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Paul Dateh: Hip-Hop Violinist Superhero by Night, Mild-Mannered Bookstore Clerk by Day

Paul Dateh
Photograph by Jessica Miller

He’s the sweet, classically trained, violin-toting Japanese boy you imagine thugs would be beating on in the parking lot. Instead, outside after his show at Inglewood’s Savoy theater, Paul Dateh’s face hurts from smiling. He’s shaken hands and accepted compliments and business cards from people expressing interest in what he does and who he is, which is not just a violinist but a hip-hop violinist — essentially, an incongruity.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” the show’s host had told the audience, “except, it’s different shit.” Then the sound of Dateh’s wailing violin — rhythmic, surprising, new — filled the room. The music, classical, filtered through the aesthetic of funk and hip-hop, is exuberant. Dateh closed his eyes, a slight figure swaying onstage.

The band at the Savoy stopped playing. The drummer shook his head, mouthed the words “No way” to the keyboardist, who shook his head. The guitarist cupped his hands around his lips and whistled.

“Who is this guy?” a woman in the audience asked.

When Paul Dateh was ready to graduate to a serious instrument in 2001, Robert Cauer at Robert Cauer Violins laid several violins on a table. When you choose a serious violin, you are choosing a life mate. For his life as a classical violinist, Dateh chose a 19th-century Saquin, which has a clear, round, resonant, bright sound. Professional-quality violins can cost upward of $100,000 and you’d as likely play hip-hop on those as you’d drive a Bentley in a demolition derby.

So it’s the beat-up Tambovsky he used in high school that is now his best friend. It has a dark, rich, slightly muffled tone that matches well with Dateh’s butter-smooth, slightly breathy singing voice. Of all the instruments, the violin sounds most like the human voice. Dateh and his violin take turns speaking. He’s had it for a decade and when it’s not with him, he feels its absence, like the strange ache of a phantom limb.

The Tambovsky is with him a few weeks later, when he schleps over to Time Warp Music on Venice Boulevard, to try out some pedals. They’re for guitars, but he means to experiment with them on the violin, which he’s brought in a soft black nylon case, carrying it down low by his hip like an old-fashioned Mafia Gatling gun. The case is a body with organs: a cushiony endometrial black velvet lining, a small glass vial containing a thimbleful of water to moisten the air inside, a hygrometer, a clawlike nib to grasp the bow. Despite these fail-safes, a violin reacts to extremes of environment: Too hot or too cold, and you can hear its varnish cracking.

Attached to the violin, the wah-wah pedal produces a woozy, nasally, otherworldly gasp. Hendrix revolutionized guitar sound with the wah-wah, which mimics the human cry: waaaaaaaaaaaah! “This is so cool,” Dateh says. “I’m ashamed that I’ve been performing onstage for years and have never done pedals.”

“Don’t be ashamed,” says a customer who has stopped to listen. (Dateh’s playing tends to stop people in their tracks.) “Most folks go to the pedals right away. You’ve taken the time to master an acoustic instrument. Though there is something to be said for pedals. Have you seen Radiohead play? They’re literally on the floor fiddling with knobs.” Dateh obliges us with a version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.”

“Oh, my God,” the storeowner’s wife says. “Anything sounds virtuoso on a violin.”

Paul Dateh did not grow up in the hood. He is not ghetto-fabulous. He blogs about eating lettuce and accidentally gooping lotion instead of conditioner on his hair the first time he stayed out all night, which was at a show in Las Vegas, where he opened for Public Enemy. He grew up in Walnut, California, a sleepy bedroom-community suburb east of Los Angeles, a privileged neighborhood, two-thirds Asian, one-third white, average household income in the six figures. There is an ease to life in Walnut that makes him uncomfortable.

“This isn’t me,” he says, waving off the teenage-boy messy bedroom, the rumpled twin bed, the metal stand with a piece of sheet music, a jaunty oberek, which he’s been playing to keep up his finger work. “It’s just where I sleep.”

The struggles of youth in upper-middle-class suburbia are not the problems of life on the street romanticized in hip-hop but the quiet, strangling ennui of a life measured out in cul de sacs and carpeted rooms and identical tract homes.

He is crashing there at his parents’ place, an hour’s drive from the Little Tokyo district, where he hopes to live in a few months. “I’m carving notches on the wall until then,” he sighs. “It’s hard when you see cows and freight trains.”

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.”

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.

No pressure.

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.

 

“Aw man, if I’d known dinner was on the label, I’d have ordered something to eat,” he says. “On second thought, probably not.”

“So,” the bigtime rappers ask him, “are you a whore or a slut?” A whore does music for money. A slut does it for love.

“I guess I’m a slut,” Dateh responds.

“That chamillionaire thing, with the ho’s and the drugs and the bling? That’s not hip-hop to me,” Dateh says, “that’s the commercial market bombarding us with material objects. That’s only one side of hip-hop, and, personally, I don’t enjoy it. I’m sick of it. To me, hip-hop can be so much more. Real hip-hop is a blend of jazz, soul, funk, Latin. I like the stuff that’s on the underground scene. Brother Ali, Master Ace, Atmosphere, People Under the Stairs. Those guys are underground because the companies and powers that be decide they’re not marketable. I don’t want to offend anybody, and I hope you get that I love everybody, but so much of mainstream hip-hop is boring. Jazz and classical are much more complex harmonically, and some of these people in the spotlight are not really ... musicians?” His voice trails off into a question.

One or two professional musicians are doing the same thing he does, like Miri Ben-Ari, who has trademarked the phrase “The Hip-Hop Violinist,” a bit of legal trickery that implies that she, at least, may fear what they are both doing is not the beginnings of a new genre but a novelty act only one may corner. So when Yahoo features a video of Dateh playing hip-hop violin, he is surprised to receive e-mails from people who are trying out experimental music on traditional instruments: violin, flute, bass, cello, viola. A guy e-mails him a video clip of himself playing hip-hop violin on the street in Detroit, doing a cover of Dateh doing a cover of Gnarls Barkley, which pleases Dateh to no end. (The guy even learned Dateh’s exact fingering.) Twelve-year-old aspiring violinists write to him, and he writes them back: “Don’t forget, it’s your instrument. Play it the way you want.”

Dateh, at last happily ensconced at his new place in Little Tokyo, away from Walnut’s cows, gets word out of the blue from his parents, who announce that they are moving in with him.

“And you’re bringing the dog?” he asks. “Why? Why?”

There will be more arguing about the trajectory of Dateh’s life, yet another frustration to overcome in closing the gap between the life he wants and the life he has.

“Though how lucky am I that this is the worst thing that could happen to me?” he asks, grinning.

It’s a good thing he does music, he decides. It teaches you how to improvise.

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