Santa Ana will never be mistaken for southwest Atlanta, but tonight is as close as it’ll ever get. On a cold Thursday in January, a rowdy, all-ages mob of a thousand Orange County kids chants, bounces, sweats and yelps the most popular hooks and deep cuts of ATLien anti-gravity agent Young Thug. They’re erupting inside local venue the Observatory, with the pandemonium you’d expect to see if the Angels won the World Series.
This is as far from the Orange Curtain stereotype as one could imagine. The audience is as diverse as that of any L.A. rap show. The crowd is large, the engagement intense. This isn’t Rooney at the Bait Shop. There are no Volcom-clad bros named “Carson” or “Mason.”
How is this possible? How are the best L.A. rap shows being thrown in Santa Ana? The answer has something to do with the club’s talent buyer and booker, Jeffrey Shuman.
“I have full control, and the owner trusts me. I can do my own social media, pay what we need to pay, give the artists what they need and promote it how I want,” Shuman says the week after the Young Thug show, sporting a green army jacket and full beard.
Of course, this is the streamlined answer. Booking shows involves an infinitely more complex labyrinth of difficult-to-please booking agents, managers and artists. Then there’s the promotion aspect itself, which isn’t as easy as “If you book it, they will come.”
In the course of our conversation, Shuman’s phone blows up with calls. He’s got a $5 show tonight with GZA, but the Wu-Tang member’s plane is delayed. Shuman needs to find a last-minute opener to pacify the crowd.
In just the last month, he’s booked Chief Keef, Young Thug, DJ Quik and Suga Free, and rising Florida star Kodak Black. There have been $5 shows with GZA and Raekwon. These aren’t random tour stops but one-offs wrangled through Shuman’s carefully built network of contacts.
“You gotta get the right connects and make sure that they’re the person that you want to work with, and you’re the person they want to work with,” Shuman says. “We started booking shows with Kendrick [Lamar] early, so that now when I want to book someone from TDE, I can text [label CEO] Top Dawg directly.”
Though he’s only in his early 30s, the Oxnard-raised Shuman has promoted for more than a decade. He started throwing shows for his own bands, eventually graduating to booking for venues in Santa Barbara and San Diego. About five years ago, the Observatory changed ownership and brought in Shuman, eventually making him a partner.
Focusing on the new generation of independent rappers incubated on the Internet, Shuman booked some of the first local shows from Lil B, Odd Future and A$AP Rocky. He makes sure that most shows are all-ages and tailors social media outreach to younger audiences. He isn’t afraid to take a chance on an obscure artist who might not immediately draw, cultivating relationships with long-term potential in mind. He also partnered with local labels and bands to throw the immensely popular Burgerama and Beach Goth festivals.
This isn’t to say that Shuman has no peers. The Echoplex and downtown’s Regent Theater consistently put on superb rap shows. The Low End Theory, Ham on Everything, Bananas and Brownies & Lemonade consistently book the cutting edge. But the Observatory boasts a singular combination of money, reputation, taste and careful curation. Shuman moves like an underground promoter with the wallet of a power player.
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“There’s no substitute to loving the music,” Shuman says. “It’s not about saying, ‘Oh that’s popular, book it.’ It’s about listening to the album, saying, ‘This is amazing, this is gonna be huge, people will come.’”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.