Dialed in: What I learned when I put Bay Area music first
I was searching for flavor, not philosophy, but what I found was that the people who were growing the tastiest food were organic farmers in my own backyard, small farmers and ranchers within a radius of a hundred miles or so of the restaurant who were planting heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and harvesting them at their peak.
White Crate is one year old.
What began with a simple post has evolved into a weekly digest of the best new music coming out of Oakland, San Francisco, and the entire Bay. While I know I haven’t captured everything, in the past year I have covered about 400 new releases from about as many artists, and that’s just what crosses my desk. Like many of you, I’ve been a voracious music listener over the past few years, but this project has tuned my ears—not to any one specific genre—but to the music of this place we call home.
So, with the humility of someone still on the beginning of a journey, what have I learned about local music over the past year?
WE OUT HERE
The biggest thing I’ve learned was also the first thing I learned: There is so much good music.
We’re not Los Angeles, New York, or London. This is known. If San Francisco had the output of any of those cities, I would have to do this full time. But it’s also a fact that after initially writing short posts about individual releases, I quickly had to switch to a digest-style newsletter to cover more ground.
And, contradicting what could be expected from a smaller scene, there is a mind-boggling variety of music. It’s not just quantity and quality, but diversity too.
We’re still one of hip hop’s most fun and fiery underbellies, with everything from the mainstream to swaggering stars across the East Bay (Rexx Life Raj, Ian Kelly, Guapdad 4000, LaRussell, Ally Cocaine) to the chillest beatmakers and rappers (Black C, Dregs One, Equipto, Amani Jade, Brycon, and the whole Watershed crew) holding it down in SF. There’s R&B. There’s soul. There’s folk, there’s country, there’s Latin music galore.
Our population is nearly a quarter Latino—and the majority of those are Mexican—but the fact that we have so many different Latin American communities means that it’s not just mariachi and ranchera you hear but Latin-inspired hip hop, rock, electronic, pop and more. Cumbia may be the queen: Performing on horseback at the Oakland Arena this past August, even Mexican-American singing star Pepe Aguilar had to acknowledge que a la Bahía le encanta su cumbia.
Rock? If you had asked me five years ago, I would’ve told you that rock music was dead in the Bay, but what nonsense. Just off the top of my head, Slumberland, Paisley Shirt, and Slang Church are on a tear, constantly releasing amazing new punk, lo-fi, and indie rock.1 As for other “dead” and “dying” genres, classical and jazz each has its obvious world-class experience here—at the San Francisco Symphony and SFJAZZ, respectively—but both also continue to thrive in smaller concert halls, in bars and cafes, in living rooms, in the streets.
And, of course, electronic is the future, and the future has been here for a long time. From ambient to techno, house, and breaks, there are producers and DJs for everyone. Night-making clubs like 1015 Folsom, Public Works, Monarch, Great Northern, F8, and all the rest have held strong through the pandemic so far, and that’s not even to mention the underground (ware)house parties and renegades—whether you find them or they find you. Even better, electronic dance music is being reclaimed by queer people, trans people, pansexual people, people of color, the pioneers.
In spite of all this—and in spite of the Bay’s rich musical traditions—the fact remains that this place isn’t known as a music city. SF Mayor London Breed and Bottom of the Hill owner Lynn Schwarz admitted as much at a recent press event, where they announced the city had secured $2.5 million to fund venues, artists, and other infrastructure as part of a new outdoor concert series kicking off next year.
Well, at least we’re admitting we have a problem. The tech industry may have created a ton of jobs, but that led to skyrocketing rent and cost of living, which in turn led to losing people who couldn’t or didn’t want to work in tech. We joke sardonically about how every great Bay Area artist eventually moves to LA, but the sad truth is that we’ve lost not just artists, but also all the things that even make composition, performance, and musical growth possible.
This is critical. Where the Bay Area lags in comparison to those high-output music metropolises are all the resources and platforms that surround and help bolster musicians and their work. Jeremy Bispo (Founder & Executive Producer of As You Like It) pointed this out when I interviewed him for SF Station last year. Venues, labels, radio stations, record stores, and media publications (including this tiny one) are just some examples of platforms that offer not just a place for music to happen, but for people to discover, celebrate, and share music together.
That’s no small thing: Bringing people together doesn’t just help a band release an album or a DJ get another gig. It also allows people to meet who may not have otherwise, establishing new connections and charging a place with potential—the potential for a simple friendship, a mini-fandom, or even previously unimaginable creative endeavors.
It’s a given that the internet has been an incredible tool in facilitating these connections, in some ways, but we are now all painfully aware that virtual meetings don’t replace real life. And while local politicians seem to mean well with their big promises, it’s ultimately up to the people here to give a shit about investing in the platforms we still have—or even to help construct new ones.
MISE EN PLACE
But is this place worth the investment? Is there anything here of intrinsic value? Does place even matter anymore? When certain artists acquire a certain level of recognition—like Saweetie and Kehlani—they seem to transcend their hometown, pop stars subsumed into a borderless everywhere. And that’s no privilege reserved for the upper echelon anymore: Anyone can be a digital nomad.
Nevertheless, I do still believe that place matters. Without getting into the great questions raised by boundaries (“Where does the Bay Area end and begin?” “At what point does this place become a part of you, no matter where you live?”), there is something undeniable about the power of place. On the most obvious level, place is deeply important to the art of making music. Before performing at FALL MASS, our live ambient showcase in West Oakland, three local artists plainly said so:
“The landscape of the Bay Area has been a huge influence on my aesthetic approach.” — Leila Abdul-Rauf
“I’ve fallen in love with all of its natural landscapes over the pandemic. Nature inspires art.” — Joel St. Julien
“It’s in everything I do, everything I think about when I’m making music. I’m thinking about the redwoods. I’m thinking about Ocean Beach on a sunny or a foggy day. I’m thinking about Sutro Tower, which I see from almost anywhere I am. These different spaces definitely have an impact on my music.” — Dev Bhat
Perhaps this is more true for ambient artists than artists in other genres, so pardon the bias. But it’s no surprise that many people cite natural beauty as one of their favorite aspects of the Bay Area.
Is there more at play than just atmosphere or setting? For one, there’s a decades-old mythology here, and the ghosts of psychedelic San Francisco loom large. We’ve also lost many great ones over the past year, but the list of living legends is thankfully still long. Separately, there’s the effect of many heritages coming together, which is true of many American cities. And, as with other cities, there’s a profound pride, perhaps most preposterously and unabashedly pronounced in hip hop, from “Oakland” (1988) by Too $hort to “Oaklandish” (2020) by E-40. Place matters because of natural beauty. It matters because of everything that came before. But maybe most importantly, place matters because the people here decide it matters.
When 48 hills asked La Doña what keeps her rooted in the Bay, she responded: “The answer is always the people. It’s my family, it’s my friends, it’s my students, it’s the people that I’ve seen growing up on the street.”
And this is the root of it all: Music is still, for the most part, made by real people. So while music can be a very personal experience, it’s important to remember that when you’re listening to music (and even when you’re making your own) you are casting a small but significant vote for a real person—and their community. By way of analogy, a lot of people in the Bay Area at some point remembered why it’s so rewarding to eat food grown locally. Though you may have to pay a little more or work a little harder than you might have for mass-produced groceries, you not only get something that’s higher quality, but you also directly support your neighbors. Everyone wins.
To end, it would be a miss if I didn’t recognize that yesterday was Thanksgiving, a holiday in the U.S. that is simultaneously a time to give thanks and praise for good food and family as well as a reminder of the state-sponsored genocide and oppression of Indigenous people that has occurred here since 1492.
As someone who has thought about this place a lot over the past year—a place with Christian names like “San Francisco” and English names like “Oakland”—I must acknowledge that this is Ohlone land. Collectively, colonial powers have imposed their will on the Bay Area for only 245 years, but it was Ohlone land for thousands of years before that. To me and many others, it is still Ohlone land.
So please support Bay Area artists and labels. And please support Bay Area venues, stations, and publications. But please also support the original people of the Bay Area.
Ready to recognize indigenous people in the Bay? Pay Shuumi.
Shopping for holiday gifts? The Bay Area Record Store Guide by Fault Radio
Feeling generous? Here are some more ideas:
Buy your friends concert tickets!
Tune into Lower Grand Radio this Thursday, November 2 at 8 PM PT for a monthly mix of music from across the Bay Area.