And why not? VonStroke has led a charmed life since the success of 'Deep Throat' put Dirtybird, his fledgling San Francisco imprint, on the decks of DJs around the world. A manifesto of sorts, it was the rare dancefloor bomb that sounded as fun to make as it was to dance to. And since then, Dirtybird's house-music-sound/hip-hop-energy has only grown bigger, showcasing a laid-back West Coast mentality whose only remit seems to be that the current single be more ridiculous than the last.
The focus right now, though, for VonStroke is culling together tracks for his second full-length. And supporting the upcoming album from new Mothershippers Catz 'n Dogz. And touring throughout Europe this summer. And finding time to hang out with his two children. And maybe even getting to sleep every once in a while. In fact, the only person that should be afraid of Claude VonStroke (aside from house music purists), might just be his physician. Then again, with all of that laughing he's doing, maybe he's got the right idea after all…
RA's Todd L. Burns caught up the house music joker to talk about his hip-hop past, why he ignored the United States for so long in promoting his records and that infamous WMC show with P. Diddy.
Yes, it was exactly like that. [laughs] The story is I had to pick an instrument, and I wanted to play the drums, but the school—I was in sixth grade or something—made a rule that you had to be a seventh grader to be able to be qualified to try out for the drums. So we went into a music shop, and for some reason, the cello was just the easiest thing for me to get a song out of just by sitting there, and so I picked it for some crazy reason.
And were you playing in youth orchestras and stuff?
I played in high school orchestra, and I was in competitions, yeah. My cello teacher in Detroit was second chair of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But it was my cello teacher in Cleveland when I was a little kid, that encouraged me to write my own songs and things like that. I wrote my first cello piece when I was like, ten years old or something. Crazy. (laughs)
Do you still have it?
Yeah, 'Extravaganza'. It's just a bunch of crazy chords. It's actually okay.
Did you spend all of your high school years in Detroit?
Not really. I actually left and went to boarding school in Connecticut for several years and that's actually where I made an entire rap album. They had an electronic music course at the school, and I basically took over the department, and just like, made my own class, and I recorded an entire rap album, I had dancers, I had concerts, it was insane. [laughs]
When did you start to transition into electronic music? Was there a certain thing that you heard, or a DJ?
Well, I always DJ'd. My roommate and I did the high-school dances and stuff, so we had 1200s in our room. But I never got super into the dance stuff; I was always way more into the hip-hop, because it didn't spark me. Later, though, I went to Los Angeles to work on a movie, and I started to get into the Chemical Brothers. And then someone gave me a drum 'n bass mixtape when I moved back to Detroit, and I was like, "Holy shit, I can't believe people are making this stuff." So then I got super into drum 'n bass. This is right around the time that I met Marc Houle and all these guys. He gave me my first cracked software, but I was doing something different than everyone else it seemed like. All these people were right in this neighborhood, but nobody did drum 'n bass.
I even made a whole live, real-style rig, and I went out and played some Detroit warehouse raves and stuff. It was cool, but it was really hard. That's almost why I still don't even try to do live, because I remember the agony of having all those cables, and if you forget one little thing, the whole thing doesn't work.
My Top 10 Old-School Hip-Hop Joints
01. Eric B and Rakim - Microphone Fiend
Rakim has the smoothest flow of almost anyone. This is one of the tightest rhymes of his career over a great beat.
02. A Tribe Called Quest - Buggin' Out
One of the greatest rap groups in history. Heavily influenced by jazz and even using a Ron Carter bassline, I've listened to this one more than 1,000 times.
03. Boogie Down Productions - My Philosophy
Also one of the greatest MCs of a generation, this is KRS-One at his absolute best.
04. MC Lyte - Paper Thin
Probably the most distinct New York female voice of all time, this is by far my favorite MC Lyte flow over a really hot beat.
05. Digable Planets - Nickel Bags
Not a traditional classic, but this jazzy vibe track came off one of my favorite hip-hop albums. I wore out a tape player playing this.
06. 3rd Bass - The Gas Face
When Vanilla Ice was hated and way before Eminem, MC Serch and Pete Nice were the only credible white boys I could look up to and this is their best work. Super hot Aretha Franklin sample.
07. Big Daddy Kane - Ain't No Half Steppin'
Grandmaster of a speedy flow and copied by everyone, Big Daddy Kane was the original pimp of hip-hop. This is my favorite track of his.
08. N.W.A. - Gansta Gansta
Hearing this made me realize that all the shit I heard before it just posturing. These guys were actually hardcore. This was the first time I heard Ice Cube. He blows away everyone on the record...even Dr. Dre.
09. Public Enemy - Public Enemy Number #1
Another breakthrough track that made me realize that everything in hip-hop wasn't just Kangols and chains. Plus, it was the first time I heard Chuck D.
10. EPMD - Strictly Business
The laziest flow in the universe is so cool it can't be overlooked. These guys are rhyming at least a half second behind the beat over a Bob Marley sample here and it still sounds right on time.
I studied film in college in Rochester, New York, which is a super-dismal weather scenario, so I moved to California the day after graduation. Once I got there, though, I had this film degree, and of course, it doesn't mean shit. So, I would do anything. The first day that I got there I got one of those scam jobs selling fake perfumes out of the back of your car. That lasted like three days. Eventually, I became a tour guide at Paramount Pictures, like a page, the guys who walk around in the blazers, and stand in the back on TV shows and stuff, which I parlayed into getting a job in the stock room. Which sounds like a shitty job, but basically they give you an electric cart, and you take stuff to everyone in the studio every single day.
So you were meeting people?
I met everyone in the studio, and I would just give my resume out three times a week. And then I got on a movie really quickly out of that, as a PA.
How did Intellect, your documentary about DJing, come about?
Well, after I went back to Detroit again, I did music and worked on film stuff. Then I went to San Francisco, and I worked at an editorial house that cuts TV commercials, and it was so boring, and the shop wasn't doing that well, so I started a side project using their equipment, which became Intellect. I didn't even have a camera, so I would just go on Craigslist, and I would be like, "Does anyone want to come out tonight and film Theo Parrish with me? We have all the right passes and paperwork. Just bring your camera, and then give me the tape afterwards." [laughs]
All of these interviews with DJs and producers that you were doing, did that give you the courage to put something out finally?
Yes. Well, the whole point of the thing was to make something that I wanted to see when I was a kid, because I wanted to be a hip-hop DJ but I didn't have any information, and so this was basically asking specific questions about how people get started, what do they have to do, what is the industry about, and yeah. The other secret motive was "Barclay sits there for two hours with every famous DJ in the world and figures out how to do music and start a record label." I already knew how to make music; I just didn't know how to do the whole thing.
So, tell me, then, how did Deep Throat come about? That was your first production, right?
Well, I was dating my wife, who lived in LA, and I lived in San Francisco, and we would talk on the phone for like, three and four hours at a time, almost to the point sometimes where we were falling asleep. And sometimes we'd start just doing that, like, 'aaahhhhh,' like, you know, it just happens, well, maybe not [laughs], but we'd start doing that sound, and one time I just said, "I'm going to make a song out of that".
Did it take a long time for it to hit or was it an immediate thing?
It took like a year for people to start really hearing it. But it kept popping up more and more, and people kept coming to me and saying, "I heard this guy playing it". And I was like, "No way, crazy".
The power of the internet, right?
Yeah, but it was sort of right before this massive wave of file trading came about. There was file trading, of course, by then, but it was before YouTube videos and stuff. I actually think that's how it sold so many copies, because I snuck it in right before everyone started trading files.
Speaking of sales, you said in an interview recently that you mostly did press in Europe at the beginning because you knew that it was a bigger, more supportive market for electronic music than the States.
That was one of the things that I learned from doing the DVD. I knew a lot of people in San Francisco that were doing labels that were just eating dirt, and because they were trying to become big local House labels.
So I got a German distributor in the very beginning, and then the promotion I did was actually just hard work promotion. I would package up single pieces of vinyl, and send them to every famous DJ's home address that I could find. (I eventually switched that to CDs because it is very expensive.) By then, I'd started running this DVD company so I knew all these really cool packaging things. We had really cool packaging envelopes that also served as the case. I did that for the first four or five records as much as I could, and then chased people down for feedback. I really don't even know if any of that mattered, but maybe it helped. We didn't do anything in the US, though. I would only send it to Mark Farina and a couple others.
It seems like it finally has taken off in the US, of course.
Yeah. But that's exactly what I'm saying. The US is a following market for dance music, not a leading market. So basically, if you can get it to work over in Europe, it's going to trickle down. And this is what actually happened: because we're from the US, and we trickled back from Europe, it's working twice as well. People are really excited that we're from San Francisco, even if they found out about it from Europe.
Most people know about Dirtybird, but I wanted to ask you about Mothership. What was behind the decision to have a sublabel?
Dirtybird has a crew. It's me, and Justin Martin, and Christian Martin, and Worthy, and Fernando and all these guys. And we have a pretty distinct sound, but I still had this techno bug, you know? This Detroit, European sound that I wanted to still get into. I basically wanted another outlet that maybe wasn't so tied to having to include everyone's opinion. It was just: "I'm going to go do a techno project".
You give money from the proceeds from that label to charity. What was the decision behind that?
I remember watching this interview with Mad Mike, and he was just like, everyone comes to Detroit and then they leave, and then they make tons of money, and then they never come back, and they never give anything back to anybody, but they always talk about Detroit, and I was feeling like, "OK, I basically just did this." [laughs]
I just made a track called 'Who's Afraid of Detroit', and made a whole bunch of money, and I was like, this is ridiculous, I think we should do something. I mean, my parents still live there, and I go back all the time. My dad was involved with this school, and one of my friends, Anthony, told me about this place where the Detroit Youth Organization actually has music studios, so it's not just like an after-school program. They can make music too. So we decided to give money to that.
Photo credit: Mike Christensen
Oh yeah. I knew this was going to come eventually. [laughs]
How did it go?
This is dangerous territory. But, you know, it was very unusual. All my friends had a great time. I thought it was a little weird. There's no question about whether I would have done the gig or not. I would still do the gig. For sure. I mean, I'm from hip-hop originally, and, OK, maybe he's super-commercial, but still, he's kind of a maverick. He just did his own ideas, and came up from nothing. He's interesting.
My only reservations about the show were that, if we were going to do a collaboration, then we should have done a collaboration. There was one small conversation about what he was going to do, but there was never any, like, "Hey, let's make this good and figure out how it could be good." You see what I mean?
I talked to him, and then I would talk to his studio guy who was making all the samples and stuff. Which was a really good conversation, because it could have been worse. Like, he could have been trying to put in stuff that I was going to have to chase down in the mix, stuff at different BPM's. I was really nervous about that part of it. Because that is a hairball. Like, just dropping in beats and stuff and then I have to come down and find it. I'm not necessarily that guy. I'm not Q-Bert. I don't know if I could just chase you like that.
You seem refreshingly able to take criticism. I know on the RA forums that you said—after you did the Resist mix—that some people's criticisms were fair.
You know, the Resist mix is kind of a weird thing, because I was a moron, and didn't listen to the other Resist mixes and realize that they were these super-experimental, like adventures. [laughs] So I just did one disc that was the Mothership side of me, and one that was the Dirtybird side. And, I actually really liked the second disc, whether anyone liked it or not, I thought it was cool. I could see maybe that I shouldn't have put 'Heater' on the first one, but I didn't know what was going to happen to that track. It wasn't even out yet. And I thought it was a cool funny track. It's exactly in my style, you know, retarded and funny.
It's funny because it seems like a track that could easily have been on Dirtybird. It has that exact same vibe.
Right, exactly. So I mean, I don't feel bad about—I was playing it, and it was cool, I mean, I got lots of emails, not as many emails as Samim though. [laughs] Samim is one of my good buddies, so we joke about it. He started his own website against the track: The 'Heater' hater website. He's hilarious.
How is Berlin treating you? When did you decide to move there?
We had a second baby, so my wife went on maternity leave, and we planned an entire tour around coming to Berlin for the summer. Now Justin Martin's out here, Christian Martin's out here, my booking agent's out here, so it ended up being like, a big San Francisco…
So you're going back after the summer.
Yeah, of course. I'm not turning German. [laughs]
What's a typical day like for you right now? Are you working on the new album?
I am, but not so much on this trip. I don't really have a studio out here. I haven't gotten much music done. But I have a lot of cool stuff, like samples I've been collecting, and ideas. The second album's going to be a little while, but it'll be out next year sometime.