San Francisco

San Francisco July 2016

March 6, 2017

I tend to always bookend any trips to California with quality time in San Francisco, and the last time I visited the States was no exception. Back in July I was lucky enough to enjoy just over a week in the Bay before flying home to London, getting to see my family and friends and explore the city, as well as hustle a little…

I’ve written before about my love of Amtrak; the beatnik side of me just adores the opportunity for reflection and observation. There’s something remarkably soothing about the trip up to SF from LA, full of epic views and curious characters.

*Roadside Views*

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*Champagne on the Train. Amtrak in style*

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One of the biggest highlights of my last days in SF was getting to meet local legend Dan the Automator and interview him for Wax Poetics at the top of Dolores Park. It was my first time meeting Dan, and such an honour. My buddy Z came through with some very impressive recording equipment, and shooting by the Park’s ‘Gay Beach’ corner allowed an epic panorama of San Francisco as our backdrop. The wind was definitely working against us, which with my mane was a challenge for sure! But, it was so cool to hear Dan’s stories and insights, and I’m super happy with how the final video came out – shout out to the homie DJ Matman for the dope edit! After the shoot we got pizza and drinks at local favourite Pizzeria Delfina – so delicious and definitely worth a visit.

*Behind the scenes*

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Watch the interview below!

*Me and Dan*

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*The iconic and inspiring Women’s Building in the Mission*

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*My cousin’s very cute birthday cake*

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*Prince Paul spinning 45s at The Uptown in Oakland*

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Another highlight of my final sojourn in SF was catching Hieroglyphics play Stern Grove. Dan the Automator was DJing before, and managed to sneak me backstage so that I was able to hang with him and Hiero there. I enjoyed drinking copious amounts of high-grade sake, riding around on milk-float-esque carts, and meeting Del the Funkee Homosapien and Davey D for the first time.  Afterwards we got ice-cream and hit a dive bar for a pool tournament in the Sunset District. Very cool memories.

*Beautiful NorCal trees at Stern Grove. Such a cool hidden spot I had never been to before.*

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I couldn’t wait to hit up the newly reopened SFMoMA, I always love to spend a few hours there when in town. Such a treat. The Miranda July & Harrell Fletcher Learning to Love You More room was my favourite part this time.

*Reflections at the MoMA*

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*Embarcadero at night on 4th July*

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*Leaving Cali Bluez. Nothing quite like rounding off a long trip by gazing out at the runway, sipping on a glass of wine and reflecting on the time gone by.*

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*Living life in the window seat. Always.*

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Sitting in the Park … with Dan the Automator

January 4, 2017

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Back in the summer when I was bopping around California I had the honour of meeting Dan Nakamura, a.k.a. Dan the Automator, in his hometown of San Francisco. Dan is one of those producers who is behind such a varied array of great music, I’ve often felt as though I am constantly discovering that he has played a part in hit records – it was only in conversation with Dan that I learned he produced two albums for Kasabian (dudes from my hometown!).

I interviewed Dan for Wax Poetics at the top of Dolores Park on a beautiful and rather windy day, and chopped it up about the music he loved growing up, the Bay Area scene, working with artists like Kool Keith and Del the Funky Homosapien, porno music, and much, much more … Enjoy!

You can also check it out on Wax Poetics here!

Mega props to Zhubin Rahbar and Paul Keller for filming the interview, and to Matt ‘Matman’ Smith for painstakingly editing it to be so fresh and informative! :)

Sailing On

May 6, 2016

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At the start of last week I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my favourite human beings and probably one of the most influential musicians of all time. George Clinton, the inimitable force behind the P-Funk juggernaut and a bonafide hero to many. Clinton is a dream to chat to, and I can’t wait to share our conversation with my write up real soon.

Since our interview I’ve been listening to a nice little mix of Smokey Robinson, Kendrick Lamar, Sly Stone, and Parliament (of course…).

I’ve also been listening to Deru’s “1979: Remixed” and a sweet little mix City Pop Vol. 2 that dropped on Wax Poetics:

~Ridiculous car in the Marina~

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I hit up Laughing Lotus Yoga on 16th St last Thursday and would definitely recommend going – the pranayama and sweet tea felt hella good :)  One of my favourite thrift stores in the city is Crossroads Trading by Church & Market, and on this trip I managed to pick up a vintage Missoni dress (pictured below) and some vintage Marni wedges for a song. There is also a cute cafe super close by called Church Street Cafe which I often stop at to write, and recommend if in the area.

~Bathroom selfie on Saturday night~

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On Saturday I hopped around a few parties with friends and got to see a really neat hotel called The Phoenix . It reminded me of the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs with it’s super retro US motel vibe.

~The Phoenix pool~

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I also got to visit a pretty dope house nicknamed ‘The Starship’ which was used as a location for HBO’s Silicon Valley.

~View from The Starship’s roof terrace~

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On Sunday I got to go out sailing around Marin which was super beautiful and a lot of fun. The waters were royal blue and the local wine flowed. We stopped off at Tiburon and Angel Island, before heading to a spot called Fish in Sausalito for dinner (luckily they serve salad ;) ). I just love how the fog envelops the land like something from science fiction when it rolls in at dusk.

~View from the water back to San Francisco~

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~Angel Island~

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 ~Party on a boat~

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~Sausalito~

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 ~Fog coming for Sausalito~

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As we sailed back to San Francisco through the dusky purple fog, fittingly listening to lots of vintage Prince, I found myself very nostalgic thinking about the first time I visited California with my family. I was 16 and remember taking the ferry to Sausalito one day, eating ice-cream by the water and being so excited about it all. I thought about all that had happened in my life since (a decade sounds rather epic, doesn’t it?) and how most of it I would have never predicted back then. It’s a funny feeling, a sort of culmination of energies and emotions, at once appreciative of it all though somehow there’s a sadness to it. To feel happy and sad at the same time, and that life is short but long too in many ways. It is quite amazing how all these feelings exist simultaneously. There are so many facets within us to experience that it is really rather staggering to contemplate.

~Embarcadero~

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~The Ferry Building. Time waits for no man~

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Having Big Fun

April 26, 2016

Propelled by the energies of joy, it is no secret that time takes flight when you are having fun. I love spending time here in California, and, it feels like the past week has somewhat flown by …

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A lot of dope music has come through my inbox just recently, so I’ve had a mix of Black Milk, Saba, The Lytics, Brassfoot, and Funkineven on rotation. Take a listen!

1) Saba “World in my Hands (ft. Amino & LEGIT)”

2) Black Milk & Nat Turner “Never”

3) Brassfoot “Dreamstate Intercal”

4) Funkineven “SSS (90s cut)”

5) The Lytics “Ring My Alarm”

As always, I’ve been spending a solid amount of time in cafes writing. Right now I would recommend The Blue Fig on Valencia for classic, chill coffee-house vibes, and Stanza Coffee on 16th for a trendy vibe and yummy coffee. Both have nice outdoor seating, as does my go-to veggie spot Herbivore on Valencia which also deserves a shout out!

~Coffee love in The Mission~

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I caught up with a friend for dinner last Tuesday and saw a sneak preview of the book So Much to Be Done, which is a collection of the writings of Barbara Brenner. Barbara was an incredible activist I had the honour of working with in the summers of 2009 and 2010 when I interned for the non-profit organisation Breast Cancer Action. Undoubtedly she was one of the most intelligent, straight-talking, and warm-hearted individuals I have ever known. After having breast cancer herself (twice), she was diagnosed with ALS in 2010 and passed away in 2013. I think it is fantastic that her writing is being published in a collection like this, and I look forward to reading it properly. You can learn more about Barbara here and check out the book here .

On Wednesday I hopped over to the East Bay to visit Berkeley University. The campus is so stunning and whenever I’ve been the vibe has always felt so good. The last time I was out there was 2011, when I was working on my undergraduate thesis. I visited the Bancroft archives to find some of Sarah Webster Fabio’s work (a really inspiring poet and activist I recommend getting hip to), and remember imagining how rad it must be to study there. Here are some pictures …

~Berkeley Campus~

IMG_6272~Beautiful Berkeley trees~

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~Me posing on campus~

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~Gold shoes in the grass~

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~More magical Berkeley trees~

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And for the first time ever I ventured down to San Jose in the South Bay for a little party with some buddies. I was super excited for the little adventure, mostly because of my love of the Dionne Warwick song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” (written by my hero Burt Bacharach). I remember dancing around to that song as a kid, probably never imagining that one day I too would have some friends down in San Jose.

 ~San Jose Station~

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~A backyard worthy of DJ Khaled~

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We headed back up to the city the next day to hang out at The Battery, and ended up at an incredible studio spot in SoMA. I really wish I had taken pictures, because the set up was pretty spectacular. Next time hey ;)

For now all I have is this accidental post-brunch-bliss selfie …

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Back to the Bay

April 19, 2016

I have so much love for Northern California. Each time I come back here I am struck by the unique beauty of the landscape. Towering trees with the deepest green leaves, awkward hills, azure skies, and curious fog soothe the heart and mind like nothing else. I flew back here last week and so far have mostly been catching up with family and friends, and exploring the city a little…

~Me before takeoff~

Me before takeoff

~Golden Gate Bridge from the sky~

Golden Gate Bridge from the Sky

~Angel Island~

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~Market Street~

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The weather took a beautiful turn the past few days, so it’s been all about parks. I hit up Golden Gate Park on Saturday, feeling super calm and happy just to be there, and then chilled out on Dolores Park on Sunday for a pretty different vibe. Last time I was in SF, the park was being completely dug up, so it was good to see it back in swing. Dolores Park is like London Fields in the summer, but it feels quirkier and more entertaining. You get intermittent whiffs of barbeques and joints, sounds of champagne corks popping, and endless overheard conversations relaying gossip and dissecting therapy sessions. I love it.

~Golden Gate Park~

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~Amoeba on Record Store Day ~

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~Wax Poetics looking super fresh inside Amoeba!~

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~Me in Dolores Park on a hot-hot day~

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I’ve been hitting up my favourite yoga studio in SF, Yoga To The People , at 16th St & Mission. It’s on the fifth floor and has such great views of the city. It’s also all donation-based, so not super expensive like some spots, which, seems to be much more in line with the spirit of yoga to me.

I also discovered a new vintage shop called Wallflower on Valencia that I love and recommend checking out. It has a great selection of well curated seventies clothes and furnishings. Fly!

~Wallflower~

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I caught the Dam Funk show at 1015 Folsom on Friday which was tons of fun. It was my first time seeing The Whooligan from Soulection play, and he totally rocked the basement room.

~Dam Funk going in~

 ~Me about to head to the club~

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For an interview that was due to take place last week (yet to be re-scheduled, I’ll announce it once it happens ;) ), I spent some time researching Bay Area funk bands, so have been listening to Graham Central Station on repeat since. Right now this is my jam:

I’ve also been listening to a ton of G-Funk since I finally got around to watching Straight Outta Compton on the plane. I love the scene where they play out the release of Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline.” I didn’t rush to see it when it came out because I felt weird when I first saw the trailer (something about actors playing people who are still alive), but now definitely recommend watching it! Mega props to F. Gary Gray! Hip-hop nerd fact: Gray directed a ton of great hip-hop music videos before feature films like Friday, including the Masta Ace video for “Saturday Nite Live.” Shout out to my DV crew!

While wandering about I’ve been thinking about the many charms of San Francisco; how there are so many epochs to feel nostalgic for. One walk through the city can evoke so many different moods and feelings: you get a view across the water to Marin County and want to be attending a seventies cocktail party like something out of Play It Again Sam, or walk past a smoke shop to hear E40 playing and want to be at a Mac Dre party in Oakland, or you can walk around Haight Ashbury (just look past all the touristy trash) and wonder what it really was like to be a freewheeling Grateful Dead head back in the day. It’s like the Digital Underground song “Want It All” – which is about the wanting, not the having. Cities like this stimulate your imagination and trigger so many desires. But, of course, you can’t ‘have it all’ in the sense of living different lives simultaneously.

To this predicament I see three answers.

The first is summed up towards the end of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, where Ghost Dog states that it is impossible to return to the spirit of an age, and therefore we must embrace the present time’s spirit.

The other two thoughts are from my recent time in India:

If you believe in reincarnation, then all these different lives are either ones you have already lived or ones that are to come.

Or, if you contemplate how we already have everything in the universe within ourselves, any longings or desires can dissipate or transform into a truer feeling of peace. All the ideas, images, concepts etc, exist within your mind. Anything you can dream is already within you. Pretty dope huh?

~ Wisdom from Dog Eared Books in The Mission ~

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An Interview with Dawn Surratt

November 8, 2015

Dawn Surratt

 

Last month was breast cancer awareness month, which got me thinking about my time interning at the non-profit organisation Breast Cancer Action (BCA) in downtown San Francisco. For two summers running I worked there, learning about political activism and the issues surrounding breast cancer and women’s healthcare. My summers at BCA were some of the most inspiring times for me, working alongside brilliant and strong-minded women and exploring the city of San Francisco.  I spent many afternoons amassing rap records in the Amoeba dollar crates and writing in Dolores Park.

The first interview I ever conducted was in the summer of 2009 with former BCA board member Dawn Surratt. I remember taking the bus out to the UCSF campus on Parnassus one brilliantly sunny San Francisco afternoon to chat to Dawn in her office. It was my first experience of probing a person with big and personal questions, and I remember feeling so amazed that someone I had just met would share so many experiences and feelings with me.

Dawn and her stories really inspired me, so I wanted to share the interview here. Enjoy!

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Dawn on Breast Cancer Action

There are so many nonprofit organizations concerned with breast cancer in the U.S. BCA really stood out from the pack. Their work really challenged the status quo. Their stance was not about employing pity or sorrow for women who had died of breast cancer or were living with breast cancer. It was about how do you take this illness and turn it into something that is more of a political agenda and more incisive in terms of getting to the roots of the most common cancer with causes unknown. Also, the Think Before You Pink® campaigns caught my attention. They are simple and clever. I think they really help to expand awareness on issues around environmental injustices and the links between what we consume and illness and disease. All the campaigns really drive home the reality that there are businesses, corporations, manufacturers, even breast cancer organizations that don’t “walk their talk.” Every October the market floods with these products that claim to be about raising awareness and saving women’s lives. In reality, they are more about “how do I make my company look good” than about doing anything substantial to end the breast cancer epidemic. So I think this really clever campaign has shed a bright light on these shortcomings, and they’ve not been afraid to spotlight some pretty big players involved in the whole pink frenzy.

 

On Healthcare Reform and Big Pharma

I don’t know if having a single-payer system will come to the U.S. People will have to get more pissed off. I think people are pissed off, but they need to get more organized at a federal level. I think a lot is happening at a local level—there is a whole lot of drive and energy around getting a single-payer health care system in place. However, whether that’s going to be at a federal or national level, I’m not sure. So I think to the extent that this administration can really overhaul this system, it’s not just about covering the uninsured. That’s part of the issue. Roughly one in four or five [are uninsured], but that’s only a part of the problem. There are people who have insurance, but the premium is really horrible, or families with private insurance whose insurance doesn’t cover certain treatments. What does that mean to cancer patients and someone’s longevity and level of treatment? Ethically, our health care system is perverse. The new administration needs to address these problems. The government needs to take their cue from those who have had serious illnesses or people close to them, not insurance companies or drug companies. I wish I could say that I was hopeful, but I’ve become very cynical. I know what I want to see, but what can I expect? In four years? I hope that the new heads at the FDA will be much more conservative concerning the “fast-tracking” mantras and off-label use, that people in positions of power will use their training to say “no” to the pharmaceutical companies.

 

On Putting Patients First and Social Inequities

One of the things that this recent presidential election did was to wake up a lot of apathetic voters. So if that level of civic participation can be sustained and that kind of energy can transfer over to the realm of health care, that would be an amazing thing. Regarding breast cancer specifically, I think people need be less lulled by the whole pink ribbon madness.

People talk about breast cancer and raising awareness, which is like running fingernails down a chalkboard for me. Awareness is not the issue anymore; the issue is about who gets treatment. What kind of treatment do they get? What groups of people get treatment? What’s the quality of the treatment? Who lives with this disease? Who dies?

More white women are diagnosed with breast cancer, but in terms of outcomes, if you look at who dies sooner, you are looking at women of color and women who are poor. It has to be a broader discussion. It has more to do with social injustices.

“BCA’s stance is not about employing pity or sorrow for women who have died of breast cancer or are living with breast cancer. Rather, BCA puts women in the driving seat when it comes to self-advocacy.”

BCA’s stance is not about employing pity or sorrow for women who have died of breast cancer or are living with breast cancer. Rather, BCA puts women in the driving seat when it comes to self-advocacy. Their campaigns show people, women in particular, that our bodies are not just things that have things done to them. We can have a say, a big say, in what gets done.

BCA enables ordinary people to get to get in and have their say. For example, recently Breast Cancer Action did a survey on the effects of aromatase inhibitors. For some women these drugs work, but for a lot of others, the side effects are horrible and not worth it. People being prescribed these treatments need to be able to access this kind of information. A scientific advisory board refers information back to the staff. The sheer amount of information is overwhelming—new research findings, conferences, information that needs to be acted on. BCA has taken on the role to be the watchdog of the breast cancer movement. It’s about helping women get to a place where they have a collective voice that gets heard. A collective voice is more powerful than an individual voice. One of the things I’ve heard a number of survivors say is, it’s hard to be your own medical advocate. One of the most important roles you can have for people living with cancer is as a personal advocate. Putting together a team is important. I feel like BCA acts as that advocate; they assume the role as part of that team.

The entire “who lives and who dies” issue is not going to be addressed until we approach some other issues about who lives where, what kinds of foods do they have access to, etc. There is so much emphasis on individuals’ behavior without making the link between choices and what is in a person’s environment. Studies are constantly showing up the gaps in breast cancer diagnosis and breast cancer survival rates between different races and classes of women.

 

On Sustained Involvement

I was born in 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act, and there were things that I saw that made me very aware of racism. I know what it was like for my mother. I was not the first black girl at my school. My mother was the first black girl to go to her high school in Texas, and so the kinds of things she encountered I did not have to. I worked in Africa. That was a really humbling thing, in terms of the degree of suffering that I saw. I witnessed absolutely preventable deaths caused by poor nutrition and a lack of access to clean water and anti-malaria drugs and vaccines. These were early and untimely and unnecessary deaths. I befriended some nursing students while I was there, they would tell me about their experiences in the maternity wards. As a nursing student in the U.S. or U.K. or Canada, it is rare to see someone die in childbirth. It happens, but it’s not commonplace. It is just the flip in a lot of African countries—to see a woman bleeding to death, and there is nothing you can do because you don’t have the right drugs. She was too anemic when she came in the first place, and all you can do is watch this woman bleed to death. This is something these nurses witness routinely and experience throughout their work. Breast Cancer Action has taken the experience of breast cancer and said, “This doesn’t need to be as bad as it is.”

You ask how I stop becoming disheartened. A good friend of mine who is an activist in Austin told me she would often say, “Those of us in positions of privilege cannot afford to be disheartened.” If these young nurses cannot be disheartened knowing what they are stepping into, then, well…

“Things change because of people…”

There were many days that I would cry listening to stories in the clinic, but you see what your colleagues deal with day in, day out. I have respect for what these people are trying to achieve with very few resources, not just in terms of money, but human resources. Things change because of people like that. BCA operates on a shoestring budget. Yet they achieve so much. They make changes that matter. What sustains me? Knowing history, knowing fully that people who made really radical change happen did so with far fewer resources than us. They didn’t have the Internet. If they were able to make things happen, then we can, too.

 

Da Vinci Interview : A Fillmore Story

February 26, 2015

When I think of Fillmore Street in San Franciso, I always think of Yoshi’s and the sushi spot next door, as well as Jazz festivals in summer and all the musical heritage that the area boasts.

It was illuminating to meet and chat with the young rapper Da Vinci, a Fillmore native, back in 2011 and hear about his experiences growing up and starting out in such a musically saturated place. We met at Gussies Chicken & Waffles on a sunny San Francisco afternoon and discussed a myriad of topics stemming from music and city life, and it prompted me to reflect a lot more on the socio-economic issues surrounding the Arts.

Here is my interview with Da Vinci as it originally appeared in Nerdtorious .. (shout out to San Jose’s David Ma!)

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A FILLMORE STORY: INTERVIEW WITH DAVINCI

(Alice Price-Styles, a young journalist and aspiring academic out of London, contacted me wanting to contribute an article. Ms. Styles has an affinity for hip-hop, particularly the ’90s era and has done some extensive coverage of Delicious Vinyl and its history. In line with some of her recent work, I thought it’d be interesting for her to interview one of SF’s current brightest MCs, DaVinci of the Fillmore district. Here’s a talk that went down between Alice and DaVinci at Gussie’s Chicken & Waffles. Word to DaVinci and shouts to Alice for the nice interview. – DM)

By Alice Price-Styles

A metropolitan melting pot of cultures and characters, the eclectic city of San Francisco has long been known for its diverse population and distinctive, colourful history. Tightly sandwiched between Japantown, Hayes Valley and affluent Pacific Heights is an area steeped in musical history: the Fillmore district. Music permeates the historic area’s atmosphere and activities, draws in scores of visitors each year, and has a profound affect on the lives of its residents.

Due to development and gentrification the Fillmore may be shrinking, but the district’s lineage of jazz and blues remains proudly preserved, and can be traced in the young musicians breaking out of the scene today. One artist aware of the Fillmore’s heritage and its neighborhood influence, for better or for worse, is underground rap artist, DaVinci. A talented emcee from the ‘Moe and highly aware of his surroundings, DaVinci the rapper seems rather wise beyond his years.

2010 saw his debut album The Day The Turf Stood Still, followed by the EP Feast or Famine in 2011. His gravelly voiced rhymes have been relating the heavy issues that he sees around him, garnering much interest and praise for their insight and honesty. In anticipation of his forthcoming LP The Moena Lisa, I met with DaVinci in the heart of the Moe (Gussies Chicken & Waffles!) to hear a little more from the rising rapper himself.

What would you say your musical background is? How did you first start getting into records and how did you start rapping?
I would say I first started getting into rapping in middle-school. When I was ten/ eleven years old I was in a band and played the drums – any instrument I could pick up I would try and play back then – and I learned how to read music, so that’s my foundation in music. I started writing rhymes around that time too – when there used to be free writing sessions I would write poetry, and slowly that turned into me putting poetry on top of music.

I was listening to all kinds, and a lot of local, music around that time. Scarface and The Ghetto Boys, Tupac, Wu Tang, GLP, Too Short, Ice Cube and NWA – anything that was popular around the early/mid-nineties, I was listening to and formatting my raps around. I noticed that they were basically expressing how they felt about their environments, so I did the same. I just kept doing it – never thinking ‘Oh I’m going to grow up and be a rapper’ – it was a hobby, and I had other things. I kicked it and cut class just like everybody else around that age, got into trouble, got out of trouble – but always kept doing music, writing raps after school to keep us out of real trouble. There were local recording studios and a couple of neighbourhood cats had closet-studios, and we used to just go over there for hours and make songs for fun. Eventually those songs got better and better – people started hearing them and we got popular in this Fillmore area. It just grew and people around me started saying ‘yo – let’s put a project together and try and get it to more people’ – and that’s kind of how we got to where we are right now.

 

What’s the idea or concept behind the name Da Vinci? Is there an allusion with that?
Well, it really doesn’t have too much to do with the famous painter Da Vinci. I said it in one of my raps a long time ago, at maybe 18, something like ‘Da Vinci paint a picture vivid’ – I said it in there and then people started calling me that…and it just stuck.

I was wondering who did the artwork for your album covers, and I thought maybe you had painted them yourself??
Nah, I can’t paint! I suck at painting and drawing, but we got some talented artists on our team, on our Sweetbreads label (SWTBRDS). One of our art directors Rob Martin did the cover.

You have your second LP The Moena Lisa coming out, could you say how it is going to be different from your past works?
The beats are going to be more progressive and it’s definitely going to be a little further away from what people might think of as traditional hip hop.

Because you’ve had a lot of comparisons to that more old, East-Coast sound…
Right, which I don’t like. I don’t like that comparison, but I understand where it comes from. All of the producers I work with, and myself as a rapper, had a starting point and are naturally trying to do something that feels like the next step on from the last thing that we did. So the EP Feast or Famine I feel is a few steps ahead production-wise and conceptually than the first LP The Day The Turf Stood Still was.

We want to create a trilogy, so that when you listen to the records together you will be able to see them as one. That’s kind of hard to tell with just one project, or even with two, but after three or four people will really be able to see the steps and progression; everybody is really challenging themselves to make something sound a little more unique than the first.

There is an apparent level of consciousness to your work – are there any figures, musical or otherwise, that have inspired you in that respect?
Definitely. I always feel like at the beginning of the night I’m gonna have fun, we’re gonna drink, have a party and have a good time – but at some point I’m going to say something that I feel is important. Because I know that from a young cats perspective I always appreciated rappers who I felt I could relate to on a social level, who understood where I was coming from and weren’t too serious or preachy all the time, but who also gave me some survival tactics as far as being able to live. Not just partying and smoking and having fun, but gave me something valuable that I can take with me. I appreciated cats like Nas, Tupac and Scarface who really dropped some quotables in their rhymes.

It may not necessarily have been one hundred per cent positive all the time, because you’re not naturally coming from a positive place, but I appreciated the fact that they did give me some game to take with me, some real knowledge that I couldn’t learn in school. The teacher couldn’t relate to me and give me the types of words that Nas and Jay Z did, or NWA and Ice Cube did back in the day. The books that they made us read in middle school and high school, like Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath – books that were standard for the public school system and were good books in a literary sense – didn’t really relate to me having to go home and having no food on the table. I couldn’t really get from it how to help my Mom put groceries in the refrigerator or help her put the lights on – I got that type of knowledge from the rap albums that I was introduced to at a young age. They helped me to realise that there were other people out there with similar struggles, so I want to give that to the youth who might possibly be in the same situation I was in at eleven or twelve.

When writing your lyrics do you tend to put yourself into situations, or do you write mainly from personal experiences?
I do sometimes have to take myself back to how I felt when I was in a certain situation, one that I’m not in right now. Sometimes I find myself in the same situation that I was in when I was fifteen, just in a different way – and that inspires me to write about it. I still have young cousins, nieces and nephews, and they go through a lot of the things that I went through. It inspires me to keep writing and keep doing what I’m doing, knowing that there is an audience out there that can relate to it. Even if they can’t relate to it, I would hope that they can learn from it and just appreciate it for what it is.

In the documentary The Fillmore Story there is a point in that where you mention how really amazing music can come from situations of poverty, could you talk a bit about that and say why you think that is?
I did a little bit of my homework with that – I looked at the Harlem Renaissance in New York around the sixties and seventies when a lot of Jazz and Blues was at its height with artists like Billie Holiday, and the cities that it moved around from. It went from St Louis, to Harlem, and right here to Fillmore San Francisco, and in those times there were revolutions going on just within those neighbourhoods. Also in Los Angeles especially – they have a gang-banging culture out there and eventually brought some of the best gangster rap which spread across the world.

It wasn’t to show how bad of a neighbourhood or how hard Los Angeles is, it was to show exactly the feeling and emotion that came at the tail end of what they were experiencing. I just did my history and would sit back and think from time to time, and I realised that’s how I came to be – my pops is a blues singer, sings blues and gospel to this day, and he and a lot of the musicians that I came up with are from the same neighbourhood. They grew up in the city here and it was the same situation – I’m just the next generation of that. I was born in the eighties, so naturally my outlet is hip hop music. Blues? I was never gifted enough to learn how to sing, like how they did in the Church. I guess that skipped a generation – my kids might learn to sing or something like that.

Do you feel like the heritage of the Fillmore District influences the hip hop that comes out of the area?
Definitely, definitely. Fillmore has always been a place where people come to make music and get their music heard. I was lucky enough to be born and raised here, so I was able to absorb all of the culture from a young age when, as far as hip hop is concerned, it was at its purest form in the eighties and early nineties. Before then I remember being a young boy wondering around seeing junkies and crack-heads singing, playing trumpet and saxophone – but, they were on drugs so they would just take the change and go and get high. I was so young I couldn’t put it together like: ‘why does every crack-head around here know how to sing??’ I didn’t get it, until I did my history and realised: ‘oh…these crack-heads are retired musicians…’ Some of them didn’t make it, some of them did but got hooked on drugs, and a lot of them didn’t have family and were out on their own, but couldn’t make it on their own.

I look around and see my generation is the same thing – a lot of my peers got the negative side of this being such a musical melting pot, because where there’s good music there’s going to be people crowding around that music and…‘celebrating’ – whether celebrating with drugs or alcohol, there’s going to be celebrating around the music. I was able to see all of that; the people around it, who enjoyed it but also fell victim to not knowing when the party was over and getting themselves together, and it still goes on. I appreciate it, but I also see it for what it is.

A double-edged sword?
Right, right. Definitely.

What does your own music mean to you?
It means a lot. First and foremost it means me, where I come from and where I grew up, my beliefs. We call it Thorobred music and came up with the coin for that type of music as it’s about being true to who you are, not trying to make everybody be like you – I understand there are people who can enjoy my music who don’t come from the same walk of life as me. I just want people who are listening to it to get where I’m coming from, whether they agree with it or not. If each fan had the opportunity to tell me their story I would do my best to try to understand where they’re coming from and see things the way that they see. Even if it’s just for three minutes listening to a song.

Robert Glasper Interview

February 19, 2015

The first time that I saw Robert Glasper play was in San Francisco, September 2011. It was the day after my 23rd birthday, and after celebrating the night away in dive bars on Valencia Street and a rooftop somewhere in the Mission, I was feeling a little bit fragile.

We met before the show to do an interview for Mint Magazine (big shout out to the OG Mint crew!), and Glasper’s warm personality and sense of humour was more than enough to make me forget about my post-birthday state.

The show was beautiful, and I have been fortunate enough to catch him several times since. Glasper’s recognition has grown rather meteorically since we met, so it was exciting to get to chat to him just before his star set off.

I was travelling within California a lot at that time, and remember I ended up transcribing our interview while sat in a waiting lounge at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas (a bizarrely cheap layover from SF to LA), and how much it blew my mind hearing him break down the structure of Busta Rhymes’ flow.

Anyhow, here is the interview as it ran in Mint Magazine in 2011 …

*

Soothing and stimulating at the same time – hip hop blended jazz with electronic frosting and sprinkles of just about anything; the music of Robert Glasper satiates just about any musical appetite – and, is truly beautiful.

Having missed their show at Ronnie Scott’s in London earlier this year – I was psyched to catch the Robert Glasper Trio playing a stunning show at the YBCA Forum in downtown San Francisco as part of the SFJAZZ Festival last month.

Just like the rich jazz being played, the atmosphere of the show was all-absorbing, allowing each of the Trio’s songs to take you on a journey through an array of emotions, memories and melodies. Touching on J Dilla, Errol Garner, Cindy Lauper and even an incredibly poignant rendition of ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’, the band’s set catered to its typically diverse SF audience, leaving the house mesmerised and inspired.

So, before the show I caught up with Robert over a bottle of wine to chat about jazz, hip hop, live shows, upcoming projects, public image, Micheal Jackson, the industry, music itself and everything in between…

So I’m intrigued about the show tonight, to see what the audience reaction is when you play? Cos when I’ve been to jazz shows before it’s kind of like you sit down, but when I go to hip hop shows generally people are up all moving around-

Exactly.

So I’m curious when you play whether it’s really varied like your music?

It’s a mixture, yeah. I have a hip hop audience, and I have an older jazz audience as well – some people will be like ‘woo!’, and some people will be sitting there like (taps moderately), like it’s golf or something. One time I was playing some J Dilla and I looked over to a black dude, he was like 19, and this old white lady, she had to be like 75, sitting next to each other and both were bumping their heads to the hip hop shit we were playing – where else do you see that? (laughs) It’s really hilarious. I talked to him afterwards like ‘yeah, loved the Dilla stuff you did’, and then I talked to her afterwards and she was like ‘I loved the version you did of Starlight by Starlight’.

Do you feel like sometimes it sort of educates both?

Oh, exactly. And they both leave with something that they weren’t hip to before so.

Having the more classical jazz mixed with contemporary music like hip hop, it feels like your music reflects all sides of your musical tastes and personality – and so I was wondering whether you feel that your music is something that’s particularly personal to you?

Totally. It’s definitely a part of my experience of what I love as a person – I don’t play this music to please anybody, I play it for me because I love it (laughs). So, hopefully you’ll like what I’m doing for me (laughs). Sounds vain, but that’s the truth – I literally play stuff that I like.

That’s being true to yourself I think.

It’s being true to yourself, yeah. You’re never going to please everybody, so you might as well be true to who you are.

Cool. Sometimes when you see musicians play you can tell someone’s obviously just intensely in the groove – I was wondering whether it’s ever gotten so intense that you’ve not been able to come out?

Oh – I’m all about that. I will stay on the groove forever – people have to tell me to stop (laughs) – cos to me: that’s the feeling. A lot of people when they do a concert feel like they have to play all these songs – but you’re just rushing through the songs, no-one walks away feeling anything. I like to find a space in a song, and if it feels spiritual or like it needs to keep coming I’ll keep going, cos to me that’s spiritual food for somebody. I like to be the soundtrack to people thoughts, so sometimes we’ll be playing something and not a lot’s going on but we keep repeating, repeating. With this trio we do something that sounds like a dj cutting because we play the exact same way every time – I like to do that a lot; act like a piano trio sample, but live (laughs). So yeah, I’m totally about that. And that’s what John Coltrane was about too – he would play vamps for an hour, literally – two hours. One time he played one song for three hours. You give it time to grow, give it time to feel – it’s almost like a relationship or something. You can’t be like: ‘what’s your name? You wanna go on a date? Let’s get a’ – you gotta chill, and then you feel something from someone. You gotta take the time you know?

And how do you feel that your relationship with music first started? Whether it was hearing certain records or…?

My Mom used to play Oscar Peterson around the house all the time – Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald – they had a duet album or something and she used to play it all the time. And I think that’s what really got me into wanting to play jazz, hearing Oscar Peterson around the house.

I would never ask someone to choose just one favourite record – but if you could tell me about one of your favourite records?

Of any genre?

Yeah, any genre. And why…

Oh my god. Wow. Right now? I’d probably say ‘Off the Wall’, Micheal Jackson. It’s definitely one of the top five for me, but right now it’s probably my favourite. A lot of records they’ll have like two songs that I like, but the whole record I don’t like. But Micheal Jackson ‘Off the Wall’ – I love the whole record.

And I was kinda curious if you’re a fan of Elzhi’s ‘Elmatic’ that came out earlier this year?

I haven’t heard it yet. But I played with Elzhi last month (both laugh). I heard him do some stuff live – he did a show in New York last month, and he had me and my drummer sit in with him on a song, but I haven’t heard the actual album yet.

Oh okay, just cos I find with how that album brings in all the instrumentals, the interludes between the tracks-

Oh he does that on there?

Yeah – it’s really good.

That’s like Pete-Rock isms I say, cos Pete Rock does that. His interludes are so dope, really short like 30 seconds – ‘woo-what’s that??’ Then it fades out, onto the next song.

Yeah – it’s like it frames it, cos then you can hear and look for it in the actual track itself.

Word.

I find listening to stuff like that just reminds me how rich hip hop is – cos you can listen to it and not realise just how many styles are in there. So I find it similar to your music, you can appreciate the DNA of the music.

Exactly.

Cool, and apart from playing jazz festivals (like SFJazz) – what are you up to at the moment? Are you recording?

I just finished my new record, so it’s gonna come out in January. It features my experiment band, which is the second half of ‘Double Booked’, and I have special guests on there: Erykah Badu, Legacy, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def – a lot of people (laughs). It was that kinda record like: ‘let me call my friends, call up all my favours – put them all on one album’.

Will it be jazz stuff?

No, it’s really more to cater to the mainstream, so people can become fans of mine and know who I am. It’s like meeting halfway. Because as far as jazz music goes, you know, we’re under the radar. The average person doesn’t know who anybody in jazz is, except they’ll be like ‘Miles Davis?’ It’s always somebody dead – they won’t know anybody offhand that’s alive, and that’s the total opposite for any other genre. I don’t have to listen to RnB to know who Rhianna or Beyonce is. You can be in a cab, see a billboard, you’re gonna see it regardless – Pop, Rock, even Country. Jazz? You don’t see people – and you don’t hear them.

Why do you think that is?

Well, because jazz is not current. It’s a music that has prided itself on the history to the point where people think it’s dead. When people talk about jazz they always talk in the past tense –like ‘yeah, John Coltrane, Miles Davis…’ I love those guys but it’s like ‘look, there’s people here alive still playing music’. Nowadays that’s why we’re not popular anymore, because we’re not of the generation that is now. So, that’s where I come in – I’m playing stuff that’s of now. That’s why I play Radiohead and hip hop – all these things – cos that’s my generation, that’s what I like. And that’s why I don’t just stop at jazz, you know, I’m Mos Def’s music director, played and recorded with Q Tip – most hip hop cats I’ve played with…

Does your new album have a title yet?

‘Black Radio’ – it’s the title track and the song that me and Mos Def wrote together for the record. ‘Black Radio’ – meaning like when an aeroplane crashes and the only thing that survives is the Black Box…

I didn’t know that…?

Whenever an aeroplane crashes, they get all their information on how it crashed and what happened from this thing called the Black Box, or Black Radio. It’s the only thing that survives, so Mos Def has this joke that ‘if that survives-why don’t they make the whole plane like that?’ (laughs). But yeah, ‘Black Radio’ cos I feel like good music will survive, surpass all the bullshit that’s out. And all the artists on the record are black radio personality people/ artists, so it has a double meaning to it.

Yeah, especially with the way that the music industry’s going at the moment – not that it’s going down the drain, but it’s a really crazy time with everything being download – you don’t really get albums you know, people just listen to tracks.

People don’t listen to records anymore, attention spans are shorter…it’s really hard. And everything has to have 19 producers; everybody’s trying to get the ‘hot person’ on a record – nobody does a record where it’s just one producer anymore. Most of the records I love, they just have one producer – ‘Off the wall’, one producer – Radiohead, one producer.

I guess Tribe stuff-

Tribe stuff – is the Ummah. And it’s just one thing.

That one crew.

That’s it. That’s their sound, and this is the record. Nowadays, they have a rapper with like ten tracks and ten different producers and none of it has a vibe – always a different thing so the whole record doesn’t flow.

Yeah, so it’s not one cohesive entity.

Know what I mean? It becomes a money thing like ‘this producer – he’s hot right now’ and it’s not about the music anymore. So, yeah, that’s why music is interesting right now, very interesting (laughs).

Yeah. I hadn’t realised quite how much stuff you’d done with other artists – cos you worked with Ali Shaheed Muhammad on his solo stuff, Bilal on ‘Airtight’s Revenge’ and a ton of others – are there any artists who you haven’t worked with yet that you’d really like to?

There are some artists that I’ve never worked with that I’d like to work with…Busta Rhymes.

Wow. I can’t imagine, cos he’s so hype-

He’s so hype-

On a jazz kind of tip-

Right. But J Dilla did a lot of his early – ‘Woo Hah – Got You All in Check’ – all that shit, that’s J Dilla. Busta’s so great over core progressions, really musical instrumental shit – I love the way he sounds with that. He’s definitely one that I’ve never worked with that I really want to work with, for sure.

That would be very cool.

Yeah. He’s an underrated rapper in general to me. Rhythmically? No-one fucks with him. He phrases his rhymes like a jazz trumpeter – it’s like listening to a jazz trumpet listening to Busta Rhymes. Two of my musician friends actually transcribed Busta Rhymes’ rhythms, because he’s so rhythmically ridiculous. And you can understand everything he’s saying, not in gibberish either. He’s like: ‘you’re going to understand it, and I’m going to say it fast as hell – my rhythm’s gonna be crazy, and what I’m saying is going to be stupid too.’ But, you get past how good he is because of how crazy and shit he is. Sometimes you can see an artist, and not really see how good they are. It’s like Michael Jackson; he’s like…a thing. And he’s so a thing that you forget to be like: ‘wow-let’s just listen to him sing, his vocals’. He can really sing, but you’re in love with Michael Jackson as a whole. So, let’s just break it down, cos Michael Jackson is the greatest artist of all time in my humble opinion. First of all – he’s the most famous person other than Jesus.

Is he?

Who else is more famous than Michael Jackson? What physical person is more famous than Michael Jackson?

Ah…I find it so subjective though – cos there’s so many people to me, like to my friends I’m all ‘I’m gonna meet…Robert Glasper’ and they’ll be like ‘uummmmm’(Robert laughs) Or something like that, so it’s hard to say…

But Michael Jackson – there’s never been a person as famous as Michael Jackson, period. Not even close. Some people are famous in their lane, like The Beatles. Elvis Presley was famous in his lane, but he’s not famous like Michael Jackson – cos he’s been mega-famous since he was six.

Of course.

So think about that – from 6 to 50. He was super-mega famous when he was six, and he’s always been mega famous – no-one’s had that kind of career. If you put everybody famous in a room ever – everybody’s gonna be looking at Michael Jackson. The other person like that to me is Prince – if you put everybody in a room, people are gonna be like ‘there they are!’ Ever been in a room with Prince before?

Um – no.

He’s such a thing, everybody’s just like – you try not to stare but…(both laugh).

Do you think Michael Jackson’s legacy will continue then?

Oh, without a doubt. And the thing about him – he can really sing, but let’s just break it down and talk about his dancing. He invented a way to dance – no-one dances like Michael Jackson. You watch him in his videos when he’s dancing with people behind him and they’re all doing the same moves – but no-one’s doing it like him. And his robot – oh my god. ‘Dancing Machine’.

Takes me back! His music videos are just-

Ridiculous?

Yeah, ‘Smooth Criminal’ was always my favourite – when they do-

The Lean?

All the way down.

Aahhh – and he’s ground-breaking. Always re-creating himself for the world. Trailblazing. So many sides to Michael that he’s innovated. It’s crazy.

How you were saying about people not recognising talent made me think to a chat I had with Lil’ Fame of MOP – he was saying how everyone focuses on the hard-core, bad boy image that generally people don’t appreciate-

What you’re doing?

Yeah, the actual skill and talent they have.

Especially if you’re a person who’s had a hit song that’s on the radio. A lot of the time you don’t know the artist so well – cos you just see them on TV, see what makes them hot, but you don’t really see them as a person. Some people are the total opposite of what you think. I did a show with Ludacris in Atlanta last month. And, you know, ‘Ludacris’ you think…

What was he like?

So quiet and subdued. I went to the strip-club with him (me laughs). All the girls were dancing and he was just (acts all shy) – he’s not what you would think from his videos and stuff. He’s totally the opposite. It’s crazy.

Public image – so much of it is acting – I don’t think people realise that. Last question: could you just describe what music means to you? If you could possibly say…

I mean, for me – music is probably my only real form of expression, to express how I feel. It’s the only thing that really evokes expression for me. I could be happy but you wouldn’t really know it from my face, or you probably wouldn’t see me cry. But it all comes out when I play. So, it’s probably the only way that I can be emotional I guess you could say. I have that problem in relationships – ‘you don’t show any emotions or feelings! – Do you love me or not??’ ‘Yes! I do…’

Like you can’t say it, but you can play it?

Like: ‘You know what? This is how I deal out my shit right here…’ (Motions playing the piano) That’s what music is to me; it’s the way to give and receive emotion. Don’t come up and hug me – play me a song, and I just feel that so much faster

Communication in a way?

Somewhere near there, yeah.

Somewhere.

Yeah, that’s the vibe.

Alice Price-Styles.

http://robertglasper.com/

 

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