This isn't a Philadelphia story, even though it has brotherly love. It's not a St. Louis story, despite being full of spirit. This story isn't about the Motor City or the Big Apple, while it has ties to both. This is a San Francisco story, with a soundtrack kinkier than Lombard Street, a freq-y tale that reflects its origins.
Full of switchbacks and fast tracks, this is the story of DJ and producer Claude VonStroke and the dirtybird records crew. It's the Shaky Town success saga of a sound that has been described as "so irreverent yet serious as cancer" by Matt Safer, whose Madhattan disco-(not-disco)-punk band the Rapture reached out to VonStroke for a "Pantydropper" remix of its 2006 single "W.A.Y.U.H."
Many have lauded VonStroke's squelchy winks and wonky grooves as a return to the askew spirit of Chicago tech-house eccentric Green Velvet. In just a few short years VonStroke has percolated his Left Coast take on sticky socket-rockin', recently remixing hot singles by Jeff Samuel, Samim, Mighty Dub Katz, and Newcleus, to name just a few. Local OM Records artist Andy Caldwell also called on VonStroke to remix his 2007 single "Warrior," attracted by his campy 2006 single "Chimps," and was surprised to find out its producer was from just down the road. VonStroke may have a name like a Dutch pervert, but his cheeky, unfettered approach to tech-funk bears an indelible San Francisco mark.
Techno wasn't always a hot import/export locally, but over the past few years the dirtybirds have shared the area's thermal currents to establish themselves and the Bay as an increasingly potent presence on the international circuit. For ornithologists and musicologists alike, this story starts with the migration of VonStroke to our area.
"I always liked techno, but at first San Francisco didn't," reminisces VonStroke, aka Detroit-bred Barclay Crenshaw.
From the mid-'90s into the new millennium, San Francisco showcased influences of soulful jackin', wicked heavy drum 'n' bass, and freaked-out funk from Hardkiss, Solar, Galen, and the Sunset Parties. But then there was also easily palatable, VIP-friendly vocal house, which seemed to many to rule the roost around 2000. Naked Music exhibited a branding mojo that made the San Francisco-associated label a lifestyle accessory across much of the country. Naked was not alone on the national scene — it was preceded and distributed by OM, among others — but the lounge-friendly mentality continues to come up as representing the static scene against which Claude VonStroke defiantly entered.
Weaned on Detroit's Electrifying Mojo and Midnight Funk Association radio shows, as well as a stash of gas-station-bought hip-hop tapes, Crenshaw eventually fell in with drum 'n' bass, and over the years developed his self-taught sound design. He brought this affinity for sampled beats and fierce basslines to San Francisco near the end of 2000.
"At the time I liked techno, drum 'n' bass, and especially hip-hop — no new wave, no Depeche Mode, just American funk, basslines, anything with dirt between the drums," he says. "I think that's the magic, between the downbeat, that's where the chirps and snippets and things that make a track swing happen. I didn't want a hammering kick drum, but I wanted both techno and house DJs to dig it."
Crenshaw's production needed to be softened a bit to bridge the scenes. He started honing his cross-genre approach while he produced the 2002 DVD Intellect: Techno House Progressive, a dance culture primer featuring almost 40 of the world's top DJs, including Deep Dish, Derrick May, and Doc Martin. Through that project he met Christian Martin, an electronic-music connoisseur. Martin introduced Crenshaw to his younger brother, Justin, who then contributed material to the DVD's soundtrack.
Justin offered solid DJ skills and an appreciation for deep house, but his tracks — launched in 2003 with "The Sad Piano," produced with local Sammy D — needed to be toughened to meet the basic tech criteria. Diametric to Crenshaw, Martin aimed "to get as little as possible in between the beats. Each sound has its place and the simpler the better." As they played and remixed tunes, they realized they had discovered an ideal counterbalance in each other's productions.
Pulling from tech-house, ghettotech, and electro, Crenshaw established himself as DJ Claude VonStroke, playing exclusives from the "party crew" — Christian and Justin Martin, plus Sean "Worthy" Williams — while he cultivated his own tracks. The dirtybird gang launched a series of free summer Sunday parties in Golden Gate Park in 2004, starting with 20 people and peaking with a crowd of 600 who came out for an appearance by British-born, Berlin-based producer Jesse Rose. The openness — aurally and actually — at these parties was instrumental in shaping the dirtybird sensibility. The Bay Area had seen its share of postmillennial tech-injected parties — Blasthaus, Filter, Black Market Techno, Auralism Records, and Stap[e were on the scene, to name just a few. Art galleries and warehouses were hosting events, and there were soon venues for martini-friendly, barely-break-a-sweat grooves and crickets-on-tin-oil minimalism. But in the wake of hard economic times, there also seemed to be a real desire for some cheap, dirty funkin'.
Additionally evolving during this period was the minimal techno/avant-house night [KONTROL] — which incidentally celebrates three years at the Endup on June 7. [KONTROL] promotions manager Greg Bird remembers the atmosphere as the dirtybird crew struck out on its own even as he was booking Crenshaw and Martin for opening slots in 2005. "There needs to be that pump, a sound that's both intense and intricate," he concedes. "Justin and Sammy injected silliness into the music. There may have been a more divey, neighborhood vibe to their first gigs at [now-defunct Lower Haight club] the Top, and they got away with playing whatever they liked for friends. And then the dirtybird park parties reinforced the goofy vibe, because it's hard to want to listen to heavy, serious music when you're barbecuing and drinking with friends in the sunshine."
By 2005 Crenshaw was ready to press the vibe into vinyl, so he founded the dirtybird label. From the beginning, response was immediate. The first VonStroke vinyl single, "Deep Throat," sold more than 11,000 copies. Publications from San Francisco's own XLR8R to the UK's DJ took notice. Influential DJs such as techno icon Richie Hawtin caned VonStroke's subsequent tracks, including 2006 single "Who's Afraid of Detroit?" while radio DJs such as the BBC's Pete Tong — who, introducing a recent Claude VonStroke-curated Essential Mix, labeled Crenshaw's debut album "barking mad" — championed tracks. More recently, VonStroke was nominated for Best Tech House Artist in the 2008 Music Awards on www.beatportal.com, the international electronic culture news aggregator of digital DJ music storefront www.beatport.com.
More recent dirtybird releases include the Claude VonStroke and Christian Martin's Groundhog Day EP, Worthy's flatulent banger "Irst Te?," and Style of EYE's "Big Kazoo" (an air raid that blurts playfully along on sounds like a kazoo, natch). Justin Martin even forecasts some hyphy influences in future selections. Even while exploring these new angles, dirtybird continues filtering the deep rumble, atmospherics, and technical precision of '90s drum 'n' bass through tech-house's depths, adding mischief and bass bombs to the 4/4 beat. Interlabel activity has only furthered the breed, drawing increasingly more bodies to the dancefloor at dirtybird's club monthlies at places like Shine.
While dirtybird continues working up its mixture of moody and mental, Crenshaw recently started a second label venture. Mothership, launched last summer, features a roster of dubbier, slower-building Euro-tech. And while Crenshaw refuses to see himself as a tastemaker in the traditional sense, there's something in Mothership's championing of the London's taut minimalists Italoboyz, whose operatic "Viktor Casanova" was turned down by 22 labels before selling 7,000 copies on the label. Watch for an upcoming Italoboyz single on Mothership featuring a John Coltrane sample, blearily drawn-and-quartered surely.
Crenshaw's keen ability to spot talent means it's worth watching for the dirtybird debut later this year of Tim Green, a 22-year-old London producer whose gradually distending track "Revox" sparked Internet interest when it debuted in the VonStroke Essential Mix. The single also goes straight to the point with a swingin' Justin Martin remix. In that way dirtybird continues to draw from its own, adapting without resorting to nasty regurgitation. And the crew continues to happily nest in San Francisco, enjoying this chapter of the city's history as a home base for bassheads.
Read more articles in Listen Up 2008