The song "What You Finna Do?," released earlier this month by Fillmore District rapper DaVinci, opens with a vocal sample from the 2001 PBS documentary The Fillmore. It condenses the gentrification process the area underwent from the 1960s into one slogan, lamenting, "Basically, after the urban renewal, it was basically Negro removal." As the gloomy beat kicks in, DaVinci starts to rap, eventually coining his update on the situation: "Down the corner of the street used to be the spot/Till they replaced all the liquor stores with coffee shops." The rest of his debut album, The Day the Turf Stood Still, released in both free download and retail versions this week, repeats the motif. It's no surprise, considering the changes he witnessed on his block.
"My grandmother came to San Francisco from Texas in the 1950s," he says. "She bought her home, a three-apartment unit, for $15,000 and paid it off before she passed away in 1996." Around this time, he started to see the reshaping of his 'hood. The usual signifiers of impending gentrification were all in play. Drugs and crime were up. Property values were down. The Fillmore's proximity to downtown made for potentially high rents. Then came the wrecking balls, turning housing projects to rubble and providing a very physical cue for an exodus of black residents. As he recalls, "The newer people offered those who were living there the opportunity to sell their houses, move out, and make a profit. It didn't sound like such a bad idea — by that point, half the neighborhood had already moved." But his family stayed, retaining the title to their home and bolstering their roots in the area.
Today, the 27-year-old DaVinci makes music shot through with local pride. He's been releasing mixtapes since 2002, plus 2007's "street" album, Butter and Gunz, executive-produced by San Quinn. He sees his debut album as a fitting contribution to the Fillmore's rich musical heritage. In the 1960s, jazz greats Count Basie, Etta James, and Duke Ellington used the area's clubs as their musical playground. During the rapper's own coming of age, it saw the formation of a hip-hop scene boosted by its insularity. The sound of the block was king. As DaVinci recalls: "You couldn't tell me anything about who the best rapper in the mainstream was — we'd listen to cats like San Quinn, JT the Bigga Figga, and D-Moe the Youngsta. Together, they were like the Roc-A-Fella [musical empire] of the Fillmore at the time. Looking at them, I saw that hip-hop could come out of Fillmore and be respected."
Being engulfed by this wave of self-sufficient rappers helped shape DaVinci's outlook. San Quinn, who lived two blocks away, could sometimes be found hustling with DaVinci's pops. JT released records on his own Get Low label at 18; his independent moves fostered DaVinci's expectations of the music industry. He's adamant that running after major labels "isn't even in the picture." And, true to his independence, DaVinci's album eschews the gangsta sheen of his elders in favor of relaying street parables over rugged, melancholy beats. It's a blend that suits his breathy timbre well and ensures the album rewards listeners who prefer carefully wrought lyrics over a quick hook.
It isn't a commercial sound, but DaVinci is confident he has wide appeal. Last month, he journeyed to New York City on a mission to boost his profile by meeting with online media outlets. Back home, he's looking at the positive side of the Fillmore's metamorphosis — caffeine-connoisseur neighbors included. "When we'd perform shows, it used to be all family who'd come, but now it's college students," he explains, before joking, "That's good, 'cause you can charge them more!"
Then he adds, "I think the new mix of ethnicities is the best thing that's happened to the Fillmore. Now it's not just a place where only black people know about the music that's coming out of here. That's a good change."