Techno Tease

The dirtybird crew gives kinky dance jams playful tweaks.

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'.

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