Doing It from Scratch

Self-taught guitarist the Genie invents his own genre.

The Genie — né Luis Monterrosa — is one of those rare, idealistic, slightly insouciant individuals who ditched a master’s program at Cal to become a street busker in Canada. And we’re not talking top-tier busking either (if such a thing exists) — we’re talking metro stations with an open guitar case. In the summer of 2002, the 34-year-old self-taught guitarist left his Latin American Studies graduate program with vague plans to turn music into a full-time vocation. By then, Monterrosa had rechristened himself “the Genie,” after falling in love with a lyric from the song “Stepping Out” by roots-reggae band Steel Pulse: I know you’ll find it hard to believe that/I am the genie of your lamp/I can do anything you wish/But right now I am commanding you to dance. He was preoccupied with the generative power of music; his populist ideals were leading him further and further away from the Ivory Tower. That summer Monterrosa traveled to Montreal to visit a friend. He brought a guitar, a newly fashioned self-image, and the hope of finding some form of enlightenment. And with a little luck, the Genie ended up consolidating his career.

It’s little surprise that the Genie was able to convince people in Montreal that he was some type of somebody in his hometown of San Francisco. After all, he cuts a striking figure. Small and slight, with burnished-blond dreadlocks and a handsome, well-chiseled bone structure, he has a slightly preternatural appearance that befits the name “Genie.” A second-generation Guatemalan-American, he was born in San Francisco’s Mission District, where he still resides. His mother is a spiritual healer of relative local renown. His stepfather — who passed away thirteen years ago — immigrated to the US seeking political asylum from El Salvador, and wound up cooking at an Italian restaurant in Tiburon. The Genie was a rock fan who taught himself how to play guitar at age fourteen, and later got exposed to world music and hip-hop by virtue of living in the Mission. Protean tastes and a willingness to experiment with his instrument became the linchpin for Genie’s success.

When he first took up guitar, Monterrosa tried to emulate hard-rock idols of the ’80s like James Hetfield and Slash. By the time he decided to pursue music full-time, his tastes had modernized a great deal — he was heavy into electronic music and turntablism, particularly San Francisco DJs like Q-Bert and Quest, who came up not too far from his neighborhood. Rather than shift to a new medium, Genie applied his interest in higher-tech, electronic sounds to the melodic base of the guitar. He added a Line 6 loop pedal and beatboxing into a microphone while running a slide along the frets, to get hooks and a beat that sounded like something you’d hear from Cheb-I-Sabbah. During his first summer in Canada, the Genie showed up to the Montreal DMC turntable competition with all his gear, talked his way backstage, played a few songs, and won enough people over to get a slot where one performer had canceled.

“It was really strange that it even worked, it was sort of a long shot, you know?” said Genie, who introduced himself as the world’s first “scratch guitarist.” The term is apropos, since his style of playing — holding the guitar horizontally, running a slide along the frets, tapping against the strings with his fingertips, and manipulating the pickups to get a “wah-wah” sound, while beatboxing into the mic and working the loop pedal with his feet — resembles the techniques of scratch turntablists. (Whereas a turntablist turns a beat-making machine into a melodic instrument, the Genie makes a melodic instrument sound more like a beat-making machine.) Seen live, he has the effect of a one-man band: He’ll pluck a lick with his right hand, distort it with his left, and loop it with his foot, while boom-chicking into a microphone. In fact, there’s another meaning to the “scratch guitar” moniker, said the Genie: “I make everything from scratch.”

The result is mesmerizing, since it requires enough rhythmic coordination to make everything seem effortless. One of the Montreal DMC judges, DJ Horg, was so taken with Genie that he offered to produce his first solo album, which ultimately sold 4,000 copies. Since then, the artist has enjoyed moderate success and managed to eke out a living doing music full-time. The going is rough, said the guitarist, but he’s managed to attain a cult following. He’s currently recording a compilation with eight Bay Area emcees and a producer named El Diablo (aptly titled The Genie and the Devil) and plans to return to Montreal in about a month, to cut another record with Horg. He has no intention of going back to UC Berkeley.

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