This is Part 3 of my interview with DaVinci and Al Jieh of San Francisco’s SWTBRDS label. In this segment we talk about the history of Bay Area rap, certain misconceptions about it, and how SWTBRDS fits into the overall legacy of the region.
As our ride continues we talk more about the close knit nature of The Bay Area’s rap scene, how the connections shared by DaVinci and Al Jieh exemplify working relationships that developed between residents of disparate city and suburban regions. My girlfriend mentions Marin County, a luxurious suburban outpost located across the bridge from SF. The guys laugh and trade jokes about the wide gap between that county and their own world, then turn up a surprising nugget of trivia. — Alex Piveysky
DaVinci & Al Jieh: (remembering nearly in unison) Tupac was from Marin City!
Al Jieh: Marin City was one of the worst areas, but it was very small. There was just a small pocket of projects there and that’s where Tupac was from. That’s where he got all his game.
DaVinci: He went to High School there, in Marin.
Al Jieh: (pronounces categorically) Tupac was from The Bay!
Tupac Shakur may have been from the East Coast, but Pac is from The Bay (DaVinci echoes same.) No one can ever take that from us. New York wants to claim him, LA wants to claim him… I’m sorry but Pac was from The Bay.
DaVinci: Look at All Eyez On Me, look how many Bay Area rappers are featured on that album. There are more features from here than from anywhere else, that’s who he really fucked with. E-40, Rappin 4 Tay, C-Bo (who is from Sacramento but that’s like the distant cousin of The Bay), Richie Rich, Dru Down. That’s another part of the reason why The Bay loved Pac, he got big and then helped everybody else get bigger. Nobody else has been willing to do that for local rappers since then, for whatever reason.
The Bay, all together, is just a pocket that I feel like the industry tried to forget about. But the internet is helping, it’s given our area a bigger reach.
Alex: Let’s talk about that… we’ve talked about how you fit into the legacy of your neighborhood, let’s expand that to the whole region. And how do you feel about what’s going on in Bay music right now in general?
DaVinci: I think we’re still in the same place we’ve always been – making great music. There’s a lot of variety here, like there always has been. SF and Oakland are two completely different worlds, so their music sounds completely different. Then you go out to Richmond and the suburbs and the music there is also a little different. But it’s all good.
San Francisco music – I feel like I define that sound right now, as far as past, present and future. I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep that history going, and that’s a high bar. I’m just thankful that people are actually paying attention to it now. Hopefully the world will see it too. There is still a lot of unknown history about the role that The Bay played as far as making rap music.
We pretty much know New York’s story, all the boroughs. I’ve never been there but when I got there I felt like I knew a lot about it. I was a fan of East Coast hip-hop, I grew up on all that shit. But up until this point, the stories like we’ve been telling you about the role that we [The Bay] played, the rest of the world doesn’t really know that. And it goes deep too, it goes deeper than just making music. It goes into real life situations that happened behind the scenes. I think the internet is definitely going to help the world see that.
Al Jieh: What’s really promising is that you do find some bloggers on the little blogs who do their research, do their homework to try to really understand us, to understand that history and diversity.
Alex: Ok so if you’re ‘the San Francisco sound’, who is the Oakland sound?
DaVinci: In my eyes? There are a lot of dudes doing their thing in Oakland right now; there are a lot of dope ass rappers there that people don’t know about. Oakland is really the black mecca of The Bay. All the black people in the area originated from there. Oakland had the train yards, so that’s where people would get off at when the trains came from the South. Most of my family first came there and then moved to SF.
Back to the rappers, DB Tha General is definitely doing his thing in Oakland. I love DB, he is the definition of the energy of the young cats that are growing up in that town right now. That chemical baby generation, he’s a direct reflection of that. J.Stalin is another dude doing his thing in West Oakland, his whole Live Wire camp. They represent West Oakland in exactly the way it is, like it or not.
Al Jieh: If you go to Oakland, if you just see the way that city looks, you can almost tell why SF rap always sounded different. It’s always gloomier around here, SF is always cloudy. Oakland is a lot sunnier. So SF rap always sounded different. SF rap sounded a little more complex. Guys like Quinn or Cougnut were always lyricists, they were real rappers.
DaVinci: Oakland was Too Short, SF was Rappin 4 Tay and San Quinn. Their content was similar but the style was different. SF rap is a little more complex.
Al Jieh: SF rappers would rap about the same type of psychological stuff that NY rappers talked about.
Alex: This just occurred to me as you were talking… You say you come from a more lyrical tradition, and a lot of people compared your earlier work to NY/East Coast rap. I know you guys weren’t big fans of that comparison. Now it starts to connect… maybe your style was (and still is) being mistaken for the New York style because a lot of people simply automatically associate that kind of lyricism with the East Coast?
DaVinci: EXACTLY! I’m glad you put it like that, I never actually thought about it like that but you’re right.
Al Jieh: That’s basically what it is! Why can’t somebody from SF be lyrical? Just because you guys haven’t listened to more classics from this region, you’re making your judgment on him [DaVinci] without really understanding the lineage of Fillmore rap.
DaVinci: (half-joking but also half-serious) It’s the quintessential East Coast bias shit!
Al Jieh: It’s the same with the sampling! You listen to old SF shit, even stuff like RBL Posse, it was all samples too! So why is it that just because we sample we sound like NY? ALL SF RAP WAS SAMPLES! Go back and really listen to it! But they don’t give The Bay Area that credit. They don’t even want to remember that far back! Or the only thing they will remember is Too Short saying ‘Beeeeetch!’
DaVinci: Listen to Too Short’s ‘The Ghetto’! People forget all about that song. There are samples, and what he’s talking about is actually conscious rap. And that’s what I tried to do with ‘What You Finna Do?’ [one of the songs on DaVinci’s official debut album The Day The Turf Stood Still].
Al Jieh: We always thought that song was like our version of ‘The Ghetto’. So I was really mad when people were writing about it saying ‘he’s trying to do this East Coast thing, he’s trying to copy boom-bap’!
DaVinci: It was like, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!?! It irked us when we saw that, why does it have to be us doing some East Coast shit?
What many people who aren’t from here don’t realize is people from SF even talk completely different from people in Oakland. And people from Oakland sound different from Vallejo people. San Quinn and Too Short talk completely different. Me and J.Stalin, we talk and act different, we got different demeanors. Or when you go out to Richmond, somebody like Iamsu!, they grew up in a different time in an area that’s completely different. They live in suburbs where you can throw house parties, shit like that. That’s why their music sounds like that, it’s house party music.
We grew up in the city, where it’s fast paced. Fillmore was like the Motown of the West Coast at one point. This is where Sly Stone is from! My mom told me how she once sat on a stoop of her house and watched Jimi Hendrix playing at the park across the street. They were neighborhood locals along with my family.
SF is actually kinda similar to New York. I stayed on the East Coast for a while, so I can see the similarities.
Al Jieh: San Francisco is the closest thing to New York on the West Coast. Just in terms of population density, the way certain neighborhoods look. We go out there and see certain things that remind us of home. But you don’t really see things [in NY] that remind you of Vallejo. And that underlines why SF music sounds different from Oakland or Vallejo music.
Vallejo is more country, it’s like the Bay Area country. It’s further out North, it’s all flat. So it’s not like DaVinci’s music sounds New York-ish, it’s more like the people writing about it are just not familiar with the geography out here. They assume every Bay Area rapper sounds like they’re from Vallejo or Oakland.
DaVinci: Then you go down to LA and again it’s completely different. Their rap culture is a gang-banging culture; that or the hippy-ish Afrocentric stuff like Pharcyde. Their music is also a reflection of where they’re from.
Al Jieh: And the big question is, ‘why do people from The Bay or from the West Coast in general have to sound like they’re from LA?’ LA has a totally different sound!
Alex: Do you feel overshadowed by LA?
Al Jieh: That’s kinda natural… it’s Hollywood, it’s the bigger city, one of the biggest and most influential in the world. But then I’ve read about how some of Snoop’s biggest influences are E-40 and Too Short. The LA guys grew up listening to all that. A lot of people don’t realize, G-Funk is really Mobb music… they’re related, like they’re cousins. But I will admit LA was able to enhance that sound, they got so many musicians out in LA that they were able to make the sound bigger. They took it further.
I think one of the big issues, like DaVinci said, is that people don’t really know the story of hip-hop from around here. So it’s our duty to get it out there I guess.
DaVinci: That’s part of our job!
Al Jieh: Every rapper out here, it’s their duty to continue to excel and do well so they can tell that story. Without implying any disrespect, there is so much more to Oakland than just Too Short. He was a founding father, but he was from a different generation. There is so much more to Oakland… so I want to see everyone to blow up, from all the neighborhoods. There is so much of a story to tell!
DaVinci: I like that challenge though. That’s what keeps me going hard, that challenge to make sure we keep the torch lit.
Al Jieh: At the end of the day, DaVinci just wants his story to be told. But at the same time, he wants it to be heard on his terms. He’s not here to shuck and jive for anybody. That’s why he always says that his music isn’t for everybody. He’s not trying to make the most universal sounding music. His music is more for people who can identify with his story, because that’s really all his music is about. His story and his neighborhood, nothing much beyond that.
And I think that’s why so many people tend to say that his music sounds like a throwback. If you look at rap now, most people aren’t really rapping about their story anymore; at least outside of the underground. They’re rapping is driven more by the persona they create, and their style is based on that persona. DaVinci’s style is driven by his story
A lot of homeys keep saying ‘YO it’s time for you guys to do a radio song!’ (Both laugh) ‘JD I know you can do one of those radio songs’ or ‘Al I know you can make one of those beats!’ But that’s really not a concern for us. I have friends high up in K-MEL, our local radio station, so it’s not like we don’t have access to those venues. At this point, that just doesn’t seem the right way to go.
‘What’s next’, that’s the big thing everyone keeps asking us right now. And I always answer ‘it’s probably not what you think it is.’ Because everyone thinks it’s to try to get on the radio.
DaVinci: Nahhhhh. But you know what I do like – sometimes they end up just playing one of my songs [on the radio] without me having to ask them to play it. When they’re just finding out about me naturally, like they’re supposed to. That means a lot more to me than just pushing a button to submit to them. If they end up getting the record that tells us we’re moving in the right direction.
Alex: Do you ever see yourself making a song that’s in your style, without any compromise, that can still become a huge hit?
DaVinci & Al Jieh: (in unison) Hell yeah!
Al Jieh: There’s a funny misconception about rappers on the internet, that they don’t really want to blow up. Everybody wants to blow up, why wouldn’t you want to blow up? But at the same time we want to blow up on our terms. That’s the main difference; we don’t want to do some hoe shit to get on the radio.
At this point our ride and talk has gone on for more than 2 hours, and we decide to wrap up. DaVinci leaves me with these parting words…
DaVinci: I’m gonna tell you why The Bay is sometimes kinda bitter… LA gets a lot of the credit for shit that started in The Bay. Like you said, we do get overshadowed, it’s Hollywood after all. For example – En Vogue, people think they’re from LA. Toni Tony Tone – people think they’re from LA, but they’re from The Bay. Tupac was from The Bay, but gets credited as being from LA for some reason. No disrespect overall, if that’s how the ball rolls then that’s how it is. We love LA too. But we are still just a little bit bitter though.
Jenna: I get that a lot in New York, when people find out I’m from California they assume it’s LA. And I gotta tell them: NO, IT’S BAY AREA.
DaVinci: (laughs) See, that’s why we got a little chip on our shoulder.