The Hidden Economics of Oakland's Rap Bohemia
Are these starving hip-hop artists in Oakland underdogs—or the 1 percent of the no-budget rap game?
Members of Oakland's bohemian rap scene, including Mike Melero, second from right in the back row, and Antwon Williams, center
In our weekly Hustlin' series, we go beyond the pityingarticles about recession-era youth and illuminate ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.
At San Pablo and 32nd, at Myth Lab’s chained-up back fence, a dog named Jolene comes out to bark at me while someone grabs the key for the padlock. The building, a big white box, was probably a single-unit storefront at some point in Oakland’s history. Now, Mike Melero and two friends split the $1,100 rent, sleeping in lofts in the back and recording bands and shooting videos in the front.
A few months ago, I fell in love with Sick Sad World, the Tumblr Melero runs with a few friends to promote their monthly party of the same name. The no-budget rap videos they post are fascinating: rappers ranging from unsigned veterans to hammy tweens filming with whatever camera is handy, showing off their neighborhoods, making cuts on a home computer, then tweeting it out. Scrolling through the blog’s archives feels like witnessing the highest-tech democratized art yet, like running your fingers along a growing crack in a very old wall. I’m about to get a peek behind the scenes of the scene.
I’ve arrived right after a shoot. In Myth Lab’s hybrid kitchen-living room-recording booth, a banana suit is crumpled on the floor. Some dudes are breaking down a makeshift TV studio, packing the two borrowed DSLRs and the audio recorders into a punk-patch backpack. Some other dudes are drinking hard liquor out of plastic cups and eating a huge cold pizza.
The recording bay is a sort of pantry in a hallway stuffed with half a dozen keyboards, a mixing board, a working reel-to-reel, a USB mixer, and an old MacBook Pro playing an iTunes mix through an amp. The MacBook cost $300 on Craigslist, which is where most everything else came from; the only new-with-tags purchase was the $200 Ableton mixer, which fits in Mike’s backpack when he bikes to gigs. I ask if he paid for the software. “No, I had to crack it,” he says. “The mixer came with two free software installs, but I gave them both away to friends.”
Melero is in a rare position. At this point, he says, he “works” three days a month, while the rest of his income comes from DJing, booking shows, and recording bands. He’s a full-time self-employed creative professional, despite having dropped out of school two credits from graduation to follow some friends on tour. Does he have student loans to worry about? “Nah,” he says, then clarifies, “I mean, I should be worrying about them at some point, but I’m not.” In the tradition of Saul Alinsky, Melero offsets his expenses with an EBT card; in the tradition of ODB, he live-tweetedhistrip to the welfare office.
I chat with Zach Romero, the party photographer for Sick Sad World and a cameraman at tonight’s shoot. Photography is clearly the light of his life, and he’s working two part-time jobs at age 33 to make it happen; he tells me, smiling, about saving up for 18 months to buy a new lens. Sick Sad World will start paying him for his services with next month’s party. Romero is excited, but less about the money than the knowledge that his work is helping his friends. “I just love being able to capture a moment,” he says. “I’d do it for free.”
This anti-Jeezyesque financial agnosticism is a common sentiment in the room, and perhaps a necessary one, too. In Oakland’s scene, nobody sees real income from music releases, physical or digital, and nobody’s even bothering to get signed to a label. Live shows and parties are a relatively reliable source of income, but Melero and his crew do a lot of free shows, too, just to ensure that people will come out. The recording studio brings in money, but chasing down outstanding invoices becomes a full-time job when the rent is due. The old chestnut that “art isn’t about money” exists for a reason: to provide a sense of normalcy for artists living on old pizza.
But money isn’t the only issue. Making art into a full-time job—indie or industry—can require years of scraping with no guaranteed payoff. It becomes a much smoother path if you’ve got a phone full of friends from whatever art school, enough spare time to hone and promote your work, and family who can support you and who don’t need to be supported. Social capital is still capital, and in our economic system, an art career is a luxury purchase. Art has always been a means for a city’s disenfranchised neighborhoods to have a voice, but any given gallery, any writer’s room, any grants foundation will be stocked with other neighborhoods’ success stories.
Sitting in Myth Lab, I get a glimpse of how the East Bay no-budget rap scene could flip this. There’s a model here to counter a millennia-old art-economic class system—if everyone can access the means to make a music video, maybe everyone can access the means to make a living on art, like Melero is doing.
There are also some familiar patterns at work. It’s an unscientific sampling, but at the moment, I’m in a room with five of the scene’s movers and shakers, and none of them has to worry about supporting their parents. They’re also all dudes, and disproportionately white, especially for West Oakland. And there’s thousands of dollars of audio and video equipment lying in the hallway. What’s to stop this crew from cashing out for desk jobs in a few years, being satisfied with their cool-dad stories, and leaving the next generation of disenfranchised artists with nothing to build on?
The room is skeptical of my concern about access and money; the new system, they say, has arrived, and anyone can succeed on their own terms. Don’t have a camera? Use your phone. Don’t have a computer? Use the ones at the library. Don’t know people? Get on Twitter already. “There is no secret Internet that people with cell phones can’t access,” says Lucas Noah, the owner of the abandoned banana suit. “Look, nobody gets into art to make money!” Noah argues that economic considerations don’t really factor in until you’re 40—and this scene isn’t 40-year-olds.
He’s right, of course. But these guys have a lot of say in how much money the scene makes, and everyone here can afford to be poor. I came to talk to some underdogs, but I might actually be interviewing the 1 percent of the no-budget rap game.
I catch Chippy Nanda, aka Chippy Nonstop, on the phone with 35 hours left in her bus ride from Oakland to South by Southwest. Nanda is a former journalist and social media manager who’s now enrolled in art school. Like Melero, she has no day job. She’s a 20-year-old professional partier with a knack for meeting people, an “Imaflirt.com” tattoo, and impeccable gif sense. Nanda’s Soundcloud is full of party raps about her vagina and her immigration status; she’d be rare in any arts scene, but she’s got surprisingly little company in Oakland’s. Women still have a hard time breaking in, she says: “Girls are always beefing, but part of the reason for that is that girl rappers are only ever compared to each other.” Melero saw her dancing on a table at a party one night, then found her on Twitter the next day, which led to her hosting Sick Sad World.
She has mixed feelings about working in Oakland. On one hand, everyone’s down to help out with whatever for free. On the other hand, nobody wants to pay for anything. “Nights that are jumping in L.A. are just totally dead in Oakland,” she says. “People won’t come into a show if it’s five dollars! They’ll just sit on the curb and drink a forty. Seriously, I’ve hosted shows in Oakland that I got paid $50 for. They’re fun… but they’d pay $300 in another city.” She keeps her expenses low while bouncing from music festival to music festival, eating free food and crashing with friends. But she’s also never not on Twitter. She’s paying her bills with homegrown social capital.
* * *
Marty Aranaydo, aka DJ Willie Maze, comes by Myth Lab with fresh-printed STAY HATIN stickers for the crew. The group resolves to head to a backyard party in the neighborhood. Noah and Aranaydo ride in my car so we can buy beer; everyone else takes bikes.
Aranaydo is something of an elder statesman, having seen the Bay Area’s mid-'90s warehouse rave scene rise up and get smashed back down once it was big enough to be noticed. “If you need to make art, and you’ve got five jobs and a kid and one leg, you’re going to find a way to make art. You don’t need a million dollars to make a music video. If you don’t have time, shoot it over five days,” he grins at Melero, who’s wandered over, “and make sure Mike wears the same outfit five days in a row for continuity. That’s not hard.” But Aranaydo also knows artists who’ve quit—people who had to get "real jobs" to support families, well-respected graffiti artists who’d jump at a sponsorship in a heartbeat but whose nights are just nights now. Artists who can no longer opt into art.
The party turns out to be in the backyard of a North Oakland mansion. There’s a fire pit, a chicken coop, about 40 community-art-college punks, and a woman hula-hooping fire. Someone explains seapunk to me as “wearing seafoam and wanting to fuck a dolphin! It’s fucking sick!” Is the scene in a renaissance? I ask. “Fuck no! Everyone’s a DJ!”
Aranaydo tells me about his long involvement with Bay Area activism through art. He tells me about how his parents met at the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, and how he booked dead prez for a massive rally against racist gang injunctions in the late '90s. “We lost that fight,” he says. “But we recruited a lot of new people and got them trained for the next fight.”
We talk about the Oakland Arts scene, with a capital “A”—the projects the city bestows funding and legitimacy upon, to “improve” low-income neighborhoods that neither the city nor the artist will ever spend money in. I mention my skepticism about the true agenda of the meme that art isn’t about money, that maybe the noble "starving artist" is a way to keep already-starving people out of art.
“Well, I saw an interview just this week with [graffiti artist] Barry McGee, who came up graf writing like the rest of us—I was in a show with him in 1996, that’s my homie,” Aranaydo says. “And he said: ‘Art is a tax write-off for rich people, which allows us the room to come up with bigger and better shit.’ You know, he’d do it anyway, but if they pay him to do it, that’s great. He’s got a daughter now. That’s part of why I’m working with these guys, trying to get them to move past free warehouse shows. If the scene doesn’t support itself, it just cycles back out again. We’ve seen that happen in the Bay so many times.”
Mike teaches me the Trill Team Six handshake as I leave. I feel pretty special.
* * *
Antwon, née Antonio Williams, is a South Bay kid whose dreams of attending art school were over before they began. The friend who got him into rapping, he says, is the same friend that introduced him to Napster. A few months ago, Williams was approached on Twitter by Brandon Tauszik, a West Oaklander-of-convenience with his own production studio and a string of free weekends. The result is the gorgeous video for the Antwon track ‘Helicopter.’ By all accounts, it’s a collaboration of creative equals; the two planned by email for months before meeting in person. And while the obvious financial benefit is Williams’—Tauszik puts the video’s weekday-client equivalent cost at "well into five figures"—the finished product benefits both portfolios, in different ways. Neither party is simply the other’s tax write-off. The dynamic of the social-capital 1 percent, if it’s present here at all, is fascinatingly garbled.
And in the three weeks since posting, rap heads have watched Williams pour Sriracha onto his waffles 30,000 times. Twitter can’t replace the social capital of four years at Julliard, but it did just make a buzz-worthy music video. “The Internet is a big help,” says Williams. “That’s number one. If it weren’t for the Internet, I’d still be stuck playing an open mic at a shitty coffee shop in Cupertino, hosted by some white afro-having douchebag and rapping to a bunch of people who don’t even like rap.”
Meanwhile, Melero has started booking an artists’ night in San Francisco. Noah is recording bands and booking shows at his own West Oakland space. Nanda has just hired a publicist. A disproportionate number of the scene’s skilled jobs—recording engineer, camera operator—are held by white dudes, but they’re sharing those skills with people who didn’t or couldn’t go to school. And parties are slowly training people to pay more for shows, so they can properly pay more people, so more people can do bigger and better things for them.
It remains to be seen if this crew will build something sustainable out of this new patronless economy of rent parties and hashtags, and who that system will sustain. But Oakland has a long history of art as a force of justice. And there’s certainly a lot of talent and energy getting posted to the Sick Sad World Tumblr at 3 a.m.—brand-new works, in a medium for which the rules aren’t totally written yet. We’ll find out soon how the Myth Lab model fills in the blanks.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Tauszik