As head of the innovative Oakland-based label Deepblak Recordings, producer Armon Bazile always has his eyes wide open to the pulse of emerging music in the Bay Area. "The musical underground railroad is rumbling," he said. "There's some brilliant stuff going on, especially here in Oakland. A lot of people are taking chances again." But for Bazile (aka Aybee), it's been an uphill battle without armor.
Deepblak's brand of mind-expanding Afrofuturism — rich, melodic post-techno, electronic, and jazzy dance-music hybrids — hasn't been typically embraced by his community, which tends to favor Oakland's "hyphy" party hip-hop and gangster street tales. "I'm from the Town but people hear this stuff and think I'm from Europe," said Bazile, who grew up in East Oakland before recently moving to the more affluent Grand Lake neighborhood.
Bazile recalled an incident where a clubgoer spit on a friend's turntables because he didn't have any songs by E-40. "It wasn't an isolated incident," he said. "Anything left of center isn't accepted. That's a problem when your mind is that closed that you can't listen to anything outside of what media feeds you."
However, audiences and artists are increasingly starting to embrace electronic music. Locally, artists such as AmpLive and rising producer Trackademicks are fusing elements of house and techno with hip-hop. Nationally, Black Eyed Peas' house-inspired "I Gotta Feeling" (produced by French house DJ David Guetta) has shown how electronic music can give new life to the stagnant pop genre.
In addition to his own releases, Bazile's label has issued diverse electronic sounds by Oakland's Blaktroniks, Afrikan Sciences, and Damon Bell; a collaboration between Bazile and Toronto's Trinidadian Deep; and a compilation (Deepblak Presents Blaktropolis) featuring artists like North Carolina's Erik Rico and New York's Black Jazz Consortium. The local crew occasionally meets at Bazile's pad to exchange ideas and upload videos to the label's web site. It's a true Town collective as deep as the Hieroglyphics or the Zoo Complex — the only problem is, no one cares about techno in Oakland.
Were Deepblak based in Detroit or Europe, where electronic music thrives, the story would be different. In fact, Bazile's strongest radio, club, and press support comes from Europe, where tastemakers such as DJ Mickey Blanco and web site BeyondJazz.net have given high praise to the label's works. As an all-black electronic record label based in the East Bay, Deepblak has not only pioneered a new sound but has had to struggle to gain acceptance in their local community.
"You have people that don't think electronic music was started here, that don't think it was started by black people," Bazile said, referring to the United States. "They have no idea."
The techno genre briefly flirted with commercial success in this country at its height in the late Eighties and early Nineties before fading from the mainstream spotlight. It's something that became "big in Europe" and a whisper in underground club circles. African-American electronic musicians Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson are credited as the godfathers of techno, pioneering the Detroit sound in the Eighties that became the springboard for its many offshoots and subgenres. Almost simultaneously, DJ Frankie Knuckles was developing house music in Chicago while DJs like Larry Levan popularized it on the New York club scene. It was a fast-paced evolution that embraced technology. Two decades later, Bazile says that his approach is no different than his predecessors'.
"It's a progressive, future-tinged black music," said Bazile. Deepblak's artists aren't trying to create a new genre, he says, but rather "we're just playing with advanced tools, articulating 21st-century blues music with all the technology that we have."
At six-foot-six, Bazile could have pursued his passion for basketball. Or he could have followed in his father's footsteps and gotten into local politics. Bazile's father, Leo, was an Oakland city councilman who, at different points in his career, worked for former California governor and Oakland mayor Jerry Brown and with former San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Though he played college ball and majored in political science, Bazile was bitten by the art bug.
Bazile always had music stuck in his head. He was a fidgety kid who constantly made beats on his desk with his hands, while other kids rapped to it. Slowly, his handmade beats became more intricate and, in high school, he picked up some equipment and started producing. Not taking it seriously, he put it down until 1998, when he started the now-defunct SFNite.com, an online magazine that covered San Francisco nightlife. Inspired by the DJs and producers he'd befriended on the club scene, he went back to his old habit. Except what he heard in his head was different from what he heard in the clubs, and these new sounds frustrated him to no end. Making music, he says, was a means to save his sanity. "It got to a point where it was driving me crazy, like literally: "'Ahh! Get this rhythm out of my head!'"
Bazile founded Deepblak in 2001 as a home for avant-garde soul music and an outlet to release his own material. Technically astute, Bazile has an open-minded approach to music, toying and experimenting with new sounds. Sonically, he's like a techno equivalent of the late Detroit production genius J Dilla, fiddling with buttons and knobs on the Starship Enterprise, inhaling nebulous matter while drifting toward a distant star. His official full-length debut under his Aybee moniker, East Oakland Space Program, released this year on Deepblak, finds him flexing his versatility with complex arrangements that stretch from broken-beat jazz to rhythmic techno grooves. Equally fit for the club or for lounging, the album has mellow, deep house cuts like "Ozzie Davis" while Erik Rico provides the vocal assistance for future soul jam "So Much Greater."