By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Dateh, who has perfect pitch, pedals back and forth between worlds of sound, hearing what colors sound like, or smells or memories. Cupping his hands around a mug of green tea at a table outside the Starbucks a block from the house he refuses to call his home, shivering in his Run DMC T-shirt, with obnoxious pop music blaring on the loudspeakers, he hears a train approaching. The engine of the train is a D-natural, which sharpens into a whining E as the train approaches. The horn blowing as it rushes by is a B-major triad with a G-sharp on top, happy yet unsettling. To Dateh, the train’s noise is a kind of poetry.
In New York last summer, Dateh met DJ Johnny Juice, who took him on a hip-hop geography tour. Dateh loves Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich but not as much as he loves People Under the Stairs and A Tribe Called Quest. He saw the apartment on Linden Street where the members of Tribe lived. He saw the neighborhood where LL Cool J grew up. Juice is a prolific, well-connected Renaissance man, and Dateh found himself hanging out in Chuck D’s kitchen, watching him cook. It was surreal. He couldn’t believe he was there, both as Paul, the guy who grew up in the suburbs, and Paul Dateh, the future global brand and marketable musical entity.
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful or an ass,” he said to Juice, “but, besides land on the moon, what have you not done in your life?”
Wherever he goes, Dateh considers the quality of noise. New York sounds like a jam session, he says, a vertical whirlwind of sound. Everyone talking at the same time. The subways moving in tunnels underneath you. A truck’s metal door smacking on sidewalk. The artillery fire of a jackhammer tearing up concrete. In the classical world, this noise is called “chance music.” Every single sound is part of a collective piece. The city, in a sense, is performing for you.
Dateh says Los Angeles sounds like a symphony played in a concert hall, with music parsed out in discrete movements: allegro. Adagio. Minuet. Presto. During the spaces in between, the audience breathes, exhales and settles in for the next segment.
Walnut, unfortunately, sounds like a monastery. But even silence is a sound. It gives sound its definition.
It is the early 1990s and Dateh and his sister are latchkey kids. The metronome is the enemy, its creaking tick-tick-tick-tick slices their time into equal amounts of musical measure. It is like going to the beach, Dateh believes, and being forced to count out grains of sand.
“Play that passage again,” their old music teacher commands, “but this time, more slowly!”
They aren’t allowed to watch television, just practice, practice, practice. But they watch anyway. His mother takes the antenna with her to work, so Dateh learns about the metal conductivity of wire coat hangers. She cuts off the power cord, so Dateh rewires the TV with cables scavenged from an old electric fan. Each night, when she gets home, Dateh’s mom places her hand on the back of the TV as if she’s checking a fever. Is the box warm? It is a bad night for them if it is. Soon, Dateh and his sister learn to put frozen foods on the TV to cool it down. “Get the spinach!” his sister orders. But, they learn, a frozen loaf of bread, bought in bulk at Costco, is best. By the time it defrosts to room temperature, they know to stop watching and put the loaf back on ice. Much effort is required to ditch the violin and piano and watch an episode of Darkwing Duck. Once, they cut it too close and the bread won’t refreeze, so they make a heap of peanut butter sandwiches.
“Boy,” their mother says, suspiciously, “you guys sure were hungry.”
“If it’s not the Tchaikovsky competition, they have a hard time understanding it,” Dateh says of his parents. “Thousands of young, cutthroat musicians enter that contest. They practice the same piece for 10 hours a day. To this day, I have musician friends who stay in a room and play the same passage for three hours. They practice until their hands ache, until their skin breaks and their fingers bleed, because the thing that makes or breaks you in the classical world is how well you play. Fame in the classical music world and fame in popular music don’t mean the same thing. The only thing that matters in classical is skill. In other genres, you have to worry about the whole package.”
Here’s one more memory: Dateh busts out of USC’s Thornton Hall after seeing everybody locked in practice rooms; it makes him sick. At dinner, he tells his parents he is quitting classical.
“You’re throwing away years of training because you want to give up this career that doesn’t pay anything, but you actually had a chance of being good at one that pays even worse that you aren’t even sure you know how to do?” they say, incredulous. “Go home.”