The Yogi and the DJ

Two brothers’ separate paths to music stardom.

SF Weekly (Cover Story)


On a Sunday evening in April, MC Yogi, a 37-year-old rapper and yoga teacher, bounded across the stage of The Independent, wearing a short-brimmed fedora and his trademark rectangular eyeglasses. It had been a long weekend. Early that morning, he had risen “at the butt crack of dawn” to host a New Age triathlon — a 5K run and a yoga class, followed by a meditation session, hosted by the music and yoga festival Wanderlust — for more than 4,000 people in Golden Gate Park. The day before, he’d done the same in Mexico City, snatching only a few hours’ sleep after his flight landed at SFO on Saturday night.

As images of lotus flowers and OM symbols flashed across a screen behind him, MC Yogi told stories of his childhood in Marin — where he was born Nick Giacomini — and how he met his wife, Amanda, in a yoga-teacher training course 16 years ago — before launching into the first song of the evening: the Indian-inspired electronic dance rap “Clear the Path.”

Throughout the night, he performed selections from all six of his albums, spitting positive, life-affirming messages like “Only love is real,” “Spiritualism above materialism,” and “Swallow your pride and you’ll become whole” over exotic beats. In the packed crowd, fans clad in yoga pants and prayer beads danced and struck a few impromptu yoga poses.

“People said it was like a TED talk on acid,” he said later.

Among the Namaste-ing crowd were a middle-aged couple — MC Yogi’s parents — and their youngest son, a 33-year-old dressed in a hoodie from his own clothing line.

Known as DJ Amen, Adam Giacomini is a DJ for two of California’s largest hip-hop radio stations, the Bay Area’s KMEL 106.1 and Los Angeles’ REAL 92.3. He has also earned a reputation as an early supporter of up-and-coming artists and has consistently been the first DJ in the country to play a number of Bay Area records that later became hits, like E-40’s “Function” and Sage the Gemini’s “Gas Pedal.”

Though the two musical brothers say they’re close — Adam, the more reserved, less hyperbolic of the two, believes they’re “just two normal brothers,” while energetic and empathetic Nick describes them as “like, best friends” who “text all the time” — they don’t see each other very often outside of family events.
Like his brother, San Francisco-based Amen spends much of his time traveling, mostly between the Bay and L.A., making it hard for him to attend his brother’s shows, and vice versa.

Still, the brothers share a fair amount in common. They were both troublesome teenagers who dropped out of public schools to attend the same boarding school for at-risk boys in Sonoma. They also both collect sneakers and comic books and love anything related to Star Wars or the 1980s.

Perhaps the biggest thing they share is their love for hip-hop. Within the music industry, they have carved out their own niches: Nick as a self-taught producer and sui generis rapping yogi, and Adam as a champion and harbinger of new talent in the rap and hip-hop world.

As a result, their careers have taken separate arcs. Both are self-taught and self-driven and have achieved success independent of the other. While they have mutual respect as artists, they’ve only collaborated once when they were teenagers. Adam has never played an MC Yogi song on the radio, and Nick has never asked Adam to open for one of his shows.

“As far as my career and his career, they’ve been totally separate,” Adam says. “We did it on our own without each other’s help.”

Along with their sister, Melissa, the middle child, the Giacomini brothers grew up in Marin and Sonoma counties, their family — best known for a multi-generational, family-owned trucking company — frequently moving from town to town looking for “affordable places to live,” Nick says.

When Nick was 8 and Adam was 4, their parents divorced. Shortly after that, their father, Chris, came out as gay.

After that, he “seemed to be in a much better place,” Nick says, “as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.”

Though there is no history of making music professionally on either side of their family, both brothers latched onto music from an early age, thanks to their parents.

For his sixth birthday, Nick’s parents took him to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, where they bought him his first cassettes — Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell — which became “the soundtracks to my youth” he says. Their father, who used to play a piano in the family house as a means of waking the children up for school in the morning, bought Adam his first DJ set for Christmas when he was 14. (It was Nick who bought his brother his first high-quality turntable soon after.)

Things started getting tough for Nick in middle school. Overcome with what he says was hatred for himself, he began getting into trouble and became what he called “a bad kid.”

“Everything about myself, I wanted to destroy,” he says. “I didn’t like the way I looked, I didn’t like the way I sounded, I didn’t like the way I spoke. I wanted to be gone.”

He started ditching school and would often steal his father’s Chevy Blazer and drive into San Francisco. Always a fan of graffiti art, he was arrested in high school while tagging the Twin Peaks Tunnel in San Francisco, and he started hanging out with teenagers using crystal meth. Though he never tried the drug himself — “I always knew that the only thing I should ever put in my nose was my finger,” he says — he helped them sell it, and witnessed firsthand the effects that it had on his friends and classmates. Kids he knew were dying from meth overdoses or suicides, and friends starting bringing guns to school.

In between getting in trouble with the law — by the time he turned 16 he had been arrested multiple times for drawing graffiti and being drunk — he would rap for his friends, often making up his own lyrics for popular songs on the radio.

After getting expelled from a continuation school — he had been expelled from two public high schools before that — he consented to living at the Hanna Boys Center, a voluntary, drug- and alcohol-free, all-boys group home in Sonoma County with an on-campus accredited high school.

“I realized I had to make a decision and change my environment,” he says. “Otherwise, I was going to be just like [my friends].” Temporarily expelled for having drugs and alcohol on campus shortly before he was set to graduate, he was readmitted after pleading with school authorities to take him back.

While Nick was at Hanna, Adam was living with his parents, growing ever more interested in rap, which he had been introduced to at an early age by his brother and older cousins. But rather than listening to contemporary hits from the 1990s, he delved into cuts from hip-hop’s golden age of the 1970s and 1980s like Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc.

“I started from the top,” he says, “and really got a proper education.”

Before his dad bought him the DJ kit, which included two turntables and a mixer, Adam would tag along on trips into the city, stopping at Tower Records to buy albums, sparking a lifelong obsession. He began hitting up record stores every week to buy music that he would then mix and play on his turntables. (His collection, stored at a friend’s house, now clocks in at more than 15,000 pieces of vinyl, he estimates.)

In retrospect, he’s grateful that he learned how to DJ in the late 1990s — a fortuitous time to learn, since laptops had not yet become widely available, and turntables were still de rigueur.

“I was really fortunate to be there at the tail end of it,” he says. “Back then, DJing was really something you had to work for.”

As a teenager, Adam, along with Nick, who had recently graduated from Hanna, teamed up to throw The Jam, a drug- and alcohol-free party for teenagers held at an old magnet factory in Sonoma. Nick was the MC, while Adam was the DJ. It was both of the brothers’ first experience performing in public, and to date, remains the only time the two have collaborated together on a music project.

Adam’s DJ career was put on hold when he turned 16. Ditching class regularly to stay home and play music, he was falling behind in school. Though it meant leaving his turntables and records at home, Adam also decided to give the Hanna Center a try. And it worked.

“Nick had already been through the Hanna thing and was golden — they loved him — so I knew that if I went there it would be cool and it wouldn’t be like juvenile hall,” Adam says.

“Without it, I definitely would have had a different, rougher path.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, a Lululemon-clad MC Yogi and his producer friend Trevor East Forest sit in leather beanbag chairs in the homemade recording studio built within the Point Reyes Station yoga studio that MC Yogi owns with his wife.

The room is crammed with records, comic books, and vintage toys arranged around an upright piano. Posters and photos of Hindu deities, Catholic saints — the Giacominis were raised Catholic — and famous yoga teachers cover almost every wall.

On this particular day, the pair were working on an as-yet-untitled track slated for release on MC Yogi’s upcoming seventh album, already titled Ritual Mystical. Starting with a loop of the words “Unbroken / Devotion,” the song purr through the speakers before a gong signals the start of the first verse.

“Like the moon says to the sun / Like the shore says to the ocean,” Yogi’s voice croons. “I give you all my love all my life.”

“Happy song,” says Nick, smiling, the laptop balancing on his thighs. Tambourines clamor in the background and riffs of synthesizers sound like shooting stars. But something isn’t right.

“I like the drop with the bass, but I don’t think it’s ready yet,” he says. “It’s like, ‘OK, we got you people dancing,’ but we need to add a little more to keep them dancing. It’s still very rough.”

Like his brother, Nick maintains that he has no musical training — “I just feel it,” he says. Melody-wise, he creates beats that he thinks sound good to him, and for the lyrics, he keeps it light and positive.

“My music is like my journal,” he says. “It’s about the things that I’ve discovered along the way, and then I turn around and share it through my music and hopefully it gives inspiration and insight.”

His music is also to a degree educational. Though a lot of his songs touch on universal themes like love and acceptance, many are dedicated to yogic tropes and Eastern philosophy. His first album, Elephant Power, is probably his most Hindu-leaning, with topics ranging from chakras and Mahatma Gandhi to the gods Krishna and Shiva, and clever song titles like “Ganesh Is Fresh,” “Rock On Hanuman,” and “Bhakti Boombox.” His fifth album, 2014’s Mantras, Beats, & Meditations, is almost like a yoga-teacher training course in album form, with songs about the eight limbs of yoga, the story of Buddha, and ahimsa, the multi-denominational belief in nonviolence.

“I’m just translating those esoteric philosophies into a language that anyone can understand so it doesn’t just sit there on the shelf,” he says. “It’s accessible and it’s for everybody.”

When Nick graduated from the Hanna Center at the age of 19, he moved back to Marin with his father and Adam. Inspired by his father’s recent interest in Ashtanga yoga, he joined his father for a class — which took place at the yoga studio that he now owns — and he became hooked. His father introduced him to his yoga teacher, Larry Schultz, who owned the studio It’s Yoga on Folsom Street and once taught yoga to The Grateful Dead. Schultz took a liking to Nick (who he nicknamed “Hollywood”) and for the next year, Nick lived and worked at the studio.

Through yoga, Nick’s personality and outlook on life changed dramatically.

“My brother had a 180-degree moment,” Adam says. “He was totally a hoodlum, this little hip-hop kid getting into trouble, and then, when he got into the yoga stuff, it was almost like that guy disappeared. He became nicer and super positive. It was like something clicked and that was it.”

About a year into living at It’s Yoga, Nick enrolled in a teacher-training course at Schultz’s behest. On the first day, he met his future wife, Amanda.

“The very moment that she walked in, Larry was talking about how people meet and fall in love all the time at the studio,” he says. “And when I looked at her, I knew I was going to marry her.”

The two moved in together, traveled to India, and opened up their own studio — Yoga Toes in Point Reyes Station — soon afterward. For the next few years, Nick taught yoga and worked at a pizza parlor on the side. But he never forgot about music, often writing songs about Hindu gods and goddesses in his free time to better his knowledge of Indian mythology.

In 2002, Amanda and Nick married — their ceremony was held in the yoga studio — and went on their honeymoon in Kauai. On the first day, they went to a nearby studio to take a Mysore Ashtanga class. Aside from the newlyweds, there were only two other people in the class: a local baker, and Mike D from the Beastie Boys.

“It felt like it was an omen,” Nick says. “Here were the two things I love more than anything: yoga and hip-hop. And it was embodied in that moment while practicing yoga with Mike D from the Beastie Boys. So I thought maybe I should share these songs? Maybe it’s a sign?”

For the remaining three weeks of their honeymoon, Nick spent all of his free time writing, ultimately filling up five or six notebooks with lyrics that would later become the content for his first album. MC Yogi was born.

It ultimately took six years for Nick to write and record his debut, Elephant Power, which he produced using breakbeats and samples of Indian music he culled from the internet. Predictably, yoga teachers went mad for the album, which was on heavy rotation in classes around the country, and the album made it to the homepage of iTunes’ world-music section.

A Barack Obama–inspired song called “Vote for Change” followed in 2008. The video garnered over a million views on YouTube, as well as an invitation for him to attend the Democratic National Convention. Not long after, Starbucks gave Nick a call, asking him to write a song commemorating Obama’s community-service initiative for a TV commercial that would be aired not only during the President’s inauguration speech but during the Super Bowl.

Invitations to perform at yoga and world-music festivals started pouring in, and Nick now makes appearances at roughly a dozen festivals worldwide each year. Michelle Obama has even invited him to teach yoga on the White House lawn. To date, he’s taught there five times.

Nick’s last album, 2015’s Only Love Is Real, was his best-selling yet, charting on both Amazon and iTunes. Ritual Mystical, the upcoming release, will be his first album made strictly for the purpose of being played during yoga classes.

He also recently accepted a book deal with Harper Collins to write his autobiography.

Over the years, Adam watched his brother’s project as a rhyming yoga teacher evolve from “being more of a fun thing” to a legitimate career.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “He definitely created his own genre, which is amazing. I just can’t believe nobody thought of [merging yoga with hip-hop] before.”

Nick is now so famous that he has hidden in crates at music festivals to avoid being asked for autographs or selfies with fans. Yet he is humble about his success.

The secret to it, he thinks, is no secret at all.

“I think I just have fun and don’t take myself too seriously,” he says. “When you do what you love, it’s not work. And that’s a real attractive energy, just to really enjoy what you do and be able to share that with people.”

Others have different views about why MC Yogi has become so big.

“It’s his message,” says Isabelle Abergel, the director of yoga programming for the yoga and music festival Wanderlust, at which Nick has both taught and sang since its inception in 2009. “No one else is rapping about enlightenment, meditation, and yoga to music that you can dance and practice to.”

Buddhist teacher Noah Levine — author of the memoir Dharma Punx and an unorthodox practitioner of meditation in his own right — often does guided meditations in tandem with Nick’s performances and yoga classes, and he thinks MC Yogi’s appeal has to do with Nick’s authenticity.

“On some level, he’s the only one really doing what he does and staying true to it,” he says. “A lot of people get involved in spiritual practices and yoga and then they become fake spiritual people. But Nick is one of the guys who’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m totally dedicated to awareness and compassion and devotional practice. And I also love hip-hop and I have a sense of humor and I’m not trying to be some sort of spiritual zombie.’ ”

When Adam graduated from the Hanna Center in 2001, he had a plan: He would attend Santa Rosa Junior College, major in broadcasting, and get a job working as a mixer for a radio station.

(A mixer is another name for a radio DJ; unlike on-air personalities, who talk and host shows, mixers are responsible for playing and preparing the tracks and do not speak on-air.)

His plans changed in the middle of his second year when he was hired by HOT 98.7, Santa Rosa’s first hip-hop station, to be a mixer for one of its weekday shows. He promptly quit school to DJ full-time, picking up an additional four-hour slot on Sunday nights to co-host a show that played only local rap music.

Around this time, he began promoting and throwing parties, starting with a weekly Thursday night event for college students called The Liquid Lounge that brought in as many as 1,500 attendees a night, he estimates. When he was fired from HOT 98.7 a few years later — for being “too aggressive” in trying to compete with KMEL, he claims — he put together his own company and began promoting concerts and parties throughout the North Bay.

His most successful years were between 2005 and 2007 when he threw a monthly concert series called Super Hyphy that was held at various locations, like The Phoenix Theater in Petaluma and the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds. A number of big-name rappers from the emerging hyphy movement, such as E-40 and Tech9ine, performed at the events, and Adam’s name started spreading beyond the North Bay, ultimately catching the attention of Kevin Torres, a DJ at KMEL in San Francisco.

“I would always see him out and about promoting the events he had going on,” Torres says. “He was super hungry, and he already had a good brand built up in Santa Rosa. It was impressive.”

With Torres’ help, 23-year-old Adam was hired at KMEL in the summer of 2006 to co-DJ a show with Torres called “The Hot Box” at 2 a.m. on Saturday mornings. (Ten years later, he still DJs the show at the same time slot, although its name has been changed to the “Damn, It’s Late Show.”)

But Adam wanted to be known for more than DJing one show — he just wasn’t sure how to distinguish himself from the other more well-known DJs that KMEL already had on the air.

The answer came to him when he discovered Dorrough Music, a then-unknown 22-year-old rapper from Dallas, on Myspace. He premiered the artist’s first single, “Ice Cream Paint Job,” on his late-night program — before any DJs in Texas had played the song — and “the record ended up exploding.”

The song reached No. 27 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and was certified platinum by the Record Industry Association of America. To date, Dorrough Music is a platinum-selling artist with a reported net worth of $6 million.

“Ice Cream Cake Paint Job”‘s success inspired Adam to find more unknown artists to premiere on his show, and he became known as a DJ who “broke records” (industry lingo for being the first DJ to play a song on the radio). He became the first DJ on the West Coast to play a J. Cole song and he premiered a number of now-classic Bay Area songs, like Loverance’s “Up” and Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci,” as well as practically every album and mixtape by Iamsu! and the rest of the Heart Break Gang. (Rapper Sage the Gemini even gave Adam a shoutout in his breakout top-40 single, “Gas Pedal.”)

Adam also started a competition called The Bay Area Freshman 10 — which he modeled after XXL’s annual Freshman Class and later relinquished to the Bay Area music website Thizzler — and solidified himself as a DJ who not only played new artists on the radio, but also genuinely wanted to see them succeed.

“I could tell he really wanted to see me do well from the beginning,” says Iamsu! who met Adam after submitting songs for The Bay Area Freshman 10 contest. “He kind of just took me under his wing, took me to KMEL, and gave me a lot of good advice about what it would take to be successful.”

To this day, Adam still helps out Iamsu!, booking him performances in Phoenix during last year’s Super Bowl, and most recently by planning a party for him after the rapper’s show in San Diego.

Oliver “Kuya Beats” Rodriguez, a producer for the Heart Break Gang, recalls how Adam would visit the burgeoning rappers at their studio in Richmond when they started putting out mixtapes around 2009.

“He was like a mentor for a lot of us, showing us the ropes of the music industry,” he says, noting that Adam would suggest they have clean versions of their songs that could be played on the radio. “He was one of the very rare people that actually cared about us back then.”

In 2011, he started Young California, a music website and platform for promoting new artists, with a mixer from POWER 106 in Los Angeles named DJ Carisma.

Last year, Adam was hired to be a DJ on Southern California’s new hip-hop radio station, REAL 92.3, landing the second-most coveted slot in radio airplay on weekdays at 5 p.m. (In February, the station also gave Adam, DJ Carisma, and Dre Sinatra, another Young California member, a five-hour slot every Saturday and Sunday night — called Young California Radio — to play exclusive, new hits from on-the-rise artists.)

Months later, Adam still marvels that he is a DJ on two of the biggest hip-hop stations on both ends of California.

“What’s crazy is when I was younger, I never thought I’d get on KMEL,” he says. “And then it happened, and I was like, ‘Oh, my god.’ Then, I never thought I’d get on the radio in L.A. because, like, what are the circumstances where that would happen? But that’s what’s happening right now — I’m on both stations.”

Because of his numerous, far-flung jobs — in addition to DJing for REAL 92.3 every day and KMEL once a week, he spins weekly at clubs and concerts in San Francisco and a few times each month in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, and he’s also an official DJ for the 49ers and the Sacramento Kings — he travels frequently. He’s been known to take multiple flights throughout a day, leaving his apartment in San Francisco in the morning, spending the afternoon in Los Angeles, and returning to the Bay by nightfall.

“He’s nuts,” Torres says. “He’s definitely a super hard-working guy who has taken an idea — even a dream — and grabbed it by the horns and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to get it.’ ”

MC Yogi closed his set at The Independent with the single “Peace Sign” off of Only Love Is Real. “Keep the flags waving / Raise them up high,” he sang into the microphone over a horn- and synthesizer-infused reggae beat. “I want to see a million peace signs in the sky.”

Hands dutifully molded into peace signs shot up in the air as MC Yogi’s fans inched closer to the stage in the hopes of getting a high five or other form of acknowledgement.

Adam watched from the dance floor, waiting for the hordes of enthusiastic yogis to dissipate before greeting his older brother.

The Giacomini brothers have a few things in common. In the same 10-year period, they’ve achieved prominent success through a combination of hustle and timing — Nick as a rapping yogi arriving at a time and place where spiritualism and hip-hop overlap, and Adam by throwing parties during the height of the hyphy movement big enough to draw attention from KMEL.

As the crowd dispersed, Adam inched his way closer to the stage. He hadn’t told Nick he was coming and wanted to surprise him, but it didn’t work. Nick had already “heard he might be there,” so when he saw his brother’s buzz-cut head bobbing above the crowd, he called out to him knowingly.

The Giacominis talked for what Nick described as “a hot minute” before going their separate ways.

Nick, who was still operating off of a few hours of sleep, had a set to pack up and a record to start working on the next morning, while Adam had a DJ set to plan for G-Eazy’s show the next night at The New Parish. They each had a lot to do.

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