.Riding the Sound Wave

How Al Lucchesi built the biggest incubator in Bay Area music.

The first time Alan Lucchesi ever heard the sound of a stray bullet was in 2002, when one came whizzing up the street about five feet from his head. It was sometime in the middle of the night, and Lucchesi was standing on Poplar Street in West Oakland, roughly a block away from the giant recording studio he’d just opened on 21st and Union. “It sounds like a big bumble bee — a big hornet,” Lucchesi said, remembering how the thing blew past before he could make heads or tails of it. “It was surreal.”

As the owner of Soundwave Studios, Lucchesi is not the type of guy who anyone would try to shoot without reason — or mess with on a street corner, for that matter. Known to everyone in his orbit as “Al,” he is a tall, solidly built man with a ponytail and a penchant for black clothing. Twenty years of running recording studios have taught Lucchesi how to deal with gangsta rappers, thugs, tweakers, and various criminal types lurking at the margins of the music industry. He won the respect of rappers Too $hort, Spice 1, B-Legit, Mac Dre, and the late Tupac Shakur, all of whom rented his studios. A few nights ago he chased a homeless guy away from the 21st Street building, uttering some vague threat about hanging the guy from a roof by his ankles. Lucchesi jokes about how his Italian ancestry gave him the toughness to set up shop in the sketchiest neighborhoods of Oakland, but the stereotype has an element of truth to it.

Between 1985 and 2002, Lucchesi bought several large, dormant spaces — two warehouses, a converted manufacturing building, and a defunct taxi dance club — and turned them into giant facilities where local bands could rehearse, record music, and run their own businesses. All of Lucchesi’s businesses launched in industrial or “transitional” neighborhoods that started developing a few years after he arrived: He infiltrated Temescal in the ’80s, Jack London Square in the early ’90s, and West Oakland about five years later, when he built the original Soundwave Studios at Wood Street, right off the freeway.

His current business, a 166-room studio and nearby rehearsal space that both operate under the name Soundwave Studios, is often characterized as the most significant music incubator in the whole Bay Area. It’s no exaggeration.

But in contrast to the high-tech, well-capitalized incubators that cropped up in Silicon Valley, Soundwave, like all of Lucchesi’s previous studios, is a relatively low-budget enterprise. It comprises two West Oakland locations separated by railroad tracks — one on Wood Street, the other at 21st and Union. After the demise of the hugely popular Downtown Rehearsal in San Francisco during the dot-com boom, Soundwave Studios become the rehearsal space for East Bay bands and those who’d been priced out of the city. And because Lucchesi allows artists to run their own peripheral businesses within the larger machine, dozens of record labels, publishing companies, and fairly established East Bay producers thrive under the Soundwave umbrella. At this point, Lucchesi’s studios have a kind of cachet: He’s been around, in various iterations, more than two decades, and he’s firmly rooted in Oakland.

Just as Lucchesi has colonized various neighborhoods before they became hot, he’s done the same for the East Bay’s dominant musical styles of the last generation. When metal and new jack swing saw a renaissance in the ’90s, Lucchesi provided rehearsal space for all the prominent Bay Area bands: Faith No More, Tony! Toni! Toné!, En Vogue, Sheila E, Primus, Metallica, Camper Van Beethoven, Counting Crows, Frankie Beverly, and Machine Head. He witnessed the rise of a West Coast rap scene spearheaded by Digital Underground, Too $hort, and Tupac Shakur. When genre-straddling came into fashion, Lucchesi became a de facto matchmaker for musicians who might not otherwise associate with one another. His businesses continued to thrive even after computers supplanted live instrumentation as the number one way to produce music. Lucchesi knew how to keep pace with the times, offering affordable, month-to-month spaces where artists could set up their own bedroom studios. At a time when other recording studios are suffering from the availability of new technology and lessening demand for a middle man, Soundwave shows no sign of faltering.

The man who conceived it has become something of a folk hero in the East Bay music scene. He’s referenced in the raps of Mac Dre. He could be credited for the genesis of now-famous bands like the Flipsyde. Lucchesi counts the Mars Volta, rapper Lyrics Born, the R&B singer Goapele, metal bands Testament and High on Fire, and even the Raiderettes cheerleading squad among his clientele. He threw the CD release party for Tupac Shakur’s first album at time when Oakland clubs had pretty much declared a moratorium on hip-hop. The popular rock band Third Eye Blind used to be one of his most destitute customers. “Al found a lot of these bands when they weren’t big and didn’t have any money,” said Flipsyde guitarist Dave Lopez, who started rehearsing at Lucchesi’s 43rd Street studio in 1987, and later worked the desk at his subsequent venue on Jackson Street and current digs in West Oakland for thirteen years, until his band signed to Interscope. “Al would let it slide,” Lopez continued. “And then they would end up being Rancid.”

Meanwhile, Al Lucchesi stays behind the scenes.

Music and hard work were a part of Lucchesi’s history. His grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1910 and worked in the slaughterhouse then located in Emeryville. His parents played in the San Francisco Symphony — his father on French horn; his mother on percussion. He considers the San Francisco Opera House to be an old stomping ground. Throughout his life, Lucchesi played drums in several rock bands that varied in quality — the most successful was Exhibit A, with the guitarist Alex Skolnick from Testament. (Lucchesi had been Skolnick’s high school math tutor.) He graduated from the math department at UC Berkeley in 1987, but had designs on entering the music industry.

Two years prior to graduating from Cal, then-21-year-old Lucchesi purchased a warehouse on 43rd Street at Telegraph — what was then a pretty crummy neighborhood at the edge of Temescal. Lucchesi took the biggest room for his own band, Risk, and rented the other two spaces out by the hour. Among his first clients was the metal band Testament — who was right on the verge of getting signed to Megaforce.

Flipsyde’s Lopez was fifteen at the time, and used the space to rehearse with a garage outfit he started with his cousins. He’d grown up mostly in Richmond after immigrating to the US from Chile at age seven, and mastered his instrument by emulating metal gods like Chuck Billy of Testament. Meeting Billy at Lucchesi’s studio was a religious experience. “I walked in, and I saw Testament there,” Lopez recalled. “That was my favorite band as a kid. … I was like, ‘This is where I gotta be.'”

Four years later, Lucchesi opened the now-legendary Jackson Street Studios in Oakland’s Chinatown, where he rented rehearsal space to such groups as Digital Underground, Metallica, Faith No More, Tony! Toni! Toné!, En Vogue, and Tupac Shakur. A former taxi dance club, the studio had one exceptionally large room where Lucchesi installed a big arena stage, bequeathed onto him by the band YMT. “It was cool because you’d get En Vogue and Faith No More at the same time, hanging out,” Lucchesi recalled. “My Chinese neighbors never really got that there were bands in there. They thought it was the stereo for thirteen years.”

Chuck Billy of Testament has similarly fond memories. “It was probably the coolest studio we ever rehearsed in,” Billy said. “He had a bar in there. All the bands before they went on tour would set up their full PAs and monitors. Everybody kind of congregated over to the bar on Friday nights, it was like a little nightclub. People who didn’t play music would just come to hang out.”

In 1991, Lucchesi threw a release party for Tupac’s first album, Tupacalypse Now. At that time, said Lopez, Lucchesi was one of the only people in the Bay Area willing to take a chance on a hip-hop show. “It’s kind of the same story now,” said DJ Fuze of Digital Underground. “Tupac was known as a street type of artist. As I remember, this is before people really knew who Tupac was, so it’s kinda weird to me that people would really trip on a Tupac record release party. Just the typical fear of the hip-hop club. … Back then, there was a strong rift between R&B and hip-hop. There was the crowd that did the electric slide and dressed in silky stuff, had Jeri curls. And then there was the hip-hop crowd, which was much more street.” But Lucchesi wasn’t tripping. His career as a practice facility mogul put him in contact with a whole pantheon of Oakland rappers. “I’ve always had a bunch of the top rap guys coming through: Too $hort, Too Big, Too Everything, Too Something,” he said. “You always have to deal with the gangsta rap guys in a certain way. I prefer dealing with them to dealing with tweakers. At least you know where you stand with those guys.”

According to Lopez, Lucchesi’s ability to reach out to the disparate elements of the East Bay music scene has more to do with his personality than any attempts to be hip. “He’s kinda out of touch as far as what’s going on with radio,” said Lopez. “He’s just nice to people who are nice to him. He liked Tupac because Tupac was always respectful in the studio.”

Lucchesi threw another big party for East Bay funk band Fungo Mungo when they signed to Polygram Records. He produced shows for Bart Davenport, whose underage rock band the Burminghams would throw Coca-Cola parties at Jackson Street. “They were totally mod,” Lucchesi said. “They all rode scooters. They were trying to be Quadrophenia.” He hosted the early Unsigned and Hella Broke parties launched by local hip-hop duo the Mystik Journeymen, whose Living Legends crew would eventually make good on its name.

At various points in his career, Lucchesi almost crossed over to being a promoter. He still produces shows and wants to launch a radio station and YouTube channel for Soundwave. But he’s never quite been able to play the game. “I have a problem with authority figures and permits and stuff,” he said. “That’s not really good for a club person.”

At the height of the Bay Area music scene in the early 1990s, Lucchesi had positioned his business as the preeminent rehearsal space in the East Bay. In 1993, after his house burned down in the Oakland hills fire, Lucchesi expanded to West Oakland, buying up an old furniture factory on Wood Street with leftover insurance money. With the help of his stoner construction crew, Lucchesi sandblasted the rafters at Wood Street, built wide, Hawaiian-style hallways that kept the place well-ventilated, divided the building into 22 rehearsal spaces that varied in size, installed a stage that he eventually hopes to rent out for showcases and video shoots, and built a bar next to the front entrance. He decorated the vestibule walls with painted bass drum heads and posters representing a long lineage of East Bay bands, all of which graced Lucchesi’s studios at some point in their careers: Counting Crows; Faith No More; KGB; Rancid. Upright pianos, arcade video games, old coffee dispensers, and electric organs still clutter the hallway.

Behind the front desk is a door leading to a large rehearsal space with a stage, and a second floor where Lucchesi is constructing his new office. The walls lining the stairwell have gold-framed gold cassettes by Too $hort and Tony! Toni! Toné!, and a black-and-white photograph of Lucchesi’s mother leading the San Francisco Symphony at a school assembly somewhere in the Bay Area.

It’s an environment that many find contagious. Back downstairs, an older man from the neighborhood shuffles through the halls, sometimes dragging a trash can or a piece of equipment. His name is Freddy. He came the first day Lucchesi moved in to help clean up a load of bricks, and has stayed for fifteen years.

For a fledgling rock star like Lopez, working at Soundwave — even if the pay was minimum wage — was tantamount to an aspiring stand-up comedian who gets to push a broom at the Punchline or Tommy T’s. For years he had begged Lucchesi for a job and finally landed one at Jackson Street in 1989, when someone flaked on a shift. “He said, ‘All right Dave, this is your chance,'” Lopez remembered. He worked the desk at Wood Street, renting out rooms to bands and playing his guitar for hours on end. Lopez’s position helped him form Flipsyde, because he met guitarist Steve Knight and emcee Jinho “Piper” Ferreira while filling in on his day off.

Though Flipsyde’s sudden rise to fame was the reason Lopez ultimately had to leave Soundwave, he still prefers the studio’s unique sense of community. “I still go there all the time,” he said. “I’ve been to these fancy studios with Flipsyde in LA. Bunk. Hella Bunk. People working at the front? No one’s even in bands.” Lopez said that after quitting his desk job in 2005, he would occasionally do three- or four-hour shifts at Soundwave, just to help out. “When I started doing that some younger kids would recognize me and say, ‘You look just like the dude from Flipsyde.'”

By the turn of the new millenium, the Bay Area music scene wasn’t nearly as active as it was in the early ’90s, but Lucchesi’s decision to set up shop in industrial neighborhoods ultimately paid off. San Francisco city officials had cracked down on recording studios in the city to make way for the dot-com boom, so by 2002 a lot of Lucchesi’s competition had been squelched. “I had this crazy waiting list,” he recalled.

More importantly, he had name recognition. The Wood Street location had been operating for nearly a decade by then; its predecessor, Jackson Street Studios, was legendary. By his fourth go-around, Lucchesi had a clear idea of how to make everything work.

In 2002, Lucchesi sold Jackson Street and started leasing the current iteration of Soundwave, a giant building on 21st and Union streets where hundreds of Bay Area bands coexist, each running its own small enterprise within the larger structure. Suddenly, he went from being the guy with twenty rooms to being the guy with 186 rooms, (166 at 21st Street, plus the ones at Wood Street, which he operates to this day). To make that leap, he had to lease the building from a developer who bankrolled several million dollars in renovations, which Lucchesi is now trying to pay back. He remains reticent to discuss the financial logistics, only saying that right now, he’s not exactly at baller status.

He built sound-absorbent walls and created storage lockers for people to stow their gear. He allowed bands to have free reign within the rooms, building their own storage lofts or sound booths, adding layers of dry wall, or installing heavy instruments such as an electric organ or an upright piano. Bold graffiti murals decorate the vestibule walls: “Oakland” written in huge, chunky letters; a cemetery with skulls and ghosts crawling out of tombstones; a cartoon of Lucchesi’s two kids (ages four and six) riding through the halls of Soundwave on their Big Wheels. The new location rented out rooms by the month, as opposed to the hourly spots at Wood Street, and even allowed several bands to split the rent for each room. Rooms at Soundwave go for $600 to $1200 a month, or $15 to $20 at the hourly location.

It’s a world within a world. Producer Damion Gallegos, formerly the lead singer of the funk group Fungo Mungo, runs a large studio downstairs that abuts the loading dock. A third-floor reggae studio called “the Lion’s Den” is decorated with red and yellow marijuana leaf flags, and appears to be run by affiliates of the roots-rock-reggae group Jahmana. Tavahn Ghazi runs his own publishing company out of Soundwave and licenses music to spectator sports (hip-hop for Oakland Warriors and Raiders games; salsa mixes for the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team).

There’s always a lot of chatter around Soundwave about who is on the verge of really making it, because often it’s hard to tell. Flipsyde formed four years ago in one of the practice rooms, and within two years began touring with the Pussycat Dolls and the Black Eyed Peas. The late Mac Dre, whose image is now immortalized, Che Guevarra-style, on airbrushed T-shirts and bobble-head action figures, used to be just another rapper bringing questionable people into Soundwave. “We had a party at Soundwave a couple years ago — he played, and not a lot of people were watching him,” said Lopez. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s crazy, not a lot of people are here to see Mac Dre. A couple months later, he died.”

These days, Lopez and Lucchesi are both putting their money on local producer and bandleader Forrest Day, who started renting from Lucchesi shortly after 21st Street opened, but didn’t really consolidate his career until last year. On a recent Thursday night, Day was rehearsing in his second-floor studio for an acoustic set at the Independent.

Like the Flipsyde, Forrest Day is very much a product of Soundwave, and the trajectory of his career parallels that of the 21st Street studio. He began rehearsing there shortly after it opened, singing with a band called View From Here. It was a mixture of traditional ska and artsy rock that broke up a couple years later, at which point Day left the studio and began producing gangsta rap at home. For the next year he worked with two rappers from Oakland, one of whom would later get shot in the face. The other has since disappeared. In 2005 Day resumed working on his own material and came up with a full EP of strange, glitchy, hip-hop-influenced stuff that reflected his omnivorous appetite for all forms of pop music. He needed a touring band to support the record, so he went back to Soundwave.

Forrest Day was broke. He got his EP done on “bro deals,” which means, as he explained in a 2007 interview, that whoever the “bro” is “gets a piece of it down the road.” He did dump runs for Lucchesi in exchange for rent, borrowing a friend’s truck, pulling it through the studio loading gate, and hauling out all the “crazy shit” that people left when they moved out of their rooms — mostly couches and tables. At that time Day was singing (more like screaming) in a punk rock group called Sitting Duck and sharing his studio with another band. Since Lucchesi didn’t have dump runs for him every month, he eventually ran out of money and had to switch to the hourly rentals on Wood Street. In the meantime, Day was building up a fan base, writing horn arrangements for Miguel Miggs and the rapper P.E.A.C.E. of Freestyle Fellowship, and consolidating what ultimately became an eight-piece band: three saxophonists, an electric bass player, two drummers, a violinist, and a keyboardist. “Then it became an actual band,” he said, explaining that “an actual band” meant Day didn’t have to pay for everything anymore. The result? “We bought a big ass van with a trailer that we tour in. Now we have our own room at Soundwave.”

The opening lines of Mac Dre’s most famous rap song, “Feelin’ Myself,” go: I’m out of this world, not your run of the mill’n /My name is fur I’m the owner of the building/I’m a stoner and I’m chillin with two bitches like Jack/I pimps and I mac drive a Benz and a ‘lac. There’s some debate as to the real identity of the big stoner who “runs the building” — seemingly a recurring character in Mac Dre’s body of work. Some people think Mac Dre is referring to himself, and that the whole “Feelin’ Myself” rap is really just a form of male preening. Others think “the building” was a giant warehouse on 21st and Union streets, and the “owner” — who isn’t actually a bona fide owner — was Al Lucchesi.

Lucchesi always espoused the latter theory. He had rented studios to Mac Dre for several years, and recruited one of Soundwave’s security guards to back the Vallejo rapper on guitar. Lucchesi wasn’t familiar with Mac Dre’s body of work, but he’d heard about the stoner guy reference from a teenager who hung around Soundwave. “Hey,” the kid said to Lucchesi. “He’s talking about you.” “I haven’t personally verified this yet,” said Lucchesi. “So maybe it’s not substantiated.”

Mac Dre used to rent three studios, said Soundwave building manager John Santos (not the Latin percussionist of the same name). One was for music, and one was for partying. “I don’t know what went on in the third one,” Santos said, adding that after the rapper’s untimely death in 2006, several people had to help clear out his legacy at Soundwave: condoms, alcohol bottles, empty weed baggies, leather couches with used strap-on dildos.

Dre wasn’t the only person using Soundwave for his own nefarious purposes. A few years ago someone tried running a bar out of one of the studios at 21st Street. Lucchesi had to shut it down after getting a call from Nancy Nadel. Lucchesi recalls one incident in which a rap group was using its studio to fence various products; one night, a guy showed up with a truckload of stolen cigarettes. And that wasn’t the worst of it, said Santos. “A couple dudes had rooms for filming porn videos. I don’t know who they were, they all had nicknames,” he added. “They had nothing to do with music.”

“We’re still colonizing down here,” said Lucchesi, patrolling the halls of his 21st Street location on a recent Wednesday night. He points out the building’s various amenities: 165 double-walled rooms; a creaky freight elevator; a security monitor for all the key points in the building, including some of the cars outside. When Lucchesi opened the place in 2002, his first son had just been born. He had a giant three-floor building and 160 rooms to fill, in a part of Oakland that was well shut off from downtown and all residential neighborhoods. “It used to be really wild, wild West,” Lucchesi said.

“When it first opened it wasn’t an experiment, but Al was still trying to figure out ‘What I’m gonna let go down, and what ain’t gonna go down,'” said G-Wiz, a hip-hop producer who rents space at Soundwave. Hanging out in the studio’s second-floor office that Wednesday, he and Lucchesi dredge up a history that parallels the development of Oakland’s music scene over the last three decades. In the early ’90s, Jackson Street saw a renaissance of new jack swing and metal. Decades later, the new Soundwave Studios would become a focal point in the era of Mac Dre and hyphy. Then it became a harbinger of new development in West Oakland. After opening the 21st Street studio, Lucchesi joined the board of the West Oakland Commerce Association. He watched the neighborhood turn around as refugees from the San Francisco arts scene began moving in and new businesses began popping up — Soundwave now counts the newly renovated Noodle Factory and popular restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen among its neighbors.

“I had to impose some Italian order in West Oakland, here,” said Lucchesi, who thinks he’s pretty much got the place under control.

Since moving to 21st Street, Lucchesi has logged two dead bodies and two confirmed conceptions at Soundwave. He thinks they balance each other out.

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