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
His parents have just started making payments on the Saquin violin.
At the moment, Dateh wants to be famous more than he wants to have a girlfriend. Which is probably for the best, since his small, boy-child stature makes it hard for him to attract women. They invariably condemn him to the role of “little brother.” He’s in his early 20s, though he won’t say 20-what because he enjoys asking people to guess his age. Fifteen wouldn’t be an unreasonable guess. The embarrassment of 12-year-old girls batting eyelashes at him, as they did at a quinceanera he went to a couple weekends ago, is par for the course.
“Oh, Paul,” they said, much to his chagrin, “you’re so cute!”
Some of his friends stopped talking to him when he defected from the classical world to hip-hop. Perhaps they are jealous, I suggest. Perhaps they feel betrayed.
“No,” he says, “I don’t think so. They just ... couldn’t relate.”
“I’m a pretty good violinist,” he says. “But I had the potential to be even better if I’d kept practicing. If it means anything, I went to the Colburn School of music, which is considered prestigious,” he says, ironic emphasis on “prestigious.” Once you weed out the 5-year-old Mozart prodigies and the hacks with a sound so horrible it makes cats cry, the untrained ear struggles. It’s tough to pick out the real deals in a sea of middling virtuosos.
“You’re so talented,” the parents of his friends used to tell him. “I’m glad you’re not practicing, or my kid would be in trouble!” Or, “You could be so good if only you practiced.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Kwon,” Dateh says, “thank you, Mr. Chu.”
Dateh’s mother has a final wish that she would like her children to execute for her upon her death. On a cliff overlooking the ocean, Paul will play the violin. His sister will play the piano. As they play, a helicopter will swoop in and scatter their mother’s ashes into the sea.
Dateh has inherited some of his mother’s flair for drama. He wants, and he says this with sincerity, to contribute to the soundtrack of peoples’ lives. He wants to be in their cars, at their birthday parties, at their weddings, at the clubs where they dance, in their earphones while they jog. When people sing along to a song he’s written, it’s the best feeling in the world. Sometimes he tries to put his friends’ feelings in music, when they are overcome with joy, anger or sadness and have no words to express it.
Mom and Dad are a different story. “Their English stops here,” he says. “My Japanese stops here, and there’s this huge space in between.” He holds his hands out, a violin’s width apart. “My parents denied themselves a lot of luxuries to set an example for us. To teach us that we can’t expect things from life. You have to earn it.”
In fact, they gave up their own music to work and have a family when they moved from Okinawa to the States.
At one of his shows, Dateh’s mother stares. “All these people, they are here for you?”
Dateh’s father recently picked up the clarinet again; and his mom, the violin. Paul is giving her lessons. They’re working their way through “the easy stuff,” Vivaldi via the Suzuki Method.
“Music is the only language we have in common,” Dateh admits. He sounds happy. He is contemplating stealing Mom’s TV so she can’t watch the Japanese soaps she loves so much.
This is Paul Dateh’s image as styled by Paul Dateh, now with a job at Kinokuniya Bookstore: The awkward, clumsy, computer-loving nerd-geek who perpetually says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But put a violin in front of him, and he’s got serious game. Mild-mannered bookstore clerk by day, hip-hop violin superhero by night. “I can’t be more suave, so why fight the truth?”
Still, he is embarrassed when he’s recognized by a music colleague. “Hey, I didn’t know you hang out here,” said the colleague, passing Dateh outside of Kinokuniya.
“Actually, I work here,” Dateh mumbles. “I’m just on my lunch break.”
One day you’re shelving magazines, the next you’re opening for Public Enemy. In Vegas, DJ Juice loops “Rebel Without a Pause” on his turntable, and Dateh plays the violin over it. The sound is slippery and improvisational. Dateh’s classical and jazz training come in handy — if a microphone fails, or a record skips and there are awkward silences to fill in, he’s got it covered and can make musical sense of mistakes. But he can’t eat at dinner afterward because he’s too nervous, what with DMC sitting across the table from him, Flava Flav to his left and Chuck D to his right. He’s also too broke. They’ve gone to a fancy French restaurant — he was so nervous he cannot even remember what the place’s name is, except that when he orders water, it comes in a glass bottle. The $4.99 buffet at the Sahara, with steaks you can bounce off the floor, is more his speed.