By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
After a month of looking backward, it's time we started moving forward. This week we offer a survey of organizations that will help inspire the local music landscape in 2008; not the bands, studios, club staples, or labels, but rather the support network that surrounds them. What venues are coming back to town (Oakland's Fox Theater) or have recently set up shop (Yoshi's San Francisco)? What existing free-form operations deserve a bigger nudge into popular consciousness (Recombinant Media Labs; the bus shows) or are getting a lift from local arts organizations (The Red Poppy Art House)? And what music entrepreneurs are the go-to guys for getting hip-hop heard (mixtape kings Demolition Men)? Finally, we offer sidebars on where you can further keep up on the various strains of Bay Area sound, with a list of eclectic Web sites and streaming radio to feed your ears and eyes. The forecast for the future is vibrant indeed. — Jennifer Maerz
The Demolition Men:
The Bay Area's most incendiary DJs
In the DJ world, timing is everything, so it's probably no coincidence that Bay Area rap started to blow up right around the time the Demolition Men burst onto the scene five years ago. "Everything came together at the exact same moment," explains DJ Devro, who along with DJ Impereal makes up the self-proclaimed Bay Area mixtape kings.
Mixtapes have long been an integral part of regional scenes from Atlanta to Houston to New York. Yet the practice never really caught on in the Bay Area. "When we first started doing this mixtape shit, no one was really pushing it hard," Devro says. "No other DJs were really supporting local artists."
He elaborates: "You see a lot of cats out here hustling and grinding, putting out quality music, but not having the avenues to get their music heard." Still, Impereal says, "There's too much talent out here not to be recognized."
Instead of complaining, the DJs saw an opportunity to get in where they fit in. The two Southern California transplants loaded up their backpacks with mix CDs spotlighting Bay Area rap artists, selling their product anywhere they could — at clubs, outside the Coliseum at Raiders games, on BART. In the process, they created a burgeoning cottage industry and developed important networking contacts with local emcees.
"Damn near every rapper in the bay has seen us in the streets" hustling CDs, Devro says. People started asking for Demolition Men mixes in retail stores (which had initially refused to carry mixtapes on consignment). As word spread, artists started showing up unannounced at Impereal and Devro's studio, eager to record exclusive verses or leak unreleased tracks to the streets.
"We definitely have our signature style," says Impereal, noting that the Men's raucous mixes — frequently punctuated by gunshots, tire squeals, or sirens — have been honed considerably since their first mix CD, 2002's Build and Destroy.
To date, the Demolition Men have put out more than 60 CDs, moving an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 copies — the majority straight outta their backpacks. In the process, they've become some of the Yay Area's most effective tastemakers, representing "the middlemen between the streets and the industry," says Impereal. Their turf-ready mixes — hosted by such local luminaries as Balance, Husalah, the Jacka, Zion-I, Gorilla Pits, the Team, J. Stalin, Mak & AK, Dem Hoodstarz, and Big Rich — have helped satisfy the growing demand for Bay Area artists while allowing them more street-level exposure, regardless of radio and club support.
The Demolition Men's emergence initially paralleled the rise of the hyphy movement. But while hyphy's momentum has slowed, Impereal and Devro are just getting started. Their popular all-Bay series Nuthin But Slap is currently on volume four, and they've also dabbled in reggaeton, R&B, old-school hip-hop, and Southern crunk. They've spread their hustle outside the Bay — their recent release Welcome to Killafornia highlights artists from both ends of the state — and have been well received on East Coast mixtape Web sites. They've also branched out into the street documentary market with DVDs featuring exclusive freestyles, interviews, and performance footage, and even hired a manager to assist with the business side. That's helped them streamline their creative process, except for one thing: The two pump out mixes so fast, "our management can't keep up," Impereal says.
The Demolition Men's success hasn't come without considerable effort — "We started out with nothing," Impereal points out — yet their engaging personalities and unwavering support for local music are probably just as responsible for their comeuppance. After all, when Impereal and Devro win, so does the Bay Area. — Eric K. Arnold
Mixing mediums and multiculti families: The Mission's Red Poppy Art House
Last month in a cozy storefront at 23rd and Folsom streets, a quartet of accordion, upright bass, violin, and cello launched from a ragtime piano tune to a modern classical piece by Gonzales, producer for pop star Feist. Wall-size canvases painted with shadowy figures towered above the overflow crowd, which laughed along with the musicians when the perfectly timed pop of a wine cork became part of the music.
It was an unusual show by the Golden Melody Band, a local eclectic avant-chamber group, but the Red Poppy Art House, a street-level performance space and art gallery, is an unusual place. "It's always been our intention that this was a space where art was created and not just presented," says Meklit Hadero, director and resident artist of the Red Poppy, over coffee the next afternoon. Started in 2003 by visual artist Todd Brown with a partner, the Red Poppy began as an art gallery and studio and introduced live music later that year, with tango lessons and live jazz sharing space alongside the canvases and painters' tarps that cluttered the floor. Along the way, it became a hub for an eclectic array of world music, jazz, chamber groups and more than a few who fall somewhere in between.
"It really evolved organically," says Brown, who started the space after quitting his job to become a full-time artist. "I've come to realize through the process that it's evolved very much the way an art project or a painting would."
That evolution has snowballed into something much more ambitious over the last few years, with the venue not only picking up slack left by Mission haunts like Bruno's downsizing their live music schedules but also aiming for a sea change in the way artists interact with their community.
"I didn't anticipate that when people come here they seem to get moved by what's happening in a way that renews that creative impulse," Brown says. "They think, 'Wait a minute, I should be doing that.'" He and Hadero point to the Red Poppy's intimate atmosphere as being integral to the place's appeal and affecting the art and music. "Every place has a specific focus," he says. "If you go into a music venue, it has a stage and a focus, and I guess what's different here is the place is always changing and it has a sense of creative life because of that."
To broaden their reach beyond the 650 square feet of the Red Poppy's casual living-room vibe, Brown embarked on the Mission Arts and Performance Project in December 2003. The bimonthly Open Studios-style arts and music showcase spread throughout the neighborhood, with audiences strolling from painting displays in a garage to a backyard jazz concert to a poetry reading at a local cafe. The Family Art Project, where whole families painted together on the space's hardwood floors, often displaying their children's art on the sidewalk, integrated the venue into the Mission's multicultural fabric. "Generally there's a pretty large gap between artists and working-class families," Brown says. "They just don't hang out with each other. A lot of artists don't really spend much time thinking about that world around them, so for us the focus will be to think creatively about how to bridge those worlds to inspire some coalition building."
The year ahead looks to be the Red Poppy's most ambitious yet. With grants from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Zellerbach Family Foundation, the space is on the cultural radar in a way it hasn't been before. "We're in conversations with folks from Yerba Buena [Center for the Arts], the Brava Theater, the de Young Museum, about arts in the community, and they're really looking at us as an example of how to integrate arts into the community," Hadero says.
All this focus on local community doesn't mean the Red Poppy's influence stops at the edge of the Mission. "A place like this can really fertilize the creative soil of the city," Hadero says. Brown points to plans for branching into theater, performing arts, and dance in the Red Poppy's tiny space while continuing the already-innovative musical programming. "That's the difference between art and entertainment," he adds, "and we have a little more time and resources to do that now." — Ezra Gale
Oakland's Fox Theater Stirs
Such midlevel Internet buzz bands are the carbon dioxide of an increasingly warmer Bay Area music scene this year, and a new point source will be attracting them, emanating from downtown Oakland.
On October 28, 2008, the renovated 3,000-capacity Fox Oakland Theater at Telegraph Avenue and 18th Street will open its doors again. Its 80th birthday will be a bright one, as it caps a $60 million, 22-month renovation led by Another Planet Entertainment, the Berkeley company that books acts for the Grand, the Greek Theatre, and the Independent.
After 42 years of closure, the reborn Fox will open amid a hot cycle for venues of such a size. Mass culture and its attendant 10,000-seat amphitheaters and stadiums sit cold. Conversely, Web-enabled niche genres and their associated 3,000-capacity theaters and halls swelter with culture.
Gregg Perloff, owner of Another Planet, says such venues suit the new, Internet-created crop of midlevel bands that can regularly fill a 3,000-seat theater. "There's just a lot of bands that have developed a really strong allegiance with their fans that might not be at the arena level," he says. "We're looking at all the indie-rock bands and all the different forms of music, and there are a whole lot of bands who can do a certain number of people — whether it's a Sufjan Stevens, a Spoon, a Justice, or the National."
Just walking distance from the 19th Street BART station, the Fox intends to pull in fringe devotees from the region, Perloff says: "You look at the ticket manifests, and the sales don't just come from San Francisco. The entire Bay Area from Concord down to San Jose participates."
The Fox is a huge, opulent movie palace that stopped hosting first-run features in the 1960s and ended up as a derelict, city-owned property with a leaky roof, substandard seismic fitness, and a homeless encampment by the '90s. Its renaissance began in January 2007 with 16 funding sources. When the full restoration to its palatial glory is complete, it will out-Fillmore the Fillmore with a stage, a music school, a restaurant, and two bars. This week, scaffolding fills the main room, dripping with paint and swaying underneath 15 artisans doing a 12-color retouch to the ceiling.
The Fox will compete directly with theaters of similar size like the Warfield and the Fillmore, both owned by Live Nation. This means not only more visiting acts for Bay Area fans, but also possibly more money for those acts as the need for talent increases.
The biggest loser could be the nearby Paramount Theatre, where the costs of performing will be double that of the Fox. The Paramount is also owned by the city, but is run by a nonprofit board. Former Paramount board member, real-estate specialist, and former promoter Rene Boisvert says Another Planet has an incredible advantage over its sibling — cost. According to Boisvert, APE pays no rent on its first 100,000 customers, and can charge bands half of the Paramount's $17,000 price tag to stage shows. "The Fox is for-profit and nonunion," he says. "The Paramount is nonprofit and union. It's public info on the Fox lease — they don't pay rent for quite a while. How wonderful is that? As a landlord, that sucks, but as a tenant, that's great!"
Perloff says he and music fans don't care about such inside baseball. "I don't worry about competition; I worry about quality rooms," he says. "I think [the Fox] is absolutely a fantastic addition to the culture of the Bay Area. I think the more clubs you have, the more important that you make the arts, the more convenient you make it, the more people decide to go to these things." — David Downs
World-class jazz returns to the Fillmore:
San Francisco's Yoshi's
There was a time when San Francisco was the undisputed capital of the jazz world in more than just the platitudes of airline travel magazines and Chamber of Commerce brochures. From the late 1940s, clubs like the Black Hawk, Keystone Korner, and Jimbo's Bop City stretched from North Beach to the Fillmore District and hosted jazz luminaries from Billie Holiday to Mongo Santamaria.
But that era has been dead and buried for years, with the last of the city's famed jazz clubs shutting its doors by the late '70s. In the decades since, local musicians have hustled gigs in an ever-shifting nightclub landscape that has seen little continuity, while, apart from the SF Jazz Festival shows, fans have largely had to travel to Yoshi's in downtown Oakland to catch top-name jazz talent.
The opening of a new Yoshi's in the Fillmore, the heart of San Francisco's jazz district of yore, will at the very least keep bridge tolls in fans' pockets where they belong. The venue is larger, but just as elegantly apportioned and sumptuous-sounding as its Oakland sibling. It opened in November as part of the city-funded mixed-use Fillmore Heritage Center that aims to revitalize the neighborhood with a nod to the area's history. Yoshi's hopes to replicate its success in Oakland while upgrading the city's jazz entertainment options.
"We're definitely filling a void for having national touring artists come to town," says the club's artistic director Peter Williams. "We'll be adding a new dimension to people's opportunities to see music in the Bay Area, and we'll be branching into doing other sorts of music, some world and Latin music and other things as well."
Whether the club will have much of an effect on the local jazz music scene is less certain — even Williams calls that a tough question. So far, the new Yoshi's calendar has been lighter on local talent than the one in Oakland, meaning the city's handful of established jazz spots — a wonderfully revitalized Jazz at Pearl's chief among them — needn't worry about having their thunder stolen just yet.
Still, Williams claims that Bay Area musicians are very much on Yoshi's radar. "It's really important to all of us" at Yoshi's, he says, "that we're giving local people a place to play." — Ezra Gale
Get on the Bus: DIY shows park it in various Bay Area locales
Oakland's John Benson is not a licensed bus driver. His bus, at 40 feet in length, is just within the legal limit for use with a standard driver's license. The vehicle also happens to be equipped with solar panels, an engine converted to run on vegetable oil, and a stage on which more than 600 bands have performed, including Circle, Thrones, and Mount Eerie. Bus shows occur around the Bay Area, anywhere from under a highway overpass in Potrero Hill to the Albany landfill, and a hat is generally passed around to pay the bands.
Benson found his inspiration when his former group A Minor Forest played a show in the trailer of a big rig in North Dakota. "There was such a cool feel to it — everybody crammed into this little unorthodox space," he recalls.
In the summer of 2006, circumstances led Benson to buy a bus of his own. "I had seen it on the street with a 'For Sale' sign in the window, and thought it was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen in my life," he says. "My first reaction was like, 'God, what an ugly Burning Man monstrosity!'"
The vehicle belonged to a retired Oakland cop, who had bought it from the force. "It was basically just a bare shell of a vehicle, with an engine and a transmission and wheels, and that was it," Benson recalls. He soon converted it into a mobile all-ages performance space, installing a stage and PA system, along with a bank of batteries for power. His band, Evil Wikkid Warrior, played the inaugural show in June 2006 before the bus embarked on its first tour, an 18-show trek largely covering the Midwest and South, sans bands. "Part of the project was taking the venue on tour, not a band," he explains. "So we had local bands play in the bus."
The idea took off from there, says Benson, who now has enough Bay Area acts contacting him to stay busy. He averages about two shows a week, and he loves it. "We can pull in front of a high school and have the Rock 'n' Roll Adventure Kids playing, and it becomes this fantastic once-in-a-lifetime moment for everybody involved," he says. In the past year he has put on over 120 shows, often for younger, little-known bands: "Without any real pretense they can stand on a stage with a PA and play to their friends, and if there's seven people inside the bus, it's like a full house."
For 2008, Benson simply looks forward to a continued role as bus-driving benefactor. "It's proving to be a sustainable thing, because people's enthusiasm has really kept it alive," he says. "I would have given it up after a couple of shows and been totally content, but there's a demand that I wasn't expecting." For more information on the bus, visit www.flickr.com/followthatparade/. — J. Pace
Rewiring the Performance Paradigm at Recombinant Media Labs
"It's got rust ... but it's also got its integrity." So says Naut Humon about the sturdiness of a corroded old bench atop SoMa's Recombinant Media Labs — and it's tempting to apply that casual statement to the decades of mind- and margin-bending sound experiments that have borne wondrous fruit in the building below. But it simply can't be done. Aside from some shabby-chic furniture, there is no rust in RML. Part record-label HQ, part innovative transmedia laboratory, and part 22nd-century electronic playground, Recombinant Media Labs — the brainchild of Humon and Mitzi Johnson — glows like a pristine, futuristic gemstone.
When the two first linked up in the early '90s, Humon had long been staging avant-garde audiovisual spectacles that used numerous video screens and up to 800 loudspeakers. Johnson, meanwhile, was the visionary who founded Asphodel, a conceptual label that not only releases CDs — including work by turntable icon Mixmaster Mike, legendary electro-acoustic composer Iannis Xenakis, cinematic ethnodub deconstructionist Badawi, Berlin chamber ensemble Zeitkratzer, and beat-chopping IDM madman Otto Von Schirach — but also aims to break the staid boundaries of live electronic performances. Together they channeled their combined wealth of inspiration and experience into the construction of RML.
Today the repurposed concrete building near the corner of Brannan and Seventh streets houses both Asphodel's business offices and a revolutionary recording and performing space filled with powerful bit-chewing computers, multivector surround-sound controllers, automated mixing consoles, industrial DVD units, and 360-degree digital video projectors. It's no mere music venue; Humon and Johnson describe it as a "research and development center for experiential engineering of surround cinema." Or, in simple terms, testing ground for technology that allows musicians and video artists to envelop audiences in a fully immersive, mind-saturating environment. With its retina-sizzling visual capabilities and unnerving subdermal bass frequencies, everyone from virtual-space psychonauts to 3D game programmers can use the machines to reprogram reality in ways that make contemporary virtual reality headsets look like Foster Grant sunglasses.
The aim of all this ambitious experimentalism is to create a mobile, adaptable technology that can spread its wings anywhere radical multimedia artists need it — not just inside Recombinant's San Francisco chrysalis. A May presentation at the Elektra Festival in Montreal and a September showing at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, represent two immediate steps in that direction. Asphodel and Recombinant could thus theoretically alter the very DNA of modern music and video performance. "We no longer live in the age of simulation, but of recombinant culture," cyberpunk theorist Arthur Kroker wrote. If that's true, Recombinant Media Labs might be the staging ground for a full-scale takeover. — John Graham