Having taken a little time out of playing in Europe, Crenshaw has been growing the DIRTYBIRD brand to become a huge force on the American West Coast scene, encompassing events, management, a record label and several other projects. We caught up with him ahead of his first Room One appearance in two years, to discuss his enduring appeal - here and closer to home - along with where it all began.
Can we start by going back to the time you were just establishing DIRTYBIRD?
Claude VonStroke: I think of that as the golden era, of this time in San Francisco, in the Haight area of town, which is from 8th Street down. The upper section is the touristy area and where everyone goes to shop. Haight is where all the guys live who you might say hate everything – the beard-scratchers, the Brooklyn ten-years ago group. In that area they had a record shop where everyone shopped, so you knew everyone. Justin and this guy named Carlos started a bootleg label called Deep House Project and the logo looked like the parking ticket you would get from the San Francisco Police Department, with the same lettering.
At that time, there were all of these little cool underground parties that only people who lived in this part of town knew about and only they would go. There was a tiny little club that could only hold about 150 people called The Top. Justin eventually got a night there and there was just this sound that started bubbling up that was not what was around generally at that time. In San Fran at the time, there was Naked Music, OM Records, this glossy vocal, west-coast house – kinda sounds like UK commercial house right now – very sheeny, with the vocals, silk shirts… So we decided we didn’t want to do that. We came from a background of d&b, we liked Detroit techno, we liked the grimier feeling, but also fun, so there was just some music that started popping up on bootleg vinyl and then we started a party at Golden Gate Park together and that was a few years before the label. It was the same exact group that are still involved today.
At first, no one liked our thing, we were completely not accepted and it wasn’t cool. No-one went to Justin’s Wednesday night, it was always a struggle to get even like eight people there. He also played at this hotel on Friday nights to nobody. The thing was though, he was at least playing twice a week, every week and he was getting to be amazing. He was actually working. He was the first of our group who was really a working DJ.
I was going to be his manager, but then I met my wife and we kind of decided that we would try out doing a label. She let me not work for a year, as she has an amazing job, she’s like a super high executive person – she let me do it for a year without the fear of bills. It was exactly what I needed, some time off from daily pressure. That’s all it took really. I went crazy, I was completely psycho to be honest. I would do anything. We would steal mailing lists from other labels by hiring interns who had just worked there. We did anything we had to do. I got every single famous DJ’s home address and I would hand-mail them vinyl that we had hand-stamped in my apartment.
I guess that’s what you’ve got to do.
Yeah it just worked. No American distributor seemed to like us though, but a German distributor liked us. They were called Neuton and they did like Playhouse, Perlon and Ongaku and all these kinda off-centre labels. It’s as if they listened and realised it was kinda stupid and weird and they kinda liked it. They were based in Frankfurt and they took us on. So we were making records in San Francisco, pressing them in Europe and then exporting them back into America and that’s how we became cool. People started to talk about these weird records from Germany, but they were actually made by Americans. I’m skipping quite a few years here though to be honest.
Were you surprised by the success that tracks like ‘Who’s Afraid Of Detroit’ brought you?
This year is actually the ten-year anniversary of that track, so we are actually sorting out remixes of it right now.
Is it nice to revisit it?
Yeah! I haven’t played it in a while. I played it for a long time, and then I abandoned it. We’re right at the point where it’s about to be forgotten. It’s amazing that that track lasted as long as it did though, the fact that anybody knows the name of that track now is incredible. In this realm that we’re in where everything is super-disposable and no-one knows the name of any tracks, it’s pretty cool that there’s a track that they remember. In short, no, of course I had no idea it was going to blow up like that.
I actually slept on the floor of the office at fabric. Simon who worked there at the time was doing publishing and he asked me if I wanted to come and meet everyone at fabric. I told him I hadn’t slept in two days, so he said I could just sleep on the floor there for a little while, so I did.
Was the release of that record the point where you started to see success as a DJ as well?
That got me a few gigs, but like I said, at that time, I was psycho, so I bought a plane ticket to Europe and just said ‘you guys need to book me’. I just went to everyone and told them that I need to get some gigs. It was totally insane.
It clearly worked though.
I actually slept on the floor of the office at fabric. Simon who worked there at the time was doing publishing and he asked me if I wanted to come and meet everyone at fabric. I told him I hadn’t slept in two days, so he said I could just sleep on the floor there for a little while, so I did. I took a nap there, and then I met the whole team. It was crazy. As with many DJs, my aim at the time was to bring out a fabric CD, but that took a little while.
How do you feel that you’ve changed personally in the 10 years since you started DIRTYBIRD and has the label followed you in that way?
I dunno. I guess I’ve got slightly better at the business end, I think I’m just better at managing a lot more stuff. A lot more careers are dependent on the work I do now, moreso than before, it’s almost like we have to stay open. I also kinda feel like we might have evolved, but we also have the exact same thing going on.
One thing that’s happened also is, well, imagine when someone makes a big special effects movie, it’s the coolest movie ever, and then everyone else makes a special effects movie and they go back and watch the first one, and say ‘that one was just okay.’ I feel that in a way we’ve been copied and recopied and resampled and redone so many times over now that it could be hard to tell what our individual voice is, compared to how easy it was to tell for the first five years – we were on an island, but in a good way. Nobody did that sound when we started.
At the moment your success seems to be more weighted to the US compared to the UK, is that a fair observation?
I hate to say it, but I am really just focussed on the US actually. I used to go to Europe every other weekend, I was obsessed with going to Europe and getting into that circle and now I’m only going three times this year in total, because I just see something here. If you can do well where you’re from its almost more meaningful than just travelling around everywhere else and trying to get into a completely different scene. I see an opportunity to be the best label over here, and I really don’t have enough energy to do it everywhere.
What’s the point in spending so much of your life travelling, when over the last couple of years, the scene in the US has completely taken off…
People don’t even realise that’s it’s become really good for the great music as well. I think it still has a bad reputation and that EDM is taking over, but it’s not true. Actually the cool stuff is taking over.
You’re also famed for finding people almost from nowhere. We’ve heard that you were played some track by Julio Bashmore and you were the first to really believe in him.
Yeah, Rag in Bristol gave me a CD of his and he was just some kid. Then I went to my hotel and listened to it again and realised it was really good, and I played the songs that night at Motion in Bristol and saw just how good they were, so then we put them out. That was it. Then I completely blew it with him, and I didn’t check my email – this is a perfect example of a one-man show screw up – I didn’t check my email for a couple of weeks and I was just going through some demo tracks and then I found some by Julio and I called him up and he told me he had already signed them. It was ‘Battle For Middle You’ and I was five or six days late. That was a huge fuck-up from me. Then nobody even knew that I had released a Julio Bashmore record, it was all about PMR releasing his music from then on.
But we discovered Riva Starr, Tim Green, Julio Bashmore – in fact I didn’t discover Eats Everything, Wojciech (from Catz n Dogz) put his stuff out first, but we picked up on it right from the start.
Are there any young artists now that you are looking at and saying might be the next big thing?
It’s really impossible to say, I didn’t know at the time that any of the other ones were gonna be huge. There are people who are doing well like Shiba San… he was a guy that we picked up from the bottom of the demo pile and over here he is crushing it. I don’t know if he’s that big in Europe, but he’s a big deal over here. Will Clarke is a new guy too who’s awesome and a new guy from LA called Ciszak, I think is gonna be good. He has a record coming out around now.
I also have a Friend Within record that sounds nothing like Friend Within - it’s like an old funk record. That’s another guy that we kinda started from scratch. It seems that we’re the best first-record label. If you want to release your first record, come here. I really like it like that. Record labels don’t make any money, so we just want the cool records and we don’t really get stuck with anybody that we have to release. That’s why you don’t see anyone releasing like six records on DIRTYBIRD, because all six of them would have to be awesome. The only person that I don’t put any limitations on is Justin Martin, because he knows the sound and I think he’s got it down. His new album that’s coming out in about two months is great.
Tell us a little more about your radio show The Birdhouse – it’s coming to Rinse here in the UK very soon right?
Yeah we’re on the 29th or 30th episode now. It’s a weekly thing. We just said that we would do it and put it out there and see what happens. So we’ve just signed a contract to go on Sirius XM, which is like national radio over here and then it’s gonna be reformatted into a monthly show on Rinse FM. It’s on Ibiza-Sonica, you can stream it on our website every week and it’s on 21 other radio shows around the world. It’s even out on a national Dutch station, but they won’t take any of me talking, so they talk over it. I have no idea what they are saying. I want to get Kill Frenzy in to listen to the show and tell me if it’s alright or not.
How do you find new music nowadays?
I listen to every demo. I try to listen to new music that comes out too, but I definitely listen to every demo and I listen to all the promos that I get. It’s mad how many I get though. I’ve got to the point now where I realise quite quickly if I like the groove or not. If I don’t, I don’t sit and wait for it to be good. I listen to more music than I ever did before, because about five years ago, we probably only got 100 demos a week and now it’s more like 500.
We can’t speak to you and not mention your recent collaboration with Green Velvet, he is such a legendary artist to us– how did that come about?
That’s one of the best things ever I think. We both showed up to a set in Miami at the same time and we were both playing and we had always run into each other at airports and had nice little chats, but that was it. We weren’t buddies yet. I don’t know whose idea it was, but we just decided to play b2b for four hours instead of two separate two-hour sets. It was a tiny venue, there weren’t that many people there, but it was really awesome. We don’t play the same at all really, but it totally worked. So then we did it again and then suddenly we were playing together in Las Vegas and after the show we got super drunk and ended up in a hip hop club, and decided to name the project. We thought of all these terrible names like ‘Keep It 100’ but finally we got to ‘Get Real’ and somehow that sums it up. He’s a really fun guy and we get along really well. It’s a great collaboration. That record was really fun for both of us and it sounds like both of us.
Apart from fabric, what’s exciting coming up, for the label and yourself personally?
I have a release coming out. I’ve been really heavy on getting music done. I hate to say it, but it’s kind of a crossover record. I had this mashup going on in my head for like ten years. There’s the bassline from ‘Break 4 Love’ by Raze and then I would always sing over the top of that the wrong song, which was Oran 'Juice' Jones’ ‘The Rain’. They’re in the same key and I would always sing the vocal from that over that bassline. So I decided I would just make it. I’ve licensed both tracks and remade the whole thing from scratch and made it into a new song. That’s my next release. I think it’s cool but I have no idea what’s gonna happen with it though. The B-side is super weird, but on purpose, so I don’t just have this vocal track, without a weird B-side.