Music producers play a crucial role in cultivating an artist's sound even though they're rarely in the spotlight themselves. In this five-part series, KQED Arts contributor Adrian Spinelli goes behind the scenes with the Bay Area's most innovative and influential up-and-coming hip-hop producers. Read the previous installments here.
Trackademicks and 1-O.A.K. were already on the up. The workhorse Bay Area producers had claimed production credits on Kamaiyah’s breakthrough album A Good Night in The Ghetto, while Trackademicks had produced for IAMSU!, released a joint album with rapper Kool A.D. and lent production support to 1-O.A.K.’s own 2017 LP, Riding In Cars With Girls.
With more career momentum than ever, the East Bay stalwarts were faced with the age-old question: Should they move to Los Angeles to be closer to the music industry’s geographical epicenter?
“I’ve been doing this so long... I love the Bay, but I also want to expand,” says the Alameda-bred Trackademicks (neé Jason Valerio), speaking from his new home in L.A. “This is where the major labels are. You gotta be here...where the money’s at and in the zone where someone can call you, like an A&R or a manager...there’s an infrastructure. Like, if anyone says, ‘That beat you sent in, we’re trying to work on it, can you pull up to the studio?’ It’s a proximity thing.
By now, many of us know the narrative of the Bay Area artist who moves to L.A. to take their career to the next level. It’s hard not to think emotionally about this; we worry that an exodus of talent from the Bay Area will exacerbate the already rapidly gentrifying cultural scope of the music scene. But really, there’s only so much that the Bay Area’s limited industry infrastructure can support in relation to L.A.’s comparative behemoth.
In hip-hop especially, distributor/label Empire stands as one of the few viable music industry resources that can help artists get heard beyond the Bay. The “in-house producer” relationship (like the one between Drew Banga, Different Fur Studios and Text Me Records, described in a previous installment of Behind the Beats) is a rare one. And now, as the cadre of talented producers in Bay Area hip-hop gains recognition, it's not just marquee artists like Kamaiyah and Kehlani who are making the exodus — it's producers, too.
“The main thing is hitting a plateau as an artist and the type of music that we wanted to make,” says 1-O.A.K (neé Brandon McFarland), who grew up in East Oakland. “We can do it ourselves, but we write and produce for people… we had to go somewhere where that was in demand. It was an eye opener, 'cause Kamaiyah was getting notoriety and we’re like ‘We really did produce that shit!’ and we were getting calls about acquiring our services. Stuff started changing and we wanted to be in an environment where things were happening, and we were growing.”
Arturo Jose Alcantar III, a Millbrae native who produces music under the moniker Cal-A, was in a similar position as Valerio and McFarland. He’d produced tracks for G-Eazy, P-Lo, Caleborate’s single “Options” and IAMSU! He went from being Caleborate’s tour DJ to P-Lo’s, and along with producing tracks on P-Lo’s More Than Anything, started working as part of P-Lo’s management team.
“You’re making quality shit and the numbers are going up, but I can’t go to Atlantic’s offices and do a songwriting session,” Alcantar says. “You could stay in the Bay as a rapper or singer, but as a producer, you’re not necessarily doing shows... A publishing deal is the goal for me this year. It makes things easier where I can create, submit the records and there are people whose job it is to place those records on albums.”
Being Bay Area lifers, just plain leaving home for these artists is a big consideration. McFarland served as a mentor to many young artists at Oakland non-profit Youth Radio, winning a Peabody Award for his music consulting and audio editing on a series called Traffic. He and Valerio are both in their 30s; McFarland says that while it was hard to leave Youth Radio behind, he’s glad he moved now rather than 3-4 years ago. “I would’ve been wide-eyed and partying… my bank account would’ve been empty and I would’ve come back home. 'Cause you come out here to L.A. and the first thing you do is party.”
Nightlife aside, McFarland and Valerio have quickly gotten to work. Both have multiple production credits on the new Kamaiyah album. And where A Good Night In The Ghetto was released independently, this record will be on a major label, Interscope Records. The pair co-produced the album’s first single, “Build You Up,” which Valerio explains is indicative of the new Kamaiyah album, on which he has production credits for “over half the tracks."
“Her sound is pre-historic, cro-magnon Oakland town," Valerio says, with a chuckle. “It’s rooted in '80s and early '90s soul and R&B. That kinda shit is what I grew up on. I understand the older perspective. So it makes it easier for her to do her thing.”
As roommates in the Mid-City area, Valerio and McFarland's apartment has that classic L.A. black metal screen door on their street-level unit, but there’s an Oakland Raiders area rug in the middle of their living room. McFarland talks to me on Facetime wearing an Oakland A’s hat, and I can’t help but think of the chorus from the Cali Agents' "Neva Forget”: “Neva forget where you came from / Neva forget where you got your name from or the game from!” No matter where they go, I’d be hard-pressed to ever separate people like Valerio, McFarland, Alcantar and Kamaiyah from the the Bay Area.
"The particular environment [in the Bay Area] and how it’s an actual melting pot — cultures are blended together in such a way that you can tell what’s what," McFarland says. "I owe every single thing artistically to where I’m from.”
Adrian Spinelli is a Brazilian-born, San Francisco-based freelance writer, editor and host of the Noise Pop Podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.