Photo by James BunoanGreyboy's street cred should be chiseled into some earthquake-cracked chunk of concrete. The DJ/producer has been a hero to SoCal's hip-hop underground for more than a decade, renowned for blending the music with idiosyncratic, jazzy beats—”acid jazz,” if you want to slap a label on it. But in April, he found himself joining the club of bigger-named musical cash magnets like Paul Oakenfold when his latest album, Soul Mosaic: A Case Study in Beats, Soul and Funk, made an appearance on Billboard's electronic-album chart—a first not only for Greyboy, but also for his label, Newport Beach's Ubiquity Records.
Even more ominously for those who need their musicians to be powered by a bourgeois-tweaking beatnik cool, the LA Times celebrated Greyboy a couple of weeks back in an article about his other passion: home remodeling. But Greyboy's house isn't just some bland tract monstrosity—it's the Opdahl House, an Edward Killingsworth-designed modernist architectural jewel in the Naples neighborhood of Long Beach that he's been restoring back to its original 1958 look.
But the 35-year-old Greyboy (born Andreas Stevens) assures his music would never be played at an Herms-scarved celebrity charity event. His tunes would likely cause a riot. “The one thing I like about hip-hop is the angriness of it,” Greyboy says. “I always like my albums to have a common thread of having an angry sound. It could be a happy song with the melody but still have an ugly vibe.”
That need for duality is a common theme in Greyboy's work—even his adopted DJ name is a merge, his slang term for a white man who can effortlessly play black soul. He's also been going through other sonic changes. Soul Mosaic marks the first album on which he's experimented with vocalists—sweet, life-affirming singers who play chicken with the volcanic undercurrents of his songs. The male singers on the album, Bay Area soulmen Bart Davenport and Bing Ji Ling, inject a wounded sensitivity into their respective tracks, the Stevie Wonder cover “Genevieve” “To Know You Is to Love You” and “So Good.” But before anyone can brand them as too touchy-feely, Greyboy cauterizes the tenderness with a steel-plate-tough hip-hop exterior.
Even “Gotta Stand for Something,” the one undeniably cheerful song on the album, is packed in Kevlar. Singer Sharon Jones of East Coast funkateers the Dap-Kings delivers this tune with a cheerfully defiant '60s sock-it-to-me vibe, but with Greyboy at the controls, it sounds like Aretha Franklin belting out “Respect” while firing from a tank turret.
Less conflicted are the instrumentals. Cuts like “Loggia” and “Big Tito” practically demand to be included on the soundtrack album of a thoroughly unnerving crime flick, placing tension and anger on slow boil, biding time for something to push them from cool menace to a bit of the old ultraviolence.
These full-fledged flashes of rage are something new for Greyboy. He only hinted at them in past efforts, such as his magisterial 2001 album Mastered the Art, which flexed a bullfighter's bravado with a juxtaposition of hip-hop beats, Spanish guitars and smooth vibraphones. His 1994 breakthrough disc, Freestylin', meshed smart production techniques with live jazz sounds from then-OC-based musicians such as saxophonist Karl Denson (who went on to form Tiny Universe). Their live band, the Greyboy Allstars, might be the closest Greyboy has come to sculpting an unabashedly “feel good” sound. The long, freeform-oriented hip-hop jazz didn't attract existentialist Silver Lake hipsters to their gigs, though. Instead, most of their fans were aggressively happy, blissed-out, longhaired, twirly dancing Deadhead/Phisheads searching for the next hot jam band. Greyboy refuses to condemn them, but he nevertheless stopped working regularly with the Allstars in 1996. Denson and the Allstars still gig occasionally minus their namesake, attracting the same patchouli-scented crowd.
All of that good-natured sound and crowd-pleasing may get in the way of his core aesthetic. “I like music that is sparse; it's more about what's not there. It's negative space,” Greyboy says. “It's the whole essence of hip-hop. It's made with nothing, but you come out with a big end result, and it becomes something original.”
Greyboy performs with Josh One and Mr. Goodbar at the Abstract Workshop Club at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.abstract-workshop.com. Sat., 11 p.m. $10. 21+.