By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
As should be pretty obvious from the program guide, the full-page ads, and the fact that there's enough music content here to wallpaper a high school auditorium, we're celebrating our annual music awards this week. While the occasion is a fancy excuse for us to throw a big prom-themed bash (at the Warfield on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at 8 p.m., with performances by the Coup, Every Move a Picture, Scissors for Lefty, Birdmonster, and Bootie DJs Adrian & the Mysterious D) our 17th such party it's about more than just an honor roll of gifted musicians and DJs. It's also a chance for us to look back on what we've learned by studying our hometown talent pool.
To that end, we've crafted a little show 'n' tell (sorta like our music awards showcase), presenting lessons on the art of the mash-up club, illuminating hyphy's effect on hip hop, and explaining how to earn fanfare overseas before you hit it big back home. This package is just the tip of the textbook, though. For continuing education, we suggest you go to lots of lectures uh, live local shows. Homework has never been this much fun. Jennifer Maerz
Hip hop is dead, according to Nas. Here comes the bay to save the day. In case you've been under a rock (or, more likely, listening to indie rock), the perennially underrated region is bursting at the seams with talent, diversity, ambition, drive, and hustle. Since its humble beginnings in the early '80s, the Bay Area hip-hop scene has developed into one of the top regional markets in the country, boasting literally hundreds of independent record labels. Still-active pioneers such as Too Short and E-40 have been instrumental for future lyricists, in the process creating a viable business model how to go from selling tapes from the trunk to major-label tycoon status studied by both gangsta and backpack rappers. "I'm from the soil where the rappers be getting all they lingo from the Bay Area," boasts E-40.
Creativity has always been a strong suit for local hip hop, which over the years has given listeners everything from the P-Funk-influenced humor of Digital Underground to the freestyle-derived flows of Hieroglyphics, the otherwordly turntable manipulations of the Invisibl Skratch Pickls, the experimental alt.hop of Anticon, the innovative slang of Keak Da Sneak, and the conceptual genius of the late Mac Dre. The thumping pulse revolves around Oakland, yet every area code has made significant contributions, from Vallejo to San Jose. The most iconic and legendary hip-hop artist of all time, the late Tupac Shakur, spent his formative years in Marin City.
Diversity isn't just in the bay's sound but in its subject matter as well. You can count the politically minded rappers in New York or the South on one hand, but that's not the case here, where the legacy of the free-speech movement, the Black Panthers, and ongoing civil rights battles have resulted in a wealth of more-than-slightly subversive social commentators, from Paris' openly seditious notions to the street polemics of the Coup to the outrageously outspoken Deepdickcollective. With more active subgenres than nooks and crannies in a Thomas' English muffin, Bay Area hip hop has not only reflected the region's famed multiculti diversity, but has birthed many trends that have gone on to national significance, from "the Humpty Dance" to "ghost-riding the whip."
Yet for all its innovative spirit, Bay Area hip hop has remained an underdog nationally. In many ways, the scene has developed out of necessity; the concentration of indie labels has arisen in part because of the lack of a major-label presence, while the dearth of national media attention has all but ensured that artists from the bay, with very few exceptions, have been automatically consigned to cult status. Numerous artists have lamented the "drought" that befell the region following the murder of Tupac a decade ago, when almost every single major-label act from the bay was unceremoniously dropped.
These days, however, the word is out that the bay is back ironically, only after the murder of another pioneer, Mac Dre, in November 2004. "We were on hiatus for a minute," says Stressmatic of Fairfield's the Federation. With the advent of hyphy a hyperactive youth-driven cultural movement originating out of Oakland that has spilled over from sideshows to the clubs and inspired a hip-hop subgenre that's earned national recognition industry interest in the region is once again high. The Federation and E-40 are both signed to Warner Brothers; other recent notable signees include the A'z (TVT), the Pack (Jive), and F.A.B. (Atlantic). It's not uncommon to hear local acts Keak Da Sneak during morning drive-time or Bullys wit Fullys during the dinner hour. E-40 hosts "E-Feezy Radio" on KMEL, while the most entertaining local radio show might just be Mistah F.A.B.'s "Yellow Bus Ridahs" on KYLD.
"With Thizz [Entertainment, Mac Dre's still-active label] and the yellow bus movement [hyphy-identified folks who have reclaimed the transports once identified with special-ed students as symbols of cultural pride], it's crazy. Our shows are just crazy. I feel very comfortable about it, because I'm a part of it. It's like being part of a winning basketball team. It's an honor," says F.A.B. "It's like we never left," adds Keak, who says he was 15 years old the last time the bay was this hot. "It's really my time to hold the torch."
He's not the only one blazing. Thanks to hyphy, many longtime veterans of the Bay Area scene are finally getting their due. "This hyphy movement, I'm in full support of it," says the Federation's Goldie Gold. "I'm tired of these niggas comin' from out of town, out of country, under they rocks and they shells like hermits, tryna get a piece of this." Fellow group member Doonie Baby notes there's little difference between hyphy and its slower predecessor, mobb music. "It's just more up-tempo. Hyphy is the younger generation. As the years go by, we get wilder and wilder."
Or wiser and wiser, like Too Short, who imparts a wider perspective on the regional phenomenon. "Every inner-city community has something special that only they do. Everywhere in the country, there's this thing that's going on in all the inner-city communities. I think the next generation just has that much more energy. In the Bay Area, it's interpreted as hyphy, in Atlanta, it's interpreted as crunk, you know what I mean? It just goes on and on."
The Bay Area has always been "ahead of the curve and outside the box," says Lyrics Born, but with hyphy, it's been a case of "knocks so universal, they can't be denied" by the music industry powers that be. According to DJ Shadow, hyphy has altered the perception "that the bay can't do it nationwide."
Yet some artists and observers have expressed concern that the Bay Area sound could be narrowly pigeonholed or stereotyped as just one thing, and if everyone jumps aboard the hyphy express, the ever-fickle music industry could move on to the next big thing from somewhere else. The hype on hyphy has gotten so flambostulant (as 40 might say), it threatens to overshadow almost everything else coming from the bay.
At a Commonwealth Club panel discussion a few months ago, F.A.B. explained to a crowd of young, mostly white rap fans and their parents that he was initially known not as a hyphy artist, but a freestyle champion with a predilection for social commentary. He admitted to dumbing down his lyrical content somewhat to appease commercial radio's programming standards the result being that while hyphy anthems like "N.E.W. Oakland" and "Super Sic Wid It" garnered mucho airplay, far more poignant F.A.B. tunes like "If 'If' Was a Fifth" (a song about social idealism based on an old Too Short line) didn't get any radio play at all.
Similarly, Zion-I garnered critical acclaim with its third album, 2005's True & Livin,' but was only added to KMEL/KYLD rotation after commissioning a hyphy remix of its song "The Bay" featuring Turf Talk, F.A.B., and the Team. Meanwhile, another recent track titled "The Bay," by Lyrics Born, had all the makings of a major regional anthem, but was omitted from local "hot urban" station playlists. This paralleled the previous year, when LB's "Callin' Out" went to No. 1 on alt-rock's Live 105, yet received no spins on "the home of hip hop and R&B," KMEL. A recent crop of locally produced albums like the Coup's Pick a Bigger Weapon, T-K.A.S.H.'s Turf War Syndrome, Ise Lyfe's Spread the Word,and Native Guns' Barrel Men have all offered provocative social commentary, intelligent viewpoints, and original-sounding music while eschewing the things hyphy has been criticized for promoting misogyny, drugs, and sideshows however, their airplay has been limited to community stations like KPFA and college stations like KALX and KUSF. KMEL Music Director Big Von Johnson has been one of hyphy's biggest supporters his MySpace page features unreleased songs by local artists like Kaz Kyzah and although he didn't respond to interview requests by press time, in the past, he's said he didn't play other local music because it wasn't up to par.
Conscious rappers like T-K.A.S.H. and the Coup's Boots Riley are both on record as saying they support the hyphy movement K.A.S.H. notes he's often given up-and-coming hyphy artists exposure on his KPFA show, "Friday Night Vibe." To Riley, hyphy music "is talking about get-togethers people have and their fights with the police just to get together." Most of the songs, he says, "are related to sideshows, basically fuck-the-police kinda attitudes. Hopefully, what happens from the commercial exposure, it'll entrench it."
For all its commercial viability, hyphy, unlike, say, neo-soul, isn't a marketing term created in an executive suite. It comes from the streets and therefore owes its allegiance not to corporate radio and national media outlets, but to the blocks, the corners, the avenues, and the intersections from whence it sprang. Moreover, while hyphy might appear to have faddish aspects that could cause it to quickly fade from the pop-cultural radar, people were saying the same thing about hip hop 25 years ago; thus far, hyphy has already proven to have longer legs than many expected, and that may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Scratch the surface a bit, says Breakdown FM/KPFA radio personality Davey-D, and you'll see another side to hyphy, which speaks to the depth of its generational relevance. "What we're not acknowledging is many of these people defining themselves as hyphy are offsprings of people coming out of the whole crack-war era," he explains. "They fell through the cracks in the system, in terms of how the system was supposed to treat them. ... Here they have their hyphy thing, the soundtrack to something that already existed. That's really the best way to look at it."
Riley's greatest concern is not with hyphy's lyrical content or societal outlook, but its staying power. "As long as radio is the thing that's moving it, it could be shut down at any time," he says. At the same time, he wonders why songs on the radio can't be militant or political, provided they have the same anthemic qualities as the songs that do receive airplay. "Here's my stuff that's real good, here's my radio song. Why can't it be some crazy stuff with a call to arms?"
That's a question worthy of a larger discussion, but in the meantime, hyphy is leading to an increased sense of collaboration and unity among the local hip-hop contingent, which wasn't always the case. For example, E-40 recorded with Mac Dre prior to his death, as significant a development to the local scene as an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord; the two hailed from rival neighborhoods in Vallejo. Similarly, Dem Hoodstarz' "Grown Man" remix featured artists from the 408, 510, 415, 650, and 707 area codes on the same song for perhaps the first time ever, while the ubiquitous F.A.B. appears on new albums by Zion-I & the Grouch, Traxamillion, Too Short, and Lyrics Born.
At the end of the day, relates Oakland's Balance, "what's going on in the bay is bigger than this whole hyphy thing. You got Zion-I, Goapele, Keyshia Cole, Blackalicious, Federation." He says that anything that brings attention to the bay helps, adding, "It's more than just thizz or that." Eric K. Arnold
In the '60s, newspapers nationwide trumpeted the arrival of the psychedelic San Francisco sound, singing the praises of artists like the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin and the city that housed them. In 2006, the Bay Area continues to be a magnet for creative musical visionaries, but the press' fickle focus has obviously shifted numerous times over the years. With the national spotlight currently warming on the Bay Area's '60s-looking freak-folk acts and hip-hop groups gone hyphy, your typical alternative rock act is left without a hype platform to call its own. Although that may be about to change.
"San Francisco is exploding again," says Aaron Alexsen, program director at alt-rock central, Live 105. "The last year has given us the strongest local talent I've seen in a decade." Alexsen cites the folksy quality of Two Gallants, the quirky pop of Persephone's Bees, and dancy-rock bands Every Move a Picture and Scissors for Lefty as reflective of the city's brightest exports. "Scissors for Lefty sent me a good demo and I was impressed with their live set. They have an artistic edge, a lot of esoteric flavors, and a Brian-Ferry-meets-Jarvis-Cocker vibe," Axelson says. "Every Move is another hardworking band. I played their demo on the air about 400 times, even though they're not a big name. When I got them into the Shoreline for B.F.D., they opened for 20,000 people and blew me away. The great thing about the current scene is that the bands cooperate. They work together marketing themselves and sell out local clubs without a record deal."
Although they come from different positions in the alt-rock spectrum, Scissors for Lefty and Every Move a Picture find themselves in the peculiar position of being stars in Europe while remaining relatively unknown outside of their fan base in San Francisco. A closer look at their tiptoed steps toward success may hold some hints, though, about the future of two promising local buzz bands.
"I almost feel sorry for the [major labels]," says Brent Messenger, singer/guitarist for Every Move a Picture. "With the Internet and digital recording, you can build an audience with hard work and luck."
The World Wide Web may be great and all, but getting a demo into the right hands the old-fashioned way definitely can't hurt. In 2003, only months after Every Move's first live show, drummer Dan Aquino went to the premiere of Mayor of the Sunset Strip, the biopic about KRQR DJ Rodney Bingenheimer. "Dan handed Rodney a demo with a Sharpie scribble on it," Messenger recalls. "Suddenly, the director of Virgin's A&R department sends me an e-mail. He'd heard us on Rodney's program." Labels were soon lined up outside the band's rehearsal space, which Messenger found amusing. "If one A&R guy likes it, everybody likes it. They're like lemmings, afraid they're going to miss something," he says. Alexsen also gave the tracks heavy airplay on Live 105. The buzz started, driven by the band's incendiary live shows and marked by Messenger's passionate vocals, which carry a histrionic drama found in many of his popular contemporaries like the Killers, the Bravery, and the Editors. "I'd never sung before, even in front of my girlfriend, but since everyone in the band is on the same wavelength, it took away my self-consciousness," he admits.
With slabs of energetic guitar noise that echo the Edge's work with U2 in the '80s married to a serious post-punk intensity and a kicky dance rock pacing Every Move created an irresistibly mainstream-ready groove. But the group didn't just lean on its laurels; it gigged often enough for its demo to continue getting attention beyond the A&R pass-alongs. "We sold 1,000 CDs at shows, then [local label] DIY Or Else pressed a couple of thousand and they sold out," says Messenger.
Then came the rock-star treatment in Europe. In 2005, the band played SXSW, where an impressed U.K. booker invited it to tour Ireland and England. DJ Zane Lowe played the demo on BBC's Radio One. The British press wrote rave reviews. The band has been to England three times since, financing tours with royalties made licensing music to videogames. Several U.K. EPs sold out before the band inked with V2.
Every Move a Picture's proper debut came out in July on V2, home to the White Stripes, Gang of Four, and Moby.Titled Heart = Weapon, the record was recorded in six days. When completed tracks from the album were posted on MySpace, they got 500,000 spins and earned the guys countless friends. American radio is slowly picking up on the album, but the band isn't about to slow down as it continues trying to break through to new audiences. "We're writing the next record, doing a bunch of live dates, and then going back to England," says Messenger. "When I think this all happened because we made one demo, it's pretty bizarre."
In contrast to Every Move a Pictures' passionate, politically charged, wall-of-sound attack, Scissors for Lefty is far less serious an outfit. "We say we're a findie funny indie band," quips Scissors for Lefty frontman and rhythm guitarist Bryan Garza.
His band's sound is instantly recognizable, but hard to pin down. There are echoes of British acts like the Beatles, the Kinks, the Cure, and Pulp, blended with bits of country music, girl-group pop, and jittery new-wave synthesizers. Live, the quartet is a whirlwind of motion, with all four members bouncing around like hyperactive cartoon characters. "We're serious about what we're doing, but we want to entertain you. We wrote somber stuff when we started out, but it was hard to do. We're all post-Madonnas, not prima donnas," says Garza.
Scissors for Lefty didn't need the help of a Material Girl to sign with a prestigious label of its own, though, recently coming under the wing of Rough Trade Records (Arcade Fire, Brakes) for every territory outside of North America. "We don't even know how it happened," Garza continues. "People from the label saw us twice, just as we were getting started in San Francisco. We're kinda lighthearted goons on stage and Rough Trade was impressed with that. We used to burn different CDs for the fans every week, with different handmade covers, so we were glad they wanted to put out a real CD."
That semiserious attitude is what originally pulled Scissors for Lefty's members together, back in San Luis Obispo in 2000, where Garza claims the band started as a way to "record the bad poetry I'd been writing in coffee shops." Garza and guitarist James Krimmel both had brothers who played music Robbie Garza joined on bass and Pete Krimmel added keys; James later moved to the drum chair, and the lineup solidified. They hit SLO's small indie scene for about a year, then moved to San Francisco. "SLO is a nice, mediocre town. San Francisco is a hungry place where people throw great parties and you meet a lot of great girls, too," jokes Garza.
The band finished its first self-produced CD, Bruno, in S.F. It's a sedate singer/songwriter album, nothing like the raucous Britpop Scissors for Lefty churns out today. "Bruno taught us how to turn knobs and put songs together. It took a year and a half to make," says Garza. In contrast, the group's British Rough Trade debut, Underhanded Romance, was cut live in six days. "We quit our day jobs and wrote and arranged the album in three weeks," explains Garza. "We recorded with Charles Goodan [Santana, Rolling Stones], who added all the little flirtatious elements."
Underhanded Romance was due out in England this summer, but has been put off until January 2007 due to label restructuring. Meanwhile, two singles from the album, "Ghetto Ways" and "Mama Your Boys Will Find a Home," have been getting airplay in British clubs as well as radio stations in Germany and France. To prep crowds for the album release, Rough Trade's booking and management wing put Scissors for Lefty on a tour of Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany, opening for Dirty Pretty Things.
"We're talking to American labels, too, but nothing is set yet," says Garza, who hopes the album will come out Stateside close to its British release. "We never played outside of San Francisco, so it was odd to be in Europe playing festivals. We were nervous at first, but by the time we played Berlin, we blew the Arctic Monkeys off the stage. They love our music in Europe, so even if nobody in the U.S. likes us, we can at least say we're huge in Germany."
With great new albums hitting the streets and that all-important European contingent behind them (look what those Brits did for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), Every Move a Picture and Scissors for Lefty are hoping to step closer to mainstream recognition in their home country. With the hard work they've already put toward the cause, there's hope that soon these bands will be infecting the rest of the country with their benevolent San Francisco musical viruses. J. Poet
Late 2006 and it's a mashed-up world.
Please don't say you thought the mash-up was dead. Look around with a certain po-mo perspective and you'll realize that things are getting more blended, remixed, and remastered by the minute. Indian pizza, socialist Venezuelans, an energy drink aping a class-A narcotic, Labradoodles. Lines are blurring, distances are shrinking, and soon enough everything will be something else. It's evolution, baby, and it's got a soundtrack all its own. "The best thing about mash-ups is, we're in this technological age where you get twice as much music in half as much time," says Deidre Roberts, aka Mysterious D. "The A.D.D. Generation hello! Technology, art, even races are morphing together, and, ultimately, where is this melting pot gonna go?"
That is the question, and the answer is, for now, San Francisco's DNA Lounge the second Saturday of every month. That's where D, ebullient and violet-haired, and her red-dreaded, eye-shadowed husband Adrian host Bootie, America's original mash-up party. They proudly state that the crowd a swirling mix of hipsters and goths, ravers and rockers is just as mashed-up as the music. But nobody embodies the new, new mash-up paradigm like these two.
Sitting in the Lush Lounge in the heart of the Tenderloin, both sipping blueberry martinis, the pair finish each other's sentences and move from one idea to the next like a DJ would spin a set.
"I like this bar because it's got this weird, interesting mix of regulars and freaks," Adrian says.
"It's just like San Francisco in general," D says. "We have tranny hookers outside our apartment, right next door to R Bar, the yuppiest bar in the city."
A.D.D. Generation? More like Generation Mash-up.
"Three years ago when we started this," Adrian says, "mash-ups were the hot new thing."
"And then they were dead and over with," D says.
"And then they came back around. But even our friends would be like, 'You're still playing mash-ups? That's so tired!' I think once the novelty wore off, people started to realize ... "
"That they could actually listen to it whether they enjoyed the idea or not."
"Now we're at the point, especially in San Francisco, but the West Coast in general, where people are like, 'Oh, I guess this is not going away.'"
Not only is it not going away, but the concept is changing, being perfected, and Adrian and Deidre or A Plus D as they're collectively known know exactly where they want it to go.
"The best mash-ups are the ones that are extreme genre clashes or that make some sort of cultural statement," Adrian says. (He later offers, as example, the Yes vs. Sir Mixalot track "Owner of a Lonely Butt" by England's Lionel Vinyl, and Scottish mash-up artist McSleazy's "Smells Like Billie Jean," which you can probably deconstruct yourself.) "If you take a contemporary pop song and put it over another contemporary pop song, it might be mashed-up, but what's the point?"
D counters: "The best mash-ups aren't always the ones that are a huge clash in styles, but the cream of the crop are the ones that take two disparate songs and combine them to make one better than the sum of its parts."
This attitude of better living through audio chemistry, this living life in meta, is what's propelled A Plus D to the top of the mash-up game. Bootie began in August 2003 as a modest Wednesday night in a cramped SOMA bar and is now seeing crowds of more than a thousand flock to DNA Lounge for each monthly installment. A Plus D have toured all over America and brought Bootie to Europe, and are hatching plans for club nights in New York, San Diego, and Paris. But even more important than fame or financial success and something intrinsic, Adrian says, to the aesthetic of the mash-up in general is free access to the music and the culture that surrounds it.
"It's a global community but the scene is still small. There's probably less than 100 people out there making really good mash-ups, so most of the people we're working with are all connected through the Internet," Deirdre says.
"The mash-up scene would not happen without the Internet," adds Adrian.
They call it digital crate digging, the process of sifting through the hundreds of online mash-ups to find the best to play at their club. They cite fellow S.F. natives Party Ben and Earworm as cohorts who churn out top-notch mashes (or bootlegs, as they're called in the U.K., the name sampled and respun to inspire Bootie, the party). Ben's more rock 'n' roll, Earworm's more complex, often distilling four, five, or six songs into one. They collate that month's favorites and pass out free, 10-song CDs at [each?] episode of Bootie.
"The CDs are not legal to put out," Deidre says, mentioning specifically the compilation The Best Mash-ups in the World Come From San Francisco II. "But we've been selling that one all over the world. It's made it as far as Japan."
"This isn't about making money," Adrian says. "This is about big-upping the San Francisco scene."
And that scene is thriving. On a recent Friday, the mini-Bootie stage at Pop Roxx inside DNA Lounge was burning way hotter than the main room downstairs. There, predictable electro-rock barely moved the crowd, while in the back room, Mysterious D rubbed Skynyrd up against Xtina in a track called "Sweet Home Country Grammar." Shirtless dudes slung sweat against made-up babes, the floor was packed, and the music was keeping everyone involved.
"I think mash-up culture in a lot of ways is what punk rock was in the late '70s," Adrian says. "It's this populist culture where it's very DIY, anyone can do it. Punk rock was three chords. Mash-ups, anyone can get the software online and do it. But not every punk band was good, and certainly not every mash-up is good. Our job as cultural curators is finding the good ones and showcasing them at our club. And, of course, making our own as well."
"Looking back on it, we were just starting out and doing it for the love of it, not thinking about all the complex ways it's gonna go," D says, visions of compilations and international club nights and a vast social recombination dancing in her head. "And looking back it makes perfect sense that it happened here. San Francisco is based on openness and being interested in new ideas for the sake of new ideas, not for commercialism."
"This is a city of misfits, which is why we fit in," Adrian says.
"It's not misfits," D corrects. "It's people with different ideas who feel proud of them. It's being more evolved." Jonathan Zwickel