”Revenge — huhI’m mad . . . Git‘ down, with my girlfriend — huhThat ain’t right!Hollerin‘, cussin’, you wanna fight . . . Looka here — huhDon‘t do me no darn favorI don’t know karate, but I know KA-RAZY!“
Garth Trinidad jackknifes ”The Payback“ into the airwaves. The smell of Schlitz malt liquor and fried catfish smothered in hot sauce and greasy sauteed onions puffs from the radio almost as fast as James Brown can manhandle another grunt. Childhood recollections collide at breakneck speed. The mind‘s eye polishes the memory of smiling young soul sistas haloed in symmetrically perfect Afros and matching Afro-pick earrings, rocking and swaying their majestic brown bodies in a swirl of orange, green and yellow halter tops, hot pants with white daisies, and knee-high boots; Momma and her two baby sisters and the hi-fi blaring on a Saturday night, gettin’ their boogie on in a Sly Stone type of family affair; the men stand semicircle in the room, their eyes keeping time with the dancing women‘s behinds, all the while debating vehemently the merits of Cassius Clay and Joe Frazier. Maybe there’ll be a boxing match at this party, maybe there won‘t. Depends on how much Uncle Baby Brotha and Aunt Ida drink, or whether this sensory-induced imagery becomes an entirely different scenario. Either way, it all hinges on what Trinidad plays next.
Sitting opposite Trinidad in Studio B at KCRW late one Friday night, one can’t help but marvel at the public radio station‘s casting genius: the young, no-pork-eatin’, Mumia-supportin‘, black-consciousness-livin’, corporate-loathin‘, intellectual-talkin’, angry urban-soldier brotha whose on-air harvests manifest as hand-picked, syrupy fruits of the black muse. But to blithely plop Trinidad into one of the handful of narrow character slots allotted to the black man would go far and beyond a short sell.
In truth, Trinidad is a politician, and his platform is his music. Monday through Friday from 10 p.m. to midnight at 89.9 FM, the 26-year-old music programmer has for the past four years played host and mediator to an aural town-hall meeting of the ignored, discarded and underexposed voices of blues, reggae, soul, jazz, spoken word, house, electronic and hip-hop; some old, some young, many forgotten, some never before heard of. Trinidad‘s show, Chocolate City, is the home of the B-side — the tracks that don’t make it to the Top 40. It‘s also the home of the soon-to-be-discovered soul visionaries like the Macy Grays, the Black Eyed Peas and the Me’Shell Ndegeocellos for whom commercial radio just didn‘t have room — until after the fact. Indeed, right after recording her debut album, Gray visited KCRW one night during a Chocolate City broadcast and introduced herself to Trinidad, telling him she was a fan of his show and giving him two tracks from the unreleased disc to play on-air.
Gray’s admiration for Chocolate City is similar to Trinidad‘s own initial attraction to KCRW. While a student at Otis College of Art and Design majoring in illustration, Trinidad often tuned in to the station while working on class assignments late at night. Jazzed up from listening to Jason Bentley’s electronica show Metropolis and the French dance-music program Radio Nova, Trinidad volunteered at the station, assisting Liza Richardson, who at the time hosted a country & western show called Rancho Loco.
”God bless him, because the music was pretty far from what he‘s into,“ Richardson recalls with a laugh. ”But he was such a great sport about it. I nicknamed him Gartho Loco.“ Aware that KCRW was looking to fill programming voids, Richardson, who felt that the station needed a show with a black perspective, encouraged Trinidad to make a demo, which ultimately resulted in his getting a time slot for Chocolate City.
Now a progressive soul and underground hip-hop institution where the likes of Blackalicious, Afrobeat legend Tony Allen, vocalist Amel Larrieux, Les Nubians, King Britt and R&B act Lucy Pearl have swapped words with Trinidad and occasionally performed live, Chocolate City has emerged as a powerful antidote to mainstream urban radio’s repetitive rotation practices and hit-driven programming.
Trinidad does little to hide his disgust with commercial radio. ”It‘s mediocrity at its finest — it’s like a record that‘s skipping,“ he says. ”The formulas the programming directors and jocks use get repetitive as hell. Over and over they say the same silly things — there’s no consciousness going on.“ For KCRW, and specifically Trinidad, whose play list might consist of records in his personal collection (including vinyl he‘s purchased from one of the various mom-and-pop record stores he frequents), or from KCRW’s 50,000-title library, there‘s gold in unheralded artists. ”Because Garth has the freedom to play what he wants, his show is a magnet for getting cream-of-the-crop music from underground artists,“ says Chocolate City producer Kerri Sullivan.
Deluged with music from both signed and unsigned artists, Trinidad maintains that there’s a kind of aesthetic and personal connection he looks for that has nothing to do with a song‘s hit-making potential. ”Common has a line on the first single he dropped called ’Doin‘ It.’ He says, ‘I don’t care how many records you sell — nigga, you wack.‘ That might as well have come out of my mouth. The media says it’s how much you sell, it‘s about how many people are listening to you, how many people are watching you, how many people are going to the movies to see you. And that’s not necessarily true.“
Though he‘s opinionated about mindfulness in music and the lack of diversity in mainstream radio, when talk turns to the artistry and history in black music, Trinidad comes off as genuinely visionary. Born in upstate New York, he spent his childhood growing up in Inglewood and listening to KDAY during hip-hop’s early years, when he and his school friends would have amateur MC battles with cardboard mics, create beats with their lips, and rub sandpaper against tether balls to get the shoo-shoo effect. At home he‘d rifle through his parents’ record crates, studying the likes of Grover Washington Jr., Dinah Washington and James Brown. It was this kind of foundation that shaped Trinidad‘s take on the state of black music today, and where it’s headed.
”I look at black music — soul music — and where it came from,“ says Trinidad. ”You‘re looking at African slaves who were taken from what they knew and split apart, to the point that they lost their minds; split apart so that no one understood each other, because they were from different tribes and spoke different languages. To me, soul music is all that pain, all that communication that came with the Negro spiritual, and having to hide the fact that you were communicating at times with another slave when you weren’t supposed to or else you were gonna get whipped, hung or killed. Soul music to me is all those issues, all that pain, all that grief and suffering and hope which make up the spirit that has over and over been so resilient — though pop culture and the commercial market has got a lot of people‘s spirits dead.“
Intent on doing his share to resurrect souls, Trinidad is working on a Web-site project called ”2000 Black,“ which he describes as a jukebox with just one long black-music mix tape; Web heads will be able to access it along with a syndicated radio program and a virtual black-history rare-facts library. The site’s kickoff night on June 24 was marked with an event titled ”Jack, Jill and the King,“ featuring hip-hop band Jack Herrara, soul singer Jill Scott and DJ King Britt.
George Clinton talks wicked madness about P-Funk while somewhere in Parliament‘s hazy orchestra of horns and percussion a jazzy R&B groove raises its doped-up head and Clinton’s Parliament adjourns for the big sax sound of the Average White Band‘s ”Cut the Cake.“ ”Ah, that set was exhausting,“ breathes a mellowed-out Trinidad after the track’s finish. ”I‘m serious — I think all the funk is gone for the night.“
But no sooner than the words leave his mouth, Philip Bailey screeches out of nowhere, and EWF’s ”Fantasy“ rises into the sky. The scent of barbecue ribs, the sound of laughter and the slap of dominoes on a card table curl from the radio. Garth Trinidad‘s soul healing is at work again.