By Harry Levin
Special to The Examiner
Barclay Crenshaw wasn’t born in San Francisco, but Claude VonStroke was.
Claude VonStroke is Crenshaw’s now globally revered house music project that championed Dirtybird Records along with the label’s signature funky, off-kilter sound.
The name Claude VonStroke began as a playful mockery of the European techno artists who dominate the underground, which, according to Crenshaw, remains an apt allusion to the dynamic of the San Francisco dance music community.
“San Francisco is a town where you could be a famous DJ from Europe and expect that you’re going to sell out a show and four people will show up because everyone’s like, ‘I’m not going to that,’” Crenshaw says with a laugh over Zoom.
Crenshaw doesn’t make this jest because San Francisco harbors a closed-minded attitude toward international artists or the style they play. He lived in The City from 1999 to 2014, and as he thinks back on his time here, he remembers a scene that maintained its commitment to the local DJ crews rather than attending shows with big artists from out of town.
“It’s a place where it’s not all based on hype. It was one of the first towns where a lot of people wanted to be DJs and therefore wanted to be good. Really good,” Crenshaw says. “There were crews that had real followings.”
Crenshaw mentions crews of DJs that released music and played parties around The City back in the early 2000s, like Grayhound, headed by the San Francisco legend DJ Garth. Green Gorilla Lounge is another crew, which continues to put out house records and host events in San Francisco to this day.
The prominence of these crews also created a sense of cliquey-ness in The City, as Crenshaw recalls. Getting into the cliques was nearly impossible, and so it was necessary to start your own
Thus begins the story of Dirtybird, Crenshaw’s record label turned event producer, clothing line and cultural force. Starting back in 2005 as a party in Golden Gate Park with cohorts and DJs Justin Martin, Christian Martin, Worthy and J.Phlip, Dirtybird was another clique in the San Francisco house music scene that was fostering a new kind of sound.
“We brought in this jungle, techno, bumpy, Chicago, Detroit, Derrick Carter-meets-LTJ Bukem sound that nobody was doing,” Crenshaw says.
Nobody had heard the Dirtybird sound before, but the San Francisco community still showed up for it. The community supported Dirtybird because of the sound and because people in San Francisco simply love to dance.
“People just dance on the dance floor in San Francisco. If there’s a guy playing bongos for three hours someone will come and dance,” Crenshaw says. “It was really creative and mind-opening. You could put something on and people would get all the way into it.”
Once San Francisco was into Dirtybird, fans remained loyal. Crenshaw and the Dirtybird crew still throw barbecues in the Bay Area in the spirit of their original parties. They hosted quarterly events at Mezzanine until the club closed on New Year’s Eve 2019. (Crenshaw and Christian Martin played the club’s final event.) Their annual festival, Dirtybird Campout, now happens in Modesto, a short trip east from San Francisco.
“I couldn’t have done Dirtybird without San Francisco,” Crenshaw says. “It’s legit.”
The latest offering from Crenshaw to San Francisco is his Prixe Fixe tour with fellow house and techno stalwart Green Velvet, which was planned for The Midway on Sunday, Jan. 16 and has been postponed to Saturday, March 12.
In the culinary world, a prix fixe menu is one where a restaurant serves multiple courses for one fixed price. Patrons of the establishment have little to no autonomy over what they will eat. The chefs control the experience, and everyone else is along for the ride.
Crenshaw and Green Velvet (real name Curtis Jones) are integrating this concept into music with their five-city tour. The two will control the sounds from start to finish, both playing multiple sets under their various aliases.
Crenshaw will open the night as his oft-forgotten pseudonym Pedro de la Faydro, followed by Jone’s soul-infused Chicago house project, Cajmere. Then Crenshaw will select as Claude VonStroke before Jones comes back as the techno-driven Green Velvet. To close the all-night journey, the two will join forces for their powerhouse collaborative effort, Get Real.
Crenshaw and Jones have brought their ambitious concept to Austin, Miami, Chicago and New York, with San Francisco as the last stop.
“We’re only going to take it to the people who will appreciate it. The people who can see that it’s going to be super special,” Crenshaw says.