As head of the innovative Oakland-based label Deepblak Recordings, producer Armon Bazile always has his eyes wide open to the pulse of emerging music in the Bay Area. “The musical underground railroad is rumbling,” he said. “There’s some brilliant stuff going on, especially here in Oakland. A lot of people are taking chances again.” But for Bazile (aka Aybee), it’s been an uphill battle without armor.
Deepblak’s brand of mind-expanding Afrofuturism — rich, melodic post-techno, electronic, and jazzy dance-music hybrids — hasn’t been typically embraced by his community, which tends to favor Oakland’s “hyphy” party hip-hop and gangster street tales. “I’m from the Town but people hear this stuff and think I’m from Europe,” said Bazile, who grew up in East Oakland before recently moving to the more affluent Grand Lake neighborhood.
Bazile recalled an incident where a clubgoer spit on a friend’s turntables because he didn’t have any songs by E-40. “It wasn’t an isolated incident,” he said. “Anything left of center isn’t accepted. That’s a problem when your mind is that closed that you can’t listen to anything outside of what media feeds you.”
However, audiences and artists are increasingly starting to embrace electronic music. Locally, artists such as AmpLive and rising producer Trackademicks are fusing elements of house and techno with hip-hop. Nationally, Black Eyed Peas’ house-inspired “I Gotta Feeling” (produced by French house DJ David Guetta) has shown how electronic music can give new life to the stagnant pop genre.
In addition to his own releases, Bazile’s label has issued diverse electronic sounds by Oakland’s Blaktroniks, Afrikan Sciences, and Damon Bell; a collaboration between Bazile and Toronto’s Trinidadian Deep; and a compilation (Deepblak Presents Blaktropolis) featuring artists like North Carolina’s Erik Rico and New York’s Black Jazz Consortium. The local crew occasionally meets at Bazile’s pad to exchange ideas and upload videos to the label’s web site. It’s a true Town collective as deep as the Hieroglyphics or the Zoo Complex — the only problem is, no one cares about techno in Oakland.
Were Deepblak based in Detroit or Europe, where electronic music thrives, the story would be different. In fact, Bazile’s strongest radio, club, and press support comes from Europe, where tastemakers such as DJ Mickey Blanco and web site BeyondJazz.net have given high praise to the label’s works. As an all-black electronic record label based in the East Bay, Deepblak has not only pioneered a new sound but has had to struggle to gain acceptance in their local community.
“You have people that don’t think electronic music was started here, that don’t think it was started by black people,” Bazile said, referring to the United States. “They have no idea.”
The techno genre briefly flirted with commercial success in this country at its height in the late Eighties and early Nineties before fading from the mainstream spotlight. It’s something that became “big in Europe” and a whisper in underground club circles. African-American electronic musicians Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson are credited as the godfathers of techno, pioneering the Detroit sound in the Eighties that became the springboard for its many offshoots and subgenres. Almost simultaneously, DJ Frankie Knuckles was developing house music in Chicago while DJs like Larry Levan popularized it on the New York club scene. It was a fast-paced evolution that embraced technology. Two decades later, Bazile says that his approach is no different than his predecessors’.
“It’s a progressive, future-tinged black music,” said Bazile. Deepblak’s artists aren’t trying to create a new genre, he says, but rather “we’re just playing with advanced tools, articulating 21st-century blues music with all the technology that we have.”
At six-foot-six, Bazile could have pursued his passion for basketball. Or he could have followed in his father’s footsteps and gotten into local politics. Bazile’s father, Leo, was an Oakland city councilman who, at different points in his career, worked for former California governor and Oakland mayor Jerry Brown and with former San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Though he played college ball and majored in political science, Bazile was bitten by the art bug.
Bazile always had music stuck in his head. He was a fidgety kid who constantly made beats on his desk with his hands, while other kids rapped to it. Slowly, his handmade beats became more intricate and, in high school, he picked up some equipment and started producing. Not taking it seriously, he put it down until 1998, when he started the now-defunct SFNite.com, an online magazine that covered San Francisco nightlife. Inspired by the DJs and producers he’d befriended on the club scene, he went back to his old habit. Except what he heard in his head was different from what he heard in the clubs, and these new sounds frustrated him to no end. Making music, he says, was a means to save his sanity. “It got to a point where it was driving me crazy, like literally: “‘Ahh! Get this rhythm out of my head!'”
Bazile founded Deepblak in 2001 as a home for avant-garde soul music and an outlet to release his own material. Technically astute, Bazile has an open-minded approach to music, toying and experimenting with new sounds. Sonically, he’s like a techno equivalent of the late Detroit production genius J Dilla, fiddling with buttons and knobs on the Starship Enterprise, inhaling nebulous matter while drifting toward a distant star. His official full-length debut under his Aybee moniker, East Oakland Space Program, released this year on Deepblak, finds him flexing his versatility with complex arrangements that stretch from broken-beat jazz to rhythmic techno grooves. Equally fit for the club or for lounging, the album has mellow, deep house cuts like “Ozzie Davis” while Erik Rico provides the vocal assistance for future soul jam “So Much Greater.”
There isn’t a singular term to define Bazile’s music, which is why he operates under various aliases. In November, he released his third EP Breads and Circuses under his “Oakland’s One and Only” (o 1 o) identity. The album is comprised of progressive hip-hop influenced productions that Bazile refers to as “cosmic slap.”
Deepblak’s music is as Oakland as Too $hort’s, rooted in the same bass-heavy culture that has trunks rattling up and down MacArthur Boulevard. (In fact, Blaktroniks’ 1996 debut, Return of the Afronaut, features a dedication to Too $hort, titled “Autobiography of a G.”) When making a beat, Bazile makes sure the drums hit him in the chest. He also makes it a point that the next song he creates renders the previous obsolete. “I’m trying to push the boundaries,” Bazile said. “Not in an egotistical way, but I’m trying to push my boundaries and what we’re bringing to the table.”
Now in his late thirties, clean shaven except for a chin shrub, and dressed sharply in a plain white button-up shirt and jeans, he looks like the CEO of a computer software startup. Which, in a way, he is. Bazile views himself not as a label head but an art dealer. Deepblak’s artists create the music, and his job is to frame it and expose it to the world. The label provides a platform for its artists and the freedom to express music “free of boxes,” Bazile said.
“Imagine all of us sitting in preschool and someone gives this kid a whole crayon box and they only give you four colors,” he continued. “You can only color on half the page, and you can only use the blue three times. That’s not art.” Bazile, who, when not cooped up in his studio, works in the nonprofit sector as a consultant and community organizer, sees artistic constraints as responsible for killing Oakland’s music culture. “When you put these limitations on peoples’ creativity, you take the power away.” By contrast, Bazile has given creative power and an expansive palette to a host of talented local producers.
In Oakland, monthly party “the People,” now in its second year and currently held at the New Parish, is helping to broaden clubgoers’ musical palettes. The party, led by DJs Cali, Be Brown, and Cecil, is centered around eclectic electronic stylings, from deep house and broken beat to hip-hop and nu jazz. Prior to that, DJ Dedan spun soulful house records for his Brothers and Sisters party at Luka’s Taproom, holding it down steady for six years.
Yet few Oakland artists have been daring enough to venture away from traditional rap and R&B. Among the first to do Detroit-style techno in Oakland was Blaktroniks, who recently joined the Deepblak camp.
“Blaktroniks started before I started,” Bazile said. “They took a lot of lumps for representing what they represent. Because they did what they did, it gave me the audacity to think I could do what I do.”
Midwest transplants Eddie Patrick Smith (aka Edd Dee Pee) and Badi Malik (aka Percepticon) — the duo that makes up Blaktroniks — have grown accustomed to being the odd men out. “We’ve never had a predominantly black crowd at a show,” Smith said. Both came to the Bay Area separately, Smith with his family as an adolescent and Malik for work thirteen years ago, before eventually crossing paths and joining forces, putting out self-released records in the mid-Nineties. Smith ultimately settled in Oakland to be a part of the city’s thriving music scene and because it was more “sociable” for a young African-American than San Francisco. He credits artists such as Too $hort, who used a vocoder and drum machine in his early recordings, R&B/pop production duo Foster and McElroy, who produced for Club Nouveau and Tony! Toni! Toné!, and Digital Underground for laying the groundwork for techno and electronic music in the Bay Area. Bay Area-based Fantasy Records, which released albums by Charles Mingus, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many others, also released works by Cybotron, a Detroit techno group comprised of Juan Atkins and Richard “3070” Davis and credited as being the first techno group, in the early Eighties.
Often overlooked in their own backyard, Blaktroniks have appeared at a number of techno, drum ‘n’ bass, and electronic events across the bay in San Francisco and throughout Europe. But at a show you might not recognize them as Bay Area techno pioneers. Dressed casually, Smith wears a Blaktroniks hooded sweatshirt, Malik a white long-sleeve button-up and black-frame glasses.
Both Smith and Malik have been making music for twenty years. As a group and individually, they’ve made everything from broken beat to deep house. But if you ask them, they’ll say they’re “post-everything.”
Blaktroniks isn’t just a name; it’s their musical philosophy. “It’s the science and discipline of production,” Smith explained.
“It’s an escape for us,” added Malik, who had no intentions of being labeled “techno” or “electronic.” “We don’t have to conform to a techno aesthetic or hip-hop aesthetic. We don’t have to make any apologies or excuses, either.”
Smith and Malik had to go to Europe, where electronic music is constantly being cranked out, to find success. After several self-released records, they caught the attention of German label Moving Records in 2000, who released their full-length Seduction at 33 1/3 in 2001. Their catalog includes seven EPs and LPs, including this year’s Slapmatik EP on Deepblak and 2008’s Mechanized Soul, which features the vocals of Smith’s father, Edward Robinson, on German label Phazz-a-delic.
According to the duo, the album made the best-seller list for soul music on Amazon Germany last Christmas. They’ve performed all over Europe, but at home they struggle to gain acceptance from their peers, both in their artistic and cultural communities.
“People laughed in our faces,” Malik said. “People were just not really believing us. I’d go to a club, like, ‘Hey, I do drum ‘n’ bass, too,’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, right.'” But their Oakland music peers mostly ignored them. “‘You trying to sell this in the ‘hood? Are you crazy?'” Malik said people have said to him. “We’re some black dudes from Oakland. To people, that’s just as crazy as some dude from Iceland doing it,” Smith said.
Much of this shock and disbelief is due to the lack of electronic music’s representation in the mainstream and, more importantly, in black media. There is no “Best Techno” or “Best House” category at the BET Awards, or at the MTV Video Music Awards, for that matter. As far as black media is concerned, this arm of black music doesn’t exist, Bazile says.
This year, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival drew more than 80,000 people. The massive music festival was cofounded by Detroit techno wizard Carl Craig and was headlined this year by veteran English breakbeat techno trio the Prodigy.
“Did TV One talk about it? No. Did BET talk about it? No. Did Oprah talk about it? No. Did Vibe cover it? No,” said Smith, a barber whose musical roots run deep. A classically trained sax player, Smith studied under jazz drummer Eddie Marshall. He’s also a grandnephew of jazz legend Count Basie. Because of his extensive knowledge of music, Smith isn’t bound to one particular style or sound. On one song, he may rap; the next might be a jazz composition. His music background gives him a keen appreciation of Bazile’s mission and vision.
“Aybee has been around us and the music,” Smith said. “He understands that it’s not about all that other BS. It’s not about all these lenses that other people see through. And the problem is that they’re seeing it instead of hearing it.”
“Music, for all of humanity, used to have some spiritual connection,” said Malik. “It’s not feeding us spiritually anymore — it’s tearing us down. It’s destroying us.”
This spirituality and divinity through music is what all Deepblak artists have in common. As DJ and producer Damon Bell says, they all vibrate on the same plane. But for each artist, the name Deepblak means different things. For Malik, it’s a place in his imagination and a feeling that can’t be put into words. For Bell, who released his percussive, Afro-tech Kush Music pt. 1 EP on Deepblak earlier this year, it’s an ideology rooted in strength, not a description of color.
“It is a goal to let people know who we are and where we come from,” said Bell, who uses “black” as a term of endearment. “But in this society within electronic music, we’re not trying to be labeled as ‘black electronic musicians from Oakland.’ Music should speak for itself.” And the music from the Deepblak camp is speaking loudly.
Late 2009 and early 2010 will see a heavy slate of releases, including Bazile and Afrikan Science’s The Nibiru Projekt, an EP from Oakland’s Aku9, the Blaktropolis 2 compilation, and a new live show consisting of Bazile, Afrikan Sciences, Blaktroniks, and Damon Bell on laptops and MIDI-controlled drum pads and keyboards.
For Deepblak’s artists, and for Bazile especially, it’s not strictly about output; Deepblak is a state of mind. “Some people interpret it as deep black-ness, in terms of culture,” he said. “But I was actually thinking ‘deep space’ in terms of having that silence, just being at a complete void and being able to listen to yourself — nothing but your thoughts, your inner voice that connects you with the Creator. That’s what I’m about. It’s that exploration, it’s that freedom, that internal drum.”