Peter Holslin will eat some goat after this
Plenty of heavy hitters have guest spots on Jay-Z’s new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. Frank Ocean. Rick Ross. Justin Timberlake. Nas. Pharrell. Timbaland. Beyoncé.
But here in the city of San Diego, the hip-hop heads are way more excited about the appearance of a far-less-famous artist: Gonjasufi, the San Diego-bred singer, rapper and yoga instructor signed to Warp Records, who’s been known to hypnotize listeners with his gnarled, wizardly voice.
Gonjasufi shows up on Magna Carta in “Nickels and Dimes,” a spruced-up version of a similarly-titled cut off his 2012 MU.ZZ.LE EP. This time around, the track’s been refurbished with glossier production values, a few new elements and verses from Jay-Z himself:
Of course, the guest appearance represents a coup for the singer—all night on Wednesday, his Twitter was blowing up with congratulations and retweets. But also, with the track’s jittery beat and moody vibe, it offers a platform for San Diego’s hip-hop underground—an injection of the city’s unique kind of sonic filth.
You see, long before Kanye West sat down with Rick Rubin to make his glorified gabber beats on Yeezus, a tight-knit community of San Diego MCs and beatmakers got down in the muck to create a dark, wild, sometimes-minimalist, always-gnarly aesthetic all their own. This sound—let’s call it “dirty” for short—has been quietly festering for years, growing louder and harsher and, yes, doper with time.
By all accounts, the granddaddy of the city’s “dirty” sound is Orko Eloheim, a rapper and producer whose dense beats and Afro-futurist visions situate him in an intergalactic time zone somewhere between the worlds of Saul Williams and William Gibson.
Having ridden his spaceship into the cosmos for over 20 years, Orko has churned out countless albums of incredible/incredibly bizarre avant-garde hip-hop. In the process, he’s paved the way for many younger heads—including Gonjasufi, who came up with Orko in San Diego’s seminal Masters of the Universe crew.
In an interview last year, Gonjasufi told me that he and many of his collaborators were inspired by seeing Orko perform at The Improv, a long-running San Diego open-mic that Orko founded in 1994. “He’d come in there and just say the most incredible shit on the flurry,” Sufi said. “If you were a deaf motherfucker, you knew what he was saying by watching him.”
Another “dirty” pioneer is Michael Raymond Russell, a drummer and producer better known as MRR. As elusive as he is brilliant, MRR got his start by playing with The Gaslamp Killer in a group called MHE, or Machines Have Emotions. Later, as a member of the duo MRR-ADM and founder of the Dirty Drums crew, he perfected an astonishing brand of psychedelic soul, crafting intricate, moody beats using both MPC and live drums.
Tragically, a couple years ago some asshole stole all of MRR’s drum gear, computers and memory cards, so much of his older work has been lost. But The Gaslamp Killer has thankfully been putting MRR’s enigmatic name out there: For the track “Dead Vets,” a cut off last year’s Breakthrough featuring Adrian Younge, MRR did some production work and laid down a compact beat that trembles with soul.
If San Diego has an Axis of Dirty, the final members would be Skrapez. Composed of DJs/producers Psychopop and Tenshun, Skrapez is essentially hip-hop’s answer to Wolf Eyes—a dastardly duo that revels in the depths of sonic decay, churning out bone-snapping beats, blistering tones and vicious turntable scratches that’d give a razorblade fetishist a raging boner.
Like MRR, Skrapez keep a low profile. But Gonjasufi took the duo on tour last year, using them as a backing band, and the results were volatile. At a show at San Diego’s Kava Lounge, their heaping helpings of feedback and distortion brought a brutal, punk-rock urgency to Sufi’s psychedelic songbook. Nine months after the fact, the show’s clanging, metallic drum breaks are still ringing in my ears.
There are a handful of other San Diegans who’re keeping the “dirty” sound alive—Scatterbrain, Aki Kharmicel, Beatsmith Resist. But if you want to dig further, I suggest starting with Gonjasufi’s old rap tracks, recorded under the name Sumach, many of which are available on YouTube.
With those, you’ll get a sense of where San Diego’s dirty sound comes from. And let me tell you, it’s not the sunny town you’d recognize from Anchorman or Real World: San Diego.
“Nineteen-ninety-eight / walking down the street / homeless / talking to myself / having schizophrenic moments,” Sumach spits in a haunting track off his 2007 record Jungl Bulit. His deep voice submerged in a chest-caving pile of bass, he lets out a demonic laugh and then sings: “I’m West Coast / I’m gutter.”
Yep, it’s amazing how far Gonjasufi has come. He’s been through some shit, but now, he’s hanging with the gods. First Magna Carta Holy Grail, then the world.