Fillmore MC DaVinci on the Mixed Bag of Gentrification, and Why His Music Isn't Throwback Rap

Categories: Q&A
davinci.jpg
Ken Taylor
DaVinci
Easily the most surprising and refreshing hip-hop record to come out of the Bay Area this year is the first album from DaVinciThe Day the Turf Stood Still. Not only did that record revitalize this writer's faith in local hip-hop, but praise for the massive debut has come from all across the critical spectrum. The Fillmore MC, born John DeVore, is certainly deserving of full credit, but one can't help but wonder how much making Turf available for free has helped its success. Regardless, DaVinci's articulate flows and classically minded beats stand out on San Francisco's music scene.

Tonight at 330 Ritch, DaVinci will saddle up onstage for a night of brilliant, live hip-hop music. He's joined by Brooklyn rap veterans Tanya Morgan, with the hot, young MC Freddie Gibbs headlining the show. In anticipation of that performance, we were able to have a quick but illuminating conversation with DaVinci. The rapper expounded on a huge focus of his Turf record -- gentrification -- explained why he wanted to give out that album for free, and spoke of what's coming up next.

One of the biggest things that has seemed to set you apart from most hip-hop artists is that you gave your debut album, The Day the Turf Stood Still, out for absolutely free. What prompted you to go that route? 

I wanted to give my album out for free so that fans worldwide could have easy access to my music, and so I could earn my fans' trust in the long run.

That record seems to be based largely around the gentrification of your neighborhood, the Fillmore District. In the years that I've lived in San Francisco, I've seen the landscape transformed by high-rise condo buildings, chain restaurants, and refurbished landmarks. Where do those kind of changes hit you the hardest? 

I wouldn't say the album is about gentrification, per se. It's about my life, and thus about the neighborhood that I was raised and live in. And because gentrification was so rampant during my life in the '80s and '90s, it is a dominant theme. Gentrification was on my mind kinda heavy at the time we recorded the songs, so it showed up through out the album. The hardest part about seeing half of the hood transformed is adapting to the new surroundings that they've tailored to cater to non-native Fillmore residents. Instead of our nieghborhood record stores and barber shops, there are overpriced cafes, pet shops, and boutiques that don't even want us as patrons.

Do you see any redeeming qualities in those changes? 

Yes and no. Yes, because [the] Fillmore was a slum in the early '90s, and as they started to renovate it -- one housing project and vacant lot at a time -- the murder, homelessness, and crime rate lowered some. So that's cool. But no, because the problem now is the people who are originally from Fillmore can't afford to live in the new expensive condos and renovated apartments. Not to mention [that] the jobs they used to have at the black-owned businesses ain't even there no more. So we were all forced to either move or break our backs to stay. So you gotta ask yourself, who were these changes made for? For us or for new residents, so that we can be more easily replaced?

Let's talk about the music on Turf. You've gone completely past the sounds of Bay Area hyphy music, or any Top 40-type production, and stuck to a more classic, sample-based hip-hop sound. Was that a decision to not sound like the 'average' Bay Area MC or just a natural outcome of your personal influences?

Nah, that's the thing, we didn't even try to make it sound different. This album came to be what it is because myself and my producers just happen to have our own sound. [My producers] Al Jieh, Ammbush, and Big D, had good chemistry; everyone involved felt like we needed to put an album together that has a cohesive sound. We just wanted to do what we felt [like], to see what we would come up with. That said, a lotta folks trying to box it into a sound, trying to say it's just like other "sample-based" rap or it's a throwback sound, but even then, it's really not. If you listen to the drums they use, it's a lot different because it ain't just dusty snares, but it's hand claps, rim shots, and 808s tucked in and shit. It's a lotta synths and live instrumentation -- it makes it sound current. 

What are some of your personal favorite tracks on Turf? What is it about those songs that set them apart?

"Idle Mind," "Aristocrat," and "Ben" just to name a few. I like each song for their own reasons, but those songs are probably the most personal. I share some experiences that most of my homies didn't even know about.

How has the local response been to your record? Any moments standout from your live performances in the Bay Area?

It's been a lot of love nationally and across the board since the album dropped. Given that this was an album you had to let soak in after a few listens, it's always good to see people at the shows who know the words to my songs already. That shit is crazy.

You're also part of the SWTBRDS Collective. Tell us about the rest of the artists in that crew. 

SWTBRDS is the label. Y'all need to watch out for Streetmedia. They are a group on SWTBRDS which consists of E.L.S. (rapper) and Ammbush (producer), and they're straight dope. Go download their album for free off of bandcamp.swtbrds.com.

What's on the horizon for DaVinci?

Touring. I'm working on a new project, which will drop by the end of the year or beginning of the next. I can't say the title just yet, but its coming.

Thanks a lot for answering our questions. Anything else you'd like to add?

I just wanna thank everyone who's listened to the album. If y'all feeling it, please support by spreading the word. That means more to me than your money, at this point. I need you to tell all your folks about the album and my music. Stay up to date [here].

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