Below is my interview with DaVinci and Al Jieh of San Francisco’s quickly rising SWTBRDS label. My original idea was for the guys to take me on a guided tour of the Fillmore, DaVinci’s notorious home neighborhood, cited frequently in his songs as a source of both inspiration and frustration. Instead we ended up driving around San Fransicso for several hours, talking about the history of the city and its music scene and how SWTBRDS fits into it all. My girlfriend Jenna, a San Francisco native now living in New York, tagged along to take pictures and help bridge the cultural gap between the two coasts.
In this segment we talk about the history of the Fillmore and Davinci’s roots in it. — Alex Piveysky
DaVinci: (Points to a large new-ish apartment building) This is the legendary Fillmore Center. These used to be just vacant parking lots when I was growing up.
Al Jieh: Yeah these are all pretty new.
Alex: How long have they been gentrifying the neighborhood?
DaVinci: Probably about 15 years…
Al Jieh: 20?
DaVinci: Yeah maybe 20. Since like ‘90
Al Jieh: These are all the projects but they have been remodeled hella times. So they’re looking like nice apartments now.
DaVinci: They’re basically townhomes now. Some people I grew up with still live here or maybe their grandmas live here. But for the most part it’s kinda mixed up now. It used to be all black.
Some rappers you might know are from right here. Messy Marv is from around here, his apartment is right there (points to a 2 story building.) San Quinn is from around here, he grew up on my block, it’s up the street about 3 blocks away.
These apartment s right here (again points to 2 story buildings) used to be the Pink Palace projects, they were sky scrapers. They tore them down around 91, maybe in the late 80s.
Alex: Your family still stays around here right?
DaVinci: Yeah they live about 5-6 blocks up.
Alex: Is this where you shot A Fillmore Story (a mini-documentary about the Fillmore released in 2011)?
DaVinci: Yeah, as a matter of fact it is. Every video that I shot was in this area
Al Jieh: Funny thing is, Full House houses are right around the corner.
The Fillmore has always been a very diverse area. It’s gone through a lot of demographic shifts. It was originally a Jewish neighborhood. Then after the Jews moved on it was mostly Japanese. Then all the Japanese got kicked out and got sent to internment camps during WW2. At the same time they started to encouraging black people from the South to move up here to work in WW2 ship yards. That’s when it became a black neighborhood. Still, in its own way it has always been pretty diverse.
DaVinci: It’s had a lot of names – Western Addition, Lower Pacific Heights, Fillmore, Fillmoe…
Alex: Are these local names? Or is it how the real estate agents are trying to sell it?
Al Jieh: Now real estate agents call it NoPa, North of the Panhandle.
Alex: Is the neighborhood completely different from how it was when you were growing up?
DaVinci: Completely different. This was a predominantly black neighborhood. Probably about 90 percent black. Black businesses, black stores…
Al Jieh: You don’t see black people walking around here anymore.
DaVinci: Barely you see them, they’re like sprinkles now. Fillmore Street is completely different, but it’s also a different … (fumbles for a word)…. I can’t really say if it’s different for the better or the worse. There are just as many businesses if not more, it just feels different. It’s a lot safer too though, so how can you not like a safer neighborhood.
Al Jieh: It IS a lot safer. My dad told me a story about when he first came to America from Taiwan, how he came to Kansas and then went to San Francisco. He came out here in a car that he bought just to drive to SF, to meet up with some friends who lived out in the Fillmore (around Fillmore & Hayes). So he parked his car, went to meet his friend down the block, and when he came back his car was already gone. All the shit in his car, everything gone. This was probably around 72-73.
DaVinci: Anybody who grew up in the Bay got a Fillmore story. Everybody I ever ran into have something they could tell.
Alex: So what’s the craziest Fillmore story you got or you ever heard? The craziest craziest shit?
DaVinci: Oh man, I got so many of them I’m trying to think of an appropriate one to tell. Here’s one: I was probably around 5-6 years old. My pops was a rolling stone kind of dude, he was all over the place when I was young. He used to jump from one project to another. At one point he was staying at the Payton Street projects, I was staying there with him. I liked it there ‘cause there was always a lot of kids playing in the yard. So I used to always play football and all that…
So one day I walked into these projects and we went to the dumpster where we used to hide our basketballs and baseballs. And there was a 6 year old kid in there [in the dumpster], dead. He had no clothes on. We all seen it and went whoa, we knew exactly what it was.
[As the car rounds a corner DaVinci stops the story to point out a girl on the sidewalk, who turns out to be his sister. Seconds later we pass his house, which was featured in one of his videos. He then continues.]
So that’s a crazy story that I got. It gets crazier too. Shit like that happened all the time in Fillmore. My mom had to make rules for where I could and couldn’t go. Like ‘you can go to school this way but not that way.’ But of course naturally I went the other way. I wanted to see what she was trying to hide.
When I was in kindergarten, my mom wanted to ship me out of Fillmore elementary schools because they were horrible. Kids were getting killed on the way home from school. So my mom shipped me out to a school in the numbered avenues, in the Richmond district. It was mostly Asians and a couple of Russians there.
Al Jieh: This dude [DaVinci] knows how to count in Chinese.
DaVinci (chuckles): I always had Asian friends; SF always had a lot of Asian people.
Alex: That house you showed us, you lived there all your life?
DaVinci: I lived on that block my whole life. It used to be predominantly black like the rest of the neighborhood, but we’re the only black family still left there. At the end of the block, on the corner, there was a crazy house. A place where they put schizophrenics for rehabilitation. We knew all the crazy people. My momma use to take in a couple of them into our house. That’s just her personality, how she is. She just takes care of people. So our family knew a lot of the bums, a lot of the crazy people that you just see walking around. My mom would be like ‘hey that’s so and so, I went to high school with her.’
SF got some of the most colorful homeless people you’ll ever meet in your life.
Alex: You mentioned in one of your interviews how a lot of the homeless people you used to run into around here were failed musicians?
DaVinci: Of yea… a lot of them ended up fucked up on drugs. But then you’d walk down the street and you could hear somebody singing better than anybody you ever heard in your life. I remember a dude who used to be on Fillmore & Post, he used to sing The Temptations or any Motown classic you give him and he’d KILL IT. He was old, like 60 years old, no teeth, but he was doooope. He was probably even better than he was before ‘cause he had that smokers voice. That takes a long time, to get that cigar smoker’s voice.
Alex: So what happened to all those people when they gentrified the neighborhood?
DaVinci: Well, gentrification was a long process. Most people think of it as just new people coming in and pushing out old ones and that’s it. But people don’t realize that there was some foul shit going on here before those new people got here. People forget that Jim Jones, the REAL Jim Jones [the cult leader], his church was in Fillmore. It was right next door to the legendary Fillmore [the venue]. I had OGs lace me about that when I was younger; they were around to hear about it. I don’t remember what the death count was, but it was a massive slaying. You can’t imagine how what he did devastated the neighborhood, what kind of effect that would have on somebody. Church is supposed to be a place where people congregate, a safe place.
[We keep driving on, talking and smoking and seeing local landmarks. DaVinci points out another group of two story buildings]
DaVinci: These are projects Kareem is from. Kareem Mayfield, he’s a world champ right now. He’s the neighborhood champ, he grew up around here.
Al Jieh: He’s heavily featured in JD’s next video, which is the one produced by Block Beattaz.
[Further down the road we pass a location used in DaVinci’s first video, a modern art sculpture in front of what looks like a school. Al Jieh gestures broadly toward the residential buildings surrounding it and identifies them all as projects. Like many of the others he has marked as such during our drive, these lightly colored Victorians don’t fit my New Yorker’s perception of public housing. I mention this and both guys chuckle knowingly.]
Al Jieh: Yeah they don’t [look like projects] any more.
DaVinci: They’re built up now…
Al Jieh: They remodel them, they paint them… They look completely different from the New York concept of projects. San Francisco used to have high-rises too, they used to really look like New York projects.
DaVinci: These were all high-rises over here, they just tore them all down. Tore them down and made them look like this.
Al Jieh: They converted them because they wanted to change how the city looked like.
Alex: Trying to make it look less imposing?
DaVinci: Exactly, trying to make it look nicer.
[We pass a corner where Al Jieh first met Jay Woozy, the guy who would later introduce him to DaVinci and in doing so precipitate the creation of the SWTBRDS label. As it turns out we’re now in the notorious Tenderloin district.]
Al Jieh: I used to intern at a studio around here. This is the Tenderloin. This is where a lot of motherfuckers used to come to hustle. And still do. As you can tell, this is where the dope fiends are.
DaVinci: Anybody from any area can come here and hustle.
Al Jieh: This is where all the original whore houses and sex shows happened. First live sex shows during the hippy sexual revolution happened in these theaters around here. But even this area is now relatively cleaned up too. You used to see nothing but tranny hookers and dope fiends around here.
DaVinci: You wouldn’t see regular people just walking down the street, it was like zombie land.
Al Jieh: That studio where I interned used be run by house DJs. SF is a big house music town, they did a lot of shows, so I would roadie for them too. We’d get back from shows around 4am and you’d see nothing but people getting BJs on the corner.
Alex: How long ago was this?
DaVinci: Not that long ago.
Al Jieh: Let’s see… I was already 18 or so, maybe around 8 years ago. You’d see hookers getting busted, sting operations. The corner store down the stairs from the studio would only open after 9 o’clock at night. Guys would pull up in brand new escalades, with spinners, in velour suits. Hookers would just walk in and out of there. It was just a front.
You really don’t see that now. Polk Street around the corner from here is nothing but hipster bars. And they ARE cracking, they do be cracking (DaVinci agrees.) You see (points to an obviously new Mediterranean restaurant), they’re selling shawarmas over here now. But that studio is still up there though.
It’s a nice area now, a bustling little area. There are a lot of pros that come with gentrification too.
Alex: Do you guys play around here a lot? Do you get a good audience of hipsters and transplants?
DaVinci: We do (re: audiences). It depends on where we play. Sometimes we do the hole in the wall spots, hipsters may not show up to those. Those are usually just all our people, our family. But then we do those hotspots where all the new people are coming to, where you get a mixed crowd.
[The topic changes abruptly when we pass a disreputable landmark.]
DaVinci: I’ve seen somebody get thrown of a balcony over there. I think it’s an old folks home now.
The balcony he is referring to is about 5 stories up on a tall building styled with a drab formal architecture, the kind of dull monolith that usually houses city government offices.
Al Jieh: He was just thrown right onto Van Ness?
DaVinci: Yea he fell right onto the street.
The street he is referring to is a busy avenue crowded with cars and pedestrians.
Al Jieh: So you saw his ass splatter?
DaVinci: We heard it. Nobody was brave enough to go walk right up close to it. That shit was loud. Like a CRACK.
Alex: So do you guys see something like a happy middle maybe, between the hipsters and gentrification and how it used to be? I understand the lament of the neighborhood changing but it doesn’t sound like you’re too upset about it.
DaVinci & Al Jieh: (in unison) Naaah
DaVinci: I’m not upset at all. I like the diversity. It’s got pros and cons. I felt a little bit more comfortable when I had most of my family here, most of them now moved to the East Bay. Some of them are dead, some are in jail.
But I get put on to people from different walks of life now. Growing up, I probably would’ve never ran into her (referring to Jenna who grew up near by.) Even though she was in the neighborhood. Back then it was more segregated. It was still diverse but people didn’t really cross each other’s paths that much. Unless you were buying or selling drugs to them. That was pretty much the only common ground. Now we got all our things in the same area. I got folks that still live in the Fillmore Center, and now they’re able to have Asian and white and Indian friends that we just didn’t have growing up.