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.” (Click here to read more)
The many ways in which rapper YG has left an indelible footprint on pop culture and why he’s “Still Brazy.”
In 2013, the Compton rapper, born Keenon Jackson, inspired legions of high school students to ditch class and temporarily halted traffic on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles after inviting the public via Instagram to attend the filming of the music video for his song “Left, Right.” Another Instagram open call from the rapper led to an impromptu rally in April, when a rowdy crowd of more than one hundred people arrived for the filming of “Fuck Donald Trump,” a joint track with Crenshaw rapper Nipsey Hussle. (The shoot ended up being shut down by police.) Less than a month later, the Secret Service got in touch with YG’s label Def Jam to peruse the content of his upcoming album, Still Brazy, to see whether there was any other political material in it.
A former member of the Bloods street gang, multiple attempts have been made on his life: He was shot in the groin outside of a recording studio in 2015 — “I’m hard to kill,” he said later — and just last month, another music video shoot in Compton was canceled after it was interrupted by gunfire. (YG was briefly detained by police, who found shell casings at the scene from an AK-47 assault rifle and later declared the shooting “gang-related.”)
The 26-year-old, who will be performing at KMEL’s Summer Jam on Sunday, June 12, is also responsible for inspiring trends. His song “Toot It and Boot It” introduced the phrase into the public lexicon in 2010. (For those over the age of 30, it’s another way of saying “hit it and quit it.”) YG has also popularized swapping the first letters of words with a “b”: You can now buy hats on Etsy and cell phone cases on eBay that say “Bompton,” and the slogan “bickin’ back being bool” was de rigueur in certain circles for most of 2014.
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.
After Years of Busking and Touring, Fantastic Negrito Prepares to Release His First Full-Length Album
“It’s a bit far because we’ve got to go all the way to the basement,” says Xavier Dphrepaulezz, as he heads down a carpeted flight of stairs into a downtown Oakland gallery and recording studio. As the 48-year-old, better known as the black-roots musician Fantastic Negrito, turns a corner and leads me down a concrete hallway, he lists his most vital health tips.
“Exercise is good for you, so I’m always walking,” he says. “I don’t drink sodas or eat fast food, either. I’ve got to stay healthy. I’m only two years away from 50.”
We head down a second flight of stairs, and a wave of cool subterranean air washes over us. The dim basement, which smells faintly of dust, is cluttered with building materials, tools, and broken furniture. Not too many people come down here, Dphrepaulezz says, and I can understand why.
Suddenly, he stops in front of an old wooden freight elevator. “So, this is it,” he says. “This is where we were that fateful night.”
He’s referencing the evening over a year-and-a-half ago when he, three other musicians, and their instruments (a guitar, an upright bass, and percussion) squeezed inside of the almost-100-year-old elevator to record “Lost In A Crowd,” the Southern-inspired blues ballad that won NPR’s 2015 Tiny Desk Contest.
If it weren’t for summer camp, I would have never learned how to make a daisy wreath or shoot a bow and arrow. Both surfing and sewing would be foreign to me, and I’d never have starred in Annie: The Musical either. But all of these things did happen — thanks in large part to my parents, who were too busy to watch my sister and me during the week, and dumped us off at summer camp instead — and I’m better for it.
If you missed out on creating your own fond memories of summer camp as a youth, here’s your chance to make up for it. There are a number of camps geared toward grown-ups hoping to recreate those halcyon days (and an estimated one million adults attend them each year, according to the American Camp Association).
Whether you’re craving a bit of nature, a bite of campfire-roasted s’mores, or a night’s rest in a bunk bed, there are plenty of opportunities around the Bay Area to let your inner kid out this summer. Here are our top five picks. (Click here to read more)
Why Hieroglyphics — and your other favorite artists — are making their own emoticons.
To date, almost two dozen artists and bands — including Future, Fetty Wap, Pia Mia, Pop Evil, The Chainsmokers, and DJ Snake — have released customized emoji packs. (An emoji pack, for the record, is different from emoji apps. While Kim Kardashian and Amber Rose have individual apps created for their emojis, most emojis for musicians are downloaded to your keyboard through third-party apps, like Emoji Fame and Moji Keyboard.).
Oakland rapper G-Eazy has his own emoji pack available through Moji Keyboard — including images of him eating a slice of pepperoni pizza, black Chelsea boots, and a mouth with a gold grill — as does former San Francisco resident Lil Dicky (whose most memorable emoji is that of a hairy scrotum with a tattoo on the left nut).
Download Emoji Fame and you’ll find another Bay Area legend with their own emoji pack: the eight man hip-hop crew Hieroglyphics. In December 2015, along with indie rappers Hopsin and Dizzy Wright, Hiero became one of the first musical acts to have custom emojis released through Emoji Fame.
Subsisting on allergy medicine, LSD, and Thai food.
Somewhere in Chicago is a tour bus containing the three members of the Brooklyn underground hip-hop crew, Flatbush Zombies. It’s been a week since they embarked on a nationwide tour in support of their debut studio album,3001: A Laced Odyssey, and they still have two more months of traveling and playing shows ahead of them.
Despite the cocktail of allergy medications he’s taken, Erick Elliott — the crew’s producer, as well as a vocalist, although all three members of Flatbush Zombies rap — sniffles and coughs in one of the rows. Meechy Darko, Flatbush’s dreadlocked vocalist, who has a penchant for rolling his eyes into the back of his head and hiding his irises from view, stretches out on the floor in the aisle. Meanwhile, Zombie Juice, identifiable by his triangular nose and cascading beard, searches on his phone for the nearest and greatest Thai restaurant.
“In every city we go to, I try to find the best Thai food in town,” he says, listing off pad kee mao and chicken pad thai as favorite dishes. In his opinion, Los Angeles, Denver, and New York have had the best Thai food in the States, and “Amsterdam had some fire, too.”
As far as I can tell, none of the guys is on drugs at the time of our interview — but you never know. The crew’s first official mixtape was called D.R.U.G.S., and Darko and Juice, who met when they were teenagers, have a reputation for experimenting with psychedelic drugs and performing while on acid.
The unlikely music factory at Pinole Valley High School
SF Weekly (Cover Story)
The lunch bell rings at Pinole Valley High School, and hordes of teenagers swarm out of squat, rectangular bungalows.
Since the fall of 2013, Pinole Valley’s 1,200 students have been learning out of 83 portable buildings placed on what used to be a baseball diamond next to the school’s track. The old school, a one-story building dating from 1967, was torn down two years ago to make way for a substantially larger replacement, replete with palm tree-lined walkways and enough classrooms to house 400 additional students. The estimated opening date is 2019, which means three classes of Pinole Valley students will spend the entirety of high school at a campus that lacks an auditorium, cafeteria, gym — or buildings in general.
But on this Friday in March, aside from the facts that there are no lockers on campus nor hallways (other than the outdoor paths between bungalows), Pinole Valley could be any other suburban high school in California. In the central eating area — a collection of cement picnic tables partially covered by an awning, the main hang-out area for students — students dine on packed lunches or meals purchased from one of the two cafeteria kiosks. Seagulls hover nearby to swoop up stray bits of food as a delighted senior hugs a plush white teddy bear while telling a gaggle of girls how her boyfriend asked her to the prom.
A combination of pop and hip-hop songs play from a lone speaker connected to a cell phone carted out to the lunch area by the student government — a weekly tradition, Principal Kibby Kleiman says, that has rolled over from the old school.
RJD2 and his inventive, wearable music-making technology.
RJD2 is a fiddler. Whether it’s music or contraptions, RJD2 — the DJ and producer born Ramble Jon Krohn — has a knack for taking things apart and then putting them back together in an unrecognizable way. Reached at his Philadelphia studio on a recent Wednesday afternoon, he was busy cutting yet another remix of another artist’s song.
Remix offers are common for RJD2, who enjoys tinkering with other artists’ songs when he has the time. Just because he’s offered the chance to remix a song though, doesn’t mean he’ll take it. He won’t “blindly commit to a remix based on who the artist is,” and has been known to turn down remix offers “because I’ve thought the song was perfectly fine in its incarnation and there was nowhere to go with it.”
Remixing a song, he says, is more a matter of deciding what he’ll cut from a song and what he can do with what’s left. “I need to have a path forward,” he says. “I need to feel confident that I can come off well doing my thing on a remix.”
In addition to tinkering with songs, RJD2 is also a big fan of tinkering with contraptions. In 2006, while on tour with Soul Position, his side project with rapper Blueprint, he designed a harness to strap a 20-pound Music Production Center (MPC) sampler/sequencer to his chest so that he could make beats live, while walking around the stage. He called the device “Mo’ Buttons.” “I wanted to take the nerdiness out of the whole dude standing behind a table staring downwards motif,” he says.
Tinashe on her upcoming world tour, her hard-earned dance moves, and her continually-delayed sophomore album
On a February morning, a week before the 23-year-old singer’s three month international tour begins, she’s prepping for a photo shoot. By 10 a.m., she’s already been up for hours getting her hair and makeup done.
After the photos, she’ll join dancers from her upcoming tour at a studio in North Hollywood for roughly 12 hours of rehearsal. Though that sounds like a lot of work — and it is; their rehearsals typically end around midnight — it’s absolutely necessary.
“The majority of the numbers in the show have movement, so there’s a lot to do and a lot to put together,” Tinashe says. “We waited until a week before the tour to start rehearsing.”
Practicing 12 hours a day for an upcoming tour is not the norm for most musicians. But then again, most musicians are not Tinashe. A dancer since the age of 3 who turned her childhood bedroom into a home studio, Tinashe has long been known as a hard worker. She wrote, recorded, and produced her first three mixtapes herself, and directed and co-wrote her early music videos. And though spending copious hours on dance routines might not be “necessary because the majority of artists nowadays don’t dance,” being the rare singer-dancer is precisely why she feels the need to incorporate dance into her show.
Demystifying Northern California’s enigmatic harpist
In 19 minutes and 53 seconds, I tried to crack Joanna Newsom. I wanted to figure out who she was, because Newsom, a 34-year-old singer and harpist raised in Nevada City, is an equation that doesn’t add up.
Since Newsom emerged on the scene in 2004 with her debut studio album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, fans and journalists alike have been trying to figure her out. (She’s even had problems with stalkers.) With her long, flaxen hair, whimsical song titles, poetic lyrics, and ethereal, polyrhythmic song structures, there’s something otherworldly about her. (Tolkienesque terms like “Elfin princess” and “wood nymph” are frequently used to describe her.)
In her music, Newsom is haunting and cryptic. Though her sound is firmly rooted in folk, it’s not the happy, cutesy folk of Simon and Garfunkel or Peter, Paul, and Mary. Instead, she sings about loneliness, loss, regret, and misunderstanding — that is, if you can understand any of her lyrics in the first place. Newsom’s voice is high-pitched and quivering, and her lyrics are couched in metaphors and symbolism — so much so that one fan has created a website devoted entirely to deciphering her lyrics. (In “The Things I Say,” Newsom even sings a few lines backwards.)
Gary Holt, The Guitarist For Legendary Thrash Metal Band Slayer, Explains The Genre to a Novice
Last month, I went to see Metallica perform at AT&T Park the day before the Super Bowl. It was the first metal show I’d ever attended — and it was terrible.
The music was loud and clamorous, the vocals were sinister and throaty-in-an-evil-way, and the overall experience was much darker and ominous than I’d expected. I spent three hours with my mouth agape in horror, resisting an urge to cover my ears.
But as I looked around the audience, I saw 40,000 people were vibing to the music. Cacophonous, raucous, and scary though it was, these people — normal-looking, not-dressed-in-black people — were digging it. Like, really digging it. The guy next to me stood up for the entirety of the show, and the guys in front of me couldn’t contain themselves from throwing up devil horn hand symbols every few minutes. It was clear something was afoot. But what?
I needed help. I would never be converted, but I needed to understand why people listen to metal. And who better to explain metal than Slayer, another legendary metal band of the 1980s?
From a hotel room in Wisconsin, Slayer guitarist Gary Holt took the time to explain the genre to me and provide some insight into why people are drawn to it. I still don’t get metal, but I at least now sort of understand the genre from a metal lover’s standpoint. (Click here to read more)
Rapper Enon Gaines Splits His Time Between Tech Work and Music
Twenty-eight-year-old Enon Gaines is sitting behind a white desk in a peach-colored cubicle at the San Rafael headquarters of software firm SafetyChain. Eleven other cubicles dot the room, which Gaines refers to as “a mini cube farm,” and light reflecting off a manmade lake outside glimmers through the windows.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and, like millions of other people, Gaines is at work. This April marks his one-year anniversary as a project manager for the “food safety and quality operations” company, and his seventh year working in the tech industry as a whole. (Before SafetyChain, Gaines worked at a teacher accountability company in San Francisco.)
After the one-hour commute from his home in Vallejo, Gaines usually arrives at the office around 6 a.m. At 3 p.m., he heads home, where he transforms from techie to musician.
“I live a double life,” says Gaines, who raps and sings under the name PhenomENON. “Once I’m done with work, I spend the rest of the day writing songs, listening to beats, rehearsing, and playing the guitar.”
Howard Remixes Themselves in New EP Please Recycle
So you form a band, hole up in a studio, and record your debut album. It’s released to rave reviews and accolades from fans and critics alike. You play some shows, maybe even go on tour. Then you head back to the studio to start working on your next record.
But rather than start from scratch, you decide to listen to that first record again for inspiration. “Damn, it’s good,” you think to yourself. “But I wonder what it would sound like if I took this out and added this in?” You start toying around with the stems of the song. You remix the separate recordings of each individual instrument, placing the rhythm guitar here and the hi-hats there, and the bass in the background.
Before you know it, you’ve created an entirely new song using bits and pieces from the old record. “What a brilliant, economical idea!” you think to yourself. “Perhaps I should make more songs like this? Or maybe even an entire EP?”
This is what fans of the Brooklyn-based quartet Howard will hear on the band’s upcoming EP, to be released on March 25. Called (appropriately enough) Please Recycle, the concept album was crafted entirely from the stems of the band’s debut album, Religion. And the two sound nothing alike.
Religion is a folksy indie-rock record replete with acoustic guitar strumming, tinkly keyboards, glitchy electronic melodies, and plaintive vocals. Singer/songwriter and band founder Howard Feibusch says he was largely inspired by Fleet Foxes and Other Lives while writing and recording the album, which he describes as “folktronica.” (Click here to read more)
It’s the middle of the day in the middle of the week, and 26-year-old Will Wiesenfeld is sitting in his West Los Angeles apartment, staring at his computer. His cat, Pluton — a domestic short hair with dark lines around his eyes — lies on the desk next to the humming machine. As his master roves Hot Wire for a hotel room to stay in during an upcoming tour, Pluton appears to roll his eyeliner-lined cat eyes.
Master and cat post up at this desk on the regular. This is where Wiesenfeld, who performs under the name Baths, concocts his music. This is where the magic happens. Or rather, this is where the weird and different happens.
“A lot of the time, I’ll make a song that I’m super stoked on and end up hearing something that sounds really similar to it and be really disappointed and have to start something new,” Wiesenfeld says. “That’s my end goal with making music: To make what I don’t tend to hear in pop music.” (Click here to read more)
Zoë Keating Wants to Disrupt The Music Industry — In Artists’ Favor
SF Weekly (Cover Story)
It was springtime 2015, and Zoë Keating was staring at rabbits.
Through the curved window of the Georgian house outside of London, Keating, a critically acclaimed independent cellist, and Imogen Heap, a Grammy-nominated singer, watched the animals on the lawn. The house belonged to Heap, who grew up there and later purchased it from her parents. Although it was surrounded by all the tropes of the English countryside — rolling hills, bluebells, and the wild rabbits — it was only a few miles outside of London in a government-protected swath of wilderness. If they looked closely enough, the women could see the city in the distance.
It was Keating’s second day as Heap’s guest. Or maybe it was her third. Ever since her husband’s death two months earlier, she had trouble keeping track of time. “It was all a blur,” she recalled months later. (Click here to read more)
The Chicago electronic trio Autograf formed a few years ago when three friends (Jake Carpenter, Louis Kha, and Mikul Wing) decided to start an art group of sorts. They built pop art-inspired creations, such as an 8-foot-tall can of soup, threw parties, and eventually turned to making music.
But rather than craft original pieces of work, Autograf chose to make remixes.
“When you put out your very first song, that’s almost the hardest one because it’s hard to get people to listen to it,” Kha says. “That’s why remixes are helpful, because you’re working with something recognizable that people already know.”
The first remix, released in 2014, was a reinvention of rapper 50 Cent’s club banger “Magic Stick” into a hazy, glitched-out, deep house jam. Then followed riffs on artists such as Amtrac, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Pharrell, to name just a few. It wasn’t until last May that Autograf dropped their first original creation, “Dream.”
Slow Magic, an artist who plays drums and makes electronic music, won’t tell me his real name. Or his age. Or where he’s from. He won’t even tell me where he is as we talk on the phone and, since I’m a journalist, not a CIA agent, I can’t track his phone and find out for myself. The only things I know about him are that he’s a dude, he sounds rather young, and he wears a mask. So I ask him about the mask and I (finally) start to get some answers.
Slow Magic’s mask is striped, rainbow-colored, and outfitted with L.E.D. lights that change color with the music during his shows. It has almond-shaped eye holes, two ears, and looks sort of like a zebra-fox-wolf on acid. “It’s open to interpretation on what kind of animal it is,” says Slow Magic. “And I think that’s the essence of the whole project: It’s imaginary, so anyone can interpret it how they want to and they’re right.” (In that case, I’ll call it a zebra).
Slow Magic has worn a mask since his first show in 2012 because he’s a firm believer that “it’s more exciting to focus on the identity of the music than on the identity of me.” The original design, created by his “friend who is an artist,” has stayed the same over the years, just with a few improvements. Today’s iteration is sturdier, made of plastic and wood, and is “to an extent, pretty sweat proof.”
When you coming back, baby? When you coming back? / I will love you down, baby / When you’re coming back.
So starts the first track of electronic singer-producer Natasha Kmeto’s sophomore album, Inevitable. Though the lyrics are indefatigably simple, they reveal a fair amount about the musician, much more than she let on in her 2013 debut,Crisis. Listeners might pick up on Kmeto’s penchant for singing about love and relationships. Astute listeners might even figure out that Kmeto is queer.
No song on the album is more upfront about this than “I Thought You Had a Boyfriend.” In this cavernous deep-house track, Kmeto picks up on clues that a girl might be into her and questions her intentions. Though some of her listeners don’t understand — “I occasionally glance across audiences and I’ll see a couple dudes that look at me like, ‘What is she saying?'” she says, laughing — it is her most blatant and revealing song to date.
Kmeto, who lives in Portland with her partner of four years, “officially” came out six years ago. She says that after experimenting with women and questioning whether she was bisexual or gay, she came out to herself first, before letting her family members know one by one.
It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Azure is in his L.A. apartment watching the new Spike Lee film, Chi-Raq. Although he’s lived here since September, the apartment has a sparseness to it that is less a reflection of Azure’s interior design aesthetic than an indicator of his busy schedule.
Since the fall, the 27-year-old rapper, born Justin Park in Pinole, Calif., has been on the road quite a bit, either touring with Bay Area rapper (and HBK Gang founder) Iamsu!, for whom he DJs, or driving back and forth between the Bay and L.A. to record music with his recently formed rap crew, Down 2 Earth. And though he enjoys staying occupied, all of the traveling has taken a toll. “It just eats up so much time,” says the MC, who has planned for the last year to drop his fourth album, Leap Year.
On the SoundCloud page for Leap Year, which was released on Jan. 12 (and was premiered worldwide by SF Weekly), Azure issued an apology to his fans. “2 my listeners from the early days, I know I took a few extra moments to deliver this project to your ears,” he wrote. “I didn’t want to give you something rushed so I took my sweet time widit.”
It’s Thanksgiving Day and singer Jennie Vee could care less.
“I’m the most anti-holiday person ever,” says the 32-year-old from Canada, who headlines Oakland’s Stork Club on Friday, Dec. 4. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve not really enjoyed holidays. I can’t wait for them to be over.”
Vee’s blasé attitude is right in line with the punk rock ethos that has always guided both her life and music. Though she grew up in a “strict Catholic household,” Vee became a Goth, dyed her hair “every color of the rainbow,” and went vegetarian — and later, vegan — at a young age. She taught herself how to play guitar simply by listening to albums from Hole, The Cure, and Jane’s Addiction, and to this day, cannot read music. As a teenager, she dropped out of high school and moved to England because that’s where “all [her] favorite bands were from.” When she returned to Canada in her late teens, she formed a rock band called Tuuli and recorded a full-length album and EP. Over the next few years, through her own hustling and hard work, she wrote songs for a Comedy Central series and got a handful of tracks used on a Canadian cartoon show, as well as the hit teen drama television series, Degrassi: The Next Generation.