How SF's Dirtybird Grew from Outsider Party to Beloved House Music Label

Claude VonStroke (center) and Justin Martin (left) at the Dirtybird Barbecue in Golden Gate Park in 2011.  (Dirtybird)

Claude VonStroke, a.k.a. Barclay Crenshaw, remembers the first party he threw in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 2003. He'd only obtained a permit to host a picnic, not to bring a sound system, but that didn't matter—only around 12 people showed up anyway, including the DJs. At the time, a smoother, more minimal sound reigned in San Francisco's electronic music scene, and Crenshaw and his collaborators were seen as a band of outsiders.

Yet slowly, the crew's DIY appeal caught on, along with the funky, danceable style of house music they championed—a sound heavy on low-end frequencies, with elastic boings and propulsive grooves better suited for shaking your booty than nodding your head. The Golden Gate Park party started to become a word-of-mouth phenomenon, and in 2005, VonStroke and his cohorts established Dirtybird Records.

Now, Dirtybird is one of the United States' most popular house music labels. This year it celebrates 15 years in business with a new album from Crenshaw, Freaks & Beaks, out Feb. 21.

Before Dirtybird acquired a cult following for touring house music barbecues and festivals, Crenshaw remembers, he and his collaborators Chris and Justin Martin weren't always embraced in the Lower Haight dance scene. In fact, it took them blowing up in Europe after their third release, Crenshaw's Deep Throat, for the label's hometown to catch on.

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"In the Lower Haight, you’d really have to earn it. It was kind of too cool for school," Crenshaw says. "It was hard for them to accept this gritty, bumpy, slightly aggressive, dirtier sound."

Yet the initial lukewarm reception didn't deter Crenshaw. An outsider approach has always been part of his hallmark: though originally from Detroit, the birthplace of techno, he was a hip-hop head growing up and didn't attend his first rave until he was 25 years old. His route to becoming a house music producer was an unconventional one. While embarking on a career in film (he was a production assistant on 1997's Batman & Robin and Con Air) he began an ambitious self-funded project: an exhaustive documentary on the history of electronic music, titled Intellect.

For Intellect, Crenshaw interviewed over 50 DJs, including big names like Derrick May and Paul Van Dyk. While filming the project, he ran out of money—then borrowed money from friends, and ran out of that. ("Everyone hated me," he says.) Because he didn't have enough funds to license music from all the artists he interviewed in the film, he had to learn to figure out how to make the soundtrack himself, creating his own interpretations of the featured DJs' styles.

"It was kind of like graduate school—I made my own grad school, basically," he says.

As Crenshaw found his groove as a producer, a scene began to coalesce around Dirtybird in the late 2000s. Artists like J.Phlip, Worthy, Tim Green and Style of Eye joined the label, and Crenshaw began curating Dirtybird parties at the Mezzanine—one of the venue's biggest draws from 2008 until it closed on New Year's Eve last year.

After Crenshaw relocated to Los Angeles (he regularly returns to San Francisco for Dirtybird events), business continued to pick up. In 2015, Crenshaw started the Dirtybird Campout, which takes place this year in Modesto. He's intentionally kept the event small (at around 7,000 attendees) to retain its feeling of intimacy. Unlike at EDM mega-fests like Electric Daisy Carnival, DJs and fans alike participate in summer camp activities like archery and kayaking, and dance parties rage on until sunrise.

With the help of his wife, Aundy, who is the label's chief operating and marketing officer, Crenshaw has grown Dirtybird in many different directions: live events on both coasts, the Birdhouse Radio Show, merch, even an art book (also out Feb. 21) illustrated by San Francisco artist Jeremy Fish. Yet through it all, the label has remained independent and held on to its outsider appeal.

"We have a vibe—it’s not a big barrier between the artists the fans at our shows," Crenshaw says. "No one is untouchable."