photo by Jenna Rodriguez
This is Part 2 of my interview with DaVinci and Al Jieh of San Francisco’s SWTBRDS label (Part 1 was published via Passion Of The Weiss). In this segment we talk about the history of their label and how its heritage derives from the legendary Fillmore neighborhood where DaVinci grew up.
Alex: How did you guys meet?
Al Jieh: We met through our boy Jay Woo (aka Jay Woozy), who is a Fillmore legend.
DaVinci: We might see him once we go past Fillmore Street. We might just see him on the corner.
Alex: What’s he legendary for?
DaVinci & Al Jieh: (in unison) Just being a character!
Al Jieh: He was a Lil B before there was a Lil B. He is one of the original Bohemian hood dudes from the projects. That’s how I met him, Jay Woo fucked with everybody. He was the first neighborhood politician. He really knew everybody from every neighborhood, all races. I used to joke that he had more Asian friends than I did. He was a connector. So I used to pick him up from his grandma’s house around here. And he was best friends with DaVinci’s older brother.
Alex: (to DaVinci) When did you start rapping?
DaVinci: I’ve been rapping my whole life. I think I can remember writing my first rap when I was about 10 years old. It was over some Tupac beat. Me and my cousin was on the karaoke machine, making our little tape. That’s when you had to record straight through, you couldn’t stop and then punch in. Everybody had to do their verses flawlessly all the way through, all in one take. So we would pass the mike around, and if somebody fucked up we would all be like FUCK WE GOTTA DO THE WHOLE SONG OVER NOW.
Al Jieh suggests that DaVinci tell me about Big Rich
DaVinci: Big Rich was one of my fellow comrades, somebody I grew up with. He lived down the way, in the same building Jay Woozy did. We all grew up together. Rich was a pioneer in Fillmore because he was one of the first kids from our generation who could actually afford a studio. It was a low budget studio, it was in the projects, but it was still a studio. So everybody in the neighborhood used to go to his house to make songs. And he would put out these tapes that we would pass out in school. That’s how you got your props, found out if you was dope or if you wasn’t. S/O to Rich, he’s still doing his thing with the music, still active in the community.
Al Jieh: All of them [DaVinci’s friends] used to be on Done Deal, which was San Quinn’s label. So DaVinci and everybody are a direct lineage from San Quinn. And San Quinn is from JT Tha Bigga Figga’s lineage.
DaVinci: San Quinn, Rappin 4 Tay… Rappin 4 Tay came up with my pops, they’re real tight. He was probably one of the first Fillmore pioneers as far as rap goes.
Al Jieh: That’s why what you’re getting from DaVinci right now is a continuation from the first ever Fillmore rappers to the present. These are people who all were family and friends, who grew up with each other. Everybody knew everybody. That’s why it’s so important that he [DaVinci] is rapping now.
For me… I’m from the peninsula, from the suburbs right outside the city. But everybody from the peninsula just claims the city; that area is in the city’s direct sphere of influence. We were like a satellite. All the rap we grew up on was Frisco rap. And Frisco rap either came from the Fillmore or Hunter’s Point or Lakeview. But the biggest names were from the Fillmore. Fillmore was like the local equivalent of Harlem, it had the most flash. For us kids growing up in the suburbs that was the local rap, that’s what we were exposed to.
For Asians, everybody’s older cousin or brother was a DJ. There were a lot of record shops down in Lower Height, which was also a part of Fillmore. So everybody’s older cousins would go down there and meet the local rappers.
For black guys, the older cousin or brother was a rapper. San Quinn, he was like one of DaVinci’s older brothers. JD [DaVinci] grew up with all of these guys. And for me to cross paths with them later on, while being teenager… You gotta understand, to kids like us somebody like San Quinn was a hero, he was huge. So for me, an outsider, it’s an honor to be working with DaVinci because I’m working with someone who is a direct descendant of the rap I grew up listening to.
And as it turned out, their [DaVinci and friends’] studio it was in the suburbs, in South City. Right up the block from where I had my first piano lesson. The Bay Area at the end of the day is a small place, so people run into each other and it all comes full circle.
Alex: (to Al Jieh) How did you go from piano to rap?
Al Jieh: That was just a part of me getting older, getting into cool music. Cool music was rap music. And like I said, if you were Asian all you older brothers and cousins were DJs. They played freestyle music, which was really big in the Latin and Asian communities. That and hip-hop. And that’s how I got exposed to it.
Alex: Did you start out DJ-ing too?
Al Jieh: I did. But I always played music, I was in band. DaVinci was in the school band too.
DaVinci: (chuckles) I played the trumpet, I played the drums, I played the tuba.
Alex: Do you play any of that on your albums?
DaVinci: Nah, I aint played those since I was a kid. I dropped that shit.
Al Jieh: I think DaVinci’s musicality, it shows through. You can tell where he came from, that he has a musical background. Both of his parents were musicians.
Alex: (To Davinci) Your dad was a blues singer right?
DaVinci: He still is, although he does more gospel music now. He does tours all the time. His name is Sam Devore.
Alex: Did you guys ever tried to get him on your album? How does he feel about you doing rap in general?
DaVinci: He gets down with the rap music. He was in one of my videos. We’re probably gonna end up doing some together. I haven’t found the right song yet. He does gospel music, I wouldn’t want to put him on a song where I talk about bitches and weed and beer. But I’m sure we’ll end up making something. We’re actually working on some music for his project now.
Alex: Does he record with the SWTBRDS guys too?
DaVinci: Nah he’s got his own group, his gospel people who do his backgrounds and instruments. The old heads.
Alex: How did SWTBRDS come together as a label?
Al Jieh: The label had hella versions. It started out as Urban Royalty.
DaVinci: When I started taking rap seriously we kinda just formed something with all the people that used to be around me. We had a couple groups we used to run with. What you see here right now (waves toward himself and Al Jieh), SWTBRDS and Thoroughbred just came together naturally really. We just started doing music together because we met through Jay Woozy.
Alex: Al, what’s your part in the label? I know you’re a producer as part of Drumms & Ammo, are you a manager too?
Al Jieh: Yeah. One day we were at a show that we had, one of the first ones we did, and this dude from Detroit kept trying to holler at JD [DaVinci] about some business shit. He kept saying he was from Big Sean’s camp. And JD just said ‘talk to my manager’ and pointed to me. And from that point on …
Alex: I have give you guys credit, you seem like a well-oiled machine, as far as how you release music, the format of it…
Al Jieh: We appreciate that, especially since there really is no machine. The machine is kinda just what you see in this car. And don’t get us wrong, we got a lot of friends to help us. But it’s really just a group of friends. For example our graphics dude Rob is the guy who taught me how to use Reason, he was pretty instrumental in teaching me how to make beats. Then he stopped making them himself to focus on being a graphic designer, and now he’s the guy who does all our visual stuff, every cover.
Alex: So it’s all in-house?
Al Jieh: Everything in-house. My brother Tim shoots the videos, along with Marcus who was my best friend growing up, and Johan who was DaVinci’s best friend growing up. I do a lot of the video myself too.
Alex: You guys feel the need to multitask? Everybody needs to have a couple of roles?
Al Jieh: Oh yeah, but I wish we didn’t though.
DaVinci: I wish we could hire some guys to do it. I don’t really like to do it.
Al Jieh: The DIY thing is really out of necessity. We used to run with all different people, then we realized that we had friends and family around us who were all doing media stuff, things that we needed. We might as well just all do it together. Me and JD have been making music together for a long time by that point, so why not just really get our act together? Take everything we were learning, and get more serious with it.
I was glad, because after that I didn’t have to worry about selling beats anymore. That was one of the most annoying things I’ve ever had to go through. Rappers asking you to make a beat that sounds like this or that, not paying you on time. So why even bother with that shit when we can do everything in- house. That’s when we really got focused. A lot of it was with the help of Ambush [another member of Drumms & Ammo], he had the studio and more experience too.
Our first studio with Chello Mac was the original… you can’t tell the story of SWTBRDS without the story of Chello Mac…
DaVinci: I gotta tell you this story!
Chello was one of my partnas who I played football with when I was coming up. My sister… I don’t like to put too much of her business out on the street, but my older sister didn’t get her act together. She used to have a lot of traffic, a lot of dudes coming into my momma’s house. And we used to steal their pants while they were in her room, go through their pockets. One time I guess she had a rich traveler tourist type or something, we raided his pants and found $3000 worth of travelers checks. I was with Chello and Johan, we split it 3 ways. We were 16 or so, that was a lot of money to us!
When we got those checks I didn’t even know what they were. Somebody had to explain it to me. That night we ended up going to a studio and Cellski was there. He was a superstar at the time, he offered us some money for them. I didn’t sell mine though; I went around to a bunch of stores and forged the signature, got about $800 out of them. And I just blew my money, on shoes and clothes and shit.
Chello was the only one who saved his, he was talking about getting some studio equipment. And he actually did it, bough whatever the cheap equipment was at that time. Back then you could get a decent studio for a $1000. So we started recording in his closet. And after that he started charging everybody in the neighborhood $5-$10 to do a song. Next thing we knew we had enough money to buy a bigger studio.
Al Jieh: And that studio ended up moving down to Grand Ave in South City, which is right down the block from where I had my first piano lesson. That’s where I met all of them, Jay Woo brought me there. One day he told me “Yo I need to bring you by Chello’s studio to fuck with my boy JD.” At the time DaVinci still went by Infamous JD, he wasn’t even J.DaVinci yet. So I went there with my beat CD, and from that point on we were all fucking with each other. I was there all the time. That where I met a lot of friends that were part of the history of SWTBRDS/Thoroughbred.
That studio ended up being famous, Chello was recording everybody. Messy Marv, San Quinn, Rappin 4 Tay, Cellski, everybody would record out of that studio. We were surrounded by some really great people. I don’t think Chello even realizes that he had a pivotal role in San Francisco hip-hop history.
We keep bringing up the word lineage; I’d say our own started at that studio. And we’re still right there! The Bredquarters [SWTBRDS studio] is still right down the street from there.
Alex: You guys don’t collaborate much with outside people. Once in a while you work with ST and Block Beattaz from Slow Motion Sounds, or Main Attrakionz. Sometimes with some of the older guys from SF, but it doesn’t seem like you guys work that much with them either. I was wondering, is that purposeful?
DaVinci: It’s not like we sit around and think ‘we don’t want to fuck with nobody.’ We’re just so stuck in our own little bubble when we go to record and make music. We make songs , make [more] songs, next thing you know we got an album. When we did the first project it didn’t really even come up that much. Now we try to think about it a little more. If I do have a song I can hear ST on, I’ll definitely throw him on there. Or if Al makes a beat we can hear Freddie Gibbs on, we call him up. There are a couple of other cats we’ve started working with lately, a lot of local cats. The homeys I came up with, I’ll always rap with them. That’s just something we do amongst us as family.
When I say everybody and their momma rap now, I’m dead serious. My momma is coming out with an album. I’m not kidding. A rap album. She’s trying to build a studio in her attic right now.
Alex: What’s her rap name?
DaVinci: I don’t even know. I gotta approve of it though. I gotta make sure I ask!
Al Jieh: We only collaborate with people that we could like… hang out with. Only people we get along with, that’s who you see on the album. It’s not a business move, it’s always just people that we mess with.
For example, you won’t know this but [Main Attrakionz MC] Mondre’s older brother grew up with his [DaVinci’s] older brother in the Fillmore. We figured that out after we met, and then it all made sense… that’s why we clicked.
Alex: If you don’t me asking, do you guys live off the music?
Al Jieh: Hell no.
DaVinci: No, we wish. That’s the goal though.
Al Jieh: Right now we make more money doing other things than what the income would be from the music. So it still makes more sense for us to just build the fan base. We got plenty of work to do on that even in our own back yard. It’s not like every person in SF knows who DaVinci is.
Alex: Beyond local following, how do you feel you’re fitting in with the rest of what’s going in rap right now, in the underground/independent scene?
DaVinci: I feel confident right now in where we stand, as far as the type of music we put out. What makes me feel even more confident, what a lot of people don’t know, is that a lot of the music we put out is old to us. We go into the studio and make music hella easy now. And we’re really excited about the music that we got that people haven’t heard yet. It’s the best music that we’ve made so far.
Alex: So you feel like it’s a progress from what you’ve put out so far, even recently?
Al Jieh: We’re all just getting better. To me, DaVinci is becoming a better rapper. From my side I hope our production is getting better. We’re experimenting with new sounds.
Alex: Your sound has indeed changed some on The MOEna Lisa, you can definitely hear the evolution from the last album and the EPs. But at the same time your new music still has an air of traditionalism about it. It’s almost intangible but it is there. You have a certain ‘old head’ quality about yourself.
DaVinci: Well, my parents come from the soul era, that’s the only music I listened to coming up. I was turned out on soul and blues and jazz before I even heard a rap record.
Alex: What would you say had more influence on you, rap or that original stuff?
DaVinci: To be honest, that original stuff got more influence on me. I think rap just taught me how to rap, how to put what I wanted to say into pattern form. I listen to rap a lot though, don’t get me wrong. Some of my favorite songs are still rap songs. But rap music doesn’t do to me what that old music does to me, as far as what I feel when I listen to it.
Alex: Is that what you’re hoping to do with your music, make soul music but in rap form?
DaVinci: That’s where a lot of the influence comes from but that’s not where it ends. I’m not just strictly soul, I was brought up on jazz, on classical music. I played instruments so I was influenced by Bach and Beethoven too. It doesn’t stop with just soul or rap. Like Al said, this is a big techno music town, so I got an influence of that too. Coming up with my Asian partners, all they used to play in their cars was techno music.
I listened to everything at a young age. There are still some genres out there that are new to me, like Celtic music. But I bet you I could find some Celtic music I like. I try to challenge myself to do that with every genre, to find something I like and put that toward my own music.
Alex: Al what about you, what do you draw on?
Al Jieh: We’re all really similar; I think that’s why we’ve been doing music together for almost a decade now. I think that’s the only way you could really stick together for that long. We joke about how we’ve seen so many of our peers over the years fall out with their crews, they stopped making music or splintered off or whatever. But we’ve have been able to stick together and I think that’s because we all have a common ground in very diverse musical influences. We’re soul and jazz fans but we’re pop junkies too. This dude [DaVinci] will name you half of Cindy Lauper’s albums.
DaVinci: (laughing in agreement) FOR REAL! I had big sisters, a lot of family. We lived in a studio apartment, if my sister wanted to play her Cindy Lauper record then guess what? I had to hear the Cindy Lauper record.
Alex: How long do you guys think it will take before you can turn your label into a profit? Or is that something you just have to take as it goes?
Al Jieh: I think we’ll just take it as it goes. We’ve seen some of our friends go from nothing to blowing up, really just as a result of them being dedicated like we’re dedicated. Just sticking to the script and continuing to put out music. We’ve seen our peers skyrocket, and then we’ve seen other people take a long time and then skyrocket later on. Someone like 2 Chainz, that motherfucker didn’t quit. Guys like Rick Ross and Jeezy, those guys didn’t really blow up till they were older. Not on the national scale at least, they were doing their local thing for a while.
That’s why music really has to be a true labor of love. You really have to actually enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, it really isn’t worth it. It’s not worth it in terms of the time; it’s not worth it in terms of the money. But why do we continue to do it? Because we actually enjoy it.
I could never just look at music and think about making money, because there are so many easier ways to make money! Why would I even want to make music, from that perspective, when I can make money in other ways much easier and much quicker? It wouldn’t even make sense. So it’s clearly not a money situation. And that’s where it goes back to that passion. That’s the only way you can really stick to it.
Alex: Do you see yourselves ever doing anything else? Either one of you?
DaVinci: Naaah (Al Jieh echoes the same). I’m one of those dudes who really love doing this shit so much that I would be doing it whether you [the audience] were here or not, whether we were putting our music out or not. We’ve been doing it and just letting our homeys enjoy the music since we were kids. The fact that people like you are even recognizing it now is huge. It’s a big motivator to keep going. Up until recently it was really just us enjoying our music. We were thinking about putting it out but not strategically, not about how we’re gonna make money with it. We just like making the music.
Al Jieh: We’re just happy right now that people even like it. For a long time it’s really just you and your friends listening to it. The fact that there are people we don’t know that like it, that’s definitely a big motivator.
Alex: Do you feel like the response you have been getting has been growing?
DaVinci: Definitely. Everywhere I go now people are telling me how much they love my music. Before, I was just Johnny from around the way (chuckles). I had a reputation for other things too. It’s good that people can enjoy something that we enjoy doing. Kinda like the dude who got the hot dog stand… he might make a great hot dog, put all the tender loving care into the hot dog because he really wants to see motherfuckers enjoy that hot dog. Not because he really wants to make money, but because he gets pleasure from seeing someone else enjoy his creation. That’s the root of what we do.
CONTINUED IN PART 3