The story of how four friends turned a barbecue in Golden Gate Park into a dance music empire.
SF Weekly (Cover story)
I’m standing in the center of a party bus, clinging to a stripper pole. Deep, molecule-rearranging bass music vomits out of the speakers, drenching the packed bus in hypnotic melodies as it trundles toward our destination.
It’s a crisper-than-expected Saturday afternoon in the middle of August, and I’m about to attend a barbecue. But not just any barbecue: one thrown by Dirtybird, the tech-house collective and label that has become an international phenomenon since its modest beginnings in San Francisco 13 years ago.
The crowd gathered on the eastern edge of Treasure Island is young — in their early 20s to mid-30s — and dressed as if they’re at a Halloween carnival. I see zookeepers and dinosaurs, caped wizards and gray squirrels with inflatable tails. Two girls in white faux-fur coats wander about wearing matching rubber hamburger masks, while a man dressed as Jesus heaves a baseball at a tower of milk jugs. One guy with dreadlocks walks around tapping people on the shoulder and asking, “What’s up, Dirtybird?”
Scattered around the asphalt-covered, palm-tree-dotted space are a variety of white tents housing the party’s essentials: alcohol, merchandise, and barbecue courtesy of the SoMa-based eatery, Cat Head’s BBQ. But the real draw is the stage.
Claude VonStroke, the bearded father of Dirtybird, stands behind the red-and-white checkered DJ booth, his hands hovering over the mixing board, flipping switches and twisting knobs with studied nonchalance. The bulk of attendees are gathered here, their heads bobbing and arms flailing in time with the music, which is a blend of Detroit techno and ghetto house, with a piercing, energetic bassline. Buried beneath the monotonous soundtrack, so deep that it almost sounds subliminal, is a high-pitched voice intoning scandalous words and phrases, like “in the butt” and “dick, dick, dick.”
But that’s the thing about the barbecue, and Dirtybird itself: Anything goes here, and no one, not even the DJs, takes themselves too seriously. You can dress weirdly, dance erratically, and say or do whatever you want, and no one will judge you. It is because of this sentiment and, of course, the music, that thousands of people flock to the annual event, which is now also held in three other states. (On two known occasions, people have even made marriage proposals during Dirtybird performances.)
And to think that when the nascent Dirtybird crew threw the first ever barbecue in Golden Gate Park in 2003, only about eight people showed up.
“We were really flying by the seat of our pants,” Christian Martin, one of Dirtybird’s four founding DJs, says about the first barbecue. We’re sitting in the living room of his brother Justin’s apartment in Western Addition. Stoic and contemplative, Christian is a foil to Justin, who, at 37, is Dirtybird’s youngest founding member.
“It was just this really creative time where we were doing things blindly for the music, and we weren’t too worried about the money,” adds Justin, who has a reputation for acting like a clown, crafting humorous songs, and being obsessed with pizza.
The Martin brothers met VonStroke (whose real name is Barclay Crenshaw) in 2000, thanks to a chance encounter involving VonStroke’s mom and the owner of an antique shop in St. Helena, Calif. Upon realizing that both their sons lived in San Francisco and worked in the music and film industries, the two women exchanged information and prompted the guys to contact one another.
VonStroke, who at the time was 29 years old and working at a postproduction company, dutifully called the antique owner’s son, and the pair started working on a music video together. Through that gig, he met Christian, the video’s writer, and the pair hit it off after discovering their shared interest in drum ‘n’ bass. Justin, a recent college graduate, entered the picture soon thereafter, and all three became friends.
The idea to throw free, monthly outdoor parties at Golden Gate Park, complete with live music and grilled food, came about because the friends each harbored dreams of becoming DJs. Though the idea had been in the works for a while, it officially became a reality the day Christian used his credit card to buy a $4,700 sound system.
“I wanted us to be able to do it ourselves,” he says. “I felt like if we had the control, we were going to do it the way we wanted and wouldn’t have to bend over backwards for anyone.”
Aside from their girlfriends and Justin’s college roommate Sean “Worthy” Williams, who would later become the fourth founding member of the group, only one other person came to their first event: a random guy named Chris Wilson, who just happened to be in the park and offered his services at the grill. (Now dubbed “Grillson,” he is Dirtybird’s resident grillmaster and travels around to every Dirtybird barbecue to cook the meats.)
“We were not the popular kids, and it was really hard to get people to go at first,” VonStroke tells me backstage on the day of the barbecue. “Our sound was different, and it had not caught on.”
Since they already had the soundsystem — and the grillmaster — the four burgeoning DJs continued once or twice a month throughout that summer. Slowly but surely, word spread about the event, and more and more people trickled in each time.
To fund the free party, which required purchasing a park permit, renting a generator, and eventually hiring a clean-up crew and off-duty cops, the DJs played a monthly night at Shine, a club in the Mission. Instead of keeping the money they earned there, they used it to pay for the barbecues.
“That’s why it became so fun and everyone had such a great attitude,” VonStroke adds in his languid drawl. “Because it wasn’t like we were doing it for the money. We were just doing it because it was awesome.”
By 2005, the barbecue was drawing a large enough crowd to convince VonStroke to start his own label. The first few vinyls, which featured original songs and remixes from Justin, VonStroke, and a DJ named Sammy D, were sold at local record stores, but it was with Dirtybird’s third release, a solo EP from VonStroke called Deep Throat, that things really took off.
“That’s what made us,” he says of the techno record that sold out of its initial 15,000 copies almost immediately. “It was almost hard to believe, but at that point, we’d caught on.”
For the next few years, everything went smoothly for Dirtybird. The barbecues, which were held only in the summer, attracted more and more attendees; their residency at Shine regularly sold out; and they released an average of four to five new vinyls, which were quickly snapped up by fans every year.
In 2008, when the crew was asked last minute to throw a night at Mezzanine, things got even better. Despite the fact that the venue was almost five times the size of Shine, Dirtybird managed to fill its entire 12,000 square feet. Soon thereafter, they abandoned their residency at Shine for a quarterly party at Mezzanine, which they still throw. Meanwhile, the barbecue was gaining in popularity, and by 2010, more than 2,500 people were attending each.
This, however, was a problem. For the preceding eight years, the permit they would use to book the event was for a “picnic lunch with our family,” VonStroke says. But as the number of attendees grew, things started to get out of hand. Benches were getting graffitied, the grass was being trampled, and the park rangers, who would regularly break it all up in the middle of the set, were starting to get pissed.
“Basically, we got kicked out,” VonStroke says, laughing. “We had to figure out what to do instead, and turning it into a paid event seemed the most likely option, but we were bummed.”
The crew, which now included a fifth member, the sole female DJ, J.Phlip, were so upset about having to change the location and start charging admission that they stopped throwing the barbecues altogether. The hiatus lasted until 2013 when the event, which now costs anywhere from $15 to $30, was moved to Treasure Island. Since 2014, Dirtybird barbecues have also been held in various cities around the country, like Detroit, Chicago, Seattle, and New York.
Last year, in a spur-of-the-moment decision similar to the one that led the group to start throwing the legendary barbecues, VonStroke organized the first Dirtybird Campout outside of Los Angeles. Held over the course of a weekend in October, the campout included nonstop music and a slew of summer-camp-themed activities, like boat racing, archery, talent shows, and comedy competitions.
Today, Dirtybird is a globally known brand linked to dozens of rising house and tech artists. In addition to their own events, Dirtybird plays sets at myriad music festivals, like Hard Miami, Holy Ship, Symbiosis, and Shambala. And every week, VonStroke, who was named “America’s Best DJ” this year by DJ Times magazine, hosts an hourlong show on Sirius XM. Dirtybird also has its own subreddit as well as a monthly subscription service called Birdfeed that gives members access to new releases and the label’s entire back catalog.
The label also sells more than just music now. In addition to T-shirts and hoodies, they sell everything from flags to sunglasses to tote bags. And they even sell a custom Dirtybird barbecue sauce and chicken spice rub.
“The success of Dirtybird is constantly surprising me,” Justin says, leaning back into the couch in his sun-dappled living room. “We’ve always gotten to a point where I’m like, ‘Oh, my god. This is it. We made it.’ And then somehow, it just keeps getting bigger and better.”
Broadly speaking, Dirtybird makes house- and techno-rooted dance music, but that’s only skimming the surface.
Each of the label’s five core DJs is a self-proclaimed music junkie who has taken his or her various influences and melded them into wholly new sounds. VonStroke is known for drum-heavy techno combined with hints of dub and traces of ghetto or booty house. Christian is more hip-hop leaning, while Justin has a thing for downtempo, deep house, and jungle music. Worthy veers more toward minimalism, and J.Phlip dabbles in acid house.
Despite their specialities, all Dirtybird DJs share a few things in common. Drum ‘n’ bass are key elements, and flourishes like snaps, echoes, delays, and reverbs are often employed. Though their sound is not as shocking today, when they first started throwing their barbecues, few DJs were willing to get as creative and weird as they were.
“There was kind of like a giant hole in dance music that was just waiting to get filled,” Justin chimes in. “Our sound was different and fresh for a lot of people at the time. People that didn’t necessarily like house music were getting pulled in because of all these different influences and the fact that we entirely blurred the lines between genres.”
Dirtybird’s music is also the antithesis of trendy. You won’t hear big EDM-style drops or psychedelic riffs or throaty female-fronted ballads.
“Dirtybird is not trying to stay in touch with what’s cool,” says 26-year-old Ardalan Noghre-Kar, a new addition to Dirtybird’s roster of DJs and Justin’s roommate. “Instead, it’s always changing, and I think that’s what keeps people engaged because we don’t just play one sound.”
As Dirtybird’s head of A&R, VonStroke has made it his mission to seek out artists who are trying new and adventurous things rather than just trying to emulate the Dirtybird sound. Recent signees like Justin Jay, who specializes in lush, deep house, and Kill Frenzy, who dabbles in dark, shadowy electronica, have made the cut precisely because their sound is so different.
As for the humorous and sexually explicit lines in Dirtybird’s music, well, that’s just a reflection of the DJs’ silly personalities, as well as a borrowed trait from Detroit and Chicago house music.
One of VonStroke’s most popular songs is a frenzied techno track with lyrics about making a cake, and his other hits have lines like, “Let me see your check stub,” and made-up words, like “Barump.”
“We’re serious about making music that doesn’t take itself too seriously,” says Justin, who wins the award for goofiest Dirtybird DJ. One of his very first tracks for the label, a hoedown-themed song called “The Southern Draw,” features a fart sound followed by a collective “ahhh” from a mysterious audience. Then there’s “The Legend of Papachongo,” a tropical cut with bird chirpings and Spanish excerpts, “Chicken Tetrazzini,” a remix of Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” reframed as a dedication to the Italian chicken dish, and “Wet Cat,” a buzzy, techno jam that sounds akin to how a feline might react if it were doused in water.
“Basically, this is techno minus the black turtleneck aspect,” adds Christian, who has songs named after spaceships, Pterodactyls, Groundhog Day, and “Bell Murray.” “We’re getting rid of the stuffiness and bringing the music into the daylight.”
Back at Treasure Island, I spy VonStroke, donning a pair of Dirtybird sunglasses and a snapback hat, testing his strength at the high striker game. Mallet in hand, he slams down on the lever two times before successfully shooting the puck to the top of the scale on his third try. A bell dings, and he raises his left arm in the air, proudly turning around to smile at the small crowd that has gathered around him to watch.
I catch Justin, decked out in a straw hat and a sweatshirt that says “Pizza,” wandering around, giving a high-five to a guy dressed as Cookie Monster and posing for pictures with awestruck fans. Later in the day, I even run into the Martin brothers’ mom, who hands me not one but two of her “special Seven Layer Cookies” and suggests I go say hi to “Papa Martin,” who is behind the grill chopping skirts of steak.
For fans, it’s clear that this level of accessibility to the DJs is both a treat and an anomaly in the tech and house scene.
One fan I talk to describes the Dirtybird crew as “everyday guys who you could see yourself being buddies with,” while another fan regales me with tales of joining VonStroke onstage at a show because the DJ liked his quirky hat and the time he boogied with Justin in the middle of the dancefloor.
“There’s nothing worse than meeting somebody you’ve looked up to forever, and they’re a complete dick,” Justin says, “which is why I’ve always had it in my head that if I ever got to a point of success, I’d be supportive and accessible to fans. It’s the least I can do because they’re the reason why I’m successful in the first place.”
As I wander around the barbecue, I notice another thing about the event: Aside from the roped off backstage area, which Justin says is “only roped off because there is equipment and people’s personal belongings back there,” there is no VIP section or any other special area that denotes different levels of class among the attendees. Maintaining this kind of party, where special privileges don’t exist and the DJs frequently make appearances on the dancefloor, has been a tenet of Dirtybird since its Golden Gate Park days.
As the final rays of sun begin to wane, Justin goes on to perform, and VonStroke, who just finished DJing a 90-minute set, heads backstage to decompress in the tour van. Earlier in the day, he had caught a ferry and a flight from Catalina Island to make it to the barbecue, and in less than two hours, he would board a plane headed to Seattle to DJ the Dirtybird Barbecue there the following day.
Out of all the Dirtybird DJs, VonStroke, who is married and has two kids, travels the least, averaging about 75 shows a year. Justin, who was invited to play at Coachella this year, travels the most, playing more than 175 shows last year in such far-flung places at Fiji, Russia, Australia, and Brazil.
But such busy schedules, they realize, are unsustainable in the long run.
“I definitely think about the future all the time,” Justin says. “Because it’s not as easy as the early days when you just played a couple shows in a row and it was nothing. Now, it’s like you really have to take care of your body and make sure that you’re taking care of your mind.”
Though they have no plans of slowing down their touring schedule any time soon, the core Dirtybird DJs are aware that they won’t always be able to hit a dozen festivals a year like they do now.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the next 10 years,” Justin adds. “Right now, I feel like we’re all kind of riding high and we’re at our peak. Everything’s wonderful, and the parties have never been better. But we can’t go on like this forever.”
Still, neither Justin nor VonStroke are worrying too much about the future because 10 years is still a ways away and there’s still time to groom a new generation of Dirtybird DJs to take the stage.
As I head out of the party, opting to walk to my car instead of waiting for the party bus with its sturdy stripper pole, I pass a fan carrying a homemade sign. It’s a cardboard cutout of a slice of pizza, but there’s something off about the pepperonis decorating its surface. I inch closer to get a better look and realize that each pepperoni is emblazoned with the face of a Dirtybird DJ.