs with contrasting styles that he believes fit the bill in the sound and vibe he is looking for. From what I’ve experienced, he hasn’t missed the mark yet.”
A few years back when Thompson and Raicovich started playing at a few of city’s biggest venues, including Via, Mansion, Octagon, Eve and Genie, they couldn’t help but notice a house music scene that is “largely focused on the same sort of sound everywhere you go,” Thompson said, adding that “the venues felt too luxurious and pretentious, and the whole underground aspect was thrown out the window.”
That was when they found Exit.
“It was the perfect venue: dark, dirty and loud,” the Briton said. “It felt even more appropriate to start a party in Hongdae, where it all began.”
Other venues the duo frequent are the neighboring Myoung Wol Gwan and Quadro as well as Cakeshop in Itaewon, a self-owned basement club that often features DJs from abroad.
Thompson said that what makes Social Underground special is that they’re keeping it local, with ethic Koreans or expats living in Korea.
“There are so many great DJs already in this country that don’t get given the credit they deserve,” he said. “They can’t get gigs because the music they play doesn’t fall into the popular dance music category adopted by almost all promoters and club owners in Korea. We want to give them the chance to showcase what they are capable of. And when they have played, they have gone down a storm.”
As varied as the lineup at the most recent event in January, was the eclectic mix of party people in attendance. They ranged from professors to English teachers to students and from Koreans to Europeans to folks from the Americas, with the only common denominator being their love of dancing to good electronic music. It’s that very yearning for something different that’s attracted the attention of many SU fans.
Brett Graham said he found out about SU through Resident Advisor, a popular electronic music magazine. “One thing I love about the party scene in Korea is how unpretentious it is,” he said. “With that said, however, in regards to underground house and techno, I feel that Seoul doesn’t have that much going on considering how big of a city it is. The parties at SU are always amazing though.”
Laura Tully, a fellow partygoer that night, said she also found that the music played at a lot of bars was limited to “some older Western chart music and K-pop.”
“Places like FF, Vinyl and Suzy Q’s differ slightly, although commercial music is generally the norm,” she said.
Thompson said that a lot of the nights are focused on deep house, which goes down well at Exit because it’s so intimate.
“There aren’t any huge, euphoric tracks because it wouldn’t suit the surroundings,” he said.
Asked about SU’s relationship with the venue, Thompson didn’t hesitate to say that the event will never move from Exit.
“It will be home to the party until the inevitable happens,” he said. “We want people to always associate the night with that venue. We have the perfect relationship going on with everyone involved. It would be a shame to give all of that up.”
SU’s loyalty toward Exit is by no means one-sided. Exit’s owner Jin considers SU parties “the best serial parties in Exit history, no question.” He added, “Lewis is the most honest and passionate DJ-promoter I’ve ever met. It’s been almost a year now and SU is always well prepared, promoted and played.”
Jin discovered the vacated lot that now houses Exit and transformed it into its current glory by drawing on his memories of hanging out at pubs in London and Berlin.
When learning about SU’s regard for Exit as its home, Jin said that it’s probably because “you can do whatever you want, play whatever you want, while many other clubs wouldn’t allow that.” He said that as a musician himself, he understands that when the DJ plays, “it’s his time, his gig, and nobody can touch that.”
And Bar Exit is more than just a venue for SU. Participants said they come for the music, but the venue is a big part of what keeps them coming back.
“I absolutely love Exit,” Tully said. “While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I love the laidback basement feel of it. The staff are lovely and the drink prices are not to be sniffed at.”
Graham, who also said he likes how friendly everyone at the party is, chimed in with, “Yeah, I love how grimy and raw Exit is. It’s always a pleasure to attend SU. I always leave with new friends!”
And as Tully concluded, “The atmosphere of SU is what makes it. People let loose and party how they want to – not how they’re taught to.”
Thompson agrees. “What makes SU is the crowd,” he said. “When you see everyone actually dancing instead of just standing around like a lot of venues, it makes all the hard work we put into running the night worth it. Without the following we have built up, it would be nothing.”
More and more punters now flock to the monthly parties, having heard about SU through local media and word of mouth. The community it has built on a foundation of mutual respect with other party organizers, blogs and websites has only added to the steadily growing turnout. Online outlets such as Aweh.tv and Chincha magazine have tracked SU’s growth with monthly features and podcasts, as well as well-documented event reviews.
“Eventually we want (people) to think, ‘Well it’s the first Saturday of the month. That means we are going to SU,’” Thompson said.
He said that for the upcoming birthday event, they are bringing back some of the DJs “that made 2012 such an incredible year” for them. Aaron Cho, who recently took a break to finish up his doctorate, will start off the night, followed by Dan Luba, Sam Gates and Lewis Anthony.
“We have some great treats lined up for everyone attending,” Thompson said. “First birthday parties are quite a big deal in Korea, so we intend to make a bit of a fuss ourselves.”
When asked for his take on what lies ahead for house music in Korea, Thompson said that electronic music is trending at the moment, but that it has recently gone in two directions.
“One direction is popular and commercial, the kind of tracks that you hear being pumped out of every bar that all sound the same. The other direction is underground,” he said. “Korea is a trend-driven country, so people want to go to the biggest clubs and dance to the same tracks every week. There are (also) a few individuals that are trying to provide some variety. It won’t change overnight. But we are starting to see the beginning of something. The more variety that is on offer, the more people’s attitudes will change.”
The next Social Underground event is on Feb. 2 from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Admission is free.
Take the subway to Sangsu Station, line 6, exit 2. Walk up Wausan-ro toward Hongik University for 10 minutes. Go up the road to the left of the Hongdae playground and take the first left. Exit is on your right. For more, visit