(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)
“Runnin Wit Us” by DaVinci (produced by Merk S. Villain)
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.