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Raw Deal 

On his new album Greyboy ditches the acid jazz scene he helped create -- and returns to his hip hop roots

Wednesday, May 23 2001
While "the sound of San Francisco" means many different things to many different people, it was synonymous during the mid-'90s with acid jazz, a commingling of jazz instrumentation and snappy, groove-heavy beats. Today, most people involved in the scene go to great lengths to avoid calling it by name, but at one time it wasn't such a dirty word. There were acid jazz bands, clubs, labels, and even a local festival. And, if ever acid jazz had a patron saint in the U.S. or an honorary member of San Francisco's music scene, it was San Diego DJ/producer Greyboy -- although there probably couldn't be a more reluctant figurehead.

It's been nearly eight years since Greyboy's foundational tracks "Unwind Your Mind" and "Grey's Groove" burst onto the nascent acid jazz scene, and he can almost get through an interview without the term coming up. "Now it's not even an issue," he says with detectable relief. "Sometimes people mention it but in the past tense. People don't really call me an acid jazz artist anymore."

As a result of very deliberate career decisions Greyboy has placed considerable distance between his name and the ghetto that acid jazz became. Even in the early '90s Greyboy didn't play acid jazz records in his DJ sets: He preferred to spin hip hop and vintage jazz, funk, and soul, instead of their modern-day reinterpretations. So, after his second full-length, Land of the Lost, further allied him to a movement he felt wary of, he switched gears and started the P-Jays label, a low-profile, self-proclaimed "unda-pendent" hip hop venture. The label achieved its mission: "It kept me out of the eye of the acid jazz crowd pretty well."

What exactly is so unsavory about the term? "The thing that spoiled the acid jazz thing was that it became a specific sound, which wasn't the idea in the first place," says Andrew Jervis, vice president and artist at Ubiquity Recordings, the one-time acid jazz powerhouse. (Ubiquity issued Greyboy's first two albums and will be releasing his new one, Mastering the Art, this month.) "Everybody got this weird idea that acid jazz meant instrumental, jazzy, funky stuff when, really, if you were involved in the acid jazz scene, you might play funk and soul and Latin and Brazilian and a bit of hip hop."

"And anyone who claims they're acid jazz is pretty illegit," concludes Greyboy.

Had he grown up in New York City Greyboy (né Andreas Stevens) might never have been sucked into such a misclassification quagmire -- he'd probably just be known as a hip hop producer. But when Run-D.M.C.'s self-titled debut album came out in 1984, most San Diegoans didn't even know what rap was. Marooned in the indifferent beach community, Greyboy started scratching, buying records, and digging for information about new releases and like-minded people. At 16 he tracked down and joined a local DJ crew. The leader gave him his handle, saying he had the soul of a black person and the lineage of a white man. Black and white made grey.

When the English Disco Mix Club (or DMC, as it was known) launched a U.S. version of its DJ battle competitions in 1988, Greyboy entered the West Coast championships -- although he was too young to legally enter the club. "I had to sit in the office the whole time while everybody else performed," he recalls. "And as soon as it was my turn, I went out and did my routine, and then they put me back in the office until they announced the winner." Greyboy took first prize. "I came out for two minutes to receive the award and then I had to leave. I knew pretty much from that point on what I wanted to do."

With few places to gig in his hometown, he decided to visit England, figuring the home of the only DJ battle organization in the world must have something to offer a hungry selector. There, he discovered the rare groove scene, a coalescing network of record collectors and DJs like Gilles Peterson whose sole purpose was to unearth long-forgotten funk and jazz gems. "I was able to get a lot of information about music that I just could not get when I was in San Diego -- even about American groups," Greyboy says. "I came back with knowledge, a bunch of records basically."

Most important, he realized that the drought of MCs in his hometown didn't preclude him from producing hip hop-oriented tracks of his own. "The cool thing was that it made me replace the MCs with live instrumentation, but with guys that ripped. I didn't want some high school sax player -- I wanted someone who could play like a dope MC."

San Diego proved to have an untapped wealth of musicians, including tenor saxophonist Karl Denson. The pair recorded "Unwind Your Mind" and "Grey's Groove" in their first session together, with Denson soloing over Greyboy's simple, infectious drum loops. Ubiquity owners Michael and Jody McFadin, who ran the Groove Merchant shop in S.F.'s Lower Haight from which Greyboy ordered rare grooves, offered to include the cuts on the label's Home Cookin' compilation.

Buoyed by the tracks' success, Greyboy started work on Freestylin', the first full-length that melded live jazz to programmed breakbeats and possibly the acid jazz masterpiece. With breezy, ultra-clean flute and sax fluttered over Greyboy's repetitive, just-sturdy-enough drum tracks, Freestylin' was instantly accessible to both hip hop and jazz listeners. "I was on a mission to make records that sounded exactly like the records that I was sampling," he says of that time. "To me, the cool thing about those old records was the simple arrangements. Records just weren't like that anymore."

The photo on the back of the sleeve suggested the record's revolutionary shift in concept: On the mixing board the marking for "fat loop" sat on par with those for the bass, conga, sax, and rhythm guitar tracks. Greyboy wasn't a hip hop producer scrounging for leftovers from jazz players; he was an equal sitting down to dinner with the musicians.

The album served as a kind of lightning rod for a movement that was already percolating in England, Japan, Europe, and, to a lesser extent, the States. "It was a right time, right place kind of thing," Andrew Jervis remembers. "Here was this American kid, well-versed in hip hop and beats and stuff, but doing something with jazz, and it kind of fit in with what else was going on around the world. ... Here was this thing in between -- the next step. What's funny is that now, if you look back, it's kind of retro-sounding. It's definitely not the next step anymore."

Afterward, rather than embarking on another solo album right away, Greyboy formed an eponymous label and assembled a crack band, the Greyboy Allstars. Touring extensively in the mid-'90s, the Allstars carved a cult following out of maturing acid-jazzers, hippies in the jam band scene, and dancers turned off by DJ-spun music. Since Greyboy himself was not a member -- the band had a live drummer -- fans of his work were often confused when they didn't find sequenced drums at Allstars shows.

"I don't think it really mattered in the end," he says of the long-standing confusion. "Whether it was the Allstars or my shit, I just wanted the music to be good. So if you knew my music and went to see the Allstars, you could dig it too. I never really tried that hard to unconfuse people."

When he returned to the studio for 1996's Land of the Lost, he shaped the new material with a more sophisticated sense of jazz nuance, picked up from rehearsing the band. The tonal quality of the drum samples was richer and more organic than the crisp kicks and snares on his debut, and his arrangements were looser, allowing the instrumentalists to stretch out more. The album didn't move as many units as its predecessor, but it significantly expanded his presence in the American market, whereas Freestylin' made its largest impact overseas. (So far, Greyboy's two albums have sold over 80,000 copies, making him Ubiquity's most successful artist.)

This month, Greyboy steps out of his five-year hideout, confident that he's ditched the hipster following attracted by the overt jazziness of Land of the Lost. On Mastered the Art he flexes the rawer production techniques he acquired while constructing backing tracks for hip hop acts such as Mood, Imam Thug, 12 Jewelz, and Master Foul of MTV's Lyricist Lounge. The wandering horn lines and noninvasive grooves are replaced by complex drum patterns, Greyboy's scratches, and the Queensbridge-leaning rhymes of MCs Muddie and Main Flow (from Mood). While eight of the 12 songs are instrumentals -- with Greyboy Allstars guitarist Elgin Park on 10 and legendary vibraphonist Dave Pike on three -- the live playing is heavily processed and reordered by Greyboy's MPC sampler.

In many ways, Mastered the Art represents a return to the stripped-down New York hip hop sound he grew up loving. An acid jazz purist (if there is such a thing) may find the live parts too stilted by the heavy-handed electronic manipulation, while a hard-line hip hopper might be alienated by the majority of soundtrack-esque instrumental numbers. Conceivably, the audience for Mastered the Art exists in the middle ground between these two poles.

For his part, Greyboy sees the continuity in his work in simple terms. "If there is one thing I've been trying to do with my music since the beginning, I'd say it was to bring the rawness -- and maybe the ugliness -- of hip hop into jazz."

And he's pretty sure he won't be co-opted by any "ugly jazz" scene in the near future.

About The Author

Darren Keast


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