Music fandoms have never been more obsessive. K-Pop stans are capable of embarrassing presidential candidates by registering en masse for political rallies they’ll never attend, and heaven help anyone who crosses Nicki Minaj’s army of Barbz. But in spite of the intensity of their adoration, some fandoms remain effortlessly chill, free of politics or swarming toxicity.
Dirtybird Records, the San Francisco-based “tech funk” label founded by a quintet of DJs in 2005, is one such eternally benevolent subculture. The popularity of multiday festivals seemingly knows no bounds—particularly in a state where it barely rains six months out of the year—but the climax of California’s endless summer is Dirtybird Campout, which returns to the Modesto Reservoir this Friday through Sunday, Oct. 7-9, with plenty of house, techno and elaborate totems to help people find their friends amid iffy cell service.
The lineup is what longtime fans can expect, with top-tier label mainstays (Walker + Royce) alongside up-and-comers (Mary Droppinz) and plenty of California talent (Lubelski). But there’s a bunch of new stuff for 2022, said Dirtybird co-founder Claude VonStroke, a DJ and the all-around papa bear of both the label and the festival. That includes a new after-hours stage called The Hideout that will replace the silent disco that ran after 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
For cannabis fans, there’s also a “Ganja Garden” with a sponsored weed area. (As with Outside Lands and other festivals, on-site consumption is permitted, but it has to be sequestered in its own, alcohol-free enclosure.)
“We did have to lose the roller rink to make this work,” VonStroke admitted. “There’s just a limited amount of space.”
VonStroke, the alter ego of co-founder Barclay Crenshaw, is the burly party daddy in a coonskin cap who presides over the summer camp-like activities like tug o’war and archery, zipping around in a golf cart by day and getting on the decks at night.
And Dirtybird fans are unique in their devotion, trading homemade sew-on patches full of in-jokes and geeking out about the latest remixes in the bass-heavy and slightly gonzo style of electronic music that isn’t insufferably avant-garde but won’t get played in a Vegas mega-club. Amid the art cars and freewheeling vibe, VonStroke is a frequent subject of fan art, including one totem from Campout 2019 that depicted him as a “White Clawde” hard seltzer.
“It just makes me laugh,” he said. “The fan art is crazy. …. Someone made this totem that glowed all the way through, and it was Jesus’ body with my face.”
Dirtybird spun out of a barbecue in Golden Gate Park almost 20 years ago, quickly growing into gatherings in the hundreds with off-duty cops for security. Using Rec and Park permits specifically obtained for a “picnic lunch with our family” eventually became unsustainable in light of the crowds. So the party moved to Treasure Island and elsewhere. Within a couple of years VonStroke was persuaded to start an independent record label.
A project by five Caucasian DJs—VonStroke, brothers Christian and Justin Martin, J. Phlip and Worthy—it’s occasionally battled a reputation for, well, bro-eyness. Specifically, critics allege, Dirtybird repackages a genre created by Black people and LGBTQ+ people in Detroit, Chicago and New York, making it palatable for straight white party animals who can’t be bothered to learn its history.
But the festival’s ever-more-diverse lineups negate that line of criticism. Plus, when Worthy came out as trans in 2020, it helped bring in an entirely new audience while arguably solidifying Dirtybird’s collection to its roots in 1980s underground clubs.
“I’ve been fighting that image forever, and there’s definitely been a specific effort to book stuff that’s interesting,” VonStroke said. “If you look at our Campout lineup this year, there isn’t even a bro-house DJ on there. At least, not from outside of our label. We’re really conscious of everything and we try to make everybody awesome and feel good."
The keystone is VonStroke’s long-running partnership, under the Get Real moniker, with Green Velvet, who’s been in the game for decades and who VonStroke plans to collaborate with once again after the festival wraps. (At Outside Lands 2021, Green Velvet turned it out at the Panhandle, the small-ish stage for those in the know.)
When Campout started in the mid-2010s, the calendar was wide open for a new festival in a D.I.Y. spirit. That may no longer be possible.
“There was nothing two weeks ahead of us, and nothing two weeks before us,” VonStroke said. “Now there’s six a few weeks before us and two on our date and four after us, all in the Bay Area. It’s quite a bit harder just to even book people, let alone do the tickets. I don’t think you could just throw up a festival. I think you could throw a single-stage party for your friends, but I don’t think you could build a camping city with multiple stages and theme and a cool lineup.”
So: This is a kind of magic never to repeated. But rumors have flown on Dirtybird Facebook groups and elsewhere that 2022’s Campout might be the last one at Modesto Reservoir—if not the last one in Northern California entirely. Crenshaw won’t say either way.
“We don’t know the answer to this question,” he said. “I can’t do a Tom Brady and say, ‘It’s the last one,’ and three weeks later be like, ‘It’s not the last one.’”
Friday-Sunday, Oct. 7-9 | $369
Modesto Reservoir Campgrounds, Waterford, Calif.
Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]