The Sounds of Silence

Why the Bay Area has stopped producing big-time rock bands

While many aspects of the hip hop recipe for success parallel those of hard-working rock musicians -- touring, reputation, and Internet presence -- rap artists may elevate their chances thanks to hip hop's collaborative culture. Quannum's cachet relies on not just Blackalicious but also Shadow, Lyrics Born, Lateef, and the Solesides legacy; likewise, Hiero's large membership strengthens the label's brand. And where rock groups typically have to break up to form supergroups, rap musicians' constant collaborating helps them increase their exposure exponentially.

San Francisco's most promising hip hop artist, Dan Nakamura (aka Dan the Automator), has worked in many unusual configurations: as a producer of beats for Dr. Octagon, a partner in Handsome Boy Modeling School alongside Prince Paul, a member of Deltron 3030 with Del and Kid Koala, and, most notably, one of the masterminds behind Gorillaz. The latter band -- fronted by cartoon characters and backed by Nakamura, Blur's Damon Albarn, and ex-members of Cibo Matto and Talking Heads -- has sold 5 million albums worldwide. MCA, betting that Nakamura is ready for the spotlight, recently signed him to a solo deal.

"After Gorillaz I felt like he's ready to make an album that is hisrecord, a Dan the Automator record," says Sarig. True to his MO, a Dan the Automator record means Dan-and-friends, according to Sarig: "He's doing a track with Beck, he's doing a track with [Rage Against the Machine's] Zack de la Rocha, he's got all his friends doing some vocals. And then some of the tracks will out-Fatboy Slim Fatboy Slim."

Trapt: Angry and cuddly, at the same time.
Chris McCann
Trapt: Angry and cuddly, at the same time.
The Pattern: On a wing and a small scale.
Andrew Paynter
The Pattern: On a wing and a small scale.

Retaking the charts by besting British rave music is hardly a conventional path to rap stardom, but perhaps Nakamura is simply illustrating the secret strategy of Bay Area hip hop: shape-shifting, thwarting expectations, and making up the rules as you go along. Rock star wannabes take notice, and learn.
-- By Philip Sherburne

There Will Never Again Be a Next Big Thing From San Francisco, and It's All Your Fault

I am on a date in the Mission. My companion is a bike mechanic/singer who has recently moved to San Francisco, and I am trying to impress her with my knowledge of the local scene.

When we walk into Doc's Clock, I know immediately I've picked the right place. Singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel is sitting at the bar, wearing a hat and waving his arms around in a way that suggests he's been here awhile. We grab a barstool, and I lean in to casually share the news.

"There's Mark Eitzel," I tell my date with near-paternal civic pride.

The young lady cranes her neck to get a look, then turns to me, a quizzical smile on her face. "Who is Mark Eitzel?"

I turn back to my beer, and the moment passes. A few minutes later, though, we are interrupted by a group of guys behind us who are nudging each other and murmuring something in the direction of the woman at my side.

"Gillian Welch, it's Gillian Welch," they whisper, their eyes widening.

Now this is just plain sad. Apart from the vintage farmer's dress she's wearing, my date bears as much resemblance to the altcountry warbler as I do. But here are these well-intentioned San Francisco music fans, nodding and smiling, looking like they're one beer away from asking my Gillian to autograph their pecs.

The whole scene makes it painfully clear how malformed San Francisco's relationship is with its celebrity musicians. Bring in a vague impersonation of a Nashville singer, and she's mobbed by yahoos. Meanwhile, our local treasures sit idly by, drunk and unmolested.

How did we get this way? I've seen documentaries; I watch cable TV. I know that back in the day, San Francisco was densely populated with the kind of bright and shining stars drug-addled teens traveled thousands of miles just to have sex with.

People sometimes ask me, "Who will be the next big thing out of San Francisco?" And I say, "Ha! You will never again have a next big thing. You blew it." And then they weep on my shoulder and rail against ridiculous Bay Area rents or thinning performance venues or the removed distance from the entertainment industry. But these are all just excuses.

The real problem is us. We drive all our famous musicians away because we are San Francisco and that's the kind of exclusive, celebrity-hating jerks we've become. And if that means we have a hard time impressing dates, well, maybe we should have thought about that before we chased all the glamorous people out of town.

Longtime Bay Area resident Jello Biafra can tell you some stories about San Francisco's ambivalent relationship with fame. The former Dead Kennedys frontman and Alternative Tentacles honcho has been credited as one of the forefathers of punk. These days he keeps a busy schedule of spoken word performances around the country. His thanks for his hard work? In 1994, he was viciously attacked at Berkeley's Gilman Street club by assailants shouting "Sellout!" and "Rock star!"

" [San Francisco punk fanzine] MaximumRocknRoll had been on a campaign that success equals celebrity equals evil, and using me as the prime whipping boy at the time," Biafra remembers. "That may or may not have been connected."

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