In San Francisco, money is in the air. The town is a hub of arty decor and scenic charm, but unless you are financially well heeled, San Francisco's considerable draws aren't really open to exploration.
It's a place of extremity and contradiction, where slick professionals and homeless vagrants negotiate the same streets, the socioeconomic gap widening ad infinitum. Thankfully, we have DaVinci — a 27-year-old rapper who continues to redefine Bay Area hip-hop's parameters — to articulate the issue.
"When you go anywhere in the world and say you're a rapper from San Fran, people's first thought is Fisherman's Wharf and Rice-A-Roni," DaVinci said. "Until they hear my music, watch my videos, or take a walk with me through the streets I grew up in and realize their perception is all wrong."
Whatever the archetype of a Bay Area rapper is, DaVinci scarcely fits it; in fact, with his swift, elegiac rhymes, his chief influence might be Queensbridge emcee Nas. It's a comparison that DaVinci welcomes. "I think East Coast rap influenced my style in terms of flow and how I approach the music conceptually," he said.
This is what makes him so exciting: DaVinci typifies a new class of street-savvy artists who skew local but couldn't be further removed from the manically free-associative psychedelia of "based" rappers like Lil B. Aesthetically, DaVinci is more conservative, but his boom-bap-oriented hip-hop works because it integrates just the right touch of sly humor. Witness how he flipped Michael Jackson's 1972 song "Ben" into a head-nodding anthem about countin' stacks. (Get it, Ben? As in, Ben Franklin?)
But he didn't always have much to laugh about. DaVinci grew up in the once-celebrated Fillmore district, where poverty and tense race relations informed an overt sense of unease among residents.
"While I was growing up, Fillmore was a predominantly black community — made up of everything from pimps, dope dealers, hustlers, and prostitutes to working, middle-class people," he said. "The high crime rate led redevelopers to come in and tear down half of the projects and build expensive condos. In other words, broke black people can get out, and whoever got enough money can move in."
Years before Bay Area hip-hop saw a groundswell in momentum, DaVinci was just an anonymous kid struggling to understand and broaden his worldview. Local rappers like San Quinn and JT the Bigga Figga were heroes in Fillmore, but it was a very blinkered kind of success. Few people checked for these guys outside of the 415. Chalk it up to public misconception.
San Francisco might be one of the nation's more affluent cities, but seeping through the cracks is a desperation that tourists and their privileged ilk handily ignore.
DaVinci has a decidedly different conception of the city by the bay, and he says it's borne out in statistics. "Rapping about poverty and the 'hood is only cliché to those who see it as entertainment — as make-believe," he said, pointedly. "The conditions of my people are real, and if that's cliché to you, then you won't ever get it."
Whenever he discusses the strife of the Fillmore, DaVinci seems cross and defiant, as if troubled by skewed impressions of his city that abound in the popular imagination. For the last decade, he has attempted — often tryingly — to reshape his hometown's image. That's a heavy burden no matter how much regional pride one bears.
DaVinci started rapping in 2001 and cut his first mixtape a year later. At first the reception to his guileless, perceptively low-key street-rap was lukewarm and DaVinci grew frustrated. "I got tired of my music collecting dust," he says now.
It wasn't until the spring of 2010 that he really found his niche. Recognizing that most listeners consume their hip-hop virally, DaVinci allowed fans to download his debut album, The Day the Turf Stood Still, without charge. Soon everyone was paying attention: Unfailingly hip publications like XLR8R and Pitchfork Media wrote about DaVinci with all the starry-eyed enthusiasm of a film critic reviewing Black Swan.
"My folks ... came to me with a strategy to utilize the web to distribute a project," he said. "The Internet provided me the outlet I was looking to find for years."
Even without the luxury afforded by a computer, though, DaVinci would likely still find a way to be heard because he is an incisive, commanding, thrilling presence. People with his talent don't go ignored, even if they came up on the margins.