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At the Coterie Den, San José Artists Work, Play and Dream

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The team from the Coterie Den in San Jose on April 18, 2024. From left to right: website designer Wyatt Perkins, Vizions Management, engineer Isandro, owner LJame$, event coordinator Ruby Rodriguez and photographer Danny Cardona.  (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Oakland, San Francisco and Vallejo might get all the glory when it comes to producing the Bay Area’s brightest hip-hop talent, but don’t sleep on San José. Not only is it the hometown of the late hyphy architect Traxamillion — who produced all-time 2000s classics like Keak Da Sneak’s “Super Hyphy” and The Jacka’s “Glamorous Lifestyle” — but it’s also where DJ and producer Peanut Butter Wolf started Stones Throw Records, the iconic independent label that put out classic material by Madlib, MF Doom and J Dilla during that same decade.

Though San José is the Bay’s most populous city, today it’s often overlooked when it comes to culture — more known for its tech workers in Tesla Cybertrucks than its music scene. But it doesn’t take much digging to see that there’s a groundswell of local artists working hard to put the 408 back on the map, and take their music beyond the Bay.

Their home base? The Coterie Den.

It’s an artist-run, D.I.Y. creative space in a basement below a Japantown nail shop. Follow its winding staircase, and inside you’ll find a recording studio; a video, photo and podcast set; and a community event space decorated with murals and canvases by local artists. The Coterie Den is usually bustling with creatives in action, and regularly hosts fashion markets, open mics and gallery shows that are open to the public.

Twenty-eight-year-old rapper and event producer LJame$, aka Lucas Milan, founded the Coterie Den in late 2021 with two business partners. At the time, he felt discouraged by San José’s lack of venues and resources for up-and-coming artists, especially in hip-hop. He came close to burnout and thought about quitting music altogether.

LJame$, aka Lucas Milan, at the Coterie Den in San José on April 18, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

That changed when he and his business partners found the former grocery storage space that would become the Coterie Den. They rolled up their sleeves and put up drywall, soundproofed the studio and hired artists to repaint its salmon-colored walls with graffiti lettering and murals. Pouring his energy into the project reignited LJame$’ passion for creating, and the chance to lift up others became his motivation.

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“Artists can come, put that work in, get their practice in, [get] those reps — right? Like you go to the gym to shoot a shot,” says LJame$, who’s now the Coterie Den’s sole owner.

He runs the studio while also working a tech job by day, and pretty much doesn’t sleep. But he says it’s worth it. He has a team of 10 hungry creatives working alongside him — some of whom are as young as 19.

Engineer Isandro Biaco at the Coterie Den in San José on April 18, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

In-house engineer Isandro — who gets constant props from everyone who stops by during our interview — taught himself to mix and master music, and saved up money from construction work for his own studio equipment. Becoming the Coterie Den’s full-time engineer has opened up new opportunities: In 2022, his own single “Heart2Heart” took off on TikTok, and it was his Coterie Den comrades who instructed him on how to parlay the attention into his budding solo music career.

“I didn’t know what to do with all this hype,” he says. “I didn’t know that you had to be consistent and drop songs and keep feeding the people to grow a fan base. … With the Den, and having the resources here, and having all these dope-ass creative people excited to show me, ‘Yo, this is how you do it,’ we’re able to make it happen.”

Spending an afternoon with the Coterie Den crew, it’s easy to appreciate their collaborative, sibling-like energy. “I tangibly see sometimes how I’ve grown through journal entries. We journal a lot,” reflects LJame$. “I see some of the notes from earlier meetings to now. Like, ‘Man, we want to start an open mic’ to now [having] launched a successful open mic in here.”

Event coordinator Ruby Rodriguez at the Coterie Den in San José on April 18, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A hip-hop incubator

When I visit the Coterie Den during their open mic season finale in late April, Say Sum Entertainment — a young, multicultural music collective co-hosting the event — is setting up a merch table as aspiring rappers and singers file in. Tonight, the artists will be scored on song structure, beat selection and stage presence by a judges’ panel consisting of LJame$, Isandro and Say Sum founder John John. The open mic winner will get free studio time at the Coterie Den and a booking at Sam Sum’s next showcase.

The Coterie Den’s open mics are where Say Sum Entertainment began to take off, and the collective now has a network of over 100 artists all around the Bay Area who support one another. “Something that we want to keep growing is the community, to keep letting people know that the Bay Area is not all about competition, especially when it comes to music,” says John John.

“I have to give the Coterie Den their flowers, because they helped me grow a lot as an artist — and even as a human being,” says rapper, content creator and Sam Sum Entertainment member 3DDev. He remembers a turning point in his music career, when he got constructive criticism at a Coterie Den open mic: “You feel like you’re on American Idol. The next day I went to the studio and made sure I took the time to polish my skills.”

Artists sign in to participate in the open mic at the Coterie Den in San José on April 18, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

It’s certainly nerve-wracking to get live feedback in front of your peers, and there’s a nervous, excited energy in the room as showtime approaches. I chat with rapper 401k$ey, who with a sheepish grin says it’s his second time ever getting up on stage. LJame$ starts calling artists up.

A rapper with twin braids and a curly mustache named Mr. Amoroso kicks the night off with a sermon about chasing paper that gets everyone nodding in agreement. A singer named Chlo breaks into Tinashe-esque choreography while delivering a diss track to “bitches who try to read a book by its cover.” And Westside Moe charms the room with romantic verses that take everyone back to the Ja Rule and Ashanti era of hip-hop love songs.

Chlo performs at the open mic night at the Coterie Den in San José on April 18, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

The judges heap generous praise but also don’t pull back on critiques. A common refrain is that people need to lower their backing vocals and let the audience hear them. When some of the shyer artists forget to introduce themselves or let on that they’re nervous, the judges emphasize confidence and personal branding.

When 401k$sey goes on, the sheepish demeanor falls away and he’s shoulder-shimmying across the stage while hyping the crowd with a call-and-response hook about rolling up to the club. Everyone loses it when he suddenly switches to rapping full force in Tagalog.

“Pare!” Isandro exclaims in Tagalog from the judges’ table. “Yeah, bruh, for the second performance, I’m blown away. It looks like you been doing this shit.”

At the end of the night, Mr. Amoroso takes the crown, and everyone ends the night with smiles, hugs and fuel for their next moves.

From left to right: John John, LJame$ and Isandro. LJame$ reviews the performance of a contestant at the open mic night at the Coterie Den in San José on April 18, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A melting pot in Japantown

The Coterie Den is one of the newer businesses in Japantown, home to some eateries and shops that have been around since the 1940s and ’50s. As San José’s Japanese American population ages or moves away to suburbs, the neighborhood is becoming more multicultural — something reflected in its artistic expression.

LJame$, who is Chicano, has been organizing car shows and artist markets with his team in Japantown, and he says it took a while for some of the old-school neighborhood merchants to embrace the Coterie Den crew. He has a supporter in fellow business owner My Nguyen, who co-founded nearby streetwear boutique Headliners in 2011. With the addition of Coldwater, known for its airbrushed sportswear and in-house streetwear brand Jubo, there’s now a critical mass of establishments rooted in hip-hop culture in the neighborhood.

“Being a young, Brown gentleman in here — and Japantown [has] a board and they have a whole business association and a very tight-knit community,” LJame$ says. “My stuck up for me a lot. I appreciate him for doing that and opening up doors for us.”

401k$ey performs at the open mic night at the Coterie Den in San José on April 18, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

The crowd at Coterie Den — Chicano, Filipino, Vietnamese, Black, white — reflects that sense of solidarity. “I want to showcase that to the world because coexisting, being in places where we can all absorb the culture and learn and listen and talk to one another — that’s special,” LJame$ says. “And the world needs more of that. Not just only in the creative scene, but everywhere.”

“It’s like San José itself is a culture, but everybody kind of has their own culture,” says the Coterie Den’s event coordinator, Ruby Rodriguez.

The audience watches performances during the open mic night at the Coterie Den in San Jose on April 18, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

She has a major hand in the Coterie Den’s gatherings, including an even bigger open mic at last weekend’s Culture Night Market at Discovery Meadows. On May 26, the Coterie Den is hosting a Japantown vintage and thrift market; on June 2, they’re sponsoring a Sunday Funday networking event and day party at nightclub Fuze SJ; and on June 3, the Coterie Den will open its doors for more networking and live performances at Innovative Meetup.

The Coterie Den team is passionate about their neighborhood. But their vision doesn’t stop there. They want to take their music beyond San José, and even beyond the Bay.

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“I want to have one of these in LA. I want to have one in New York. I want to take this exact culture that we’re building, and just transcend the region,” LJame$ says. “I think we have something special to show of course for our city, of course for the Bay area. … And I feel like it needs to be spread across the nation.”

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