San Francisco’s Fillmore district has one of the richest musical histories of any neighborhood in the Bay Area —perhaps country — but tourists don't often show up on the corner to look around. Up-and-coming rapper DaVinci continues that legacy by writing music that exposes the grit and glory of his home. He does it by inverting the classic turf rap formula, stripping down the sound and mixing personal stories with analysis of larger social structures.
“The postcards only show one corner of San Francisco – by the [Golden Gate] Bridge,” says DaVinci, while typing into a Blackberry at a booth in Gussie’s Chicken and Waffles on Fillmore Street. “I’m just doing my part in showing that it’s way more dynamic than just a bridge and the boats. There’s hella corners, and there’s hella layers, and there’s hella people, and I’m one of them, and I want to make sure everything I came up on is still around.
“The experience we’ve been through ain’t just San Francisco, though. It’s taking place in every major city, across ethnicities.”
Voted the number three best new rapper in the Bay Area by urban station KMEL, and the subject of magazine features in places like Urb and XLR8R, the 27-year-old Fillmore District native John DeVore, aka DaVinci, has garnered wide praise for 2010 debut LP, "The Day The Turf Stood Still." In it, the former San Jose State running back and drug dealer bears witness to the forces of redevelopment on his family, neighborhood and self in a proud lament aimed at marginalized communities all over the globe.
DaVinci is perhaps the first positive “turf” rapper, describing what he’s done and seen without glorifying or denying its details. Bombastic turf rap peaked in the ‘90s with N.W.A., Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s comic tales of ghetto life and hasn't dissipated since. DaVinci grew up parsing the oversized stories of Too $hort, Jay Z, Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., as well as local mentor San Quinn. Now he relates his own, while distinctly eschewing hollow braggadocio. He raps about casual sex and the guilt of paying $360 to murder his unborn child. He talks about the fast money of drugs and the even bigger cost of getting caught.
His style is at odds with the Bay Area’s last rap crush “hyphy,” as well as the current radio playlist of “loverboy rappers,” like Drake, Dream and even Lil Wayne.
“I like Drake, I like Dream, I like Wayne, I think they’re dope, but I’m not trying to compete,” he says. “There’s only one San Francisco, there’s only one Fillmore and there’s only one me.”
Born in 1983 in the Fillmore, his home has left an indelible mark on DeVore. He feels forced to tell his neighborhood’s story, almost as a form of catharsis. The area, bordered by Geary in the north and Grove on the south, extending east from Fillmore, gets its reputation from a historic wave of blacks that followed the War War II-era naval shipyard jobs to the City. Those jobs funded a veritable Harlem in the West, and the Fillmore became a jazz mecca, drawing Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Duke Ellington.
But the Fillmore of the rapper’s youth bore little resemblance to that world. After WWII, the shipyard closed and manufacturing jobs vanished, leading to decades of urban blight. The son of a drug-involved father in and out of jail, DaVinci has seven siblings. His family’s house burned down when he was 13, and he became homeless until Oakland relatives took in the clan. Life with 15 others in his aunt’s basement turned DaVinci toward the streets.
“At the time, I thought it didn’t bother me, but when I look back, it did,” he said. “Nobody had a job in my family. Nobody started their own business. My role models were my uncles, who were once Fillmore musicians, and any older dude around who had something going for themselves — and that was the local rappers.”
Football seemed like DaVinci’s path to personal independence, and after he graduated Washington High School in 2000 he became a walk-on running back at San Jose State, taking financial aid. By 2006, football hadn’t panned out, and with tuition too expensive, DeVore turned to a lifelong hobby for financial sustenance. An unofficial album called Butter & Gunz, executive produced by San Quinn, led to iTunes revenue and a tour with Quinn, TechN9ne and Xzibit.
“I was succeeding more at something I was putting half my heart into than something I was giving it all for so I said, ‘I need to go over there.’ I jumped with both feet into rapping.”
Written by DeVore and produced mostly by Al Jieh between 2008 and 2010, "The Day The Turf ..." features DaVinci confronting changes in the district that made him and taking responsibility for himself. It posits systemic violence like gentrification, financial market fraud and globalization as the trickle down source of war over turf. His slow, precise, clear delivery requires multiple rewinds to catch the dense rhyme scheme and layered meanings. The childhood poet pairs his flow with the visceral kick of heavy drums and bass and evocative, classic R&B instrumentals that he grew up on. He tempers the clichéd bragging of the turf (“Real Niggaz”) with surprisingly optimistic outlooks (“See Another Day”).
Since the album’s release this spring, DaVinci’s been playing local shows at 111 Minna, Mezzanine and other spots, but his success has been hampered by the consequences of a 2008 arrest on weapons and drugs charges. He pled no contest and received six months in Alameda County jail. After exhausting his appeals, he’s served 45 days straight, and is currently serving his last 45 days half-time, reporting for incarceration every Monday morning for 72 hours. He says he’s left the rest of that life behind.
“That shit is getting in the way of me. It’s getting in the way of everything. I’ve lost more from it than I’ve gained.”
Rap music that glorifies violence has been toxic to his generation, DaVinci says. “It’s a fucking sickness that makes it worse when you glorify it. I’ve seen it. I wouldn’t tell a rap artist to stop doing it. We need mature parents to step in and not let kids get influenced by a couple of songs; someone to advise them that this isn’t real, that they are exaggerating.
“We came up around a lot of negative shit. I try not to focus on that while telling a story that doesn’t leave that out, of course. Because it wouldn’t be a story without it.”
DaVinci plays at the Shattuck Down Low in July. He plans to release another promotion compilation featuring Bay Area rappers in August. "The Day The Turf Stood Still" is available for free download at http://www.swtbrds.com/davinci/.